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The Disturbing Pecking Order

I never really understood the phrase “pecking order” until recently. After checking with Mr. Webster’s dictionary, I confirmed my suspicions that the pecking order actually was established by poultry. Hens, that is.

Apparently the bigger, stronger, more aggressive hens rule the roost. Their actions give them the ability to take the most feed from others while the more intimidated hens get out of the way.

I observed the pecking order in another venue — at a window bird feeder we installed outside our living room window. It took some time before any winged visitors landed and enjoyed the seed and suet-filled plate at our expense. However, once they found the free meals, our lesson in the bird kingdom was ongoing.

At first, the tiny, brown house sparrows flew to the feeder, hopping around to the point of tossing some seeds onto the ground as they fed. Then came the brown-headed cowbirds and red-winged black birds. Holy cow, there was a lot happening at the windowsill.

To our delight, a Baltimore oriole made a guest appearance, but he or she opted to enjoy meals at the grape jelly feeder placed on a shepherd’s hook in the yard.

Back at the box feeder, our excitement turned to dismay as the blue jays showed up and forced the sparrows out. Next the mourning doves arrived in pairs, and let me tell you, they are anything but peaceful creatures. They challenged even the bigger jays by spreading their wings aggressively and pecking at the other birds.

As each species of birds took its turn at the feeder, it was becoming a war of wings. And then chaos erupted when the red-headed woodpeckers arrived. These impressive birds are flashy, beautiful works of nature by design and size. It became instantly clear who was at the top of the pecking order in the bird kingdom, or at least at our window feeder.

Not only do the woodpeckers dominate, they also enjoy rattling our downspouts as they peck on them to attract mates. This usually occurs at dawn. No alarm clocks are necessary in this house.

When the woodpeckers appear, all the other birds hightail it to the nearest tree. On occasion, these giants will allow only the sparrows to join them for a bite to eat. Feathers have been flying when a jay or a dove puffs up and decides to engage in a violent fight with the woodpeckers.

I had never witnessed such behavior in nature before and now worry that one of these winged battles will end up crashing through the window.

What began as an enjoyable birding experience has turned to anguish at times as I see all that vicious pecking going on.

It has been food for thought. I can see where the pecking order also applies to humans. The bigger and splashier the person, the more attention he or she gets. Getting to the top of the heap in the human world also often means pushing a few others out of the way. Think of China and Russia and, well, right here in the United States.

Sometimes I feel just like a sparrow.

Heather Ziegler can be reached via email at hziegler@theintelligencer.net.


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