How Many Downy Woodpeckers Come to My Feeder?

This post is taken from an article I wrote for the Connecticut Ornithological Association quarterly Bulletin.  COA has terrific information on their website and also manages a listserve where anyone can post their Connecticut bird sightings.

Three at once is the most I have ever seen, and then only when the fledgelings are learning about the feeder.

Three at once is the most I have ever seen, and then only when the fledglings are learning about the feeder.

This might be a good family project. It involves real scientific research and will lead to a better understanding of the birds who share your yard.  I did this experiment before I had a digital camera and caused family discord over the number of rolls of film I used!

Have you ever noticed the way Downy Woodpeckers visit your bird feeder? One comes for a seed and you may notice another, or rarely two others, waiting on nearby branches. If I am doing a count for a Citizen Science Project like Project Feeder Watch, the most I can claim as daily visitors would be two or perhaps three individuals, as the Cornell Lab of Ornithology allows me to count only those birds I can see at one time. Yet, the frequency of their visits caused me to believe that more than three Downy Woodpeckers were regular visitors to the feeder.

In the Wild Bird Guides monograph on the Downy Woodpecker, [Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, PA, 1999] Gary Ritchisonstates that each downy has an individualized plumage pattern on the nape of the neck, much like a fingerprint. I read this and decided to experiment. Setting up a suet feeder close to a window and moving over a comfortable chair, I spent several hours over the next two weeks photographing downy woodpecker neck nape patterns. Each night I analyzed the photos, makingdrawings of the different neck patterns, emphasizing the differences. I gave them nicknames to help me recognize that pattern the next time its owner visited the suet feeder, such as One Spot, Smudgie, Two Spot, Lightning and Widow’s Peak.

This is my page for the female Downies.

This is my page for the female Downies.

After the two weeks were done, I had identified nine females and six males as regular visitors.  Fifteen in all, five times as many as are readily visible at one time.

You likely have many more Downies than you think!


4 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Marjorie said,

    Wow! Your sketches of the female Downies are fantastic. What patience you have! This was fascinating. Thanks for this information.


  2. 3

    Charlie Barnard Jr. said,

    You are really very observant. Nice work and I second Marjorie’s comment about your level of patience.


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