A male downy woodpecker is seen at a bird feeder. Woodpeckers and other birds can are also know to raid hummingbird feeders and other easy sources of food. Dr. Scott M. Lieberman/Associated Press

We’ve been talking about feeders a lot lately – let this be another reminder to go clean your bird feeder – but have you ever noticed the “wrong” species using a feeder? Penelope Olson of Appleton writes that she has seen a downy woodpecker at her hummingbird feeder lately. The woodpecker returns daily and drinks down the sugar water that Penelope puts out. She asks, “Is this a common activity or an unusual thing for a woodpecker? Shouldn’t she be off pecking a tree? Should I take that feeder down?”

The short answer is that this is perfectly fine and normal for woodpeckers. Some other songbirds like chickadees are occasionally seen drinking from hummingbird feeders. And why not? It is a reliable, often abundant, source of sugary food. I suspect more birds would do it too, or even that woodpeckers would do it more often, if hummingbird feeders weren’t so difficult for them to perch on. Typically, woodpeckers like to have a long vertical piece below a food source for them to perch on and prop their tail against. This is one reason why pileated woodpeckers are less common feeder visitors; most are just too small for them.

There’s a fun spinoff question to this: How did the woodpecker learn to go to the hummingbird feeder in the first place? Most hummingbird feeders are made to resemble flowers in some way, be it their color or shape of the feeder openings. That makes sense for attracting hummingbirds, but not much for the woodpecker. It is well known that hummingbirds will follow yellow-bellied sapsuckers to their fresh wells, especially in birch trees in the spring, for an easy sap meal when flowers are scarce. Perhaps it takes some learning, like watching or following a hummingbird, for a woodpecker to know to feed from something as novel as a (typically) plastic container with holes in it.

A final thought on this subject: Woodpeckers have one trait very similar to hummingbirds, which makes them especially well suited for using hummingbird feeders, and that’s their tongue. Both hummingbirds and woodpeckers have long tongues, so long that they actually have to split and wrap around the skull back toward the nostril. These long tongues help hummingbirds reach nectar in deep flowers, and help woodpeckers pull insects from holes in trees. Although their tongues are structured and function quite differently, it doesn’t take too much imagination to see the correlation between these two long-tongued birds and their ability to access sugar water in hummingbird feeders.

A significant rise in the population of bald eagles – an outstanding story of animal conservation – has also resulted in the predation of more ducks, loons and even osprey. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

Rise of bald eagles causes decline in other species

In response to our last column remarking on a possible decline in ducks this summer, Christine Cote from Brunswick wrote in to ask about the impact that eagles are having on various birds in Maine. Bald eagles are one of the greatest conservation success stories we have in Maine, from a low of only a couple of dozen in the 1960s, to now more than 700 nesting pairs. And of course, when there is an increase in the population of a predator, its prey is almost certainly going to begin decreasing as a new equilibrium is found.

Christine writes, “At our camp up north, we’ve noticed baby ducks and mergansers decline over the course of the summer to a greater degree now that there is a strong eagle presence on the lake. The loon population has also declined.” As Christine notes, there are a number of birds feeling the pinch due to increased eagle predation, mostly those that nest near the water. These include great blue herons, common loons, and great cormorants (these cormorants are now on Maine’s threatened species list and shouldn’t be confused with the ubiquitous double-crested cormorant). Even other predators, like osprey, are having nests raided by bald eagles. The explore.org nest cams (nesting is over for this season) have captured some amazingly gruesome, but totally natural, attacks of bald eagles on the osprey nest at Hog Island over the years.

Despite the predation on our beloved loons and herons, we should keep in mind that we almost lost our eagles not that long ago. Thanks to conservation efforts, and legislation like the Endangered Species Act, we now have our national symbol commonly soaring over our skies. On Sept. 18 this year, Maine Audubon will be running its annual “Bald Eagles of Merrymeeting Bay” boat trip out of Boothbay, an opportunity to see many eagles and other birds, plus discuss conservation efforts in the area. I mention this because the history of that trip goes back to its first run, in 1969, when the trip was started as an opportunity to see ONE eagle nest. Now we get to see them by the dozens, and perhaps this will be the year we top our previous high count of 66 in one morning!

So while bald eagles are causing declines in other bird species, let’s keep in mind that it was our use of pesticides that almost wiped them out. Before then eagles were widespread in Maine. Nature struck a balance between prey and predator, as it will again.

Do you have a nature question for Doug? Email questions to [email protected] and visit maineaudubon.org to learn more about bird walks, community science projects, and other programs about wildlife and habitat.


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