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Bird fill the ‘bill’ on pecking order

by Minden Press-Herald

I think I first noticed it around my backyard bird feeder; I’m talking about the “pecking’ order. By definition, it’s the “colloquial term for a hierarchical system of social organization.”

Have you ever taken the time to really observe the competition and downright bullying that goes on in the avian world, especially around your feeders?

There are probably a dozen species of birds that enjoy the free food I keep on my feeders, especially now that the weather is cold and birds need to eat constantly to replenish their spent energy.

In observing who “rules the roost” around my feeders, there is a hierarchy played out when several species are simultaneously competing for the food.

The smaller birds, such as juncos and titmice, have it all figured out. You don’t see these species sitting in one spot on the feeder pecking at grain. These two species act similarly in that no matter if a larger more mean-spirited bird in on the feeder, they flit in, grab a single sunflower seed and are gone within two seconds.

Both species fly to a branch, secure the seed with a foot, hammer the husk off the kernel, swallow it and are back for another within a couple of minutes. Brave little dudes, they are. Meantime on the ground, the juncos and chipping sparrows feed unmolested.

One of my favorite species is the cardinal. During spring breeding season, one bright red male will have apparently won the contest to determine who is head red bird and he claims a corner of the feeder. He’ll usually allow a female to join him but if another male moves in, the alpha male chases him away. I’ll often see several males sitting in the trees around the feeder and they only get to eat when the boss bird has his fill and flits away.

Which bird seems to be the most prominent bully? Blue jays won’t hesitate to chase away other birds but there is another that blue jays respect. Around my feeders, it’s the red-bellied woodpecker. He just looks intimidating with his stout beak, undulating flight pattern and his hanging onto the side of the feeder, daring another bird to invade his space.

A bird that surprised me at its tenacity is one I would never have thought to be a bully. Doves are the symbol of peace and their soft “cooing” call sounds anything but intimidating. A dove’s reputation for peace and tranquility goes right out the window when another species ventures too close. On several occasions, I have seen a dove puff up and rush cardinals, blue jays and even woodpeckers.

In the wild, game birds, wild turkeys in particular, establish a pecking order that is fascinating to observe.

It all starts in summer when young males of the year, known as “jakes”, begin to establish dominance among the flock. Some serious clashes take place, along with accompanying guttural purrs.

The eventual winner of these battles will reach maturity as a boss gobbler, chasing potential suitors away from his flock of hens.

Several seasons ago, it was this competition that lead to the demise of a gobbler I had called in for a youngster on a youth hunt. I had placed a “jake” decoy out front of a hen decoy and called the gobbler off the roost. When he saw what he determined to be a teenager messing with one of his hens, he rushed in preparing for a fight and met a load of number 6 shot.

The pecking order is alive and well and observing what goes on in the bird world can be both entertaining and enlightening.

Glynn Harris Outdoor column is sponsored by D.C. Pawn in Minden

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