Pileated Woodpecker

Dryocopus pileatus

By Hugh Jennings

  • Length           16.5 in
  • Wingspan      29 in 
  • AOU Band code    PIWO

The Pileated Woodpecker (PIWO) is about 16-1/2” long with a 29’ wingspan. The genus name Dryocopus (dry-OCK-oh-pus) is from the Greek drys, a tree, especially an oak, and kopis, cleaver; a “tree cleaver” or “wood cutter”. The species name pileatus is Latin for capped, or crested, in reference to its large crest. The name can be pronounced PIE-leh-ated or PIL-eh-ated. It is our largest woodpecker and is about crow size.

It is found in mature forests, where it searches for its favorite food - carpenter ants – by excavating large rectangular feeder holes. The nesting holes are round. The PIWO is long-necked, broad-winged, and long-tailed, with a prominent crest. It is mostly black with a bright red crest. The crest on the female is less extensive than on the male. The male also has a red patch on the black line off the base of the bill. In flight, look for the large size and striking white on the linings of the underwings.

In addition to carpenter ants, the PIWO eats beetles, other insects, seeds, fruit, and will come to suet bird feeders. It prefers dense mature forest, but is adapting well to human encroachment, becoming more common and more tolerant of disturbed habitats and second-growth woods. Their territory size can be 150-200 acres. Signs of a Pileated’s presence are chiseled-out, rectangular, 3-6” holes in trees.

The call is a loud, rising-and-falling wuck-a-wuck-a-wuck-a, similar to the flicker but higher and louder. Its drum is slow, powerful, accelerating and trailing off at the end; short or up to three seconds long with slight variations in tempo and intensity throughout, only one or two per minute.

The nest cavity is excavated in dead wood, 15-70 ft. high. The entrance hole is about 3-1/2” in diameter with a cavity depth of 10-24”. There are 3-5 white eggs that are incubated for 15-16 days before hatching. The young fledge in 28 more days. There is only one brood per season.

Photo by Mick Thompson

Photo by Mick Thompson

California Scrub Jay

Aphelocoma californica

By Andy McCormick

  • Length          11.5 in
  • Wingspan      15.5 in 
  • Weight           3 oz
  • AOU Band code    CASI

In the summer of 2016 the American Ornithologists’ Union (AOU) reviewed the status of the Western Scrub-Jay and decided to split off two of the subspecies into two “new” species, the California Scrub-Jay (Aphelocoma californica) and Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay (A. woodhouseii). This split had been anticipated for several years because the two former subspecies barely overlapped their ranges and hybridization was rare (See range maps). The two species also have consistent differences in voice, habitat, behavior, and morphology (Retter). 


California Scrub-Jay Comes to Washington
What is now the California Scrub-Jay has expanded its range into Western Washington. The California is the more coastal species and darker in overall color. The blue is deeper and contrasts with the white belly. The back is gray. It has a sharply-defined breast band. By contrast the Woodhouse’s is a duller blue with grayish underparts, a grayish-blue back, and a faint breast band (Sibley). 
These two species share the genus Aphelocoma with the Florida Scrub-Jay (A. coerulescens), the Island Scrub-Jay (A. insularis), and the Mexican Jay (A. untramarina). Aphelocoma means smooth hair, from the Greek, apheles, smooth, and kome, hair of the head, referring to the fact that these birds have no crest (Holloway). This species was first collected in California, hence the species name. Jay is from the French geai, a jay. It is thought the name is onomatopoeic for its call (Holloway).


Cached Food Disperses Trees
The California Scrub-Jay has an omnivorous diet of grasshoppers, beetles, bees, wasps, ants, caterpillars and other insects, and in winter it eats acorns and seeds. At times, it will eat other birds’ eggs and sometimes nestlings. The California Scrub-Jay scatterhoards (stores individually) surplus food items for later consumption (Curry, et al). The caches can consist of acorns, animal parts, human food such as French fries, and non-food objects. The birds do not recover all of their caches allowing acorns and seeds to sprout, thus aiding the dispersal of future food sources. California Scrub-Jays will also parasitize caches of other birds including stealing nuts stored by Acorn Woodpeckers. 


Flocks of Floaters
The California Scrub-Jay is a permanent resident of its territory, which a mated pair will defend year-round. It usually nests in oak trees, but will also use other trees. Both sexes build the nest about 20 feet above the ground. Usually 4-5 eggs are deposited and incubated only by the female. The hatchlings are born naked and dependent, and need regular feeding by parents for up to two months after fledging (Curry et al). First flight is usually several weeks after fledging. 


In the fall and through the winter, immature birds accompany the parents and are often joined by floaters (non-breeding adults) forming flocks of up to 20 birds. Populations of California Scrub-Jays are stable and no conservation measures are used. 

Photo by Larry Engles

Photo by Larry Engles

Gray Jay

Perisoreus canadensis

By Andrew McCormick

  • Length          11.5 in
  • Wingspan    18 in
  • Weight         2.5 oz (70 g)
  • AOU Band code   GRAJ

The Gray Jay is a tough resident of spruce and fir forests in high mountains where it remains throughout the year.

This fluffy gray and white jay with a round head is often quiet and may startle an observer as it appears suddenly on a nearby branch. It moves through the forest in short flights marked by silent gliding and steep descents when food is present. The Gray Jay is “well known for taking food from humans” (Strickland and Ouellet). These “camp robbers” are often seen foraging around campsites and picnic tables and will sometimes follow hikers.

Stores Food for Retrieval in Winter

Food storage in Gray Jays has been well-studied and researchers have found that these jays are omnivorous and will eat and store insects, spiders, berries, seeds, small rodents, birds’ eggs and carrion. To prepare food for storage they roll the item in their mouth coating it with their sticky saliva and then stick it in the crotch of a tree, under bark or lichen, or in coniferous foliage (Strickland and Ouellet).

One study has shown that the Gray Jay behaves like a scatterhoarder and will cache food close to the food source, and will also distribute food in smaller amounts to caches farther from the source. Recovery of food from the caches has been monitored and use of memory to recall placement of a cache is implied by the little time the birds spend on foraging in winter (Strickland and Ouellet).

Adaptive Late Winter Breeding

Breeding begins in February across most of this jay’s range. Researchers have hypothesized that the schedule of early breeding is adaptive for Gray Jays because it provides more time in summer and fall for juveniles to learn how to cache food, and for adults to cache their own food in preparation for winter (Strickland and Ouellet). 

Mated pairs remain together through the year, and while the ground is still snow covered, they build a bulky nest fairly close to the ground and near the trunk of a conifer. Typically, 3-4 pale gray to greenish eggs are deposited. Young jays will leave the nest in about four weeks after hatching and will remain with the parents for another month (Kaufman).

Climate Warming Poses a Risk

Gray Jays may expand their range northward as the climate warms and the boreal forest shifts northward. There is some evidence that some conifer species at the southern edge of the Gray Jay’s range are retreating to the north and up the slopes of mountains (Strickland and Ouellet).

The Gray Jay shares the genus Perisoreus with two other species, the Siberian Jay (P. infaustus), which populates northern Eurasia, and the Sichuan Jay (P. internigrans) confined to the Tibetan Plateau. The genus name is from the Greek perisoreous, to heap up all around, with probable reference to the bird’s hoarding behavior. The Gray Jay’s species name canadensis refers to its range across northern North American including Alaska and Canada (Holloway).

Photo by Mick Thompson

Photo by Mick Thompson

Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers

Picoides pubescens and Picoides villosus

By Hugh Jennings

The Downy is 6-6.5 inches while Hairy is much larger at 9-9.5 inches. Both have a white back and white underparts, white-spotted black wings and black-and-white streaked faces. The males have red on the nape and females have no red. The Downy has a much smaller bill which is about half the length of the head, whereas the Hairy’s is almost as long as the head. Another field mark which is not always easy to see is that the Downy has a few black bars on the white outer tail feathers. The outer tail feathers on the Hairy are all white.

The call note of the Downy is a flat "pik" while the Hairy gives a sharp "peek". The Downy’s song is a rapid whinny of notes, descending in pitch. The Hairy’s song is a Kingfisher-like rattle, run together more than the call of the Downy.

Both occur throughout the United States. Both feed on a variety of insects, especially wood-boring insects. They will use sunflower seed feeders, suet, and peanut butter logs.

The Downy excavates a nest in dead wood, while the Hairy uses live wood and they rarely use nest boxes. The Downy has 4-5 white eggs which incubate for 12 days and the young fledge after 21 days. It sometimes has two broods. The Hairy has 4-6 white eggs which incubate for 11-12 days and the young fledge in 28-30 days. It has only one brood.

Both species drum on resonant surfaces such as dead trees-drumming is loud, continuous and very rapid during breeding season. Sounds when pecking for food or nest-hole excavation are light taps in irregular rhythms.

Photo: Downy Woodpecker, by Mick Thompson

Photo: Downy Woodpecker, by Mick Thompson

Northern Flicker

Colaptes auratus

By Hugh Jennings

  • Length           12-14" long 
  • AOU Band code    NOFL