Column: The pecking order at the feeder

Published 11:51 pm Thursday, February 23, 2006

By Staff
One of the more interesting aspects of feeding birds is watching their behavior. It's obvious there is a definite pecking order, both between species and amongst individuals of the same species. Some species are obviously hotter tempered than others. Goldfinches fight among themselves at the drop of a hat but never show aggression to other species. Almost as bad are juncos and tree sparrows. Then there are others like everyone's darling, the chickadee, that wouldn't engage in a fray for the last seed on earth. Tufted titmice avoid confrontation by only ducking in for a moment when the feeder is unoccupied.
Between species it's pretty much a size thing. There must be a written protocol somewhere that says whoever is biggest has priority at the feeders. If the feeder is crowded with, say, tree sparrows a slightly larger song sparrow can move in and the tree sparrows readily give way. Since the size difference is so close the occasional tree sparrow may muster up and stand his ground for a moment or two but he quickly chickens out before it comes to physical contact.
The pecking order continues upward with the arrival of house finches or English sparrows. Simply one or two landing on the feeders sends the slightly smaller song sparrows packing without so much as a discussion. House finches and English sparrows have more sand in their pockets than most of the other small birds. Should a considerably larger bird like a cardinal move in they often ignore the protocol and simply pretend he isn't there. The pecking order is law, however, and if need be the cardinal will enforce it. At the top of the pecking order is the blue jay. His size and unabashed boldness makes him the undisputed, uncontested boss of the feeders. All a blue jay has to do is look like he's thinking of dropping in for a bite and all the other birds retreat to distant places.
Of course, the pecking order isn't entirely chiseled in stone. Some species inherently have better social manners and are more tolerant. Take juncos, for instance. While they have more than their share of internal squabbles, they're usually okay with sharing the feeder with other species. Most similar sized species return the favor and pretty much ignore the juncos. One occasional exception is the head strong tree sparrow. Every once in a while, like a little banty rooster will get feeling bigger than he really is, maybe he's on steroids or Viagra or something, and he tries to run the juncos off the feeder. Sometimes it works but usually the mild mannered junco holds his ground and the tree sparrow loses his thunder. Similarly are mourning doves. They certainly have the size to rule the feeder but it's just not in their demeanor. They're perfectly content to meander amongst all the other birds, making demands as they sort through the buffet for the most delectable items.
The most interesting arena is when two species of the same size are vying for the feeder. This never comes to outright fisticuffs as it so often does within the same species. It seems to be a matter of technique and will, or perhaps bluff is a better term. When a hairy woodpecker decides to munch some suet the smaller downeys readily yield, backing down the pole to give him his space. Then in comes a red-bellied woodpecker, which is maybe just a fluff of down bigger than a hairy. They sit on opposite sides of the suet block sizing each other up. Now and then they take a quick, nervous stab at the suet to momentarily break uncomfortable eye contact. The stare down continues until one or the other decides he has things to do elsewhere.
Then there are the cowbirds. They roam in gangs but are not thugs like starlings. They're a happy-go-lucky but rowdy bunch that simply overwhelms the competition with sheer numbers. The whole flock just shoulders their way in, shoving and jostling themselves and others. Anyone that wants in on the pushing match is fine, they can do so without retribution, but few other birds choose to partake in such crude affairs. Carpe diem.