Two downy woodpeckers put on a rousing display in our yard in late April. I thought I was watching courtship behavior, a male and a female interacting. Doing research to confirm that, I found that what I witnessed was a dispute over mating territory, perhaps females fighting over a male.

The photos show what appear to be two females. Mature males have a bright red nape, not visible on either of these birds.

The action was swift and nonstop. It involved flights between trees, and around and within trees. The birds perched now and again, always close together, sometimes almost touching, always facing each other. This was when threat displays were made.

The stiff pointing position that the birds held when perched is an antagonistic display. The spread wings and tail are similar, meant to make the bird appear bigger, to impress and frighten the challenger.

The purpose of the chase is just what it suggests. I watched the birds for about 15 minutes. If there was a winner, that was not obvious. I also was uncertain if one of the birds always was the aggressor, or if each was in that mode. They looked exactly alike, and the quick, twisting flight made it impossible to focus on a single bird.

Actual courtship between the successful female and her chosen mate would involve butterfly-like fluttering, a slow aerial dance between the pair.


Lifelong birder Jim Williams can be reached at Join his conversation about birds at