Whoever created angry birds must have had his eye on woodpeckers. I was watching them today. There were probably a dozen birds, many of them Goldfinches and the rest Juncos or Nuthatches and the odd Chickadee when one of the big Red-Bellied Woodpeckers cruised to halt in the flat feeder.
Every other bird jumped off the feeder and flew into the trees. They weren’t messing with a woodpecker. Those birds are wacko.
You can see it in their faces. Even on the little Down Woodpeckers, they all seem to be scowling. Definitely angry birds and even the little ones have longer than average sharp beaks and thicker than normal skulls. And they have an attitude: “Beat it or I’ll peck those eyes right out of your head.”
“Yes sir,” say all the other birds. They aren’t messing with those crazy woodpeckers. Just look at their faces. They are, apparently, in a permanently bad mood.
And of course, this is why the birds are so miffed. I’m a little miffed myself!
Our world is still buried in snow but somehow, Garry got out on the deck and shoveled his way to the feeder. Which was good because one of our squirrels had just emptied it.
That squirrel stares me down through the windows. I KNOW he can see me but he seems to know that as long as I’m in the house, I’m no danger, so he just eats and eats and eats. I don’t mind his eating, but it would be nice if he left a little for the birds.
So after Garry put fresh food out, the birds descended in force!
So, how come the Downy Woodpeckers looks so much like a Hairy Woodpecker it’s really hard to tell them apart? The answer is more interesting than you might expect. I found this Audubon article and added some of my own pictures to it.
I loved the explanation that woodpeckers are crazy and other birds are afraid of them. Apparently, to use their beaks as hammers they have thicker skulls and that long strong beak is every bit as dangerous as it looks.
Also, all this time, I thought all that bumping the birds do to each other while on the feeders was playful, but it’s not. It’s birdy bullying. Who knew?
A feeder-based study found Downys are bullies—and it might explain their copycat looks.
By Nell Durfee
February 26, 2018
In the 1860s, the great biologist Alfred Russel Wallace had a radical idea. He proposed that distant species might evolve to look alike to rise in the social-dominance ranks. More than a century later, scientists discovered that Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers are one of the best case studies for that theory. The two species, it seems, aren’t all that related—and yet they appear almost identical.
A few years later, experts suggested that Downys had adopted Hairy-like feathers to escape aggression from their larger cousins. But a new study, published this month in Animal Behaviour, counters that reasoning.
After analyzing behavioral observations from bird feeders across the country, Cornell Lab of Ornithology scientists are introducing a new dimension to the discussion. They say that rather than fooling Hairys directly, Downys are using their doppelgänger good looks to pass as bigger birds and scare off non-woodpecker rivals.
To figure out who was bullying who, the team homed in on woodpecker interactions, as reported by Project FeederWatch volunteers. Any time one species forced another to fly off a feeder, it was counted as a sign of dominance. Researchers found that out of 56 interactions, Hairys displaced Downys 96 percent of the time. What’s more, by comparing those results to encounters between other like species, the researchers were able to confirm that Hairys were particularly aggressive toward Downys in tight conditions.
“What we found was that Hairy Woodpeckers target Downys much more than you would expect,” says Gavin Leighton, an ecologist at Cornell and lead author on the paper. “In fact, Hairys are one of the few species in the dataset that actually target another species more than its own for aggression. So, it doesn’t seem like the case that Downy Woodpeckers are tricking Hairy Woodpeckers in any meaningful way.”
At the same time, despite weighing less than half than Hairys (on average), Downys were surprisingly successful at “beating” species of similar or larger size, including House Sparrows, Eastern Bluebirds, White-Crowned Sparrows, and Northern Cardinals. This, the authors note, shows that birds also mix up Downys and Hairys.
“Woodpeckers tend to be more dominant than other species, just because they’re crazy,” says Eliot Miller, a Cornell researcher who also worked on the study. Hairys are especially feared for their prickly demeanors and spike-like beaks, so Downys can only stand to benefit from sharing their look.
A good size comparison between a Hairy (left) and Downy Woodpecker (right), snapped by a FeederWatch participant. Photo: Gary Mueller
But for Richard Prum, the Yale University ornithologist who put forth the older mimicry idea, the relationship isn’t so clear-cut. Prum still thinks Downys are trying to avoid being attacked by Hairys. At close range, Hairys might recognize Downys and hassle them more often—yet in the woods, the two species hardly come face to face.
Which means looking solely at feeder interactions could skew the results (a caveat the Cornell team mentions, too). “We don’t have any detail about whether the Hairy is deceived about the identity of a Downy at 50 yards,” Prum explains in an email.
(Marilyn’sNote: I seem to get mostly — but not entirely — Hairy Woodpeckers.)
Prum also points out that there are a number of cases where birds have evolved to look similar: Toucans and Kiskadees are just two examples. Wallace himself had examined “social mimicry” between friarbirds and Orioles. The explanations in the latest study “certainly can’t explain avian mimicry generally,” Prum writes.
Feeder bias or not, Leighton says the scientific community is eager for a better explanation for Downy mimicry. He and his team are moving to take their experiment beyond feeders by creating an enormous enclosure to observe more realistic interactions between the two woodpeckers, and partnering with eBird to collect data from a wider range of observers. Then, maybe, at last, we’ll find a satisfying answer to this evolutionary riddle.
Audubon has a huge selection of really good articles about birds, not to mention the best bird photography I’ve ever seen. I encourage you to visit them. Fascinating stuff!
The birds haven’t been very active today. It’s cold, so they fly in, grab a bite, and fly back to wherever they make their home. My son came over to refill their feeders because they ate a lot yesterday.
The big birds were out, especially the woodpeckers.
They are hefty eaters. It takes them a while to settle down, but once they get a good grip on the feeder, they just keep eating until they are finished. The rest of the birds mostly wait. Not all, but most.
I had a pair — boy and girl — of Downy or Hairy Woodpeckers. I think they were Downy Woodpeckers, but both kinds of woodpecker look very much alike.
It’s the beak length that’s the main difference and since they usually have it stuck inside the feeder, it’s not easy to figure out which is which. Whatever they are, they are probably a mated pair.
I took a lot of pictures of these two because it was the first time I’ve had both on the feeder at the same time. I found it kind of thrilling.
This proves I don’t have a very exciting life. I get really excited by birds and any other kind of wildlife.
I am not particularly great at identifying birds, especially since from watching them, I’m come to realize that books and websites notwithstanding they don’t necessarily look exactly like the picture on the computer or the book.
The black and white “laddering” may be complete, or askew, or have a white stripe where none of them has a white stripe. The head may have a BIG red patch, a little red patch, no red at all. A black back. A big white stripe down the back or a big black stripe down the back. Or a ladder-back.
They are all woodpeckers (or flickers, who really are woodpeckers by another name). These are all my woodpeckers. Anyone who cares to jump into the fray is free to tell me what they think this bird is.
Downy woodpecker – pointy!
The only thing we need to agree on is that they are woodpeckers of some kind. Some of bigger and some are smaller. A big downy and a small hairy woodpecker are essentially identical and the flickers just ruin your concentration. Somewhere in the woods is a big Pileated Woodpecker, but I don’t think he will ever get close enough for me to get a clear picture of him. He is not “human house” friendly and it’s possible he won’t eat seeds.
I don’t have suet because the squirrels would get it before the birds anyway AND I have no place to hang a third feeder. My backyard, once the snow falls, is impenetrable. I can get to the deck usually unless we’ve gotten a 2-foot blizzard.
Following last night’s snow — I think we might have gotten three inches, all told, it has begun to rain and if we don’t get that freeze tonight, the snow should magic itself away in a day or two. Meanwhile, I’m not going any further than the coffee machine in the kitchen — and the fall of yesterday is really hurting today.
I’m one of those funny people who feel fine the day of the accident and really hurts 24-hours later. I and my heating pad have had (ahem!) a warm relationship this morning.
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