Jeff Green | Feb 03, 2005
Nature Reflections February 3, 2005
Feature article February 3, 2005LAND O' LAKES NewsWeb Home
Contact UsThe Pecking Order
Birds have long demonstrated a pecking order or hierarchy, which determines which bird is the leader of the flock - who eats first, etc. Looking at birds, there can be many factors that determine where a bird fits into the system. Some of these are age, sex, whether normally coloured or mutated, the family to which the bird belongs, personality, physical condition, i.e., whether handicapped or not, whether bonded or unbonded, who a bird bonds with, intelligence, singing ability, etc.
I have seen evidence of this at my feeders. The larger Hairy Woodpeckers dine before the smaller Downies. The male Hairy eats before the female Hairy, and it seems that all male Hairy Woodpeckers present eat before any female Hairy, but then when the females get their turn there is definitely a pecking order there also - in fact, you can see evidence of it as they wait their turns. It is also obvious that there is a hierarchy with the Red Squirrels, though I am unable to determine what influences this - is it age, sex, or some other factor? In any event, the squirrel that dines first will usually drive away others.
It is known that older or established birds in some species will drive younger birds or newcomers away from better breeding grounds. Obviously the one who is the most aggressive and at the top of a pecking order is going to survive longer and have better breeding success than the one at the bottom. The birds at the bottom of the pecking order suffer from loss of food, breeding area, and also from stress.
Apart from the pecking order, aggressiveness can often be seen when a crow or hawk flies near a breeding Red-winged Blackbird. The blackbird will fearlessly attack the larger bird and harass it until it is out of the blackbird territory. Eastern Kingbirds also will aggressively defend their breeding area, and if you watch Americas Funniest
Home Videos you may have seen the magpie attacking a cat that dared to encroach on its territory.
Which brings me to the email I received from Gail Burgess who lives west of Arden. Here is what she said: About a month ago I spotted a shrike just after it had taken a chickadee and was perched in a tree near the feeder, taking feathers from the chickadee. Sad, but that's what shrikes do. Then about a week ago, a shrike flew into my sliding glass doors and sat on the deck for about 10 minutes recovering. I had lots of time to look closely at it and it seemed to be a northern shrike. After it perked up, it flew to a branch near the feeder (all of the chickadees, nuthatches and downy and hairy woodpeckers had disappeared, of course, as they do when a hawk is near). After several minutes, a downy woodpecker came to the feeder, looked up and saw the shrike. It flew to the same branch as the shrike and walked along the branch toward it, spreading its wings. Quite daring since the downy was about the same size as the shrike. Then the downy pecked the shrike several times in the chest and the shrike flew away and I haven't seen it back again. The downy acted like a kid in the schoolyard defending its friends from the bully!
What triggered this display of aggressiveness? Usually when a predator species like a shrike is around a feeding area, all prey species will disappear. Did the shrike exhibit something such as gaping (gasping for air), which indicated it was injured? Or was this woodpecker an unusually aggressive bird?