Downy Woodpecker

Dryobates pubescens (formerly Picoides pubescens)


Photo of male downy woodpecker clinging to suet feeder
Downy woodpeckers are common visitors to winter feeders.

Picidae (woodpeckers) in the order Piciformes


A small woodpecker, the downy woodpecker has black-and-white upperparts that look checkered, streaked, or spotted. Underparts are white or whitish. Males have a red patch at their nape (juvenile males may have a reddish crown). Females lack the red nape. The tail is black with white outer tail feathers; there are usually some black spots on the white outer tail feathers. The bill is small and short, extending beyond the bristly feathers at the base of the bill.

Similar species: the hairy woodpecker is very similar. The best way to identify them is by their larger size and longer, stouter bill. The hairy woodpecker is 9¼ inches from tip of bill to tip of tail, while the downy is 6¾ inches in length. Also, the outer tail feathers on a downy have black spots or bars, while the hairy’s are all white.


Length: 6¾ inches (tip of bill to tip of tail).

Habitat and conservation

Downy woodpeckers are never far from trees — forests, woodlands, parks, and orchards — forested areas are necessary for their existence. They excavate their nest cavities in dead trees or limbs, and they feed on bark insects and other items found on trees.


Downy woodpeckers forage on tree trunks and branches for bark insects, seeds, fruits,and sap. At bird feeders, downy woodpeckers are attracted to sunflower seeds and suet.

image of Downy Woodpecker distribution map
Distribution in Missouri

Downy woodpeckers are common statewide in forests, woodlands, parks, and orchards.


Common permanent resident.

Life cycle

Downy woodpeckers mate in the springtime and nest in cavities they drill into branches, usually in dead in dying wood. About four or five eggs are laid, which hatch after about 12 days. In winter, downy woodpeckers roost in their tree cavities and eat overwintering insect cocoons and eggcases, nuts, seeds, and other items.

Human connections

As foragers on bark insects, downy woodpeckers do trees, and the people who benefit from trees, a great service. They are also a favorite bird to view at feeding stations.

Ecosystem connections

Downy woodpeckers play an important role as they feed on insects. Their nest cavities are used by many other species that don’t excavate their own nests.