For the Birds Radio Program: Hairy Woodpecker

Original Air Date: Jan. 11, 1988

Laura received an interesting letter from Helen Nordman about Hairy Woodpeckers.

Duration: 3′31″


(Recording of a Hairy Woodpecker)

A few weeks ago, I heard from a listener in Mountain Iron, Minnesota. Helen Nordman wrote to tell me about some strange behavior she noted in a couple of Hairy Woodpeckers late one afternoon. They were sitting in a jack pine facing each other about 8 inches apart, stretching their necks and heads skyward. At times they moved their bodies back and forth sideways in a jerky motion. Sometimes they sat still, staring at each other. Toward the end of the performance, one of the hairies moved to the underside of a thick bough, hanging almost monkey-like while it continued to stare at the other one, who was sitting vertically on another bough 18 inches above. Since this odd spectacle took place on November 10, it didn’t seem likely to be mating behavior, but what could this odd performance have meant?

It’s impossible to know exactly what goes on in the mind of a bird–for all we know, Hairy Woodpeckers may have figured out all about relativity long before Einstein. But one thing we know for sure is that Hairy Woodpeckers usually maintain a winter territory and often shun others of their kind during this harsh season, when it’s hard enough to find food to support a single one. They do often form uneasy truces at feeding stations, but they probably size each other up first– to be sure it wouldn’t be just as easy to drive off the competitor. It sounds to me like these Hairies were going through this kind of a testing ritual. They may have been trying to see which of them would be top dog at the suet. Or, possibly, one of them had been evicted from its roosting cavity by a starling or squirrel and needed to find new quarters in a hurry, especially because night was closing in. I’d be interested to know if a woodpecker hole was present in that jack pine. Whether it was an issue of food or shelter, birds avoid a lot of injuries in confrontations by displaying rather than out-and-out fighting.

Mrs. Nordman was most intrigued with the stretching of the birds’ necks and heads skyward–it gave the birds a very snake- like appearance, reminding her that birds evolved from reptiles.

Observations like this play a very important role in ornithology. Many of the most important studies about birds, from early times through the present, have been conducted by amateurs. Arthur Cleveland Bent, a businessman, wrote a series of the most important life histories of birds ever compiled– the first volume, published in 1937, is still in print and heavily used today. Minnesota’s own Bob Janssen, author of Birds in Minnesota and editor of the state’s quarterly bird journal, The Loon, isn’t a professional ornithologist, either. The American Ornithologists’ Union, although a scientific organization, encourages amateurs to join, and membership rolls of state organizations, like the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology and the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union, are mostly amateurs. Considering how very much is known about birds, it’s important to recognize that far more is still unknown. Observations like Helen Nordman’s add to the body of information that ornithologists need before they can fully understand the lives of birds.

(Recording of a Hairy Woodpecker)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”