Downy Woodpecker

November 30th, 2019: A rainy Thanksgiving in Illinois

The weather on the west coast of Lake Michigan is weirdly similar to the weather in Vancouver right now. It’s above freezing and RAAAAAAAINY. But it’s nice to sneak out of Canada for some American Thanksgiving time with family, even if the weather makes it tough to do any real birding.

Down at the lake, there are plenty of gulls (mostly Herring and Ring-billed) and ducks (mostly Red-breasted Merganser and Common Goldeneye). Lake Michigan is really high right now too. Most of the beaches in the northern suburbs are under a lot of water. Where I was today, the waves were topping some of the breakwaters, had relocated some fencing, and had even ripped up concrete along the shore.

Lake Michigan waterfront with a very high water level
Lake Michigan waterfront with a very high water level

The current Lake Michigan water levels are very near the record (set in 1986) because of a year-and-a-half-long wet pattern in this area. And there has already been some major flooding from the lake this year.

Getting back to birds… Walking around suburbia north of Chicago in the rain with friends and family tends not to yield a lot of them. But with lots of old oaks and feeders around, there are of course some birds too. Plenty of House Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco (the Slate-colored type out here), Cedar Waxwing, Black-capped Chickadee, Northern Cardinal, Blue Jay, American Crow, etc. You know, the usual midwestern winter birds.

Blue Jay eating seeds off the deck
Blue Jay eating seeds off the deck

It’s really all about the woodpeckers here though. You often hear some pecking, a “peet,” or some other woodpecker call. In particular, there are lots of Downy, Hairy, and Red-bellied Woodpecker, some Northern Flicker, and even a few Red-headed Woodpecker kicking around. Plenty of White-breasted Nuthatch too.

White-breasted Nuthatch in typically inquisitive posture
White-breasted Nuthatch in typically inquisitive posture

Unlike in Vancouver where Downy Woodpeckers are the most numerous, they are just one woodpecker in a good mix here. Of course, Downies are the ones you most frequently see on feeders (especially suet feeders). In addition to proper trees, they often forage on bushes, long stalks, or galls. In the latter case, they’re often digging through to the fly larvae: they do this with the Goldenrod Gall Fly, for example.

Female Downy Woodpecker: females lack the red nape
Female Downy Woodpecker: females lack the red nape

An early ID challenge birders encounter is distinguishing between Downy Woodpeckers and similar-looking Hairy Woodpeckers. While there are many nuanced ways to tell them apart, I’ve found there are 3 pretty quick and reliable things to look for. These are great if you’re just starting out, but I still use them all the time.

(1) Size: a Downy is actually only about 2/3 the size of a Hairy, making them considerably smaller. (2) Bill: a Downy’s bill is much smaller, while a Hairy’s is much larger and longer (this is particularly conspicuous if you compare the bill-to-head proportions). (3) Posture: at a glance, a Downy clings close to the tree and looks meek or cute, while a Hairy appears more adroit or “soldierly.” You can compare the images above and below to check on these features. There are some subtle plumage differences between the birds, but they’re not easy or particularly reliable.

Hairy Woodpecker: red cap is only on juvenile, so it's not a sure-fire field mark
Hairy Woodpecker: red cap is only on juvenile, so it’s not a sure-fire field mark

Happy (American) Thanksgiving everyone!

Wild Turkeys
Wild Turkeys

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Awesome website Jim!
    Great easy to understand and informative writing…will be back!

    1. Sounds so much, Aki! I’m glad to hear it!

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