Words On Birds 06-28-24

Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Woodpeckers Feed Young at Suet Feeders
June 28, 2024
By Steve Grinley
     Black oil sunflower, peanuts, safflower, corn and suet are some of the highest oil content bird foods that you can serve birds year ‘round. Suet, by far, provides more energy per bite than all the others. Suet is beef fat from cattle. There is nothing like suet in the natural world for birds, so why are birds attracted to it? 
     Suet is an excellent alternative for insects, which are the source of fat and protein for birds during warmer months. Birds use suet to supplement insects during the warmer months and as a substitute during colder months when insects are not available. 
     Suet is easy to feed and is popular with nuthatches, chickadees, titmice, Carolina wrens and blackbirds. Suet is particularly attractive to all of the woodpeckers, even the large, pileated woodpeckers! 
     We have had the pleasure of watching downy, hairy and red-bellied woodpecker parents feeding their recently fledged offspring at our suet feeders in Essex. The inexperienced youngsters cling nearby, fluttering their wings, begging to be fed. The adults take morsels of the soft, palatable suet from the feeder and feed them to the young woodpeckers. Once in a while, the adults will go to the seed feeder, grab a seed and bring it to the young birds, adding variety to the new bird’s diet. 
     One day I watched one of the young downy woodpeckers try to get onto the suet feeder itself. The bird fluttered around the feeder several times, as if not sure where to land, or how to land on it. It is one of those with a “tail prop” extension, but eventually, maybe by accident, the young bird grabbed the cage portioned and righted itself on the feeder. Feeling quite proud I’m sure, it proceeded to feed itself. It was fun to watch. 
     The red-bellied woodpecker, a southern bird that is now much more common in southern New England, has nested in our yard right off our back deck where we could watch its progress. They are also fun to watch as they feed their “bald” offspring that haven’t developed any red on their head yet. 
     The late Doug Chickering had a similar experience with a family of red-bellied woodpeckers in his yard which he wrote about after his book was published: 
     “We had gone to the Locust Hill Cemetery on the Gloucester-Rockport line to look for a reported Varied Thrush. We didn’t see the Thrush that day, but as we drove into the cemetery I saw an unusual looking bird fly up to the trunk of a large oak tree right beside the car. Much to our surprise and amazement we were getting killer looks at a Red-bellied Woodpecker. This was 1989. In 1989 Red-bellied Woodpecker in Massachusetts qualified as a hot line bird. 
     “As the years passed the status of this gorgeous woodpecker slowly changed. I remember in the 90’s Lois and I would join the Circle Donut Bird Club, and in the spring visit Argilla Road in Ipswich. Here there was a large, crude homemade suet feeder nailed to the side of a large tree in a front yard and always packed with a slab of suet. Here a Red-bellied Woodpecker visited on a regular basis, more or less. We usually got it. 
     “If not a hot line bird, Red-bellied Woodpecker remained a special target bird along the lines of Red-headed Woodpecker. This situation was perpetuated until the entry to the third millennium. Their numbers increased surprisingly rapidly and eventually Red-bellied Woodpecker outnumbered Hairy Woodpecker in the Newburyport Christmas Bird Count. 
     “The increase of Red-bellied Woodpecker is one of a handful of welcome changes in the fluctuating bird local populations. I have seen one on Plum Island on a few occasions but it still remains uncommon to rare at my favorite birding spot. Just a few years ago we got one at our feeder. It was considered an event. Then we would get one at the feeder a half-dozen times a year. 
     “This year both sexes of Red-bellied come down to pillage our suet cakes on a regular basis. And today the saga of Red-bellied Woodpecker came to a glorious “crescendo” at least for me. This morning Lois and I were treated to the sight of an adult female, feeding a newly fledged babe. 
     “They were at the far feeder and the female kept dipping down to the suet feeder that was accessible only from the bottom. This design is deliberate: its intent is to discourage less attractive Starlings and Grackles who, apparently don’t care to hang up-side down for long periods of time. The woodpeckers and nuthatches are not dissuaded at all and this feeder is a great favorite of theirs. 
     “The female adult Red-bellied would pull suet out and scramble up to the juvenile and feed it as it fluttered its wings. The young bird demonstrated all the characteristics of a new bird. It begged constantly and had trouble grasping the metal bow. In fact, its efforts were almost comical, as it would slowly slide down the bow, flapping its wings ineffectually and continuing to beg for food. I was struck by what seemed to me how much this bird resembled human babies. It was sleek and there wasn’t a trace of red on the head giving it a distinctively bald look and its efforts and struggles were crude and uncoordinated. 
     “Even though the Red-bellied Woodpecker is edging towards being a common bird I don’t think it will ever be anything but a special sighting for me.” 

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Port Plaza West Shops
45 Storey Ave, Suite 7B
Newburyport, MA 01950

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