Eat or be Eaten

I watched the Downy WoodpeckerDryobates pubescens, for several minutes.   She was rock-still:  nothing moved, not a feather, despite the gentle sway of the feeder and the clasped piece of peanut in her beak.  Because she was motionless–abnormal for a bird–I realized that there must be a predator nearby.

I Downy-watched from my kitchen window, my favorite bird blind.  Even with my movements at the window–slow and careful, as not to startle the little bird–she didn’t move: no head turn, no shuffle of claws, no gulp of the prized peanut, nor snatch of another.  From my standing position, no predator was obvious, so I squatted at the window, looking up into the oak tree just beyond and around at the outdoors as best I could see.

I finally spotted that which froze, in fear, the heart of the would-be feeding woodpecker. The culprit perched far across my property, high in the neighbors’ elm tree.

The photo is poor, taken through the window and at some distance, with plenty of foliage and limbs as distractions.  The hawk is a big one, probably a Cooper’s Hawk, Accipiter cooperii, as they’re common here, especially in autumn, winter, and early spring.

The Downy was still for a good five minutes, maybe longer.  Finally the hawk took flight toward my house, but high above.  A split second afterwards the Downy pushed off from the feeder, heading in the same direction as the hawk, though much farther below and toward the protection of a large evergreen shrub.

I don’t know if the hawk swooped in for the woodpecker, though I doubt that’s what happened; there’s too much cover which would serve as safety for the woodpecker and too much interference for the hawk’s dive.  I imagine the hawk winged to another part of the neighborhood in search of an easier catch, one less aware of the hawk’s existence.

It was an eat or be eaten life-cycle moment.  I’m certain the woodpecker finally ate her peanut, because I’ve seen her since.  And I’m equally certain the hawk found something to eat; I’m just not sure what, when, or where.

Appreciative for the life lessons a garden bestows, I’m joining today with Anna and her Wednesday Vignette.   Check out her beautiful Flutter and Hum for musings of various sorts.

16 thoughts on “Eat or be Eaten

  1. I’m glad it turned out to be a predator but more glad that it didn’t eat the woodpecker! The reason I’m glad it was a predator is that some birds go into that catatonic state for no good reason (well, no reason that a human can perceive, anyway) and even waving ones hands at them and jumping about in front of them doesn’t alter their state. It’s a mystery (and sometimes a worrying one.)

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  2. I’m glad that downy has good instincts! I know the Cooper’s has to eat, and I hope it found a tasty treat, but it’s nice that lunch wasn’t ‘your’ downy!


  3. I’m always amazed at how keenly aware animals are of surrounding dangers. We are so used to being on the top of the food chain, I feel we have slacked off in that regard. Glad the little woodpecker survived, and that she obviously has her wits about her. And, this lesson reminds me to appreciate the cover that makes up my shady yard. I like that it also provides much needed cover for all kinds of animals. 🙂


  4. What an interesting tale. I’m not sure I’ve realized that birds will ‘freeze’ like that. I know some of the behaviors designed to fool predators, like the broken-wing trick, but this little darling showed real perseverance, staying still that long. I’m glad you’ve seen her since, and I’m sure you’re right that the hawk decided to find a more suitable hunting environment. When there’s a hawk in the neighborhood, opting for low and shrubby is the smart thing to do.

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    • Last winter I saw an Orange-crowned warbler do the same thing, though for a shorter time (at least my observation wasn’t as long). The warbler was at the suet feeder, near the house and about 6 feet from that peanut feeder, and another (or maybe the same) Cooper’s Hawk was on my back fence. The hawk went after a dove and the warbler skedaddled.

      I was amazed at how still the downy was–absolutely nothing moved. And then, as soon as the hawk took off, so did she. I guess she had a good view of the hawk, but she wasn’t even moving her eyes! I guess her survival skills are well-honed.

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  5. My first reaction as I was reading was that a bird can just fly away from a predator. Then, almost as quickly, I realized that that’s true about a ground predator like a cat or coyote, but not about a bird of prey.


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