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In its range, the Downy Woodpecker closely resembles the Hairy woodpecker (Picoides villosus), but the Downy is much smaller, with a bill that is noticeably proportionately smaller relative to the head (i.e., the bill has a more "stubby" appearance), and the outer tail feathers have black barring that is lacking on the Hairy's tail (these outer feathers instead being entirely white on the Hairy Woodpecker). In both species, the male has a red hindcrown spot that is not present in the female. Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers are often found together, but the Hairy requires larger trees and is usually less common, especially in the eastern portion of its range, and less frequent in suburban settings and parks.
Downy Woodpeckers feed mainly on a wide variety of insects.They also eat seeds and berries and will take suet at bird feeders. When feeding on trees, Downy Woodpeckers tend to do more tapping and excavating in winter and more gleaning of insects from surfaces in summer. Confer and Paicos (1985) reported on a study of the impact of Downy Woodpeckers feeding on gall-inducing insects on Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) on the ecology of galls.
In fall and winter, the male and female maintain separate feeding areas, with pairs forming by late winter. The male and female take turns drumming loudly on dead limbs in their separate territories, with the male gradually approaching the female.
The nest site is a cavity excavated by both sexes. in a dead limb or tree, usually around 4 to 9 m above the ground (but ranging from 2 to 18 m). The cavity entrance is often surrounded by fungus or lichen, which helps to camouflage the site. The 4 or 5 (sometimes 3 or 6) white eggs are incubated by both sexes for around 12 days. Both parents bring billfulls of insects to feed the nestlings. Young leave the nest around 20 to 25 days after hatching, but may follow parents for several weeks after that. Over most of the range, Downy Woodpeckers produce just one brood per year.
Although these woodpeckers are permanent residents over much of their range, the northernmost populations may move significantly southward in winter. Some birds in the mountains of the West may move down into valleys (as well as short distances to the south) in winter.
(Confer and Paicos 1985; Kaufman 1996; AOU 1998; Dunn and Alderfer 2011)