Attracting Downy Woodpeckers by Steve Frye
Wild Bird Company Newsletter Sep/Oct 2017: Attracting Downy Woodpeckers
ATTRACTING DOWNY WOODPECKERS
Downy woodpeckers are cute little noisy woodpeckers that enliven backyards across much of North America in all seasons. Attracting them is relatively easy and your reward is the endless entertainment they bring by their clown-like demeanor and constant activity. Downy Woodpeckers (downies) are highly sought after for these reasons.
BIRD SEED AND BIRD FEEDERS FOR ATTRACTING DOWNY WOODPECKERS
Suet feeders are the most reliable way to attract downies to your backyard. Suet feeders are wire cages which hold suet or suet cakes and can be put out by themselves or attached to a seed feeder. True suet is the dense fat from around the kidney, but suet is usually referred to in a broader sense to mean any kind of fat, shortening, or fat-based cake that you would put out to attract woodpeckers, nuthatches, or chickadees. Raw fat can only be used in cold winter climates or it will turn rancid. Rendered suet cakes can be fed in most weather conditions without the threat of spoiling. The most popular suet cakes at the Wild Bird Company for attracting downy woodpeckers are peanut butter, insect, orange, and sunflower.
Suet feeders are either placed against a tree or fence, or hung from a branch or eave. Feeders that hang alone work best if they have a tail-prop attached to support downy woodpecker tails as they feed from the suet. The downy woodpeckers at my house really love my suet log, which is a section of log with holes bored through it which accept cylindrical suet plugs.
Many people make their own suet mixtures or “puddings” for the downy woodpeckers to eat. These recipes are suet, shortening, or lard based mixtures with all sorts of things added in. At the Wild Bird Company, we developed our own suet recipe called Suet Scrumpy which the downy woodpeckers and others love.
Downy woodpeckers are also fond of sunflower seeds and nuts. Oil sunflower or hulled sunflower are both readily consumed. They can be placed in a tube, hopper, or platform feeder. Tree nuts and shelled peanuts are best put on the tray of a hopper feeder or a platform. They tend to clog up tube feeders. You can also use a specialized peanut feeder, which looks much like a suet feeder, for presenting either shelled peanuts or tree nuts to the downy woodpeckers.
BIRD HOUSES FOR DOWNY WOODPECKERS
Downy woodpeckers are primary cavity nesters meaning they make their own holes to nest in rather than using a preexisting nest box. However, you may be able to trick them into using a bluebird-sized nest box by packing it completely full of wood shavings. The downies will then dig all of the shavings out making them feel they have just excavated the easiest nest cavity ever. You will need to repack the nest box every fall to get downy woodpeckers to use your nest box again.
Nest boxes for downy woodpeckers should be placed on a tree (not hanging) for best results. They are not too picky about its orientation, but I would advise to not face it into prevailing winds or direct afternoon sun. Mount the downy woodpecker box as high as you are comfortably able and where it will not be too hard to repack it with shavings.
WATER FEATURES AND BIRD BATHS FOR ATTRACTING DOWNY WOODPECKERS
Downy woodpeckers will visit both bird baths and more elaborate water features to drink and bathe. I have found downies are more likely to only drink from water features and baths rather than bathe. However, the downy woodpeckers in my yard only seem to bathe in my water feature rather than my numerous baths. Also, they frequent both baths and water garden more in the winter compared to the summer. A heated bath in winter will help keep downy woodpeckers visiting your yard during the winter.
GARDENING FOR DOWNY WOODPECKERS
Downy woodpeckers can be found in a variety of habitats from woodlots, parks, hedgerows and forest edges, riparian zones, secondary growth, and open woods. Downies prefer deciduous habitats over coniferous ones, but will avoid dense woods of either form. They will probe and glean food from old or young trees both alive or dead.
Besides foraging in trees, downy woodpeckers feed on galls and pick apart many woody stemmed plants like poison hemlock looking for insects. Another favorite plant to forage on for seeds is the non-indigenous common mullein.
Fruits are also readily eaten by downy woodpeckers. Crabapples, Virginia Creeper, serviceberries, mountain ash, hackberries, and dogwoods are all plants attractive to downy woodpeckers.
If possible, leave dead branches on your trees where the downies like to excavate nesting cavities.
Downy Woodpecker ©Neal Zaun