Monday, January 26, 2009

Woodpecker Wars

One of the benefits of working in a home-based office is that I can watch the birds at our backyard feeders.

One of the disadvantages of working in a home-based office is that I can watch the birds at our backyard feeders. Why is this a disadvantage? Because too often, the goings-on out there are so interesting that I simply can’t tear myself away from the window to go to my office. Several days ago, I spent several hours watching the woodpecker wars outside my kitchen window. Here’s the story.

About ten days ago, a very lovely adult male Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker  started coming to our suet feeder. We’ve had juvenile Sapsuckers stop in for a day or two during fall migration, but this was the first time we’ve had an adult, and the first time that one has stayed this long. The bird showed up on a bitterly cold day, when, with temperatures in the single digits, birds need to eat pretty much continuously in order to survive. I’m sure that the prolonged cold snap drove this bird to the feeder, as Sapsuckers are generally rather shy birds.

A wealth of woodpeckers visits our suet each day during the winter —Downy Woodpeckers (up to 8 individuals), Hairy Woodpeckers (3-4), Red-Bellied Woodpeckers (3-4), and just this week, a boldly beautiful male Yellow-Shafted Northern Flicker. And other birds enjoy the suet's high-calorie nutrition, too: White-Breasted Nuthatches (2), Blue Jays (about a half-dozen), Tufted Titmice and Black-Capped Chickadees (several of each), and even the Dark-Eyed Juncos, seed eaters who every once in a while fly up to the suet and chip off little crumbs.

In the far-too-many hours that I’ve spent watching “our” woodpeckers, I’ve observed that they have sorted themselves into a pecking order, with the older male very assertive Red-Bellied Woodpecker at the top. Downies make way for Hairies, who make way for the Flicker, who makes way for the Red-Bellies. Twice, I’ve seen a Hairy approach the suet where a Downy was feeding, seize the Downy by the bill and shake him into a black-and-white blur, then throw him into the air! (The Downy flew away dizzy but unharmed.) But when the Red-Belly flies in, all the other woodpeckers scatter. They learn to wait on nearby branches for opportunities to feed, and they actually get along pretty well.

All this changed when the Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker arrived.

When the Sapsucker found the suet, it immediately became very territorial, defending its newly-found bounty against all comers. The Sapsucker would sit quietly just under the suet, not always feeding, but refusing to let any other bird near. It would raise its wings, fly at the newcomer, and leave its post to chase them up and down the tree trunk before returning to post guard again. (With its smart red-and-black-and-gold uniform and upright posture, the Sapsucker does look rather military!) Even the Red-Bellies and Blue Jays were helpless against it. Only the chickadees were allowed to sneak in to grab a crumb or two.The Sapsucker's defense created havoc among the usually cooperative woodpecker flock. Now, they tussled with each other, jostling for position to sneak in to the suet whenever the Sapsucker took off after a rival. Everyone was ruffled!

I watched these battles off and on for an entire morning, feeling more and more distressed that the other birds could not get to the suet, their accustomed food source. And it was about 10°F outside! Finally, I put out two more suet feeders, locating them at some distance away from the Sapsucker, so that all the birds could get something to eat! This worked out well for all the birds, and I was finally able to get to my office.

Why would the Sapsucker engage in this behavior, when the other woodpeckers were willing to take turns? Here’s why: During the warmer months, Sapsuckers feed by drilling holes in living trees, both to drink the sweet sap that flows forth (hence the name “Sapsucker”), and to feed on the insects that are attracted to the sap. (Did you know that Sapsuckers have fringed tongues, the better to lap up the sap?) The Sapsuckers defend their sap-and-insect bars very vigorously, so it seems natural enough that they would also defend “their” suet bar once they find it.

The woodpeckers are among the most interesting of all our feeder visitors.

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