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A Woodpecker That Eats Bats

Dear Bird Folks,

I was at my favorite pond this morning, trying to get some shots (photographic shots) of Wood Ducks, when I heard something above my head. It was a Red-bellied Woodpecker hammering on a branch. I didn’t pay much attention until I realized that the bird was actually beating another creature against the branch. The creature being beaten was a bat! I managed to get off one shot (see attached) before the bird flew away…with the bat. Do woodpeckers usually eat bats?

– Jeff, Pleasantville, NY


Leave it to you, Jeff,

Most readers don’t know it but over the years, Jeff has sent us dozens of photos and each photo seems to be more dramatic than the next. Once he sent a picture of a Peregrine Falcon that had just caught a woodcock. Another photo was of a Red-tailed Hawk, flying across a field clutching a meadow vole. And in one amazing photo, Jeff managed to capture the image of a flicker that was flying out of its nest cavity while (get this) carrying one of its eggs…in its beak! Really. Apparently, the flicker wanted to relocate the family and Jeff caught the whole thing on film. Now Jeff has another amazing photo. This time it’s a Red-bellied Woodpecker eating a bat. Jeff was surprised to discover that woodpeckers ate bats, and frankly so was I…and in all likelihood, so was the bat.

One of my favorite birds is the Blue Jay, but not everyone agrees with me. (No, I haven’t changed the subject. I’m just taking my usual long way around to make a point.) Many people think Blue Jays are “mean birds” because they will (rarely) raid other birds’ nests. Ironically, owls are hugely popular. Yet, owls are vicious predators and eat far more birds than jays ever thought of doing. Meanwhile, public opinion of woodpeckers tends to be neutral (except when a woodpecker is drilling into your house). After all, we think woodpeckers only eat insects, ants, larva, a few seeds…and the occasional house. Well, think again. As Jeff found out, woodpeckers, namely Red-bellied Woodpeckers, have a taste for creatures higher up the food chain. It seems red (bellies) could be the new blue (jays).

While many birds have declined in our area (bobwhites, meadowlarks, towhees), the Red-bellied Woodpecker is thriving. In the 1970s only one or two pairs bred in Massachusetts. Today they are nearly ubiquitous throughout the state. Why the increase? The reforestation of once cleared land, which has been a detriment to bobwhites and meadowlarks, has been a boon to woodpeckers. Plus, red-bellies aren’t fussy about what they eat. They’ll make a meal out of just about anything, including seeds, acorns and poison ivy berries. (See what I mean about not being fussy?) On the carnivorous side, their diet consists of ants, caterpillars and beetles. But unlike most other woodpeckers, which tend to stick with the usual woodpecker-ish food items, red-bellies will sometimes take things to a whole new level. In addition to the typical fare, they will also eat lizards, tree frogs and fish, which they pluck out of shallow water. They’ve also been known to raid other birds’ nests and eat their babies, including the nestlings of other woodpeckers. Red really is the new blue.

But lizards, frogs and helpless baby birds are one thing. How can a clumsy woodpecker possibly have the flight skills needed to catch a bat, the world’s fastest flying mammal? (I know bats are also the world’s only flying mammals and thus are the “fastest” by default. I’m just trying to build a little drama here.) Even though I didn’t witness the actual capture, it doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to deduce that the bat wasn’t picked out of the air. The photo was taken in bright daylight and anyone who has seen a vampire movie knows that bats sleep during the day. My guess is the woodpecker was simply going about its daily routine, gleaning spiders and bugs off a tree trunk, when it stumbled upon the snoozing bat…and dinner was served.

The next question might be: How could a woodpecker possibly eat a bat? They don’t have the talons and the razor-sharp bills that raptors have. While this is true, woodpeckers still have formidable beaks. Remember, these are the same birds that can drill a hole into a tree or into your house. Bats of any kind, even Louisville Sluggers, don’t present a problem to woodpeckers. The woodpecker in this case, flew away with its victim, so we don’t know what happened next. But I recently read a similar story about woodpeckers vs. bats, and in this story we learned the final outcome. (FYI: The story was written by Steve Kroenke. If you don’t know Steve; don’t worry, I never heard of him either. He’s just the writer of a blog I found online.) According to Steve, he watched a Red-bellied Woodpecker reach into a bat colony and pluck out a fresh bat. The bird then proceeded to… (If you are squeamish or a vegetarian, you might want to skip this part.) Using its powerful bill the woodpecker… you know what, I think I’m going skip this part, also. Let’s just say the red on the belly of the Red-bellied Woodpecker wasn’t just from its red feathers. That’s all we need to know.

Thanks for all of the wonderful pictures you’ve sent us, Jeff. You have a great knack of finding nature in action. But would you mind occasionally tossing in a photo of a sunset or a rainbow? With so many shots of stuff being captured and eaten, I’m a little afraid to go outside.