How Many Maritimers Does it Take to Find a Downy Woodpecker False Face?


Downy Woodpecker False Face?

The idea that “false faces” are used by birds for predator deterrence floats in the ether between biology textbook case study and mythical meme. The idea that evolution can produce false faces compels and amazes us but because of the lack of solid evidence around the function of plumage patterns in many species we still drift back and forth along this spectrum. In some species, there can be little doubt that we are looking at legitimate false faces (see Greg Byron’s great post on Northern Pygmy Owls), but in many other species the picture is not as clear. Perhaps in these less-clear cases we are squinting too hard and seeing faces of ancient oracles imprinted on our toast. But then again, squinting can sometimes help us see things in a new way.

Literature suggests that false faces could evolve to deter predation in a number of ways including making the predator think it is facing the prey head on or that is has already been detected by the prey (both of which might reduce the likelihood of successful predation), or, by confusing the predator so that it does not know where the true face is (e.g., as in the American Kestrel).

David Sibley took on the topic of Downy Woodpecker false faces in a 2010 blog post. I don’t disagree with Sibley on the likelihood of false faces on Downys, but will admit that looking at the illustrations I could not see a false face – unless he meant that of an American Woodcock. I felt embarrassed about this;  I thought that if there was a false face it must be staring me – and predators – in the face. I polled a random sample of others in the room (n=1) and found complete agreement with my view.

However, two sources of information helped me to think about this differently. First, a recent paradigm-shifting paper by Andrei Sourakov provided evidence to suggest that false heads on hairstreak butterflys serve not to deter predation by birds but by spiders: perhaps my focus is in the wrong place. Second, squinting at live Downys on my suet feeders made different patterns emerge relative to static photographs: movement is important to the face effect, and squinting, which serves to increase contrast, makes this effect come alive.

Here is some Downy footage with an illustration at the end to direct your eyes. The black vertical dorsal head stripe can appear as a dark beak; the eyes seem to be set into the black horizontal eyestripes on either side of the head; the black wings serve to frame the white back making it appear as the evil twin’s bright breast and belly. The face is most evident as the bird moves its head side to side. When the female Downy breaks from feeding and puts her bill forward the false face pop up as if to say “who’s dere b’y?!” [substitute expression appropriate to your corner of Canada].

This, I believe, is what is considered to be the classic Downy’s “false face”, yet the elements that seem to stand out the most are the white patches on either side of the vertical head stripe. When the bird moves her bill from a tilted-up to straight-ahead position, the white patches become quite eye-catching – and these elements would be most prominent under low-light conditions. Perhaps I am staring at the toast too long and there is no Screech Owl here, but then again, maybe there is:

And speaking of toast, how about these. First, a Downy nestling in a cavity resembling a Red Squirrel:

And finally, an excavating Downy as a cavity-nesting duck ( and

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4 Responses to How Many Maritimers Does it Take to Find a Downy Woodpecker False Face?

  1. Ken Pitts says:

    I discovered a related feature in Northern Flickers. As I watched a red-shafted flicker feeding from my suet, I was struck by the obvious false face features on its neck and breast. I took a photo of it and have posted it on my account to share:

  2. James Churchill says:

    Thanks Bob and Pierre! While writing the post, I was also wondering how ideas about the role of motion in the “act of deception” could be tested. Encounters between predator and prey are so fleeting and when we happen to observe them it is often at the attack phase (when movement and/or sound catches our attention); it is hard to think how we could obtain enough observational data under natural circumstances. On top of this is it is difficult to know what signals the predator has perceived and used to make its decision on how and whether to attack. Would that leave us with behavioural and/or physiological experiments with captive predators? It does sound fun to come up with a creative way to test this!

    It seems that, at least in the video above, motion seems to have such a strong effect because the contrast is so high between the black and the white groups of feathers. If the colours were similar in shade, I would suspect that the “flashing” effect would not be so striking.

    While writing the post, it also became apparent that the strength of the “false face” effect in deterring predation might be highly dependent on the location from which the predator is observing the potential prey. There has been some suggestion in literature that false faces in woodpeckers should appear on the dorsal surfaces of the body since they should be least likely to detect a predator approaching from behind and therefore be most vulnerable to predation (since presumably they can detect predators approaching from the left and right by turning their head from side to side). However, a predator approaching from behind could be perched in the canopy and looking down at the woodpecker, at a height equal to that of the woodpecker (as in the video), or lower than the woodpecker and you would think that the woodpecker’s plumage would look different at each of those viewing angles. If this is the case, the location of the face features on the dorsal surface might be geared towards, and driven by, the hunting behaviour of the predator(s) that provide the most predation pressure in the population.

    Lots of speculation, and thanks again for the comments!

  3. Bob Lefebvre says:

    Amazing! I also could not see the Downy false face in photos, but in the video the effect is very strong. And the first photo of an excavating Downy really does resemble a duck!

  4. Very intriguing post… I have also often asked myself if “false faces” in birds and insects truly serve an evolutionary purpose. I find your explanation with respect to motion to be quite compelling — I wonder if there is a way of testing this hypothesis? Could be groundbreaking research!