Nuts About Acorns

Tap into what makes these quirky, clown­ish wood­peck­ers tick.

Birds & Blooms - - Garden With A Purpose - BY KAITLIN STAINBROOK

When it comes to hoard­ing food, few birds com­pare to the acorn wood­pecker. Un­like wood­peck­ers that tap their way into tree trunks to mow down in­sects, these western birds bore small, tidy holes into wood, where they store acorns (and some­times other nuts) by the thou­sands.

In fact, just one fam­ily unit may cre­ate a win­ter stock­pile of up to 50,000 acorns in a sin­gle tree, called a gra­nary. One bird stands guard against any would-be thieves as the oth­ers fo­cus on build­ing their im­pres­sive cache.

To make sure their trea­sures stay put, the birds knock each acorn into a hole, us­ing their beaks as makeshift mal­lets. If an acorn starts to loosen, one of the wood­peck­ers will move it to a bet­ter-fit­ting cav­ity.

De­spite their name, these wood­peck­ers eat more than just acorns and other nuts. They also con­sume ants and fly­ing in­sects that they snatch out of the air. Tree sap, fruit and even lizards are on the menu, too.

Acorn wood­peck­ers are highly so­cial birds. They live to­gether in groups of up to 12 or more, and they nest and raise their broods com­mu­nally. The breed­ing fe­males of­ten keep their eggs to­gether in a shared nest, which is al­ways in­side a tree cav­ity. Mul­ti­ple mem­bers help in­cu­bate the eggs. Acorn wood­peck­ers don’t build their nests, though. In­stead, they uti­lize fresh wood chips, which ac­cu­mu­late in­side tree cav­i­ties thanks to their peck­ing, as nest­ing ma­te­rial.

Once the young are born, other fam­ily mem­bers work along­side the par­ents to rear and feed the young. It’s com­mon for grown off­spring from the pre­vi­ous year to as­sist their par­ents in rais­ing the new brood.

Be­cause they are mas­ters at stor­ing sup­plies for win­ter, acorn wood­peck­ers are res­i­dent birds, mean­ing they don’t typ­i­cally mi­grate un­less they run out of food. They can be seen year-round in ar­eas with oak and pine-oak wood­lands, in­clud­ing some subur­ban ar­eas and ur­ban parks.

You can at­tract these rowdy birds to your back­yard if you live within range (western Ore­gon, Cal­i­for­nia and the South­west) and keep your suet and seed feed­ers well-stocked, but be care­ful what you wish for.

Al­though the an­tics of acorn wood­peck­ers are fas­ci­nat­ing, these birds some­times store their food in hu­man-made struc­tures, from tele­phone poles to the sides of build­ings. Your best bet for see­ing these quirky wood­peck­ers in per­son is to take a walk through the woods. If you find a tree rid­dled with holes and hear a waka-waka call, look up!

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