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.

Hummingbird Update: 6.2.10

2 hummingbirds, beak to tail, in nest. One on left hatched May 24, one on right, May 26, 2010

Note: This is the third installment of the hummingbird nest in my fig tree. See the previous post.

Last night, around twilight, I heard a lot of bird chatter outside the office window. There is a hummingbird feeder and a ground-level birdbath, and bird-scolding is not unusual. This, however, was frantic. There was nothing specific, though, so I brushed it off.

As night fell, I checked on the mother hummingbird sitting on the nest in the fig tree. The nest was empty. Well, she could be late. Missed the bus. Out getting a tattoo. Something. But I know that hummingbirds don’t fly and don’t feed at night. It was almost dark, and I was concerned. I turned on the outside light. I checked again at 8 p.m, at 9 p.m., and at 10 p.m. I researched some wildlife rehabilitators, just in case.

the earlier ruckus might have been about a hummingbird attack. Maybe by a larger bird–we have grackles and crows. Maybe a cat caught the hummingbird unawares. I just didn’t know. All I knew was that the nest stayed empty. The nest stayed empty at 5 a.m. this morning, and at 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. The hummingbird was often gone early in the morning, but not for this long. I began to call the list of rehabbers, but none of the phones worked, or they had moved. The internet is not always an up-to-date source. A dozen more calls got me within one call of a rehabber.

Before my first coaching client called, I took an eye dropper, filled it with room-temperature hummingbird food, climbed on a step-stool and fed the chicks. The eye dropper was too big, but I managed to get a drop down each beak. In between clients, I

On the way to rehab.

repeated the feeding and found a rehabber at Fallen Feathers. Jody Kieran runs the business. She’s federally- and state licensed and has rescued 1,000 birds in her life. “Cut the branch and bring them in,” she said. My eyes filled. What if the mother was still out there? And, the answer was, of course, what if she was not? The chicks had now been without gurgle (a mother’s regurgitated food) for 14 hours. They wouldn’t last much longer. They were progressing nicely, and it would be awful to let them die in the nest. I cut the branch, which allowed them to stay in their own nest.

Jody is a down-to-earth, practical rehabber. She doesn’t have enough volunteers, and there is no state or federal funding provided for rehabbers. And still, on her own, and with her own money, Jody feeds, houses, cleans, socializes, and adapts birds to their environment. Within two minutes of my walking into the door, she had the branch on the counter, produced a feeding syringe, and with the expertise of the mother, fed both birds.

At the moment, Jody has two baby Great Horned Owls, a flock of quail, a small hawk, a leucistic (white, not albino) hummingbird, a dove, a noisy bunch of  tropical birds that have been abandoned, several other birds,  and more than a few hummingbirds, some close to being moved to the gazebo so they will learn to eat flower nectar and insects.

I’m happy I found Jody. She could use some help–volunteers to do feeding and cleaning and cash to keep the place running. If you live in the Northwest Valley (West of Phoenix, AZ), and want to help a wildlife rehabilitator do a great job, contact her through her website,

Phoenix’s Winter in Summer

If you live in a place where winter lasts from October to April, you know the symptoms of deep winter–that period from mid-January to mid-March. You spend more time indoors, eyeing the thermostat. Special clothing keeps you warm, you eat heartier meals, play more board games.

Bird feeder with ant moat.

Bird feeder with ant moat.

In winter, you carry a few things in the car in case you get stuck–maybe it’s kitty litter that will add traction if you slide into a snow bank. You may carry flares and one of those blankets that help you retain heat.

Well, here in the Valley of the Sun, which sound much nicer than “Sonoran Desert Floor” we take protective action, too. Except ours is in July and August, all the way into September.

We bring plants in for the summer. Those tropicals hate 115-degree heat and full sun. So in they come. We put out extra bird feeders and bird baths so the birds don’t die. My hummingbird feeders have ant moats around the top. Ant moats keep the ants from marching hundreds of yards up the tree (or feeder pole), down to the feeder and then into the feeder to reach the sugar water. Before ant moats I had to clean the feeders daily, to get the ants out of the drinking spouts. After moats, I have to refill the moats two and three times a day because the finches who drink sugar water will also drink the moat empty.

Birds do die from excessive heat here, I’ve seen two Mexican doves do exactly that,  particularly if the highs stay above 110 every day and the lows don’t go below 90. Which is much of July and August.

Some animals even go through aestivation–a sort of summer hibernation. They don’t gear up for it, but they do go into a stage of inaction during the hottest part of the day. Aestivation is more for amphibians and insects whose ponds dry up, but I’ve seen birds stay in the shade without moving for hours at a time.

Some trees drop their leaves in July and August, and there are almost no flowers on trees on

Ocotillo without leaves.

Ocotillo without leaves.

cacti, either. Octotillo, a thorn bush, will get leaves back quickly if it rains, but for the rest of the summer, it’s a bare thorn tree.

You can’t plant a vegetable garden in summer because the heat simply wilts veggies, no matter how much you water them.

You carry water in the car, and a hat and long-sleeved shirt in case you have to abandon the car for some reason. Visitors who go hiking, thinking themselves fine athletes, often have to be rescued because of heat stroke. Last week, two hikers died from over-exposure to the sun.

You can’t walk barefoot; even flip-flops get very hot if the walk from the car to the mall is more than a short sprint.

There are places that close in July and August–petting zoos, balloon rides, desert exploration hikes won’t risk their clients’ lives.

So we stay indoors, glad for pools (you wear a hat and sunglasses in the pool) and board games. In September, the night time temperature begin to drop, although we generally have triple-digit days till early October.

Which is when life becomes the envy of the rest of the nation again.

–Quinn McDonald is a writer, life- and creativity coach. She teaches communication skills, including writing and giving presentations as well as how to make and use an art journal, even if you can’t draw.

Surprises in the Desert

You can tell I’ve been hiking in the Sonoran desert with a camera. But my camera failed me two weeks before I left; so I’m armed only with the iPhone camera. We drove South to Tucson from Phoenix. Passed some surprises–a large orchard. In the desert? Yes. I’m guessing they are almond trees, but I’m not positive.

And then a real surprise. On the desert floor, maybe 25 miles out of Phoenix, a number of descansos, grouped together. Descansos are roadside grave markers. These were about 100 feet off the road, but there were at least a dozen, followed shortly by others. Who were these people who died in the desert, and whose graves are marked and tended? Someone remembers and loves them, someone paints the crosses on their graves and paints them white.

At the Sonoran Desert Museum there were specimens of plant and animal life–all in their natural habitat. Snakes and spiders, millipedes and lizards were in viewable habitats, but much of the desert is outside, in the desert, in a wild habitat.mountain view

The views alone were breath-taking, but I was surprised to see animals, including white-tailed deer.

white tailed deer

There are hummingbirds in the desert, too. (See him in the center of the picture, below,sitting on a white cup feeder.) Like monarch butterflies, they migrate. Monarchs don’t migrate through Arizona, but they do wander in occasionally, to the higher and damper areas.

–All images and text copyright by Quinn McDonald, 2007 All rights reserved. Quinn McDonald is a writer and certified creativity coach. See her work at