A mother woodpecker was feeding her youngster at the bird feeder. I was watching from a window. The mother was on one side of the open feeder and her offspring was on the other. The youngster was as big as its mother. They faced each other, beak to beak.
They were red-bellied woodpeckers with zebra stripes down their backs. The mother had a small red patch on the nape of her neck and her youngster had a large brownish patch that covered the top of his head and the nape of his neck. Red-bellied woodpeckers have a long sharp beak, nearly an inch long, and mama pushed the bird feed deep into the youngster’s throat.
The big guy stood there sleepy-eyed and impassive, his mouth wide open. She kept poking the food into him. She seemed a trifle impatient and annoyed and her actions were jerky and emphatic. Perhaps she felt it was time the big oaf went out on his own and took care of himself.
A brown sparrow landed on the feeder next to the youngster. Then another sparrow landed on the other side of the feeder, next to the mother. The woodpeckers ignored them. Woodpeckers are no-nonsense birds. They don’t squabble with other birds. And they don’t quibble over food. They tend to their own affairs. And they are not timid and flighty.
When woodpeckers see me at the window, they don’t panic and fly away like other birds. The feeder hangs on a wire about thirty feet from the house, but the moment I appear at the window, most birds fly off. Blue jays and cardinals take off even when I’m at a window at the far end of the house.
The mother bird hesitated for a moment to catch her breath and to glance around. There was a tiny junco perched precariously on the wire that holds the feeder, waiting for a turn at the feeder. Little birds stay out of the way of big birds, especially when it comes to food. A small bird at the feeder will leave if a larger bird arrives.
Mama bird gave her son two or three more mouthfuls, then cleaned her beak on the side of the feeder and flew to a nearby tree. Junior remained on the feeder a moment longer, his mouth still open. Then he looked uncomfortably around, gave a little nervous chirp and flew to his mother, a little wobbly and with a wild flapping of wings.
The little junco, perched on the wire, flew immediately to the feeder, but the sparrows made threatening gestures and it flew back to the wire to wait some more. Mama woodpecker gave her fledgling a moment to catch his breath, then she flew off again, over the trees and out of sight, her youngster following desperately behind her.
Youth is a difficult time for all the species. I stand often at the window, and the more I watch birds and other wild creatures in the yard, the more convinced I am that instinct alone doesn’t explain their behavior.
Posted Feb. 8, 2011