Speaking of Nature: Father and son — The downy woodpecker

  • Two things can help you to differentiate between an adult male downy woodpecker and a juvenile male. First is the location of the red feathers on the head, and second is the presence of a brown stain on the feathers of the adult’s face and throat. PHOTO BY BILL DANIELSON

For the Gazette
Published: 7/9/2023 12:00:50 PM
Modified: 7/9/2023 12:00:28 PM

Although summer has only really just begun it feels like “deep summer” has already arrived. We already have the heat and the humidity and the almost daily threats of thunderstorms, but if you go out into nature and use your eyes and ears, then it quickly becomes apparent that the summer is really just getting started. For me it all boils down to the flowers that are blooming, the fireflies that are flashing and the birds that are busy with parenting.

This point was all driven home during a recent morning down at the edge of my meadow when I was treated to a visit from a baby woodpecker that I can only describe as being ridiculously cute. This little fellow was not visiting on his own. In fact, he was actually following his father around as his father struggled to find enough food to keep his young son fed. When he stumbled onto me and the pile of sunflower seeds that I had placed on the little feeding platform that I installed near my Thinking Chair, you could almost see the relief in his eyes. But I think I might be getting ahead of myself a little.

There are six species of woodpeckers that can be reliably seen in our little corner of the world. The largest is the pileated woodpecker. The next size down is occupied by the red-bellied woodpecker and the northern flicker. Shrink down a little further and you have the hairy woodpecker and the yellow-bellied sapsucker. The smallest of the six (and the subject of today’s column) is the downy woodpecker.

Perhaps as a function of its small size, the downy woodpecker is also the “friendliest” of the woodpeckers. I spend a great deal of time out on my deck during the summer and there are several downy woodpeckers that will happily hammer away at the peanuts in a wire feeder that is hanging only 10-12 feet away from me. I can move around, talk and even get up from my seat to go into the house without disturbing them enough to cause them to fly away. In a way, you could say that they “know” me. I am a fixture on the deck that has never made a hostile move toward them.

As a result, I get to observe a great deal of downy woodpecker behavior and in the months of June and July this means I get to watch bedraggled parents trying to keep their freshly fledged offspring fed. This is the purest sort of joy to behold because the young birds are so terribly excited about absolutely everything. The little birds always seem to do exactly the wrong thing and somehow find a way to make their parents work twice as hard to get something relatively simple accomplished. It’s hilarious because it is so “human.”

The adult male downy woodpecker is identified by a patch of crimson red feathers on the back of his head. The rest of his plumage is made up of black and white feathers and the female is decorated will all of the same feathers in the same places. So, red means male and no red means female. To further remove confusion from fledgling birds and adults, the red feathers on the heads of males can be in different places. Back of the head means an adult bird, forehead means juvenile. So a quick look at today’s photo should easily reveal that the father bird is on the left.

When it comes to female birds, there is no way to distinguish between adult females and their juvenile daughters unless you understand a little more about woodpecker natural history. Adult birds have to do a lot of foraging and this involves the adults pecking holes into trees in order to find the insect larvae that they feed their offspring. During the summer months, this means that they are dealing with soggy, rotten wood that can actually stain the white feathers. Almost the way dry tea releases tannins in hot water.

As a result of this proximity to rotten wood, the faces and chins of the adult birds can become stained with brown. Again, a quick look at today’s photo will show that the throat, upper chest and “nostril” feathers of the adult male have a distinct drown color, while the feathers of the fledgling male are as pure a white as freshly fallen snow. All of these stains will fade and the feathers will eventually be molted, which will result in pure-white feathers for everyone in the winter. Frozen wood does not stain the way rotten summer wood stains.

So this father, who may actually “know” me, might have come right over to my location when he heard me moving around and talking to the chickadees. It is very possible that he has visited me many times and may have remembered that I bring food with me. He was the first to arrive. He grabbed a seed, flew into the woods, came back and repeated. Then, out of nowhere, came the ridiculous explosion of excitement that was his son. Desperately hungry, but also interested in playing, the young woodpecker would scream for food, but then back away and play hide-and-seek while his father was trying to feed him. More than once the adult male looked at me with what I thought might be exasperated embarrassment.

With so much food available to the adult male, he was actually able to get his son filled up and calmed down a little bit. It was at that moment that I was able to take a family photo of father and son together. Later that day, during a special moment on the deck, I found myself surrounded by baby woodpeckers and their exhausted parents. This was very special because it meant that a new generation of downy woodpeckers was learning that I was not dangerous and that we could be “friends.”

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 26 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy and the Massachusetts State Parks and he currently teaches high school biology and physics. For more in formation visit his website at www.speakingofnature.com, or head over to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.


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