Last week, Natasha and I took a road trip with a woodpecker.
He sat on our shoulders. He pooped on the seats. He jumped onto the dashboard. He sang along to the music. He became alarmed at low-flying gulls, groves of shade trees, and passing motorcyclists.
The woodpecker in question is Almost, who is almost two and lives with Natasha. When Almost was banded as a 3-week-old chick, Natasha found that he was missing half of one wing, and the other wing was not fully developed. He would never be able to fly, which is a death sentence for a wild Acorn Woodpecker. Rather than euthanize him, Natasha raised him as an education and outreach bird. Now, in addition to acorns, he eats almonds, walnuts, and hickory nuts from Trader Joe's. He pecks holes in Natasha's furniture and poops on her floor. And he loves company.
Last weekend, Natasha and I drove up to Berkeley to help man a table at UC Berkeley's "Cal Day," which Berkeley's open house for admitted students. Hastings Reservation (where we live and work) is managed by Berkeley and associated with the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology there, so as part of the Cal Day showcase, we brought posters, tree climbing gear, a radio antenna, and some woodpecker cavities to show people what we do.
It's pretty weird, a soon-to-be Yale undergrad and a PhD student from Old Dominion University presenting research at a UC Berkeley event. But let's not kid ourselves; it's about the woodpeckers, not the humans and their arbitrary universities.
Almost was the star of the show. People were curious about him, what he was, why he was with us, what he ate, etc. etc. We answered a lot of the same questions over and over. Since I've already given you an overview of what I do every day and what the woodpecker research entails, I'd like to address the good questions. The meaty questions. The woodpecker questions. Presenting...
Cal Day, Abridged
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Please Do Not Pet the Woodpecker
Question: What kind of bird is that?
Answer: An Acorn Woodpecker.
Q: Why is he called an Acorn Woodpecker?
A: Well, he eats acorns. That might have something to do with it.
Q: What are all those holes for?
A: Acorn Woodpeckers make holes in trees to store acorns. Each hole fits one acorn perfectly. In the fall, they pick acorns off the trees and stick them into holes to save them. That way they have something to eat when there are no insects around in the winter.
Q: Do they farm bugs? I heard they farm bugs.
A: That's a myth. It's much more energy-efficient for the woodpeckers to eat the acorn meats, which are rich in protein, than to wait until they rot and eat the insects that come to feast on them. Studies have been done to show that the acorns in Acorn Woodpecker granary trees are remarkably free of insects. In fact, the woodpeckers constantly maintain their granaries and throw away any rotting acorns to prevent fungi and insects from infesting their stores.
Anyway, doesn't it also make a lot more sense that they're eating the acorns than that they're farming bugs? I mean, farming is pretty cool. Leafcutter ants do it. But let's not overcomplicate things. Occam's razor, people.
Q: What's wrong with him/why is he in captivity?
A: Most of the Acorn Woodpeckers in the population that we study are color-banded, and newly hatched chicks are banded when they are 21 days old and have not yet left the nest. Almost hatched in a nest at Hastings, but when Natasha climbed his tree to band him, she found that he was missing two thirds of his right wing, and his left wing was underdeveloped. He would never be able to fly, and he never would have survived in the wild. Rather than euthanize him, Natasha raised him to be an education and outreach bird. (Don't try this at home. Keeping wild birds in captivity requires special permits, and the people at Hastings have them.) Almost is very friendly and loves meeting new people. But he's not domesticated, and he's not a pet––he is a wild animal who is simply habituated to humans.
Q: Can I pet him?
A: Almost doesn't like to be petted. Also, he's a wild bird with a very strong beak, and he could do some serious damage if he got angry. He could peck holes in your fingers. He could draw blood. He could cause massive liability problems. Please give him his space.
Actually, Almost is normally very gentle. But there's a serious reason he doesn't like to be petted. Acorn Woodpeckers do not practice allopreening (preening each other's feathers). In some birds, like parrots, birds preen each other as a form of bonding. Acorn Woodpeckers hardly ever touch each other, so to them, being touched is scary and makes them feel threatened.
Q: Can I touch him?
A: Please don't touch the woodpecker. He doesn't like to be touched.
Q: Can I stick things in his granary, like my fingers?
A: That really wouldn't be a good idea. Almost gets angry if people mess with his granary. Remember what we said about the finger-pecking? If you want to stick acorns in holes, we have a nice piece of granary over here, and lots of acorns you can play with.
Q: He's a woodpecker, right?
A: Yes, this is an Acorn Woodpecker.
Q: There's this woodpecker that won't stop drumming on my metal gutters. How do I make it go away?
A: In many species of woodpeckers, males make loud drumming sounds to advertise their presence and attract mates. They typically look for the loudest materials they can find: hollow branches, gutters, sign posts. This is a natural part of their behavior, and it will stop in a couple months once the breeding season is over. But this question isn't particularly relevant to Acorn Woodpeckers, who drum only very rarely, during territorial power struggles.
Q: Did he make all those holes?
A: Yeah, he did! Well, most of them, anyway. This granary branch broke off of a tree, so some of them were made by other woodpeckers. In Acorn Woodpecker family groups, all the woodpeckers pitch in to make holes for acorns. It's a lot of work.
Q: How long does it take to make one hole?
A: Usually it takes 15 minutes to an hour. But that varies depending on a lot of things, like how hard the wood is and how good the woodpecker is at pecking. Woodpeckers are born knowing they should peck and knowing how, but they aren't born knowing how to peck well. Almost made some pretty pitiful holes when he was a baby.
Q: Why don't the acorns just get stolen by squirrels?
A: Squirrels and other birds definitely try to steal the Acorn Woodpeckers' acorns. But Acorn Woodpeckers live in close-knit family groups, and they defend their territories year-round, not just in breeding season. If a squirrel or a Western Scrub-Jay tries to steal acorns from a granary, the whole group of Acorn Woodpeckers gets mad and gangs up on them. A squirrel is no match for six or seven Acorn Woodpeckers.
Q: Excuse me, where's the bathroom?
A: Pretty much anywhere. On our t-shirts, on the car seats, on the ground...
Q: *stares blankly*
A: Oh. Um. Through the doors, up the stairs, and to the right.
Q: Is that a real bird?
A: Yes, it's a taxidermic specimen from the museum.
Q: Is it dead?
A: ...yes? I hope.
Q: So, do Acorn Woodpeckers live around here?
A: Acorn Woodpeckers live throughout most of California, wherever there are several species of oak trees in the same habitat. Their range extends up to southern Oregon and down through parts of Mexico and Central America. Acorn Woodpeckers are also really adaptable. They do fine in cities. You might have seen them around your home or in a nearby park.
Q: What's the climbing equipment for?
A: Acorn Woodpeckers build their nests in cavities really high up in the trees. So to band the chicks, Natasha has to do some serious climbing.
Q: Can you make the woodpecker come out of his cavity?
A: Almost loves people, but he's met more people in a few hours today than ever before in his entire life. He's a little overstimulated, so he's taking a break right now. He'll come out when he's feeling rested.
Q: Oh look, he's coming out of the cavity! He's so cute! Can I touch him?
A: Please do not pet the woodpecker.
I love answering questions about Acorn Woodpeckers. Do you have any that we weren't asked at Cal Day? Comment and I'll do my best.
Jump to a Post
Welcome to Hawk Ridge
A Massive Migration
A Happy Birdthday
Photos from the Week
Visiting the Banding Station
A Watched Kettle Never Streams
Food, Part 1
The Big Picture
Last Weeks at the Ridge
Belize, Part 1
How to Look at Birds, A Guide (or: Belize, Part 2)
All Creatures Great and Small
Kids and Language, Again
More Photos from France
Food, Part 2
Building Nests in California
Please Do Not Pet the Woodpecker
Condors and Creatures in Big Sur
A Day at Hastings
I am a high school graduate taking a gap year before college. I’m interested in birds, biology, and the natural world, as well as history, foreign languages, writing, and reading.