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Red-headed Woodpecker Bully

Dear Bird Folks,

Please find the enclosed newspaper article that a friend of mine sent me from the Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Gazette. The story is about a woodpecker that completely took over the feeders in someone’s yard. It won’t let any other birds eat. My question is: Do all species of birds have bullies like this or does it only happen with certain birds?

– Betsy, Harwich, MA


Great story, Betsy,

I really enjoyed the story you sent me. I get a lot of clippings in the mail but too often they are about something awful that is happening in the bird world. There always seems to be a story about some bird being pushed out of its habitat by development or SUVs. Recently there was that story about some idiot golfer who killed a hawk because he didn’t like the sound the bird was making. But the story you sent was great at every level. Just in case there are a few people out there who don’t get the Cedar Rapids Gazette, I’ll fill you in on what Betsy is referring to.

The headline of the story is “Bruiser Slams His Way To The Top Of The Pecking Order.” Ah, yes, the pecking order. Newspaper editors love bird stories because they get to use all those silly expressions that they think are so clever. They can’t help themselves. Bruiser, in this particular story, is a Red-headed Woodpecker. According to the story, Bruiser is “terrorizing” a yard that belongs to the Meekers. Yes, you read that right; the peoples’ name is Meeker. I don’t mean to be disrespectful to a family that I’ve never even met, but I had to laugh at the thought of bird terrorizing a yard owned by the Meekers. Okay, fine. Maybe it’s just me. Let’s move on.

Bruiser was not attacking the Meekers personally, but he was attacking every bird that came to into their yard. Cardinals, doves, juncos, sparrows, starlings, and even jays got the old heave-ho the second Bruiser locked on to them. And we are not talking about a little birdie bluff here. According to the story, Bruiser would “body-slam” any bird that came within range. And if the body-slam didn’t get the job done, Bruiser would then do what woodpeckers do best: He would start pecking any bird that foolishly tried to stand its ground. Soon, Bruiser was the only bird in the entire yard.

So, what’s the deal with Bruiser? Is he nuts? Is he some kind of flying sociopath? Or, did he learn this aggressive behavior from watching too many violent movies on TV or worse, watching golf? The answer is none of the above. Bruiser is just being a Red-headed Woodpecker. While most birds move from one food source to another, Red-headed Woodpeckers are more like humans. Each day they go shopping (foraging) for food. When they find food, they carry it back to their home (territory) and store it in the pantry (tree stump). Then, like a dog with a bone, the fiery redhead does whatever it takes to prevent another bird from getting near its food.

Most birds defend a breeding territory of one size or another, but the Red-headed Woodpecker also has a winter territory. Each day it sets out looking for any of its favorite foods, which include: seeds, acorns, fruit, beetles, and cicadas. If it finds more food than it can eat in one sitting the bird packs a doggy bag and hauls the extra grub (or grubs) back to its territory and hides it for later. The redhead will stuff extra acorns into the holes of area trees, hide nuts under pieces of bark, and even jam live grasshoppers into shallow crevices so the bird can have fresh meat if it gets in the mood for a midwinter barbecue.

Bruiser might seem to us like he is a bully, but he is merely trying to keep other birds away from his stash. Red-headed Woodpeckers are not alone in this dominating behavior. Other birds do it, too. The Northern Mockingbird will take a whack at any bird that gets too near its bush of berries, and I think we’ve all seen those tiny hummingbirds fighting over a feeder. Recently, I’ve had several reports of American Robins taking control of bird feeders. Robins, which typically don’t eat from our feeders, will sometimes guard one in late winter when their natural food supplies run low. When that happens I get calls from upset customers who want me to “do something” to stop the robin from keeping away the “good birds.” I tell them that it’s not our job to be the “bird police.” Of course, that almost never satisfies anyboody.

This leads me to my favorite part of the story you sent me, Betsy. At first the Meekers were annoyed with Bruiser’s actions, but soon they came to appreciate their crazy woodpecker and the effort he was making to protect his food. Good for the Meekers! Birds have evolved the behaviors necessary for their survival and it’s not up to us to be the bird police. They will work it out. They always have. The only thing they need from us is a bit of food, a place to live and of course, protection from that idiot golfer.