When habitat and harvest collide

This post also appeared in the October 2015 issue of the Columbia Audubon Society’s newsletter, The Chat, which Eric edits. 

Red-bellied Woodpeckers used to be one of our favorite local birds. Colorful and flamboyant, they enliven our feeder in winter and patrol our woods in summer. We love how they chase Blue Jays away from the birdseed yet leave smaller birds alone, how they sidle along our porch railing with heads cocked, how they stash food in the woods through a conveyor belt of looping flights. Their brash and distinctive calls enrich our soundscape year-round. While conducting timber stand improvements in our woods, we’ve left abundant dead snags to support the woodpecker population. Then came the great fruit massacre of 2015.woodpecker_fruit_1

First, it was the apples. We’d been seeing some pecking damage on ripening apples in our young orchard, but attributed it to Blue Jays due to direct observation of those pests active within the trees. This was the first year of setting fruit, after a late frost in 2014 damaged that year’s buds, and the branches were loaded with apples, even after thinning. We hung some old CDs from the branches, in hope that the shiny flashes would offer some apple protection. woodpecker_fruit_3

Nope. In early August, things got much worse. Something began drilling deep into the apples, hollowing out the entire fruit into an empty shell, and our tomatoes were being ravaged as well. In both cases, the fruits sported deep, sharp penetrations. Suddenly it clicked: woodpecker.  woodpecker_fruit_2

Sure enough, further observation showed the red-bellied marauders now visiting our orchard and tomato rows in waves, eating entire fruits right off the tree or vine, leaving only a dangling shell or stem as proof of their new appetite for fresh produce. They began scolding us, the fiends, when we dared to work within these areas, perching on a fence post or tree limb and chattering away at our impertinence. All told, they damaged much of our apple & tomato crop.

Interestingly, Red-Bellied Woodpeckers seem to have a clear preference for the color red. They ignored all the white, yellow, and orange tomatoes only to ravage even partially-ripe red ones, and ignored the sweet, juicy (but yellow!) Asian pears on four trees right next to the brutalized red apples. Online searches didn’t return a clear answer on woodpeckers’ visual color spectrum, but the fact that most of our local woodpecker species rely on red coloration to distinguish male from female certainly implies it’s a color they’re aware of and attracted to. Unfortunately, it’s pretty hard for a Missouri fruit & vegetable farm to avoid the color red during summer.

We’ve always prided ourselves on integrating food and farming in the ecosystem, managing our landscape to benefit birds and other species along with our own needs. Our abundant and diverse bird species help control pests while improving our workplace. But sometimes habitat and harvest collide, and we seem to have done rather too good a job at encouraging fructavore woodpeckers.

Though we’ve been managing this land for over nine years, this was our first such experience with significant bird damage to fresh produce (we’ve always had woodpeckers and others raid things like corn & sunflowers). However, wild populations cycle through boom & bust, and multiple years of habitat improvement and winter feeding (Penn State notes that “seed from bird feeders is a very important diet component for red-bellied woodpeckers in the winter“) may have coincided with a newly abundant fruit supply that taught our woodpeckers to raid the orchard and fields to support their booming 2015 population. Even now, with the apples and tomatoes gone, Red-Bellieds still seem prevalent. Or are we just paranoid?

3 thoughts on “When habitat and harvest collide

  1. Until this year it had been years since I had seen a red-headed woodpecker. Admittedly this is only my second year in this house having moved in July 2014. But this spring for the first time I saw them. Now, this fall, they are everywhere. I think it must have been a particularly good nesting season for many birds with our mostly abundant water without it being too wet. It also seems to be shaping up to maybe be a mast year for my white oaks who are shedding so many acorns it sounds like a war outside my window as they rifle off of my roof. I seem to be running a month ahead of 2014 on signs of fall/winter, migrations, etc. So I hope that’s not an ominous portent.

    • Just to clarify, we’re talking about Red-Bellied Woodpeckers here, not Red-Headed. The latter are uncommon for us, they seem to like large trees with broader open areas, not the denser woods and small openings we mostly have. They’re especially pretty birds, though, and if you did mean that you have a lot of them around, that’s a nice treat!

      • Wow, how did I get that confused? Yes, I have red-bellied and red-headed. The first red-headed I had seen showed up in the spring but they must have been quite prolific because now I have a LOT.