First bird of the year: the sometimes dazed but indefatigably diligent downy

Downy Woodpecker

“The first bird I see this morning, this new year, will mean something.”

Forget the tea leaves, fortune cookies, cards, dice or dreams, I do my divination by lazy out-the-window bird watching, steaming mug of coffee in hand.

My first bird was a female Downy Woodpecker – maybe this one, photographed an hour or so later, after I put out some suet dough when the bluebirds appeared. (The bluebirds perch and stare meaningfully in at me until I do so.)

Not the most glamorous, rare or exciting bird, a downy woodpecker. One of the little black-and-white birds, I call them. There are many species of little black-and-white birds in our backyard all year round.

Downy Woodpecker eating suet dough

Downy woodpeckers happily eat homemade suet dough, and suet cakes, and peanuts. They are not a flitting bird, and therefore easy to photograph. They appear to concentrate on what they are doing; they are not easily alarmed.

Other than chickadees (and my chickens) downies are the bird I can get closest to before they fly off.

I started this blog last May. Downies have made a few appearances…


On Dec. 9, a downy staring at tiny snowflakes reminded me of a favorite quote: Always be on the lookout for the presence of wonder. – E.B. White

That’s a worthy New Year’s resolution!


I held one in my hand on December 5: There’s a woodpecker in  my kitchen

She had flown into the sliding glass door, probably chased by a hawk. But she had a hard little head and she was just fine after a few minutes.

On July 9 I wrote about a (possibly young) male downy that seemed a bit dazed and unusually tame…

Some birds are easier to get close to than others.

I can walk within a few feet of this Downy Woodpecker before he flies away. When he flies, he reminds me of a moth. He flutters around and just sort of ends up somewhere.

downy woodpecker

He made me notice that birds’ behavior is not just determined by their species, but that they are individuals too.

Behavior is also a way to identify this particular bird. He seems a bit “touched.” Sort of out of it.

Can individual birds be crazier or dumber than other birds of the same species? Did this one fly into a tree, hit his head and boggle his brains? Is he a woodpecker changeling? Or is he one of the young ones still learning his way around?

Or maybe all downies take a moment now and then to be enraptured.

Downy Woodpecker

On July 4 I blogged The diligent downy, quoting Winsor Marrett Tyler writing for the Smithsonian in 1939…

When civilized man invaded their territory, the downy woodpecker did not retreat before his advance but accepted as a home the orchards and shade trees with which man replaced the forest.


The ornithologists of a century ago show unanimity in their characterization of the bird. Audubon (1842) remarks that it “is perhaps not surpassed by any of its tribe in hardiness, industry, or vivacity”; Wilson (1832) says that “the principal characteristics of this little bird are diligence, familiarity, perseverance” and speaks of a pair of the birds working at their nest “with the most indefatigable diligence”; and Nuttall (1832) characteristically shares Wilson’s opinion even to the extent of employing his exact words, “indefatigable diligence,” in his own account of the building of the nest. Nearly a hundred years later Forbush (1927), when near the end of his long life, put his seal of approval upon this sentiment, expressed long ago, by summarizing the downy as a “model of patient industry and perseverance.”

Downy Woodpecker

Perhaps there was a bit of anthropomorphizing there? Nevertheless, those are qualities any human could strive for in the coming year(s)!

Backed by these authorities we may regard the downy woodpecker as a bird with a stable and well-balanced nature, a bird which, unconcerned by the rush and traffic “of these most brisk and giddy-paced times,” still perseveres in its “indefatigable diligence.”

On June 1, a female showed me her pretty feathers in flight.


Beauty! Flight! Reasons to watch birds.

On May 29, a downy woodpecker woke me three days in a row at 5:45 a.m. with a sharp, piercing, one-note call… PIK. PIK. PIK… reminding me to put out the food I was keeping inside at night because of raccoon banditry. A charming alarm clock.

downy woodpecker

Wake. Wake. Wake.

It is a new day and a new year. With my first post of the year, in black-and-white (and green), I wish for us all a happy new year… and the stability, hardiness, vivacity, perseverance, industry and indefatigable diligence to see it through.

Oh, and always be on the lookout for the presence of wonder.

2 thoughts on “First bird of the year: the sometimes dazed but indefatigably diligent downy

  1. Pingback: Cathartes the purifier – Amy's Birds

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