The other day I heard the thrumming of a woodpecker in a willow near our back door (Lookout CA, Modoc County) and went to investigate. A tiny downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) was busily excavating a hole in the willow. This confused me. Why would this black and white woodpecker be industriously digging a large hole in autumn? Was he confused about the season, getting an early start on his spring nest hole or. . . ?
The diet of a downy woodpecker consists mainly of insects, insect larvae and spiders, although they do eat some plant material. These acrobatic birds are so nimble that they can forage, often upside down, not only on tree trunks and branches, but on smaller branches and twigs as well as shrubs and weed stalks.
With a little research I realized that this downy woodpecker was not confused about the season or premature in anticipating spring. Downy woodpeckers tend to glean more from the surface of tree branches or from just under the bark in the summer. In the winter they do more excavating to find wood boring larvae or other insects deep in the wood. He (males have a red head patch) was simply searching for something to eat.
Downy woodpeckers have special feathers over their nostrils (nasal bristles) to keep them from breathing in wood chips when they excavate for food, or while digging their nest holes.
Hope this woodpecker found a good meal.