Acorn woodpeckers have odd, but strangely familiar rivalries

They broke ground, such as it was, tentatively. This was their new home. And they'd changed their minds before.

They'd abandoned their old digs when the tree guys finished up. They, the tree guys, had lopped the major part of a big limb off the time-ravaged old maple maybe 30 feet up. They cut the limb exactly at the top of the opening to the cavity inside, perhaps exposing it to unwanted rain or sun at certain angles.

Now, ornithologists have hissy fits when anybody interprets bird behavior in human terms.

The cry of "anthropomorphism!" is enough to disqualify the offending text from the realm of science. OK, science this ain't.

Imagine that giants from a world below one day came up and destroyed your home beyond any repair. What would you do?

The acorn woodpeckers living in the maple that stretches above my house flew around squawking something that sounded like, "carrot! carrot!" Once they got over their outrage and grief (ah, dreadful anthropomorphism!), they set about creating a new nest cavity.

First they made a half-dozen false starts, raw scars in the wrinkly, gray bark a foot or two beneath the old homestead. This involved much woodpecker conversation. Acorn woodpeckers are highly social, living in family groups of up to 15 or so and chattering constantly.

Their go-to call is a lusty waaka-waaka-waaka-waaka. More intimate chatter, when group members are in close contact, is often something like hick a ick a ick.

Cartoonist Walter Lantz is said to have based his Woody Woodpecker character's signature laugh (which I always found annoying) on the acorn woodpecker's raucous call, although he seems to have been looking at the pileated woodpecker when he drew Woody.

The gist of all the hick a ick a icking, I think, was that the female (you can tell by her smaller red cap) kept saying, "not here, not here."

"Yes, dear," the male explained.

So they set about making the only thing that gets bigger the more you take away from it, a hole. Within a couple days there was a cavity big enough to stick a woodpecker head into. A couple more days, and the neck and breast could fit inside.

In a week, the excavators could fit in up to their white rumps. Soon the hole could swallow the whole bird, the tail flicking in last. Moments later a google-eyed woodpecker face would appear in the opening, and a bird would spew an alarming quantity of wood chips.

This was more entertaining than you would think. The spewing, combined with the bird's clownish face — picture a black and white creature with a red cap, a yellow chin and the white of its eye visible all around the iris — cracked people up.

"That is so cool," friends said.

I read up. The birds' social system dictates a big nest. Two or more males often mate with two or more females in what's called polygynandry. They were living in a commune!

And not just for the fun of it. The system leads to greater genetic diversity, less fighting among the males and more protection of the young.

The birds' work consists of gathering acorns and often storing them in "granary trees," sometimes by the thousands, in acorn-size holes they chisel out. They're not above using power poles or the occasional house. I'm pretty sure they have no idea that this relentless planning for the future is a concept some humans have yet to grasp.

The whole group goes all military to defend its territory, granary tree and nest cavity from the likes of Lewis's woodpeckers and squirrels. They seem to take no notice of scrub jays, which also are acorn-fanciers.

They sometimes attack starlings (a damn good idea), which compete for nest sites. Starlings quickly moved into the abandoned hole in the maple, but the woodpeckers have ignored them like an old-line family not acknowledging the riff-raff moving into the neighborhood.

The hole is bigger than ever. When a family member lands next to it (evolution has moved one of the woodpecker's toes to the rear of its foot, the better for vertical gripping), there's the usual waaka-waaka-waaka as the face of another woodpecker, sometimes two, pops up in the hole. These birds exit the hole and fly off after some obligatory hick a ick a icking and some formal-looking wing-spreading, before the returning bird enters the nest.

They're taking what looks like nest material inside now. Soon there will be eggs. Mom may destroy other females' eggs if they're nesting together.

With their it-takes-a-village philosophy, relatives will help raise the youngsters, including slacker birds from last year who haven't got jobs and homes (territories) of their own. The females seem to work harder at the nurturing stuff.

There's probably some dominance hierarchy in all this posturing, ick a icking and wing-spreading. In that respect, the birds are not unlike dogs, horses, chimps and certain other featherless bipeds. The whole thing is like peering into another world, alien, yet oddly familiar.

Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. If you have comments or suggested topics for the column, please send them to rogueviewpoint@gmail.com.


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