Gateway to the Classics: Handbook of Nature Study: Birds by Anna Botsford Comstock
Handbook of Nature Study: Birds by  Anna Botsford Comstock

The Downy Woodpecker

Teacher's Story

dropcap image RIEND DOWNY is the name this attractive little neighbor has earned, because it is so friendly to those of us who love trees. Watch it as it hunts each crack and crevice of the bark of your favorite apple or shade tree, seeking assiduously for cocoons and insects hiding there, and you will soon, of your own accord, call it friend; you will soon love its black and white uniform, which consists of a black coat speckled and barred with white and whitish gray vest and trousers. The front of the head is black and there is a black streak extending backward from the eye with a white streak above and also below it. The male has a vivid red patch on the back of the head, but his wife shows no such giddiness; plain black and white are good enough for her. In both sexes the throat and breast are white, the middle tail feathers black, while the side tail feathers are white, barred with black at their tips.

The downy has a way of alighting low down on a tree trunk or at the base of a larger branch and climbing upward in a jerky fashion; it never runs about over the tree nor does it turn around and go down head first, like the nuthatch; if it wishes to go down a short distance it accomplishes this by a few awkward, backward hops; but when it really wishes to descend, it flies off and down. The downy, as other woodpeckers, has a special arrangement of its physical machinery to enable it to climb trees in its own manner. In order to grasp the bark on the side of the tree more firmly, its fourth toe is turned backward to work as companion with the thumb. Thus it is able to clutch the bark as with a pair of nippers, two claws in front and two claws behind; and as another aid, the tail is arranged to prop the bird, like a bracket. The tail is rounded in shape and the middle feathers have rather strong quills; but the secret of the adhesion of the tail to the bark lies in the great profusion of barbs which, at the edge of the feathers, offer bristling tips, and when applied to the side of the tree act like a wire brush with all the wires pushing downward. This explains why the woodpecker cannot go backward without lifting the tail.


Friend Downy's foot.

But even more wonderful than this, is the mechanism by which the downy and hairy woodpeckers get their food, which consists largely of wood-borers or larvæ working under the bark. When the woodpecker wishes to get a grub in the wood, it seizes the bark firmly with its feet, uses its tail as a brace, throws its head and upper part of the body as far back as possible, and then drives a powerful blow with its strong beak. The beak is adapted for just this purpose, as it is wedge-shaped at the end, and is used like a mason's drill sometimes, and sometimes like a pick. When the bird uses its beak as a pick, it strikes hard, deliberate blows and the chips fly; but when it is drilling, it strikes rapidly and not so hard and quickly drills a small, deep hole leading directly to the burrow of the grub. When finally the grub is reached, it would seem well nigh impossible to pull it out through a hole which is too small and deep to admit of the beak being used as pincers. This is another story and a very interesting one; the downy and hairy can both extend their tongues far beyond the point of the beak, and the tip of the tongue is hard and horny and covered with short backward-slanting hooks acting like a spear or harpoon, and when thrust into the grub pulls it out easily (see initial). The bones of the tongue have a spring arrangement; when not in use, the tongue lies soft in the mouth, like a wrinkled earthworm, but when in use, the bones spring out, stretching it to its full length and it is then slim and small. The process is like fastening a pencil to the tip of a glove finger; when drawn back the finger is wrinkled together, but when thrust out, straightens. This spring arrangement of the bones of the woodpecker's tongue is a marvellous mechanism and should be studied through pictures; see Birds, Eckstrom, Chapter XIV; The Bird, Beebe, p. 122; "The Tongues of Woodpeckers," Lucas, U. S. Department of Agriculture.

Since the food of the downy and the hairy is where they can get it all winter, there is no need for them to go South; thus they stay with us and work for us the entire year. We should try to make them feel at home with us in our orchards and shade trees by putting up pieces of beef fat, to convince them of their welcome. No amount of free food will pauperize these birds, for as soon as they have eaten of the fat, they commence to hunt for grubs on the tree and thus earn their feast. They never injure live wood.


Friend Downy.

Drawing by L. A. Fuertes.

James Whitcomb Riley describes the drumming of the woodpecker as "weeding out the lonesomeness" and that is exactly what the drumming of the woodpecker means. The male selects some dried limb of hard wood and there beats out his well-known signal which advertises far and near, "Wanted, a wife." And after he wins her, he still drums on for a time to cheer her while she is busy with her family cares. The woodpecker has no voice for singing, like the robin or thrush; and luckily, he does not insist on singing, like the peacock whether he can or not. He chooses rather to devote his voice to terse and business-like conversation; and when he is musically inclined, he turns drummer. He is rather particular about his instrument and having found one that is sufficiently resonant he returns to it day after day. While it is ordinarily the male that drums I once observed a female drumming. I told her that she was a bold minx and ought to be ashamed of herself; but within twenty minutes she had drummed up two red-capped suitors who chased each other about with great animosity, so her performance was evidently not considered improper in woodpecker society. I have watched a rival pair of male downies fight for hours at a time, but their duel was of the French brand,—much fuss and no bloodshed. They advanced upon each other with much haughty glaring and scornful bobs of the head, but when they were sufficiently near to stab each other they beat a mutual and circumspect retreat. Although we hear the male downies drumming every spring, I doubt if they are calling for new wives; I believe they are, instead, calling the attention of their lawful spouses to the fact that it is time for nest building to begin. I have come to this conclusion because the downies and hairies which I have watched for years have always come in pairs to partake of suet during the entire winter; and while only one at a time sits at meat and the lord and master is somewhat bossy, yet they seem to get along as well as most married pairs.

The downy's nest is a hole, usually in a partly decayed tree; an old apple tree is a favorite site and a fresh excavation is made each year. There are from four to six white eggs, which are laid on a nice bed of chips as fine almost as sawdust. The door to the nest is a perfect circle and about an inch and a quarter across.

The hairy woodpecker is fully one-third larger than the downy, measuring nine inches from tip of beak to tip of tail, while the downy measures only about six inches. The tail feathers at the side are white for the entire length, while they are barred at the tips in the downy. There is a black "parting" through the middle of the red patch on the back of the hairy's head. The two species are so much alike that it is difficult for the beginner to tell them apart. Their habits are very similar, except that the hairy lives in the woods and is not so commonly seen in orchards or on shade trees. The food of the hairy is much like that of the downy and it is, therefore, a beneficial bird and should be protected.

Lesson XIV

The Downy Woodpecker

Leading thought—The downy woodpecker remains with us all winter, feeding upon insects that are wintering in crevices and beneath the bark of our trees. It is fitted especially by shape of beak, tongue, feet and tail to get such food and it is a "friend in need" to our forest, shade and orchard trees.

Methods—If a piece of beef fat be fastened upon the trunk or branch of a tree, which can be seen from the schoolroom windows, there will be no lack of interest in this friendly little bird; for the downy will sooner or later find this feast spread for it and will come every day to partake. Give out the questions, a few at a time, and discuss the answers with the pupils.


1. What is the general color of the downy above and below? The color of the top of the head? Sides of the head? The throat and breast? The color and markings of the wings? Color and markings of the middle and side tail-feathers?

2. Do all downy woodpeckers have the red patch at the back of the head? If not, why?

3. What is the note of the downy? Does it make any other sound? Have you ever seen one drumming? At what time of the year? On what did it drum? What did it use for a drumstick? What do you suppose was the purpose of this music?

4. How does the downy climb a tree trunk? How does it descend? How do its actions differ from those of the nuthatch?

5. How are the woodpecker's toes arranged to help it climb a tree trunk? How does this arrangement of toes differ from that of other birds?

6. How does the downy use its tail to assist it in climbing? What is the shape of the tail and how is it adapted to assist?

7. What does the downy eat and where does it find its food? Describe how it gets at its food. What is the shape of its bill and how is it fitted for getting the food? Tell how the downy's tongue is used to spear the grub.

8. Why does the downy not go South in winter?

9. Of what use is this bird to us? How should we protect it and entice it into our orchards?

10. Write an English theme on the subject "How the downy builds its nest and rears its young".

Supplementary reading—The Woodpeckers, Eckstorm; Bird Neighbors, Blanchan; Winter Neighbors, Burroughs.

A few seasons ago a downy woodpecker, probably the individual one who is now my winter neighbor, began to drum early in March in a partly decayed apple-tree that stands in the edge of a narrow strip of woodland near me. When the morning was still and mild I would often hear him through my window before I was up, or by half-past six o'clock, and he would keep it up pretty briskly till nine or ten o'clock, in this respect resembling the grouse, which do most of their drumming in the forenoon. His drum was the stub of a dry limb about the size of one's wrist. The heart was decayed and gone, but the outer shell was loud and resonant. The bird would keep his position there for an hour at a time. Between his drummings he would preen his plumage and listen as if for the response of the female, or for the drum of some rival. How swift his head would go when he was delivering his blows upon the limb! His beak wore the surface perceptibly. When he wished to change the key, which was quite often, he would shift his position an inch or two to a knot which gave out a higher, shriller note. When I climbed up to examine his drum he was much disturbed. I did not know he was in the vicinity, but it seems he saw me from a near tree, and came in haste to the neighboring branches, and with spread plumage and a sharp note demanded plainly enough what my business was with his drum. I was invading his privacy, desecrating his shrine, and the bird was much put out. After some weeks the female appeared, he had literally drummed up a mate; his urgent and oft-repeated advertisement was answered. Still the drumming did not cease, but was quite as fervent as before. If a mate could be won by drumming she could be kept and entertained by more drumming; courtship should not end with marriage. If the bird felt musical before, of course he felt much more so now. Besides that, the gentle deities needed propitiating in behalf of the nest and young as well as in behalf of the mate. After a time a second female came, when there was war between the two. I did not see them come to blows, but I saw one female pursuing the other about the place, and giving her no rest for several days. She was evidently trying to run her out of the neighborhood. Now and then she, too, would drum briefly as if sending a triumphant message to her mate.

—Winter Neighbors, John Burroughs.

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