Although New York is home to 11 different woodpecker species, the one most commonly encountered is the Downy Woodpecker. Although it also enjoys foraging for foods in open woodlands and meadows, it is unique in that it frequently visits bird feeders as well. It is small compared to most other woodpeckers, so it is able to access food that is difficult for their larger relatives to reach. They also frequently flock with other birds, such as chickadees and nuthatches.
The Downy Woodpecker’s most distinctive feature is its small size, as the maximum length for any individual is less than 7 inches! Combine this with their light weight (usually under 1 oz) and they are able to feed in unique situations. Often, they will perch on weeds such as goldenrod and consume the larvae that are embedded in galls on the plant. Basically, a gall is an part of the plant that has grown around an egg placed by an insect, which provides food and shelter for the developing larvae. Besides perching on weeds, Downy Woodpeckers are also known to visit suet feeders, black oil sunflower feeders, peanut feeders, and even hummingbird feeders.
Downy Woodpeckers are cavity nesters, and excavate cavities that with entrance holes only 1-1.15 inches wide. They only nest in dead trees, or parts of living trees that have died. Sometimes, they will choose to excavate a portion of the tree that has already been weakened by a fungal infection. Once the cavity has been created (a process which usually takes between 1 and 3 weeks) the inside is lined with wood chips.
Having a variety of food sources and nesting sites means that the Downy Woodpecker is fairly adaptable. This means that their populations have remained stable, and they are not facing any serious conservation issues at this point. This is good news, especially to Western New Yorkers who love seeing them visit feeders throughout the year!