red-bellied woodpecker at blue jay at feeder

Woodpeckers, like this red-bellied are able to intimidate blue jays.

What a great winter it has been for watching the birds at our feeders.  Because we’ve actually been home for two months, we’ve been able to keep the feeders filled and observe the non-stop activity.  We also added two new sunflower feeders in the front yard and two new suet feeders – one in the maple next to the deck and another from the eaves just outside of the k itchen window, so now the action is even closer.

Sometimes I almost become mesmerized by the comings and goings and it has allowed me to make some interesting observations of behavior, which got me thinking about pecking order.  This term (which is also referred to as ‘peck order’) was originally used to describe the social order among domestic chickens.  A Norwegian psychologist, T.Schjelderup-Ebbe is credited with studying and documenting this type of hierarchy, in which one hen (or rooster) dominates another by pecking at it, and that bird in turn pecks on another (lower ranking) bird, on down the line.  It’s easy to see how this phrase has made its way into human social groupings.

woodpecker on one side of tree - bcch on the other side

This chickadee is keeping its distance from the downy woodpecker.

Watching the birds at the feeder I have witnessed a very definite pecking order, both within species and between species.  At the top of the heap is the pileated woodpecker, which is not a big surprise considering its size, next comes the hairy woodpecker, which may surprise you.  You may have thought it would be the blue jay, but they are third in line among the bird feeding set.

There is one particular feeder that I fill with homemade suet and this mix of peanut butter and lard seems to be the universal favorite among all the suet eating species. I had just filled the holes with this fat laden treat and almost immediately there were blue jays all around it.  Then the woodpecker flew in and the jays backed off, but stayed on the branches close to the feeder.  The woodpecker took its time nibbling at the suet and every time a jay made an attempt to get closer the woodpecker would make a quick jab in that direction.  Apparently the jays have some knowledge about the dangers of that sharp, strong beak, because in terms of body size, they are actually a couple inches larger than the Hairy woodpecker.

Mourning doves on feeder

Mourning doves live up to their name by sharing a feeder peaceably. No pecking order is evident.

Pileated woodpecker at suet feeder

The Pileated Woodpecker ranks highest in pecking order among the songbirds.

Once the woodpecker had its fill and took off, the jays began to quarrel over who should be the first on the feeder.  I believe there is a definite pecking order among the jays around feeding stations, but without a means of identifying the individual birds it is impossible to say for sure who is dominant over whom.

Blue jays have a scrappy reputation and they demonstrate this antagonistic behavior among one another, as well as around other species.  When a jay flies into the feeder, all the smaller birds leave and rarely will two jays sit next to one another peaceably at a feeder.  There is always much leaping, sparring, and flapping of blue wings when the jays move in.

Among the smaller birds, the American goldfinch and pine siskins are more contentious with one another, and less tolerant of other species trying to move in on ‘their’ food supply.  I have decided pine siskins are birds that like to ‘dine in’, while the black-capped chickadees most definitely prefer ‘take out’.  While two siskins sat on the pie tin (that I attached to the bottom of the feeder), using their fine pointed beaks to rapidly manipulate the seeds, one chickadee after another made a quick dash in next to them, grabbed a seed and took off.

The chickadees really do set a high standard for decorum.  Of all the birds they are the most civil and considerate.  They wait patiently on the branches next to the suet feeder and one at a time, hop down, peck at the food and then take off. I never see them squabbling with one another and they never attempt to chase away other species.  The red-breasted nuthatch is fairly mellow in its social manner, but the bigger white-breasted nuthatch can be a bit of a bully around the slightly smaller species.

two blue jays arguing

Which jay is dominant?

All of the birds that I’ve just mentioned respond in similar manner when the ultimate ‘enforcer’ appears.  One day this past week I was walking through the kitchen and out of the corner of my eye I saw a dark shadow go past the window.  Immediately the jays began to scream and when I went to the window to see what had happened, the feeders were all empty, except for one little chickadee who sat immobilized on the ledge.  The jays were clustered in the close fitting branches of the spruce, so I knew that somewhere nearby there was a raptor.  I looked up and down, and went to the sliding door and looked to my right and there it was, perched on a branch of a jack pine.  A broad white ‘eyebrow’ and its large size told me it was a goshawk.  As I watched, the hawk turned around on the branch and took off, flying towards the back of our house, empty ‘footed’.  A short time later, life resumed at the feeders, a calamity narrowly avoided.

By Kate Crowley