Downy woodpecker on suet feeder

A female Downy Woodpecker at the suet feeder

It is now meteorological spring and the forecast is calling for some very warm temperatures to arrive in a couple days; as much as 20 to 30 degrees above normal.  But winter let it be known today that it isn’t going without a fight.  The snow started falling in the morning and kept up through the afternoon.

Standing at the window watching the snow fall and the birds flying back and forth from the trees to the feeders is something I could do all day long.  It’s hypnotic.  Of course this is a luxury for me, because I am in my warm, dry home, while the birds must put up with snow and cold in their constant activity just to keep the calories coming in, and fueling their internal furnaces.

chickadee on feeder

A Black-capped Chickadee grabs a seed from the tube feeder.

My husband went out in the morning before the snow started, as he does every morning, to resupply the feeders.  We have a variety of types, including a wooden platform, tubes, suet cage and a Heritage Farms Feeder which combines both suet and seeds in one spot. Between all of these options we feed chickadees, mourning doves, blue jays, red-breasted and white-breasted nuthatches, and three species of woodpeckers.  Once in a while a surprise guest appears, like the brown creeper I saw recently.

This bird is smaller than all the woodpeckers and has a brown back and paler breast. It blends so well with the tree bark that it is hard to see unless it is moving.  It approached one of the suet feeders very timidly, moving in fits and starts. I silently cheered as it finally got close to the suet, but then  a red-breasted nuthatch flew in and the creeper immediately disappeared behind the trunk, not be seen again.

The nuthatch clung to the wire of the feeder and poked its bill into the suet cake and then it too was gone.  This suet feeder hangs on the side of a red pine, right next to an aspen. On the trunk of the aspen were a large Hairy Woodpecker and the smaller Downy Woodpecker.  They were engaged in a bird version of hide and seek.  In the winter, even males and females of the same species are fairly intolerant of one another, especially around feedings stations.  The same is true between species and this is why the two birds I was watching continued to hop around the trunk.  At times they would venture too close and then one or the other would fly to another part of the tree.

Red-breasted nuthatch on suet feeder

A Red-Breasted Nuthatch takes its turn at the suet feeder.

The Downy had priority at the feeder over the other two previous species, but the Hairy supersedes them all.  When it took possession, it was unchallenged and could peck around for as long as it liked.

I did notice that both woodpeckers would spend time poking at and under the bark of the two trees, even though they had an easy source of high energy food close by.   Their natural tendency is to continue to search for the insects and larvae that make up their normal diet.

Have you heard woodpeckers drumming on trees recently?  While it very much looks like winter right now, the daylight or photoperiod has caused the birds to begin their courtship behavior.  When they drum, and both males and females do this, they are advertising their territory and trying to locate a mate.  So even though the recent snowfall makes it appears as though winter has a grip on the world, within a month those woodpeckers will be building nests and preparing for a new family.

By Kate Crowley

Photos by Mike Link