Here’s my latest For the Birds column, which runs Thursdays in The Hour newspaper in Norwalk, Ct., and Mondays in the Keene Sentinel in New Hampshire.
The things parents will do for their kids.
Ever wonder how a woodpecker’s nest keeps clean of waste as the youngsters are growing? I’ll get to that in a second. First a little background on how I came to observe this behavior.
Will and I celebrated Father’s Day a day late with a one-night camping trip to Lake Waramaug north of Danbury. My other son Andrew is out of town on a fun trip, so Will and wanted to do something special, too. We went on Monday because I had my radio show to do on Sunday and I’d rather not camp on a weekend anyway.
It was my first trip to Lake Waramaug State Park, so we drove around slowly to check out the campsites. A water view would have been nice, but a small cluster of sites up near the woods seemed more remote and away from the few other campers who were already there. As we walked up to inspect the site, I heard a familiar constant sound coming from a nearby tree. It was the sound I heard when I arrived at work every day a few years ago when a Hairy Woodpecker couple made its nest in a tree near the parking lot. The baby woodpeckers, invisible from view and begging for food, provided a constant whining.
It took only about a minute to see what type of woodpecker had built the nest near this camping site. A female Yellow-bellied Sapsucker landed near the tree and then disappeared into the small hole near the top of a half-dead maple tree. A few seconds later the female flew out of the hole again and went on another quest for food. It must seem like a never-ending quest for the bird parents.
Needless to say, we picked a nearby site and the woodpecker nest provided an educational tool for Will and the other youngsters (and adults) who wandered past the site. The woodpecker parents were never far and the action was never dull for more than a minute or two. Either the parents would be in and out performing their duties or one of the youngsters would poke its head out in search of mommy or daddy.
The hole, I should mention, was high enough in the tree that the curious humans on the ground were no bother to them.
Every so often I’d see the male sapsucker fly out of the tree, cling to the side of a nearby tree and drop something.
I wondered why it was dropping things when he clearly had hungry youngsters in the nest. Eventually I checked out the base of the nearby tree to see if anything was gathering underneath. It was gathering all right. A big pile of woodpecker waste was collected at the bottom of the tree.
All that food going into the babies had to come out, right? Woodpecker nests are not designed so that the youngsters could aim their waste out of the nest toward the ground. And they are not designed so that a parent could simply fling the waste to the ground.
Enter the father bird. (I’m sure the mother shares in this duty, too.) He was collecting the waste from the brood in his beak and taking out the garbage, so to speak. Kind of the bird equivalent of changing diapers.
It was fun and interesting to watch. It didn’t even have an “ick factor” as that’s simply nature at work.
Yes, fathers perform all sorts of duties, even in the bird world.