Bird Watcher's General Store

Woodpeckers Will Feed Upside Down
02/10/12


Dear Bird Folks,

I enjoy seeing the woodpeckers at my suet feeders, but recently the feeders have been taken over by starlings and crows. Is there a way I can feed woodpeckers without the crows and starlings getting all the food?

Ė Dave, Middleboro, MA

It must be winter, Dave,

Only during the dark days of winter do I hear from people who appreciate woodpeckers. The rest of the year most folks either hate them or simply ignore them because there are fancier birds around. In the spring I get complaints when mating woodpeckers announce their territories by drumming on wooden house trim, metal chimney caps or aluminum gutters. The birdsí early morning hammering wakes up the homeowners and they arenít happy about it. (Crybabies.) In the summer no one seems to notice the woodpeckers because they are too fixated on hummingbirds and orioles, and whining about grackles. When fall rolls around woodpeckers may do more drumming on houses. But this time the birds might actually bore holes right through the wood. And once again, people arenít happy. For some reason folks donít want holes drilled through the walls of their homes. Like a little ventilation is going to kill them. (Crybabies.)

Contrary to popular belief, birdfeeders can be quiet in the winter, especially a mild winter such as the one we are having this year. With a limited number of feeder birds to look at, we have more time to focus on the few birds that are coming to our yards, and often these birds are woodpeckers. Woodpeckers are always around because they do very little migrating. Here in southern New England the four most common woodpeckers are the downy, hairy, red-bellied and Northern Flicker (yes, the flicker is a woodpecker). Of those four, only the flicker does any kind of serious migrating, although we see them year-round. As you said, Dave, the best way to attract woodpeckers is to offer them good old greasy, disgusting, anti-vegetarian, beef suet. Itís the grossest thing about feeding birds.

Suet comes from an area of dense fat that surrounds beef kidneys. As nasty as suet is, some humans actually eat it. They use it to deep fry donuts or add it to mincemeat, that weird stuff that somehow appears at Christmas time. And in jolly old England they use suet to make something called ďrag puddingĒ and Iím not kidding. (I donít even want to know what rag pudding is so donít tell me if you know.) I find it interesting that woodpeckers are attracted to suet. I mean, why would they feel compelled to try it in the first place? Where in nature would woodpeckers have any experience with beef kidneys? Itís not like woodpeckers dig up a lot of cows hiding under the bark of tree trunks. Yet they love it, and so do a lot of other birds including: bluebirds, warblers, nuthatches, creepers, wrens, chickadees, thrushes and orioles. And, oh yes, American Crows and European Starlings are fond of suet, too. While I personally like crows, I understand that they are not for everyone. They are big, noisy and certainly like to eat. When crows are around your suet will evaporate faster than a Kardashian marriage. However, Iím totally with you on the starling thing. I donít dislike many birds, but starlings arenít high on my list. Many locals feel they are the worst things to come from Europe since, wellÖthe Europeans.

You are not alone with your crow/starling complaint. In fact, so many other folks have had similar complaints that feeder companies now produce a suet feeder for people just like you. Hereís how it works. Most suet feeders are nothing more than simple wire cages, with greasy fat stuffed into them. They are open on every side so all birds can eat from them. Starling-proof feeders are not open. They are totally covered, except for the bottom. In order for a bird to eat, it has to cling to the bottom of the feederÖlike a bat. Clinging upside-down is not a problem for birds such as creepers, chickadees and nuthatches. (Actually, nuthatches prefer to eat that way. They claim food tastes better upside-down. Who am I to argue with a nuthatch?) Woodpeckers, which often forage by clinging to the undersides of tree branches, also have no trouble eating an inverted lunch. Crows, on the other hand, are less agile. They are also way too proud to eat their meals looking like a bat. What about starlings? Well, starlings are quite agile and have no pride at all. Theyíll do just about anything for food. But apparently they too canít deal with these feeders. At least thatís what Iíve been told.

Do these upside-down feeders work? Maybe, but I donít know for sure. The problem is the neighborhood association wonít allow starlings into my part of town. They donít meet the association standards. As a result, I have not been able to personally test any of these anti-starling feeders. I have to rely on the word of the manufacturers, the Internet and what my friends and customers tell me. Shaky sources, at best.

I think you should try one of these upside-down suet feeders, Dave, and let me know what happens. I wouldnít even be upset if you didnít buy it from me. Iím sure there are stores around Middleboro that sell birdfeeders. Just walk in and ask for an anti-starling suet feeder. Theyíll know what you are talking about. However, if the store is also selling rag pudding, turn around and leave. Seriously.




Artwork by Catherine Clark


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