Monday, November 4, 2013

Red-headed Woodpeckers provision granary, possible theft by Rusty Blackbird

Yesterday was a picture-perfect fall Ohio day, in full Technicolor. The oaks, hickories, maples and other trees painted the woodlots in colorful sylvan brushstrokes, and the cool temperatures reminded one of the impending winter. I was at the legendary Killdeer Plains Wildlife Area to participate in the Ohio Ornithological Society's annual meeting, much of which was a field trip. The 75 or so people who were there collectively saw over 80 species, including notables such as American White Pelican, American Pipit, and Northern Shrike.
After the board meeting concluded, I headed off to inspect some Red-headed Woodpecker granary trees, camera in hand. I wrote about another such granary tree at Killdeer Plains, RIGHT HERE. I am really more of a bird-watcher than a birder, should such fine distinctions be drawn. While I love to chase and see rarities, and have reported on many of those here over the years, I am equally if not more so content to just sit and watch birds that I have seen one thousand times before.
Some old oak skeletons, long dead but still standing tall. This pond and the attendant flooding that killed the trees has been in place for decades. Probably as soon as the trees began to die, the Red-headed Woodpeckers moved in and began to make granaries of them. A granary tree is a larder in which woodpeckers stash their food. Most famous of the granary-makers is the western Acorn Woodpecker, which creates neatly arrayed rows of perfect holes, into which it crams acorns. Here in the east, the Red-headed Woodpecker is operator of granaries in the zygodactyl-footed world. Theirs are not as neat and orderly as the Acorn Woodpecker's, but the red-heads do OK.

As soon as I got near the granaries, I heard the grumbling chuckles of the red-heads. I parked myself as close as possible to their pantries, and watched two juveniles go back and forth over my head. They plundered acorn after acorn from the nearby pin oaks, carefully flying each back to the big trees. This shot makes me pine for Canon's remarkable 400 mm f/2.8 lens. It's remarkably good at freezing birds in flight, but I don't have a spare $11,000 sitting around right now. One of these days...

The juvenile Red-headed Woodpeckers are looking a bit blotchy. It takes them months to develop the beautiful satiny crimson noggins of the adults, but this bird is getting there.

We would probably be incredulous to know just how many acorns are wedged in the cracks and fissures of this tree. The birds - and there are several provisioning these granary trees - work all day every day stuffing acorns, and they've been at it all fall. This hidden bounty will make for easy meals after winter sets in and the going gets rougher. Also, as the trees are in water, they are probably protected against mammalian theft at the paws of squirrels and other potential pilferers.

While I was watching the woodpeckers, a cloud of Rusty Blackbirds blew in and filled several trees with their squeaky creaking. I was of course quite pleased by this development, as these blackbirds nest far to the north of Ohio, and one does not get the pleasure of their company for much of the year.

A pair of blackbirds - male below, female above - stands sentinel atop a snag of one of the granaries. A number of the birds alit in these trees, much to the apparent displeasure of the woodpeckers, which attempted to shoo some of them off. The blackbirds weren't too intimidated, and there were a lot of them.

I was watching one of the male blackbirds when I noticed it was peeking and probing into cracks in the tree.

Ah! Before long, I saw it poke and tap at a crevice, which it did a number of times. It seemed to be cracking open and eating the woodpecker's hard-won acorns! Rusty Blackbirds eat a lot of vegetable matter, especially in fall and winter, and that can include acorns, at least the small ones such as are produced by pin oaks. It would be interesting to know how prevalent this sort of blackbird on woodpecker theft is. If that's actually what was going on, but it sure looked to be.

The red-heads best hope that Rusty Blackbirds don't evolve such thieving habits to a fine degree and become the jaegers of the blackbird world, plundering granaries far and wide.


Melanie said...

Mr. McCormac, We read your article in 11/3/13 Dispatch about the whtie hummingbird. How ironic that after returning from church, I looked out my kitchen window and to our surprise on our finch feeder was a white American Goldfinch!!! We were excited as we have never seen him before and he was here all day and again this morning. I have pics of him but not very close up pics. He was beautiful, just a tiny bit of yellow on his neck and black bars on his wing, but other than that he was all white and black eyes. We enjoy your columns and photos. We live in southeastern Pickaway County in the middle of 10 acres of woodlands. Needless to say we have lots of birds and other animals. Thanks for your articles! Jim and Melanie Willeford

Mary Huey said...

Thanks for sharing this interesting observation, Jim!

Bonnie said...

That picture of the woodpecker in flight is really nice. Wouldn't it be amazing to be able to shoot your whole body through the air like a rocket?!

Things I needed to look up while reading your post: "birder vs birdwatcher", "zygodactyl", and "Acorn woodpecker". Educational as always!

Anonymous said...

I just saw my first red-headed woodpecker last week. It was a juvenile, also.