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Mike Jacobs: Woodpeckers might not like each other

Downy woodpeckers range across North America, except for deserts and tundra.

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Illustration / Mike Jacobs

GRAND FORKS — Lately, I’ve been watching downy woodpeckers chase each other around. At first, I imagined this might be courtship behavior, but I was disabused of that notion by the the experts I consulted.

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Mike Jacobs.
Contributed / Tom Stromme

Downy woodpeckers do have a distinctive courtship display, but they undertake it on warm spring days, not in the dark and chilly depths of winter, so I have to imagine that the birds are playing. Of course, play could also be courtship.

The other possibility is the chases were acts of aggression, perhaps territorial defenses or possibly protecting a food source. That would be my feeder array.

There are six feeders where woodpeckers could take suet, their staple winter food, so any two woodpeckers could easily visit separate stations. This isn’t the case, however. Quite frequently, two downy woodpeckers use the same suet feeder.

They are male and female, I know. It’s easy to tell the sexes apart. Males have a red spot at the back of the head (often referred to as the “nape” in bird books). Females lack this mark.

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It may be that the birds have a zone that they protect that’s less than the size of a feeder, of course, and one may get too close to another.

Each sex chases the other, usually from the feeder to a tree branch nearby. One bird frequently sits on a branch while the other clings to the tree trunk. Usually, that’s the male.

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This happened because York the cat and I spent time this week studying redpolls.

The experts tell me that downy woodpeckers use different foraging strategies. An extensive study done in the 1960s found that males “characteristically forage on small diameter branches and stems of weeds, females on the larger branches and trunks of trees.” Males also forage both higher and lower in trees than the females, giving them access to small branches.

Some differences in the techniques of taking prey were noted, too. All of this amounts to marked dimorphism in woodpecker feeding habits.

This seems not to be the case with woodpeckers coming to the feeders however, but that only means there’s something to watch for when the birds come to feeders.

I’ve noticed one other difference. The females seem to be more tolerant of me than males. I’ve stood within a few inches of females taking suet from my feeders. The males always skedaddle before I get close.

You could imagine that this behavior may have something to do with the female’s role in laying and incubating eggs and protecting young. Among downies, however, sexes share both brooding the eggs and caring for the nestlings. “As with all known woodpecker species male broods young and roosts in the nest until young are near fledging.”

These quotes are from the American Ornithological Society’s monograph on the downy woodpecker.

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In “Woodpeckers of Eastern North America,” published in 1983, Lawrence Kilham reported that male downy woodpeckers are more faithful brooders than females. In one pair he observed, the male spent 80% of his time brooding. In another pair, the time was split 53% for the male and 47% for the female.

Kilham is famous among birders for his advice, which was, “Watch what you see.” That’s what led him to watch downy woodpeckers so closely.

His observations point to a possible explanation for the behavior of the downy woodpeckers I have been watching. “Members of pairs of downy do not always appear friendly to each other. One bird always leaves a stub before the other arrives, and it is rare to see the two at all close. I think this hostility, if such it is, is the result of males displacing females so often in winter. The male is dominant and finds it difficult to have another downy nearby.”

But he concedes, “Pairs of downies, however, may vary.”

Downy woodpeckers range across North America, except for deserts and tundra.

The hairy woodpecker is a closely related and very nearly identical species – except for size. Hairy woodpeckers are markedly larger than downies, large enough to dominate the feeder.

It’s impossible to be sure, since I can’t see all six feeders at the same time, but I think there are three pairs of downies visiting my feeder array but only one pair of hairy woodpeckers.

Jacobs is a retired publisher and editor of the Herald. Reach him at mjacobs@polarcomm.com.

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