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Small Victory

Triumph of a Downy Woodpecker

The downy woodpecker is tiny as woodpeckers go. About the size of a sparrow. But it's not a pushover.

Downy WoodpeckerI love to watch the trim little downy woodpecker working at the suet that I offer in a mesh box. I know the fat gives the downy the calories it needs to get through a harsh Iowa winter night.

Starlings love suet too. They mob the suet feeders. Looking out my living room window, I see a pulsating knot of black feathers swinging from the eaves, as a dozen starlings struggle over the suet. The starlings quarrel and shriek. All the other birds have vacated the feeding area.

StarlingThe downy woodpecker clings to the trunk of a tree at a safe distance. Sometimes the starlings squabble and chase each other out of the yard. Then the woodpecker comes back to the suet.

Clinging to the hanging feeder, the downy woodpecker probes at the fat with its sharp little beak. If you watch through binoculars, you may see its tongue, an impossibly long red thread, flick out and lash around the suet, like a hair-thin piece of cooked spaghetti. There are tiny barbs on the end of the tongue that catch at the suet and bring bits of it into the bird's mouth.

Downy and HairyAt my house, the wire-cage suet feeder swings by a thin chain from a tree branch. Once in a while, as the downy woodpecker eats there, a giant version of himself sidles into my view from the other side of the trunk. It's a male hairy woodpecker. It's marked exactly like the downy, with black and white wings and a long white stripe down its back, but it wields a long sharp beak.

Downy WoodpeckerThe hairy woodpecker doesn't chase his smaller relative away from the suet, as far as I can tell, but the downy flies to the trunk of a tree and watches the hairy woodpecker gorge himself. I don't begrudge the hairy his turn at the suet. Hairy woodpeckers belong in the landscape too, and in fact they are less common than the downies. But I do wish the downy could eat his fill.

Although woodpeckers usually come into our yard for suet, sometimes they eat seeds, too. One day I found the downy woodpecker all alone at the platform feeder where I put out sunflower seeds. Good, I thought, he's getting to eat in peace.

House SparrowBut not for long. A house sparrow flew up to the feeder and jostled the woodpecker. Just ran right into him, like a rude shopper at a department store sale, and knocked him aside.

At last the downy had a competitor his own size. He lunged at the sparrow, and the sparrow flew away. The little black-and-white woodpecker gulped down another seed.

But downy woodpeckers are few and house sparrows many. In a moment three sparrows fluttered onto the feeder and challenged the woodpecker. He rushed at them in fierce succession and drove them off. He managed to grab two more seeds before half a dozen sparrows swarmed the feeder. For a few moments, the little woodpecker charged each comer, feinting as if his miniature beak were a sword, defending his hoard of seeds.

I did not think the woodpecker would prevail, but suddenly the sparrows gave way, flying down to other seeds scattered on the ground. The downy woodpecker struck a pose on the feeder for a long moment, his red patch shining from the back of his head. Unhurriedly, he selected a seed and turned it in his beak. Then he flew up to the top of the tree, where he pecked the sunflower shell open and ate the seed.

I'll bet it tasted sweet.

-- Diane Cooledge Porter

Diane Porter

Copyright 2007 by Diane Porter.

Photos copyright Michael and Diane Porter 1999-2007. (Diane and Michael took the photos on this page near their home in Iowa.)



Feeders for woodpeckers

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