“You have a woodpecker!” My observant visitor was about to open the sliding glass door leading to the deck. There, on a newly hung lard/oatmeal feeder was a downy woodpecker. The day before I had resurrected the feeder and hung it in a new spot. The former location made it too easy for gray squirrels to access the food. It had been down all summer. The downy’s visit was the main reason it was back in use. The new location is perfect and the avian mob is delighted to see their old feeder again.
When the Thanksgiving Holiday rolls around, it’s a reminder our feeders should be ready for winter. If a new feeder is to be added to the yard in a location you haven’t used before, this is a good time of the year to do it. Even though there is ample natural food available, the birds keep checking the surroundings looking for food sources. Feeding stations are getting more use every day while the birds are in their fall “search for food” mode. After the feeder was in place, it took one day for the downy to begin feeding at it. The bird had been working throughout the yard for several days and that’s why the old feeder was resurrected and hung in a new spot.
Now, I’m waiting for the pileated woodpecker to discover this new food source. That’s when mixing up a batch of their favorite food becomes a weekly chore. The much smaller downy woodpecker isn’t anywhere near the glutton its larger cousin is. I have little hope that the downy’s other cousin, the hairy woodpecker, will visit this feeder. This larger version of the downy prefers habitat that is less residential and more rural with areas of forest. When thinking about these two look-a-likes, I remember how telling them apart was once a challenge. It really shouldn’t be.
Their size difference is the best way to separate them. However, color and flash marks get in the way. This is one time when their similar markings only confuse the issue for a beginning birder. The hairy woodpecker is much larger than the downy. Its bill is long and sharp-looking. The downy’s is small, pointy and closer to the size of a pine siskin’s bill. The small size of the downy isn’t focused on enough. Think junco-size and you have a good comparison. Hairy woodpeckers are about the size of a robin.
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Depending on the habitat found in your neighborhood, chances are good one of these woodpeckers will visit your feeders. Both like black sunflower seeds and both like a “bird pudding” mix. The lard/oatmeal mixture is a favorite but the commercial blocks containing suet or peanut butter are also popular — and a lot less work.
Now that we’ve had our first taste of cold weather and feeders are getting more attention, there are a few things to keep in mind. Cleanliness is most important. When feeders are heavily used, the chances of disease increase. I have no idea how prevalent avian salmonella will be this winter but clean feeders and feeding areas aid in stopping its spread. The most popular bird seed for Northwest birds is black sunflower seeds, in the shell or already shelled and tube feeders work the best for these. Now, keep your fingers crossed.
Write to Joan Carson at P.O. Box 217, Poulsbo, WA 98370. Include a self-addressed, stamped envelope for a reply. Or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.