Feathers and Feelings

A male wood duck, standing in a tree, fluffs his crest feathers.

You can tell how a crested bird is feeling by watching its feathers.

Uh-oh. Your anthropomorphize-ometer is spinning, isn’t it?  Feelings are an ornithological no-no.

But I’ll argue that it doesn’t take much bird watching to notice the agitated crest feathers of a frightened bird.  Or the smooth, motionless crest on a calmer bird’s head.  If you’re lucky enough to catch their springtime flirting, you may notice that crested birds’ top feathers wag and wiggle in courtship. When they have a family, their nestlings’ crests show visible excitement when mom and dad approach with a meal.

Are the crest feathers expressing feelings? Maybe not, but those top feathers sure seem to convey a crested bird’s state of mind.

I’ve seen plenty of examples outside my window.

A Pileated Woodpecker's crest feathers stand up straight. His mate's crest feathers are smooth and flat.
A male Pileated Woodpecker ends his brooding shift as his mate arrives to take her turn. Their crests reveal which bird is more excited.

I first noticed crest feathers communicating a bird’s mood when I watched juvenile Pileated Woodpeckers in their nest. As their parents arrived, the hungry kids would raise their crests to frenzied heights, in perfect harmony with their raspy, yapping chorus.

In the days approaching the fledge, the parents fed less often. Their hungry kids sat sentry at the nest entrance, watching and listening hopefully for their parents. I would hear a twig rustle or a branch swish, and so did the youngsters, whose eyes brightened as they raised their crests, anticipating a meal. If that sound proved to be nothing but a forest breeze, the nestlings were literally crestfallen. Their top feathers fell slowly, synchronized to the kids’ decelerating verbal tempo.

Here in Michigan, other birds whose top feathers talk include the blue jay, tufted titmouse, wood duck, and cardinal.

Enjoy this short video that captures some of those birds’ expressive crests.

The young woodpecker emoting through his crest is also featured in Episode 7 of my 2015 story about the Pileated Woodpeckers I dubbed Lucy and Ricky.

Oh, dear.  Did I just say emoting?

4 thoughts on “Feathers and Feelings”

    1. Thank you, Patrick. I never noticed crest communication either, until I was filming the woodpeckers up close. It became crystal clear to me that their feathers truly reflected their state of excitement or agitation. On that point, ornithologists do agree with me. Emotions–not!

  1. Feelings? Of course they do. Where do you think the phrase ‘don’t get your feathers ruffled’ comes from? Agree with you Carol!

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