This winter I have taken on the responsibility of keeping the two feeding stations at Forest Park supplied two days a week, on Thursdays and Fridays. I’ve made sure to get there both days during periods of inclement or extremely cold weather but if the weather is warm and nothing is falling from the sky I usually only fill them on one day. What I have learned is that the birds that come for the seed that I scatter, like White-throated Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, and Mourning Doves, tend not to be terribly impatient and don’t seem to be in a big rush to get to my largess. The woodpeckers and nuthatches that come for the suet that gets smeared on the side of a particularly large tree, on the other hand, are extremely impatient and will call and scold from rather close range until their suet is set out for them.
Squirrels, though usually around the park in rather large numbers, don’t tend to get the suet, mostly because the birds vacuum it down before they get the chance to eat it, which makes the cayenne pepper suet that I occasionally use superfluous. But beyond being greeted by hungry birds I enjoy watching the different strategies the birds use to get the suet and their methods of eating it.
For example, White-breasted Nuthatches like the ones above and below tend to grab great chunks of suet and fly off to a convenient branch where they gobble it down in smaller chunks. This occasionally leads to a comical situation where a nuthatch literally bites off more than it can chew and has to drop its chunk of suet and pick up a smaller section. This, of course, is a boon to the titmice and sparrows which seem to appreciate the suet being on the ground rather than on the side of a tree.
The woodpeckers, on the other hand, seem willing to prop themselves up next to the suet and eat it as they get it loose from the tree. Red-bellied Woodpeckers try to get their lower mandible under the suet and pry it up, using their upper mandible to prevent the suet from flying off into the air. They also sometimes seem content just grabbing the looser parts of the suet in their beak without really doing much work at all.
Downy Woodpeckers tend to use their entire bill as a woodpecker is expected to, hammering away at the spot the suet meets the tree to loosen the suet before pulling it off the bark. Sometimes they just use their entire bill as a lever and pry the suet off that way.
Hairy Woodpeckers seem to mostly use methods similar to the Downy Woodpeckers, but they seem to use their longer bills as a lever more often than the downies do, and hammer at the suet less often. Oddly, at least from my preconceptions, it seems that the Hairy Woodpeckers in Forest Park are more willing to go to the ground for seeds that the Downy Woodpeckers do when there is no suet, a reversal of what I would have expected.
What is clear to me from closely watching these common birds is that the reason several similar species can all coexist in the same environment is because each is adapted differently to exploit food resources in slightly separate niches, leading to a decrease in competition, unless, of course, they are brought together by the generosity of humans…