Monday, June 15, 2009

Babes in the Woods, Part 1

The population of downy woodpeckers visiting our feeders just about tripled this week. Our backyard is alive with these lovely little black and white birds!

During the fall and winter, more “downies” than I can count visit our suet feeders every day. They move around constantly, making it challenging to get an accurate count. One day I was able to count at least eight individuals in the tree where we hang our suet feeders. While two worked at the suet, at least six more waited on nearby branches for a chance to get at the high-calorie suet. (And that wasn’t even counting even more downies that I could see and hear at the edges of the yard, plus the many other birds that visit our suet and other feeders regularly.)

In the spring, as the adult downies pair off and become more territorial, then get busy with mating and nest-building, they tend to visit less often and in smaller groups, coming to the feeders singly or in pairs. Even when we do not fill the suet feeders for several days (as happened recently, in our successful effort to get rid of a family of greedy starlings), the downies come to the suet tree every day. When there is no suet, they visit the seed feeders, peck at some orange halves, and even try the hummingbird feeder.

As May blossoms into June, the adult downies start looking ragged and haggard, a sure sign that they are exhausting themselves feeding nestlings. Their suet-pecking technique is different now than during the cold months. In the winter, they peck off small pieces and eat it on the spot. During breeding season, they do eat some while on the feeder, but more often they chisel off larger chunks and carry them back to the nest for the chicks.

When the nestlings fledge (leave the nest), the parents teach them how and where to forage for food, including at our suet feeders. The family moves around together in a little flock. Each pair will typically have 3-8 chicks; taking chick mortality and predation into account, it’s not unusual to see an adult pair with 4-6 young ones in tow. This week they all came to the suet together.

Unlike some other birds which are colored very differently than their parents, young downies have a black-and-white pattern similar to their parents' plumage, though the red markings on the males’ heads will not come in until later. Despite the similar markings, it’s easy to tell the young ones from the adults: the fledglings are pristine, with fresh plumage and crisp black and white feathers. Their poor parents, looking half-dead after weeks of hard work and self-deprivation, are thin and worn, and their ragged feathers are a little yellowish (probably stained by tree sap, as these birds nest in tree cavities, and even half-dead trees have a little life in them – see my essay on that topic HERE).

At first the young ones perch awkwardly on branches near the suet, while the parents break off bits to feed to them. Within a few days, though, the fledglings are at the suet, feeding independently. It’s fun to watch them explore the “suet tree,” seeming to be curious and excited over a little bump in the trunk, or flaking off a bit of bark in hopes of finding something yummy crawling underneath, or chasing each other round and round the trunk. Sometimes one will come onto the deck, pecking at a fallen crumb of suet, watching the squirrels, or drinking from the rain puddles on the deck rail.

Now that the young are foraging on their own at least part of the time, the parents can take a bit of time to feed themselves and begin to recover somewhat from the stresses of the past few weeks. This morning, I spotted one of the parent birds clinging to our hummingbird feeder, taking a very long drink of sweet high-energy nectar. What a treat! It’s not unusual for woodpeckers to visit hummer feeders, and the downies can manage the hanging nectar feeder quite easily.

These lively little birds will continue to forage together for the rest of the summer. In the fall, they will generally disperse, but may form mixed flocks with chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, and other small winter birds. These little flocks of little birds are regular visitors at our feeders. And next March, it will start all over again.

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