Stacey Cole's Nature Talks: Downy is Granite State's most frequently seen woodpecker

By STACEY COLE September 21. 2018 7:45PM

A young downy woodpecker looks over its shoulder as it perches on a branch. (Union Leader File Photo/Thomas Roy)

Editor’s note: The following column was originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader on Sept. 23, 2006.

The woodpecker most frequently seen in New Hampshire is the downy. It is the smallest member of the woodpecker family and measures 6½ inches from tip of bill to end of tail. In appearance, the downy is almost a mirror image of its larger cousin, the hairy woodpecker. Both have white backs and black wings that are similarly marked with white. The hairy, though, is slightly more than 9 inches in length. Other than size, the best way to tell the two apart is by the length and size of their bills. The downy’s bill is shorter and needle-like while the bill of the hairy is noticeably longer and heavier. Both have white outer tail feathers but close inspection of these will show the downy’s have a few spots on them. The males of both species have a red patch on the backs of their heads while the females do not.

Why this general description of such a common visitor to bird feeding areas? The answer lies within the following letter received from one of our readers who wrote in part: “We live in a condo in Rochester. Several woodpeckers come to our deck, both downys and hairys. Most of the male downys have a red area on the back of their head. Some have a pretty, coppery brown on top of their head and no red on the back of their head. We always call them downys, but wonder if they are some other kind, or perhaps juveniles.’’

Our reader’s letter sent me deep into my library and I finally came up with two references of a color difference on the heads of juvenile downy woodpeckers. The first, “The Sibley Guide to Birds,’’ published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. in 2000, written by David Allen Sibley, made no reference in the text, but a color difference was evident in the painting of the juvenile Downy’s head.

In the second reference, “Life Histories of North American Woodpeckers,’’ originally published in 1939 as “United States National Museum, Bulletin 174,’’ the author, Arthur Cleveland Bent wrote: “Young downy woodpeckers are hatched naked and blind, but the juvenile plumage is acquired before the young leave the nest. In this first plumage, the young male is much like the adult male, except that the red nuchal nape patch is lacking; the forehead is black, spotted with white, but the crown and occiput back part of head are more or less marked with various shades of red, pinkish, or yellowish, as well as spotted with white; the black portions of the plumage are duller than in the adult; the sides of the breast are streaked and the flanks obscurely spotted with dusky; the white areas, underparts, and white spots elsewhere, as well as the rectrices tail feathers, are tinged with yellowish.’’

It would appear that our reader was correct in identifying his “mystery’’ bird as a juvenile downy woodpecker.

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In mid-August I received a letter from my long-time friend from legislative days, the Honorable Bernard Raynowska of North Salem. Bernie enclosed an article published in "The Eagle Tribune" (N.H. Edition) that told of a Western reef heron that had visited New Castle. Hancock residents and nationally known authors of bird field guides, Don and Lillian Stokes, as well as bird expert and author Davis Finch of East Kingston were among those who viewed this rare bird. According to the article:

“The bird is native to the Red Sea and other African waters, where it stalks fish and feeds on mollusks and crustaceans. The long-billed bird is slate gray, almost black, except for a small patch of white at its chin and throat. Orange yellow feet make a striking contrast to the bird’s black legs as it walks along, Finch said.

“Finch and New Hampshire bird expert Steve Mirick suspect that the bird flew from Africa across the South Atlantic before winging north. It is possible the bird was blown off course or became confused, Mirick said.’’

In checking my references, I found that the Western reef heron stands from 21 to 25.5 inches tall and has a wingspan of 32-41 inches. In comparison, our great blue heron stands 46 inches tall and has a wingspan of 72 inches. The Western reef heron’s natural habitat is along rocky shores, coral reefs and offshore islands of Africa and western India. One was observed at Nantucket Island, Mass., between April 24 and September, 1983.

Stacey Cole, Nature Talks columnist for more than 50 years, passed away in 2014. If readers have a favorite column written by Stacey that they would like to see reprinted, please drop a note to Jen Lord at

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