birdnote q&a: birds who dare—small ones mobbing big ones, and woodpecker drumming (ouch!)

Northern Flicker by Tom GreyWEEK THREE IN MY SERIES of answers to your bird questions is about when birds display daring behavior: such as when a mob of small birds chase after a bigger one, or when a woodpecker drums on my house (doesn’t that hurt, guy?). Ellen Blackstone of BirdNote, the daily public-radio show, will once again be our guide for exploring what’s going on as we look skyward at what appears to be birds being bold and brave.

First, the BirdNote backstory: In 2002, the then-executive director of Seattle Audubon heard a short public-radio show called StarDate. “We could do that with birds,” she thought. In 2005 the idea became a two-minute, seven-day-a-week public-radio “interstitial” (short program) that recently caught my ear. I asked BirdNote to help answer the recent questions you had asked me. (In case you missed installment Number 1, we tackled: How do birds make themselves at home—even in winter? Week 2 was about birds on the move: the miracle of hummingbird migration, and on flying in formation.)

Parts of Ellen’s answers below are in 2-minute audio clips to stream (all in the green links–or you can read the transcripts at those links if you prefer). Here we go:

mobbing the bigger guys

Q. A lot of us have witnessed, and wondered about, much-smaller birds bravely chasing big raptors overhead, and also small songbirds who seem to mob owls. What’s up with these Davids chasing Goliaths in the sky?

A. Blackbirds and other small birds may mob American crows, known nest-robbers. Crows, in turn, mob any raptor in the area. A tip: If you hear a crow ruckus, follow the sound and see if you can spot the raptor, be it hawk or owl or whatever.

There’s strength in numbers (as this audio and video about the phenomenon of “mobbing” explains).

Scientists believe mobbing to be a collective response to danger, as this show on mobbing owls details. But it’s not certain if the “mobbers” hope to drive the predator off or simply draw attention to the threat, to warn others. Locally nesting and resident birds are more likely to mob–perhaps because they have more at stake than passing migrants.

Speaking of owls: I can’t resist including this show about a Northern Pygmy-Owl’s “false eyes” in the back of its head, which has a great photo you won‘t want to miss.

ouch! woodpecker drumming explained

Q. What in the world does it mean when a woodpecker pecks at my house? And a related question: How do they manage to survive such frequent, violent actions? Is there something about the way they are built?

A. What’s that Northern Flicker [top photo] doing–drumming, drilling, or excavating? It’s an important distinction (and covered at this link, in audio and text)!

As for headaches: All woodpeckers have an enlarged brain case, as this audio and transcript explains in more detail. The brain sits above the level of direct hammering impact. The skull’s frontal bones–together with a set of muscles at the bill’s base–act as a shock absorber.

If you are in the East, more details on drumming woodpeckers is in this audio clip; for those in the West, click here.)

next week’s topic, and how to get birdnote

birdnote logoNEXT WEEK’S ANSWERS from among the most popular of 150-plus questions you asked me recently will be about some details of avian lifestyles–whether birds do in fact mate for life, and how long they live.

If you have other bird questions, you may find them in the BirdNote show archives, or on their FieldNotes blog.

Meantime, listen to BirdNote’s latest podcast anytime on the player below, or by visiting their website. Subscribe to the podcast or RSS, free. More than 100 public radio stations playing BirdNote are listed here; if you like what you hear, why not ask your local station why they don’t carry it.

(Northern flicker photo by Greg Pond.)

Categoriesbird sh-t
  1. Steve says:

    My vacation home in VA is sided with rough hewn Poplar, in a board and batten style. A number of years ago a Pileated Woodpecker created 4 HUGE holes at both gable ends in the attic area of the house, while we were away.
    The bird was “Pecking” for larvae of Borer Bees. Once the holes were started… squirrels finished the job… chewing right thru the siding and the under sheathing. The holes were roughly 5 inches in diameter.
    I even read online where NASA had a problem with woodpeckers pecking holes in the insulation wrapped around the space shuttle’s fuel containers.
    I am glad this woodpecker has found another area, and that others keep away from my house. I have “mobiles” and fake owls up in the gables now. Don’t know if that did the trick… but am not about to take anything down.

  2. Kassie says:

    Last summer I heard quite a ruckus from a flock of blue jays, and ran toward the sound near my neighbor’s back yard. I was in time to see a fox slinking away! Were the jays driving the fox away? Was the fox going to raid a nest? Whatever the reason, it was fun to follow the sound and get my answer.

  3. Jason says:

    I love the idea of smaller birds banding together to fight off predators. Of course, a less attractive form of mobbing is when English sparrows drive off cardinals and other larger songbirds.

  4. Mary Withrow says:

    I love to watch birds. I raised a woodpecker after hurricane Fran. Someone had brought me a tiny little featherless creature and it turned out to be a woodpecker. It is truly in their nature.

  5. Lorie says:

    Blessing or curse, we have a mob of flickers this winter…12 in all…who follow each other around, trashing suet and testing their wills against each other on the peanut feeders. They give new meaning to aggression, but those little downies and nuthaches just hang in there and wait a turn. Always an upside, though, as the first yellow-bellied sapsucker ever made an appearance!

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