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Why a Downy Woodpecker might have red on its crown, not nape

A male Downy Woodpecker perches next to a red-crowned juvenile. Photo by ntezbnggreen
A male Downy Woodpecker perches next to a red-crowned juvenile. Photo by ntezbnggreen

In the column “Since You Asked” in every issue of BirdWatching, Contributing Editor Julie Craves answers readers’ questions about birds and bird behavior. Here’s a question from our August 2014 issue:

A male Downy Woodpecker had the red spot that is usually on the neck on top of its head. What kind of plumage abnormality is this? — Paul Ward, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Your bird was a perfectly normal juvenile. Young Downies of both sexes have red feathers on their crowns, although the color is more extensive on males and sometimes absent on females. The size of the patch varies geographically and occasionally among individual nest-mates. The feathers are not entirely red but usually just red-tipped.

Within weeks of leaving the nest, young woodpeckers replace the red crown feathers with black ones. Later, males grow bright red feathers on the back of the head, forming the distinct red spot that distinguishes them from females, which have no red on the head or elsewhere on the body.

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 pageA version of this article was published in the August 2014 issue of BirdWatching. Subscribe.


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Originally Published