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Why a normally black Downy Woodpecker might look gray

Downy Woodpecker in Audubon, New Jersey, by Brian Kushner.
Downy Woodpecker in Audubon, New Jersey, by Brian Kushner.

In the column Since You Asked in every issue of BirdWatching, Contributing Editor Julie Craves answers readers’ questions about birds and bird behavior. Here is a question from our January-February 2017 issue:

I’ve been seeing what I believe to be a Downy Woodpecker or Hairy Woodpecker. It has the same markings as an adult, but it’s grayish in color. It looks washed out. Is it a juvenile? — Zak Grimm, Fredericktown, Ohio

Grayish or brownish plumage in Downy Woodpecker and Hairy Woodpecker is not unusual. Feathers are prone to fading as the months go by, and the loss can be particularly noticeable in black or dark feathers colored with the pigment melanin. Because birds replace their feathers once a year, the contrast between fresh new feathers and old faded feathers is frequently used to determine the age of a bird, especially by banders.

Woodpeckers’ white feathers are also susceptible to becoming gray and dirty from soot or other substances. Adult birds probably have more opportunities to become dirty than juveniles, and adults are also prone to having their black feathers fade to brown.

The surest way to identify a young Downy Woodpecker or Hairy Woodpecker in the weeks after leaving the nest and prior to the fall molt is by checking the patch of red-tipped feathers near the top of the head (not at the rear of the head, as in adult males). The color is present in both sexes. — Julie Craves

About Julie Craves

Julie-Craves-120Julie is supervisor of avian research at the Rouge River Bird Observatory at the University of Michigan Dearborn and a research associate at the university’s Environmental Interpretive Center. She writes about her research on the blog Net Results, and she maintains the website Coffee & Conservation, a thorough resource on where coffee comes from and its impact on wild birds.


Read other questions that Julie has answered in “Since You Asked.”

If you have a question about birds for Julie, send it to [email protected] or visit our Contact page.

View photos of Downy Woodpecker

Photos of Hairy Woodpecker


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