We were out in Winthrop recently and happened to see a pileated woodpecker doing something one might imagine being pretty out-of-character for any woodpecker, let alone one the size of a crow.
The bird was holding on to the bending branches of a black cherry tree while reaching up for the ripe (and apparently enticing) dark cherries.
As we kept an eye on the tree hoping to snap a photo or record a bit of video of the behavior, we were further surprised to see a juvenile yellow-bellied sapsucker doing the same thing.
In that case we were able to get a photo and some video, which you can see here. The bird would flutter up underneath the hanging cherries and pluck one off. Then it would flutter over to a nearby birch tree, where it would place the cherry in a little hole and then poke at it. We saw it do this several times, though never had the chance to see the pileated woodpecker do it again.
Last year we watched a number of Northern flickers avidly feeding on wild grapes down at Green Point Wildlife Management Area in Dresden.
In that case, they seemed to just be swallowing the grapes whole as fast as they could get them down. In fact, before general hunting protections came into being for most birds, flickers were often harvested for market sale in the late summer and fall when they were feeding on black cherries.
Why would woodpeckers eat fruit? For them, like many birds and other animals (humans included), these summer fruits are high in carbohydrates and are generally much easier to get then other foods.
For a woodpecker, the ability to fill up with nutritious fruits in a few minutes instead of spending lots of energy digging into a tree trunk must be as great to them as munching from a heavily laden raspberry or blueberry bush is for us!
A turn-of-the-century study that examined the stomach contents of woodpeckers showed that virtually all species included significant amounts of fruit in their diet when it was available.
One important aspect of fruit eating that we sometimes forget is that the birds that eat fruits later pass the seeds out of their digestive tracts.
One theory of why some plants have evolved to have large fleshy and palatable fruits is because they can get a ride from a bird or mammal that will then drop them in another place to eventually germinate and grow.
Woodpeckers, then, are among the birds that may be especially important in keeping our forests and wild lands healthy by assisting various fruiting trees and shrubs to maintain their diversity across the landscape.
This makes us think that we need to plant a black cherry or choke cherry somewhere in our yard this fall so we can enjoy watching what comes to Mother Nature’s fast food restaurant!
Dr. Jeff Wells is the senior scientist for the Boreal Songbird Initiative. During his time at the famed Cornell Lab of Ornithology and as the Audubon Society’s national bird conservation director, Dr. Wells earned a reputation as one of the nation’s leading bird experts and conservation biologists. Jeff’s grandfather, the late John Chase, was a columnist for the Boothbay Register for many years. Allison Childs Wells, also formerly of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is a widely published natural history writer and a senior director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine. Together, they have been writing and teaching people about birds for decades. The Maine natives are authors of the highly acclaimed book, “Maine’s Favorite Birds.”