Mission: To promote the appreciation of wildlife and increase harmony between humanity and nature.

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Monday, September 4, 2017

A Feathered Friend

While walking home last week my eye was attracted by the flight of a crow. The crow swooped ever so slightly towards a nearby telephone pole. Sitting as silent as one of the brass eagles which hover over our flags, was Chip. Chip is the current male pileated woodpecker who includes the Arboretum, Interlaken Park and Montlake in his territory. 

No doubt I would have missed Chip completely, if not for the crow. The crow continued on towards the Arboretum. I stopped and quietly dug my camera out of my pack. Chip ignored both of us. Being ignored by wild creatures is actually a positive. The most reliable sign that our presence is not causing stress is when a creature's behavior continues unchanged by our observations. 

It had been about two months since I last saw Chip. Suddenly spotting him a stone's throw from my home felt like a surprise visit from an old friend. Humans gain wrinkles with age. I am sure that when I run across old friends they have to adjust their mental image to fit the current version of me. Chip's 'new' look certainly made me look twice. I noticed the newly exposed white feathers just below his shoulder and how the white stripes on his face had yellowed by comparison. I also noticed the dark feathers drifting loosely upon his chest. Chip is molting.

Molting is the process of replacing a previous, and usually well-worn, set of feathers with new ones. There are many different plumages and stages in the process depending on the particular species and their specific needs. In the case of adult pileated woodpeckers they only replace their feathers once per year. Both of my most obvious observations of the process have happened in August.

Chip's last appearance in this blog was in the post, Elderberry Whine. At that time Chip and his new mate, Goldie, were totally consumed with providing food for their three new fledglings. 

Prior to my encounter last week, my memory of Chip was closer to this Spring photo - from 2016. At that time his crest was bright red, his chest feathers were smoothly aligned and his white feathers were generally clean and pristine. Of course, this photo was taken at the beginning of breeding season and Chip was wearing his finest with all the best intentions.

A few days later it all worked out well for Chip. His mating with Storm, the predecessor to Goldie, may have looked a bit awkward but they successfully raised three offspring in the spring and summer of twenty-sixteen. You can see some of the pictorial highlights in the post, Family Time.

I find this photo is interesting, not just because they were mating, but also because both birds exposed their white underwear. The inner twenty to thirty percent of their primary feathers are pure white. The normally visible, outer portion of these feather are as black as the feathers on their backs. This particular area of protected white feathers is only visible when they lift their wings.

The best opportunity to view their underwear is whenever a pileated flies directly overhead. Even then the flash of white can be easily missed. This photo just happened to catch a glimpse of the white arcs during a rather odd looking takeoff.

Here is a young female from the 2016 brood. The orangish color of her crest is an obvious indicator of her juvenile plumage. She is using her wings to help climb the gnarly bark of a Douglas Fir. 

The expanse of exposed white feathers must also include underwing coverts as well as the proximal ends of the flight feathers. I think the flash of pink skin indicates that while she is wearing her juvenile plumage her white underwear is not as tight and dense as it will be during adulthood. This photo is also shows the white inner (or proximal) portion of the primaries versus the darker distal (or outer) portion.

Part of the reason the bright white stripe of Chip's inner primaries is visible in this photo is because he has lost some of the dark coverts which normally cover the base of the primaries. The wind, or possibly his preening, has also ruffled and lifted the remaining coverts.

In general white feathers lack keratin and as a result are weaker than darker feathers. No doubt the weaker feathers are also softer. Just like with humans it makes sense to wear the softest clothing closest to the skin.  

I am certain Chip has had a busy summer feeding his and Goldie's first set of offspring. After Storm disappeared last winter, Goldie showed up and became Chip's new mate. If you check out the first photo in the post, Storm Passing, you will see that in August of 2016 Storm was also molting. Her exposed white primary stripe makes it obvious. 

Chip sat calmly on top of the telephone pole for quite a while. Suddenly, a predator must have passed overhead. Immediately, Chip jumped down and hid behind the pole. While I watched Chip was undisturbed by any begging, calling or whining. Apparently, all of this year's young have now learned to fend for themselves.

If you click on this photo, e.g. zoom in, you can see that Chip has one longer covert feather which has not yet fallen off. At this angle the covert covers up most of his white primary stripe. No doubt the existing covert will fall when a new feather pushes its way out of the feather 'pimple' which generates the replacement. If so, then during the next few days or weeks the white will remain temporarily visible as the new dark coverts begin to cover the base of the primary feathers.

Many birds are molting this time of year. Here is a crow which was looking for food on Foster Island, last week. I am assuming the half a dozen different specks of white indicate the molting process is underway.

Here is a male Anna's hummingbird which was seen at Carkeek Park this weekend. Given that the white feathers above the eye are not part of the normal coloring for an Anna's hummingbird I am thinking they may indicate molting as well. Possibly new dark feathers are starting to grow in and the normally hidden white feathers are only visible because of the temporary lack of cover.

It is also interesting to compare the two photos to see how the structure of the hummer's dark feathers give off a red reflection, but only at just the right angle.

While walking through the Arboretum I often stop to photograph fallen feathers. Even though this feather is not white it certainly looks soft and airy. I suspect it is an inner rather than a outer feather. The white shaft, or rachis, is the most visible portion of this feather. The loose barbs, which are at right angles to the rachis, also indicate the air trapping function of an inner feather.

I cannot find this particular feather in the wonderful book, 'Bird Feathers' by Scott and McFarland. It does however look similar in shape and size to the tail feathers of some ducks. Given were I found the feather I would guess it might possibly be an outer tail feather from a mallard.

In any case, this feather is particularly interesting because it shows two different functions of the barbs. The distal barbs are mostly aligned and connected so that they can shed water and manipulate air flow. The more downy, proximal barbs are disconnected and more randomly aligned so they can retain air and warmth. In addition, the dark coloring on the tip is structurally stronger which reduces the wear on the most exposed portion of the feather.

This tiny, downy feather is a perfect example of the soft, warm bird feathers which may have inspired our ancestors to come up with the idea of underwear, not to mention pillows and down-filled feather beds.

On closer inspection we can see that the barbs of this feather have barbs of their own. Technically, these secondary barbs are called barbules. As my son mentioned it looks like a fractal arrangement. The beauty and complexity of a single feather reminds me that the best of our human technology is still rather crude by comparison. We will begin to demonstrate signs of technical maturity when our creations automatically grow and replace worn out parts and the discarded pieces naturally disassemble and become one with the environment.

While I was watching Chip, this surprisingly silent Stellar's jay came and perched on the wire next to the telephone pole. A few moments later, without any indication of irritation, both Chip and the jay flew away towards the Arboretum.

By the way, I believe the half grown tail feathers on this bird are also indicators of molting in process. Seeing the blue reflection from the jay unleashed a whole new set of feather-related thoughts. However, it is time to finally publish this post. So my thoughts regarding the feathers of jays will have to wait for future exploration.

Have a great day on Union Bay...where the feathers of friends fall from the sky!


Going Native:

Without a well-funded Environmental Protection Agency, it falls to each of us to be ever more vigilant in protecting our local environments. Native plants and trees encourage the largest diversity of lifeforms because of their long intertwined history with local, native creatures. I have been told that even the microbes in the soil are native to each local landscape. My hope is that we can inspire ourselves, our neighbors and local businesses to plant native flora and to support native wildlife at every opportunity. My intention is to include at least one photo each week and visually challenge us to know the difference between native and non-native lifeforms.

Can you identify this creature? Is it a native to Union Bay and the Pacific Northwest?


Scroll down for the answer


This week Seattle Parks and Recreation is removing accumulating mud from a small pond in the Arboretum, southwest of the Winter Garden. The Arboretum ponds constantly fill up because the local Montlake mud is made primarily of silt from bottom of an ancient lake. The only way to maintain our delightful little ponds seems to be to clean them out from time to time.

In the process the team is uncovering salamanders which reside under the mud. Based on the size, color and shape these are Northwestern Salamanders. The online Burke Museum article by Heidi Rockney and Karen Wu mentions that these salamanders are mildly poisonous and neotenic. Neoteny means that as adults these creatures often retain some immature characteristics. As a matter of fact when I first saw one of these salamanders I did not even notice the little legs and feet, so my initial inclination was to conclude it was a pollywog. Only when I looked closer did I finally see the feet and tiny toes.

An online report from British Columbia says the Northwestern Salamander's poison only causes mild skin irritation in humans but can kill some small creatures. It is suspected that their poison has helped them to survive and may even be protecting them from some invasive species. The fact that they spend a lot of time underwater, underground and under logs is no doubt another reason for their survival. 


  1. Thanks so much, Larry, for being so observant! I am sure many others are also glad to see Chip again. This post was feathery with info!

    1. Valarie, Thank you! It was sure nice to meet up with Chip again.

  2. This is a keeper, Larry! Nicely done and very interesting.