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ALWAYS IN SEASON/ MIKE JACOBS: A downy -- and dependable -- winter bird

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Mike Jacobs. Photo by Jenna Watson/Grand Forks Herald2 / 2

The downy woodpecker is among the steadiest of winter birds. She's at the suet feeder every morning. I know the bird is a female because there's no red mark on the back of her head. Male downy woodpeckers have this mark. It's called a "sexual badge."

What I don't know is whether I am seeing the same female downy woodpecker each morning. Odds are I am, I think, but short of capturing the bird and marking it somehow, I really can't be sure.

Why imagine it, then?

First, downy woodpeckers are not especially social birds. They keep apart from one another. Mostly, they visit the feeder as individuals. If a feeder is occupied, a second bird will wait its turn. If it approaches, the first bird will often leave. This seems especially pronounced among female downies. If two downy woodpeckers are at the same feeder, they are likely male and female.

Second, My Lady Downy is remarkably tolerant of me. She keeps to her perch until I approach closely. Other downy woodpeckers using my feeder setup are much more skittish. Perhaps this woodpecker connects the appearance of a two-legged giant with the food supply. Or perhaps she's simply grown accustomed to my presence in the backyard. In any case, I'm enjoying the relationship.

Downy vs. hairy

Downy woodpeckers are the smallest of the family occurring in North America. They are very like the hairy woodpecker, but only about half the size. It's better not to let size clinch the identification, however; appearance can be deceiving. A better field mark is the bill in relation to the head. Hairy woodpeckers have big bills in proportion to the size of their heads. Downy woodpeckers have smaller bills and seem more delicate overall.

There's a second difference at the other end of the bird, though it's harder to see. The outer tail feathers are barred on the downy but white on the hairy woodpecker.

Their common names point to another, even more subtle, field mark. The feathers of the lower back appear soft on the downy woodpecker; on the hairy, they are more like hair. Mark Catesby, one of the first naturalists to survey North American bird life — with gun in hand — noticed this difference and applied the names.

Both species are black and white overall, with the black seeming more prominent even though it occupies less space. Both have black on top of the head, and males of both species have a blaze of red at the back of the head, a "sexual badge."

Much attention has been given to the drumming pattern of woodpecker species, but neither of these do any drumming in my backyard in winter, at least that I've noticed. One noise does separate them, however. When a downy woodpecker takes flight, the feathers of its wings produce a whirring sound. Lawrence Kilham, author of "On Watching Birds" and "Woodpeckers of Eastern North America," described this as a "wing ruffle." It is one of my favorite winter sounds.

Like other woodpeckers, downies have an undulating, up and down flight pattern. Their smaller size requires more wingbeats, and this helps separate this species from others in flight.

Downy woodpeckers are common in our area occurring in open woodlands, parks, back yards and shelterbelts. They strongly favor deciduous trees; a downy woodpecker is a rare bird in a pine forest.

In general, the downy woodpecker favors smaller branches than hairy woodpeckers. I sometimes encounter them on cornstalks I've left in the garden. That's another of my tricks to attract them.

Downy woodpeckers eat both insects and seeds, but they seem to prefer animal food. This would explain their frequent appearance at my suet feeders.

Over the years, I've wondered which of these woodpeckers, hairy or downy, is more abundant here. One year it seems to be downy and the next hairy woodpeckers. I haven't found a pattern. Perhaps this has nothing to do with how many of each species are about, only how many of each I happen to encounter.

Both these woodpecker species are hardy birds, able to withstand extreme cold. They occur as far north as trees do, and they generally stay put, although there is vigorous and ongoing debate about whether downy woodpeckers might migrate.

Certainly, the downy woodpecker is adapted to survive the Red River Valley winter. I don't think I've ever spent a winter day without seeing one.