Sunday, March 8, 2015

Winter Woodpeckers and What is a First-Year Bird?

Text and photos © 2015 Adele Wilson

Pileated Woodpecker
January 12th was quite a day for me, woodpecker-wise!  Early that morning, for the very first time, a Pileated Woodpecker came to visit one of the feeders on the tree by my driveway.  I had occasionally seen Pileated Woodpeckers around here before, but not in my back yard.  It was a cold and frosty morning, but I managed to get a few shots, like this one.  The physical positions that these woodpeckers are able to assume while eating from feeders are amazing!

Early in the morning of January 17th, I again saw the Pileated Woodpecker as I was leaving home to run some errands.  By the time I arrived back home, it was around noon and the sun was shining brightly.  As I was ascending my porch stairs, I looked over to the tree by the driveway where I had seen the Pileated Woodpecker that morning. There was a Black-Capped Chickadee eating from the feeder.

Red-Bellied Woodpecker
Soon the Chickadee left, and a Red-Bellied Woodpecker showed up!  You can see him in the picture on the left.  He was obviously a male because of the bright patch of red on the top of his head extending down the back of his neck.

Red-Bellied Woodpeckers do have slightly red bellies, although this woodpecker's red belly does not show in the photo above.  However, if you look very carefully at the photo below (from February 22nd), you may be able to see a light red belly.

Red-Bellied Woodpecker showing his red belly

Downy Woodpecker
After the Red-Bellied Woodpecker finished eating, he hitched up the tree and flew away.  Then yet another type of woodpecker appeared!  This time it was a Downy Woodpecker, as shown in the photo on the left.  The lack of a red patch on the back of its head shows this bird to be a female.

The Downy ate for a few minutes, at which point a Carolina Wren appeared and chased it from the feeder!  In the photo below, the flying bird on the left is the Downy Woodpecker, and you can see the Wren on the feeder on the right.

Carolina Wren having scared Downy Woodpecker from feeder!

Pileated Woodpecker
Since that day, the female Pileated Woodpecker has visited my feeders quite a number of times, often around 8 o’clock in the morning.  On the left is a photo I took of her on the morning of January 24th when we had snow on the ground.  If she looks like Woody Woodpecker, you're not imagining it.  Indeed, the appearance of the Woody Woodpecker cartoon character was derived from the Pileated Woodpecker!  (Thanks to Mary Huebner for this information.)

It turns out that this Pileated Woodpecker is a female.  If she were a male, she would have a red stripe on the lower part of her face instead of a black one.  Ornithologists sometimes call this stripe a “moustache”.

I kept wondering if this female woodpecker had a mate because she is the only Pileated Woodpecker I have seen in my back yard this winter.  I have seen no males, only her.  Last fall I spotted a pair of these woodpeckers on the neighbor’s tree across the road.  This has made me wonder if the Pileated Woodpecker I have been observing in my back yard this winter is the female of that pair.  If so, the question would arise, where is her mate?

Pileated Woodpecker
The photo on the right, taken February 5th on the tree by my driveway, shows how Pileated Woodpeckers move up and down trees.  The Pileated is North America's largest woodpecker, with its length measuring from 16 to 19.5 inches (40 to 49 cm).   There was a North American Woodpecker known to be larger, and that was the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker of the southeastern US.  Sadly, the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, which looked much like the Pileated, is now thought to be extinct.

The Pileated Woodpecker generally makes its home in forests and is extremely shy toward humans.  The National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds, Eastern Region, states that seeing this species up close "usually requires careful stalking."  Reading this made me realize how fortunate I am to have this bird visit my feeders this winter!

To get these pictures, I had to hide behind the wall of my porch.  As long as this shy woodpecker did not know I was there, I was able to snap some photos.  However, as soon as I would move to a different location on the porch, the woodpecker would see me and take flight.

Pileated Woodpecker, female, black stripe on lower part of face
Above is a photo I shot on February 7th.   In this photo you can clearly see the black, horizontal stripe that extends from the beginning of the bill along the side of the face.  As mentioned above, this indicates the woodpecker's gender to be female.  On the male, this stripe is red.

I continued wondering if this female had a mate, and if so, where he was.  I eventually developed a hypothesis, based on a link to photos that my Facebook friend, Nathan Elderkin (thank you, Nathan!), shared with me.  The photos showed baby Pileated Woodpeckers in a nest being fed by their parents.  Surprisingly, the genders of the babies were already apparent!  The males had the red facial stripes, while the corresponding stripes on the females were black.  If you wish to see the photos, you can click here.

Baby Pileated Woodpeckers stay in their nest for a month after they are hatched.  Unlike many other baby birds that do not reveal their genders until after their first molt, baby Pileated Woodpeckers apparently show their genders by their initial plumage.

With this new information about how quickly juvenile Pileated Woodpeckers grow up to look like adults, my hypothesis is that the female Pileated Woodpecker visiting my feeders might be a juvenile.  (If anyone has a different opinion on this, I would welcome your comment below because I am still learning!)

“Juvenile” is one way to describe a bird that was hatched the previous summer.  Another term applied to birds of this age is “first-year”.   A first-year bird is a bird of less than twelve months of age.  Often during winter or spring, a first-year bird can look much like a full adult.  The main difference is that they have yet to experience a mating season or raise a family of their own.  Therefore, despite the fact that the female Pileated Woodpecker looks like a full adult, she could be a first-year bird who has not yet found a mate.

Some birds, like Barn Swallows for instance, retain part of their juvenile plumage until they are nearly a year old.  When North American Barn Swallows arrive in the US during the spring from their southerly wintering grounds, the first-year swallows can generally be identified by their breast bands, which tend to be continuous rather than discontinuous.  All North American Barn Swallow adults display a discontinuous, or "broken", breast band, meaning that the breast band is generally visible on the sides of the body only.  Sometimes, particularly on the males, there is also a dark patch in the center of the breast, which would be part of the breast band if it were continuous. 

When I first began studying Barn Swallows, I was confused by some of the photos on the Internet, which showed adult Barn Swallows with thick, dark, breast bands.  These Barn Swallows did not look like ours here in the US!  I eventually learned that these photos were of Eurasian Barn Swallows, which always display continuous breast bands, whether they are juveniles or adults.  There is much more about the “breast band phenomenon” in my book, Bonding with the Barn Swallows.

So the mystery continues.  Is the female Pileated Woodpecker who is visiting my feeders this winter a full adult?  And, if so, where is her mate, or did something happen to him?  Or, is this female still a juvenile, a first-year bird that was hatched last summer?  If so, I expect that she will find a mate this spring.
I first began having intimate encounters with wild birds when Barn Swallows nested on my porch during 2011 and 2012.  During those encounters, I became convinced that humans and birds can develop meaningful rapports, communicate with each other, and enjoy mutually beneficial relationships.  You can read about my experiences in my book Bonding with the Barn Swallows, available at Amazon at:

Prices on Amazon fluctuate greatly.  Last week the price of the book was over $35.00, but as of today, March 8, 2015, the price is only $24.20.  I cannot predict when the price will go up again; so if you are interested in purchasing the book, today would be the optimal time!  Just click on the image above to read a preview, and if you would like to purchase it, just click "Add to Cart" on the right side of your screen.


  1. You have so many different woodpeckers! We have one here that I think is related to Your Pileated woodpecker, the Black Woodpecker. There's a nesting couple living not far from my cottage and it's easy to knw it's close because it's really noisy :-)

    We have at least two other species living here ttoo but they are harder to find.

    Swallows however is more common, they have been nesting just outside my window upstairs :-) No summer without them :-)

    Have a great day!

  2. Hi Christer,

    Thanks so much for commenting! I hope you get to see baby Black Woodpeckers this spring or summer. When do your swallows usually return? I'll bet you are looking forward to seeing them as much as I am. Ours usually return around April 15th, but last year they did not return until April 22nd.

    Best wishes for a wonderful week!

  3. I rarely see them I'm afraid, only the parents.

    The swallows usually return in early May if spring is warm and I would miss them if they didn't come.

  4. Please don't feel bad about not seeing any baby woodpeckers, Christer! I never see them either. Like so many of our other birds, they move away from the feeder area to build their nests, and it is rare for me to even discover where those nests are.

    I hope you have a nice, warm spring. Thanks for commenting.