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Downy Woodpeckers in Birdhouses

Dear Bird Folks,

Do woodpeckers lay their eggs in the winter? We’ve been seeing a Downey Woodpecker going in and out of one of our birdhouses lately, but it seems too cold to be having babies right now.

– Maggie, Cranston, RI


It sure is, Maggie,

Even though several days were above-average in temperature this winter, it is still way too cold for birds to be sitting on eggs right now. That’s more of a springtime activity. There are a few exceptions to this rule, however, including the ultra-tough Great Horned Owl. These big birds start breeding early so they can find food for their hungry chicks before spring foliage makes hunting more difficult. But just about all the other birds are content to wait for things to warm up before having a family. Why, then, is that woodpecker going into your birdhouse? It is doing exactly what you do when you’re cold: It’s going inside to keep warm, and I don’t blame it.

Surprisingly, only a handful of birds are indoor sleepers. Chickadees, wrens, bluebirds, screech-owls and some other cavity nesting birds will often move inside to avoid harsh weather, but that’s about it. Most of the other species are apparently too claustrophobic to crawl into an enclosed space; they’d rather sleep under the stars like cowboys. Some birds, such as bluebirds and owls, have absolutely no carpentry skills, so they are forced to search for existing cavities. Woodpeckers, on the other hand, are born with all the tools needed to build their own nocturnal bungalows. Each fall, Downies construct several such sites, most often in dead trees. The forward thinking birds create alternative locations in case some larger bird or mammal muscles them out of their primary site, or a winter storm blows down their favorite roosting tree. And if they can’t find a tree to their liking, the birds will simply move into an artificial structure, such as your birdhouse, Maggie.

In my heavily landscaped neighborhood, dead trees are in short supply, and by “short supply” I mean they don’t exist. Any bush, shrub or tree that doesn’t look totally perfect, is instantly cut down and spat upon. As a result, the Downy Woodpeckers in my yard use birdhouses, too. Back in the fall, my wife and I would sit on our back deck and watch a pair of downies settle into the boxes at sunset. (It’s amazing what passes for entertainment during a pandemic.) The female flew into one box and the male used a separate box. Our electrifying evenings came to a sudden end when we moved our clocks back in early November. It was now dark when I got home, causing us to forgo our sunset ritual. We eventually forgot about the woodpeckers, until the other morning when I was getting ready for work and saw the female peering out of one of the boxes. I instantly turned my attention to the other box and there was the male downy also looking out. They looked like two city dwellers chatting across a courtyard from their back porches. I called for my wife to come and see the cute downy couple, but she was still in bed and couldn’t hear me above all the snoring.

This brings up the question: Why don’t the two birds roost in the same box? They certainly are old enough to live together, and if there’s ever a time to snuggle up, it’s in the winter (even if one of them snores). It’s well known that Carolina Wrens often occupy the same roosting cavity and when things really get cold, an entire flock of bluebirds may jam into the same box. Yet, as far as I can tell, the two downies never cohabitated. Evidently, these woodpeckers are bit old-fashioned. Speaking of cohabitating: Since Downy Woodpeckers routinely sleep in birdhouses, you’d think they would also lay their eggs in there, but this is rarely the case. When it’s time to have a family, the birds leave their comfy human-made quarters. They will spend the next few weeks searching for a more natural location, which is typically a fresh rotting tree. Once again, they’re a bit old-fashioned.

There’s an interesting plot twist to the story of the birds in my yard. Thirty feet behind the two roosting woodpeckers is an occupied screech-owl box. Every evening at sunset, when the two woodpeckers are settling in for the night, Ms. screech-owl is getting ready to begin her “day.” She will often sit, with her fluffy face peering out of the hole, slowly trying to get her bearings, before finally heading out to look for dinner. Meanwhile, the little downies are also peering out of their boxes. I have no idea if the woodpeckers know about the owl, but the owl is definitely aware of the woodpeckers. She stares right at them and would love to make a meal out of either one, but screech-owls are small birds themselves and might get picked off by a passing hawk. Caution requires her to wait until dark before leaving the safety of her box, and by that time, the downies are tucked in for the night. Phew!

The woodpecker in your box is only using it for a winter rental, Maggie. There will be no woodpecker eggs now or even when it gets warmer. For whatever reason, they would rather dig out their own nesting cavities. If you want Downy Woodpeckers to raise a family in your yard, you’ll have to provide them with a selection of fresh rotting trees…just don’t let my neighbors find out.