Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens): Barry Kent Mackay

The Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens) is found only in North America, occurring most places there are trees and woodlands. It’s our smallest native woodpecker, and in many areas the most commonly seen, especially in winter. It is easily attracted to bird feeders. The pattern of their plumage, especially the size of the white wing spots and the whiteness or greyness of the breast, varies geographically, with the result that seven subspecies are recognized.  I have shown the most widely distributed (and one of the brightest patterned), D. p. medianus, the one found here in Ontario, and common in my garden.

To me one of the most fascinating things about the Downy Woodpecker is that it is not, according to molecular phylogenetic analysis, a close relative of the distinctly larger Hairy Woodpecker (Leuconotopicus villosus), which has a similar distribution (albeit ranging much further south, into Panama) and almost an identical pattern of colours and patterns.

“Downy” does not apply to plumage texture but to small (infantile) size, and references the scientific species name, pubescens, Latin for “pubescent”, or “downy” in the sense of being youthful or small.  It is no more “downy” than any other woodpecker.  The Hairy Woodpecker does have long, hair-like feathers on the lower back.

I’ve painted an adult male. Adult females lack the bright red patch at the back of the head.  Immature birds are not so crisply coloured and both sexes have red on top of the head. Downies excavate their own nesting cavities, usually in the softer wood of a dead tree. This life size oil painting is 12 X 9 inches on acid-free compressed hardboard.

Barry Kent MacKay

Bird Artist, Illustrator

Studio: (905) 472 9731

31 Colonel Butler Drive

Markham, ON L3P 6B6 Canada

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