Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Hide and Seek

I was at the living room window watching White-throated Sparrows (always hoping to spot another White-crowned!) when a flash of scarlet caught my eye. Our large, very handsome resident Red-bellied Woodpecker, with its scarlet crown and nape, swooped flamboyantly into the oak tree, a large chunk of suet in its bill. It appeared to be looking for something, hopping and scrambling here and there. Finally it pushed the piece of suet into a hole where a small branch had been broken off. The bird had been looking for a good place to stash a suet snack to enjoy later on a cold winter day.

Wait – no good. The bird was not satisfied with the hole; it removed the suet piece and flew to one tree after another another, trying and rejecting several places.

Next, the woodpecker flew to the top of the backyard fence, where he found a niche between the two cross-pieces of lumber that connect the corner post to the gate post. OK, in it goes… Wow, it went a long way down! Where is it?! He looked under the cross-beam where, sure enough, the suet chunk had fallen through. No problem…he grabbed it neatly and tried the other end of that section of fence, where a similar hole was found. In went the suet, and this time it did not fall through. Great!

Uh-oh… a nosy House Sparrow was watching, hopping closer and closer along the top of the fence. (Those pesky sparrows love suet – read about it HERE.) The grey-brown female sparrow, undaunted by the bigger woodpecker’s menacing wing-flashes and rasping calls, crept closer and closer.

The woodpecker removed the suet from the hole, hesitated, then returned to the no-good bottomless hole, keeping his back to the sparrow. He then pretended to stuff the suet in the hole, giving a persuasive performance as he jabbed his head and beak several times toward the hole, holding the suet in his bill the entire time. Then, without turning around, keeping his back to the sparrow, off he flew with the suet firmly in his grasp, to find a secure, more private hiding spot.

As soon as the woodpecker was gone, the sparrow dashed to the fake hidey-hole and spent several minutes trying to find the suet chunk that she was sure was in there.

A few minutes later, the woodpecker was back at the suet feeder, grabbing another chunk for his winter larder.

Did the woodpecker deliberately trick the sparrow into thinking he had left the suet there? Researchers report that eastern grey squirrels create fake caches where they pretend to hide food, and scrub jays, crows, and ravens (all members of the highly intelligent corvid group) have been observed in similar behaviors. So perhaps our woodpecker was, in fact, pretending to hide the suet. In any case, the sparrow certainly was fooled.

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