Acorn woodpecker. - Photo by Christine Pitto

Acorn eater has a sweet tooth

I apparently have a giant hummingbird in my yard.

This “hummingbird” doesn’t demonstrate the same level of skill in flight as the smaller Anna’s hummingbird. In fact, it is rather clumsy. But it sure does like sugar water. It also looks rather odd for a hummingbird. It has yellow eyes, a red cap, and black and white wings. If it was perched on the side of a tree, I would swear it was an acorn woodpecker.

But acorn woodpeckers store and feed on acorns with a few insects thrown in for a little concentrated protein. They don’t feed on sweets as do hummingbirds. OK, a few woodpeckers like sweets. Sapsuckers feed on tree sap with a few insects thrown in for a bit of concentrated protein, but sapsuckers are odd for woodpeckers. They don’t have the typical super-long woodpecker tongue with a hardened “harpoon” tip for spearing insects burrowing under bark and in wood. They have a brushy tongue that absorbs sap like a paintbrush. I can only conclude that I must have some strange new hummingbird that just looks a lot like an acorn woodpecker.

OK, it is an acorn woodpecker, but what is it doing annoying my hummingbirds by clinging to the hummingbird feeder and feasting on the sugary prize? Is it just this acorn woodpecker, or is it several? I haven’t sorted this out yet, but it (or they) sure can pack away a lot of sugar water. I’m filling the feeder at least three times as often as when it was only the more usual diminutive Anna’s hummingbirds that dined.

I’ve searched all my ornithology texts but find no reference to acorn woodpeckers having a sweet tooth. In the many years I have provisioned hummingbird feeders, I have never had a cheeky acorn woodpecker helping itself to food meant for others, until now.

I am fascinated when nature breaks its rules. Birds are not “bird-brained.” Far from it. The more we study birds the more we realize that birds have far greater mental capabilities than we ever thought. If there is a novel resource to be exploited, some bird will figure out how to use it. Marianas crows precisely tear stiff leaves into rather sophisticated tools for extracting grubs burrowing in wood. They don’t have the typical woodpecker “harpoon” tongue and need the help. Ravens can quickly solve puzzle boxes that contain food, and they do it far better than the mammals tested. Clark’s nutcrackers remember where they tucked food away for a rainy day nearly a year before, sometimes longer.

I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised when an acorn woodpecker discovers and exploits the food in a hummingbird feeder. What still puzzles me, though, is how it actually drinks the sugar water. It doesn’t have a brush-tipped tongue, and it doesn’t dip its beak and let it trickle down its throat in the manner of most birds when they drink. So many questions.

I can’t help but wonder what other behavioral experimentation is taking place in field and forest.

— Stewart Janes is a biology professor at Southern Oregon University. He can be reached at janes@sou.edu.

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