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.

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17 thoughts on “Adapting to Change, Woodpecker Style

  1. Wow! It’s always a thrill to read or hear about something like that woodpecker. Did it think it or did it discover it by coincidence? If so, even then there was a particular thought process that took place in the woodpecker mind.

    I just watched a very interesting BBC documentary the other night. Hummingbirds do single-handedly defend the flowers in their territory. They have to since their energy consumption is so high that they have to have something to feed on practically all the time. In fact, they go into a kind of a hibernation during the night just to survive the time the flower bar is closed. But, interestingly, they are afraid of bees and wasps as they are too small to withstand their sting. So, bees and wasps aside, hummingbirds brake for no-one.

    But there is a group of hummingbirds that are really, really small, smallest being the bee hummingbird that is just as big as its name claims. They can feed freely from other hummingbirds’ flowers and no-one knows why. They can even take turns with their bigger cousins and feed from the same flower. These ‘microhummingbirds’ fly differently from others and their movements and body posture resembles insects, for example moths. So the theory goes that other hummingbirds don’t recognise them as birds but think they are insects and so leave them alone. Who knows. It’s a world of wonders out there.

    • The Bee Hummingbird is native to parts of Cuba. There is also a Hawk Moth that people mistake for a hummingbird, but it really is a moth. I’m a big fan of learning about protective coloring and how animals protect themselves from predation. Thanks for this great information!

  2. Wow, what a beautiful bird! I’ve never seen one of those before! Love your way with telling fabels! You should make a book about what we can learn from studying nature!

  3. I’ve seen this big vs small before. I have a toy poodle. She’s about four pounds and will not back away from the bigger dogs in our household. In fact if a bigger dog she doesn’t know gets in her way she won’t back down from it either. The interesting thing is that the bigger dogs will back down from her. I’m talking about four pounds against sixty. Not a small difference.
    Your woodpecker story amazes me though. That the woodpecker would somehow know that the hummingbirds would not eat the ant flavored sugar water and that he would work out this solution is incredible. And I had to laugh about your cat. Do they really “pull” the cat’s tail. I’d like to see that.
    Thanks for a fun and interesting story this morning.

    • Birds are much smarter than we think. I’ve seen crows invent games and play them. Birds also learn and act on it. Once ants swarm over a flower for the nectar, hummingbirds won’t go near it. I love your dog story. Small and mighty!

  4. Large size doesn’t seem to convey a particular advantage, biologically speaking. We have vague and approximate senses, so we notice size, but I think hummingbirds are almost always more than a match for a woodpecker.

    The key is the “s”, of course. But there’s another example of vague and approximate senses; it’s more common to think of “hummingbirds” as a set of individual units, I think because that’s our habit of perception. We do that less with, say, ants (which, collectively, are more than a match for hummingbirds). And even less — maybe not at all — with bacteria (which, collectively, are more than a match for ants).

    There might be a general principle at work here, but more likely it’s a bunch of itty-bitty principles. A bunch of small ideas are more than a match for a big idea, after all.

    • Hummingbirds rarely work as a group, unless it comes to chasing off “intruders” (often other hummingbirds) away from “their” feeders–and of course, it’s a fight for the definition of who owns the feeder.

      • I don’t think it matters; in this case a set of smaller individuals does “win” versus a single larger individual. I think this is another perceptual thing; if were to watch, say, trees over a period of centuries (speeded up to, say, 1 year = 1 second) we’d get a completely different conception of what was going on.

          • I was conflating two movies, one American (Life After People) and one Canadian (Aftermath: Population Zero) that both use New York as the beginning set. The premise is “what would happen if there were no humans to alter the earth anymore?” It’s not apocalyptic, just a look at what would happen with plants, structures, and, as I remember it, Twinkies, if humans were out of the equation. Central Park gradually takes over Times Square, buildings erode rather faster than I imagined, but a Twinkie, left in its wrapper on a shelf, survives the collapse of the shelf.Confirming my idea that Twinkies have a half life, not a shelf life.

          • Weird trivia about Twinkies: they were only manufactured once, in 1963. A great many were produced, and they’re still being distributed out of the original warehouse.

          • Seriously, it’s an urban legend?!? But I made it up! (cue spooky music)

            You realize, of course, that this means we are actually living in Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum (a novel I have read)

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