Our noisy neighbors: Woodpeckers
One day I was in our kitchen when I heard a terrible racket outside. I rushed out the door to discover that a neighbor’s cat had caught a woodpecker. When the cat saw me, it dropped the woodpecker and I quickly ran over and scooped it up. Shortly thereafter I was on my way to The Bird Rescue Center of Santa Rosa. It was the first of many, many visits there over the years. I was told that the bird was a male Acorn Woodpecker. They said I could call and see how the bird was doing. They also told me that if the bird recovered from his injuries, they would bring him back and release him at my house. I immediately thought that wasn’t a good idea, as many of my neighbors had outdoor cats.
As soon as I got home I wanted to find out everything that I could about Acorn Woodpeckers and started researching them. What I discovered is that they are amazing. One thing I learned is that Acorn Woodpeckers live in colonies, so my idea of releasing him in what I perceived to be a safer place, would almost certainly doom him. (I also have since learned that it is illegal to relocate wildlife, which is a very good thing, as being re-located usually results in death for the animal for a variety of reasons). I’m sure I drove the people at Bird Rescue crazy with my daily calls to check on his progress. After a few weeks at Bird Rescue, I finally got the call that the woodpecker was ready to come home. I might add that this was a very lucky bird, as it is a rare bird indeed that survives an encounter with a cat. A woman arrived with the woodpecker in a cardboard box, opened it on my front lawn, and within an instant he flew out and up in the trees. Within seconds, his family members flew over to greet him. Judging by all the squawking, it was a joyous family reunion and a wonderful thing to watch.
That first meaningful experience with an Acorn Woodpecker happened over 20 years ago, and I’m happy to say that we’ve had them as close neighbors ever since. The house where we’ve lived for the past 20 years is surrounded by trees, mostly blue oaks, and often the first thing I see when I look out the window in the morning is one or more Acorn Woodpeckers. The other woodpeckers that grace our garden are Northern Flickers, Nuttalls, and, on occasion, Pileated Woodpeckers. We have lots of lovely birds here, but the Acorn Woodpeckers, with their clown-like appearance, are the most entertaining and never cease to make me smile.
It turns out that the Acorn Woodpecker is a much-studied bird. They are beautiful with their black and white plumage and their little red caps. Their eye color is a distinctive pale white. They live in large family groups of up to a dozen or more. Within that group, they work together in gathering and storing food and raising their young. They are territorial and can be quite aggressive defending it. They display often and can be very noisy. They apparently have a lot to say as I observe them having little mini-conferences throughout the day.
One unique thing about Acorn Woodpeckers is that they are one of the few birds that cache food. They don’t simply cache it, which is interesting enough, but the way in which they do it is very special. As their name implies, their favorite food is acorns. During the fall, they store acorns in holes they have drilled perfectly to fit them. If the acorn doesn’t fit in one hole, they will move it to a smaller or larger hole where it will fit snugly. They are the only woodpecker in North America to use this method. Although I have never seen this myself, they will often store the acorns in one tree, referred to as a granary. I have seen photos of granary trees which reportedly store up to 50,000 acorns. At our place the holes, which are used over and over again through the years, are in dead or dying branches and I see these small granaries all over our property. They will also use wooden fence posts, telephone poles, or even buildings with wooden siding to store their acorns.
Another unusual thing about them is that unlike most woodpeckers who eat insects that they glean from under tree bark, Acorn Woodpeckers catch their insects on the wing just as flycatchers do.
The other day as I pulled into our driveway, I saw the most extraordinary thing. I had filled the bird feeders earlier that day. Even though the feeder that contains sunflower seeds is meant for small birds, nobody told the woodpeckers that! They are acrobats when it comes to getting the seeds out. As I sat in my car watching, there were four Acorn Woodpeckers taking their turns flying from the feeder with a sunflower seed in their mouth and caching it into a small hole in an oak tree right by my car. They repeated this over and over again. Unwilling to disturb them, I sat there until it was almost dark. Nature never ceases to amaze me.
Sharon Ponsford is a a longtime volunteer with Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue and a former board member of the California Council of Wildlife Rehabilitators. She lives in Glen Ellen. If you have questions or would like to ask her about our local wildlife, please email her at email@example.com.