Adapting to Change, Woodpecker Style

Change is hard. Most people don’t like it. It feels disruptive, awkward and different. We like our routines. Birds must like their routines, too, migrating every year, building nests, raising hatchlings. From time to time, I see something surprising, and today it was from a gila woodpecker.

The male is a noisy, colorful addition to the area; gila woodpeckers live in the

Male Gila Woodpecker. Photo from the Cornell lab, where you can read more about them. Link below.

Male Gila Woodpecker. Photo from the Cornell lab, where you can read more about them. Link below.

desert and don’t migrate. This one is the mate to the leucastic female who loves to drill holes in my oranges.  She doesn’t, however, eat the lemons. Just the beautiful oranges.

The male keeps wanting to drink from one of the hummingbird feeders, but the feisty and fierce birds dive bomb him and drive him away.

These are the same hummingbirds that boldly pull the tail of my long-tailed cat, harassing a beast that could easily swat them out of the air.  She now dives under the patio table when she hears  the warning clicks of the hummingbirds.

The gila woodpecker was at the feeder today, using his slender beak and long tongue to slurp the sugar-water mixture. The little buzzers were at the front feeder. After a while, I became curious.  Why they had deserted the post they  defended for weeks?

The woodpecker had deposited ants into the feeder. Hummingbirds don’t like the taste of the ants’ protective formic acid. They deserted the feeder. The woodpecker then ate sugar-water coated ants, leaving enough in the feeder to keep away th hummers.

Clever adaptation. Although the woodpecker is much larger than the hummingbirds, he had no desire to fight. So he poisoned the well–for others–creating a feeder he could empty over the course of the afternoon.

There’s a lot to be learned from this: small size doesn’t have to mean giving in to larger sizes; when the hummingbirds attacked the woodpecker, he left. Then again, finding a way to make the food you want distasteful to your enemy is a way to get it all for yourself. My job was to clean and  re-fill the feeder.

–Quinn McDonald is a naturalist with a sense of justice. But not enough to mess with hummingbirds.