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Saturday, February 21, 2015

In The Mood?

Have you ever wondered if birds have feelings? While searching the moss for food, this female Downy woodpecker stopped and checked for danger. She seemed careful, maybe even regal, but there were no obvious signs of emotion.

The female, Downy Woodpeckers generally feed on the larger…

...lower branches...

…while the males prefer... 

…the smaller, upper branches.  When the males are away, the females will also feed in the upper branches. 

When this female encountered a male Downy, on a mutually desirable branch, her raised wings were a very visible reaction.

The male's response was just as strong. The birds attempted to intimidate each other, rather than exchange blows, which could cause damage. 

 The female "states her case" while…

 …keeping the branch between herself and the male.

The birds switched positions as they argued. When birds defend themselves, their territory or their nests they often elevate their crests, spread their wings and attempt to look as large as possible. Scaring the other bird away is the safest approach.

At this point, they have circled completely around the branch. Ultimately...

...the male retained ownership. The male's red crest was still slightly elevated, which seems to imply that he had not yet calmed down. It may be impossible to know exactly, what the birds are feeling, but this encounter looked emotional to me.

Surprisingly two days earlier, in the same trees, a male Downy shared the upper branches with these two females. Apparently, this was allowed because the females were not feeding. The females were chasing each other from tree to tree. 

Occasionally, they would stop and hold their beaks vertically, spread their tail feathers and sometimes their wings and... 

 then bob their heads from side to side. 

These displays seemed almost playful. Over and over, they chased each other to the next tree top and repeated the process. All the while, they stayed within eyesight of the male. This behavior may be a preliminary, female mating competition. It seems very similar to the way female flickers often behave in the spring. 

The male appeared to pay no attention to the females, as he fed.

For at least half an hour, the females moved back and forth. The one time that the females started to feed, the male immediately appeared. He shooed them out of the upper branches and then returned to his feeding. Apparently, he was watching them after all.

All of this happened in three or four trees next to Duck Bay. One of the trees contains a Downy nest hole, from last year. None of the birds inspected the nest or attempted to mate.  They may not be in the mood for love, but they certainly behave as if they have emotions.

You can see last year's nesting story by: clicking here

Have a great day on Union Bay…where nature lives in the city!


Please Speak For The Shorebirds:

Flocks of shorebirds, like dunlins, are amazing to watch in flight. The term for their naturally choreographed flight is murmuration. If you would like to see what they look like please check out this video

The current 520 mitigation plan will enhance the Montlake Fill, but it does not allow sufficient space for migrating shorebirds to feed. Because of this Connie Sidles, Dennis Paulson and the Seattle Audubon have started a petition to speak for the shorebirds. You can read more about their request for help, Here

At the very least, please join hundreds of others and sign the petition. It will only take a moment to let the Corp of Engineers know, you believe it is critical to include shorebird habitat at the Union Bay Natural Area.


  1. This is a marvelous study and story told in your superb images. I watch woodpeckers a great deal in my forested setting on Whidbey, but this took the dynamics and the conversation to a new level. Thank you for such a close look.

  2. Dan, Thank you. You are very kind. I was really a bit surprised that with all the warm weather the male wasn't starting to excavate a nest. I guess his calendar was not impacted by the warm weather.
    Thanks again!

  3. Fascinating narrative and beautiful photos as always, Larry.

    1. Thank you! Surprisingly, this morning the male flew up to last year's nest and took a quick look. So far they have made a new nest each year, maybe his inspection shows he is thinking about getting started.