The Downy Woodpecker is our smallest woodpecker – only slightly larger than a sparrow, but easily recognized by its mostly black-and-white plumage – a gray to white breast, lots of white spots on black wings, and a white line above the eye. A red bar on the back of the head identifies a male; lack of a red bar identifies a female’s head. Male and female Downy Woodpeckers each construct a roost cavity – usually in well-rotted wood of a dead tree stub, and often just below the fruiting body of a fungus or a broken limb through which a fungus has entered.
A Downy Woodpecker’s white breast serves the important function of reflecting light onto plant surfaces, thus enhancing the woodpecker’s view of the site where it is excavating or searching for food. The black-and-white pattern on its back is also functional – it helps conceal the bird in the dappled sunlight filtering through tree branches and leaves to where it is working. All woodpeckers have very stiff – and strong – tail feathers, providing the woodpecker a strong, but slightly flexible support as it works at excavating a cavity or securing food. As the woodpecker pulls its head back, the tail feathers bend slightly with the pressure against the tree surface. As it begins to peck, the spring-like nature of the bent tail adds a bit more power to each blow.