There are many avian predators that would like nothing better than make a meal out of a downy woodpecker. The roster of birds that are constantly on the lookout for birds such as the downy includes the sharp-shinned hawk, American kestrel, and Coopers hawk. Since the downy cannot fly as fast as these feathered hunters, it often employs other means to avoid being caught and eaten. Recently, I observed a downy woodpecker escape the sharp talons of one of these skilled aerial hunters.
Late one afternoon while I was working in my office, I paused to look the out the office window overlooking a nearby bird feeding area. Cardinals, titmice, American goldfinches, house finches as well as an occasional Carolina chickadee were visiting a sunflower seed feeder. Surprisingly the suet feeders were not hosting any feathered diners. However, I did spot a downy woodpecker clinging to the shepherd’s hook holding up two of the feeders. Since downy woodpeckers often land on the pole and seemingly shimmy up to the suet feeder, I thought this bird would do the same.
However, all of a sudden the birds suddenly took flight and vanished, except for the downy; which remained motionless. I continued to watch the bird for a few minutes before returning to my work. However, as you might imagine it was difficult for me to focus on my writing. Consequently, I opted instead to frequently check on the downy. To my surprise, every time I took a peek at the bird it was in the same place. In fact, it never once even moved its head. In the meantime, the birds that suddenly departed did not return.
Finally some 20 minutes later I decided it was time to return to the house. When I opened my office door the bird still did move. It finally flew when I walked down the office steps and started making my way back to the house.
I suspect what happened was that a hawk approached the birds dining in my bird feeding area. All of them, with the exception of the downy, decided the best way to avoid being attacked was to flee as quickly as possible. The downy, on the other hand, employed a totally different method to avoid being caught – it remained motionless. As fool hardy as this may seem, in many cases, by remaining motionless when danger approaches prey animals become invisible to predators. This explanation makes sense to me since, in the face of approaching danger, one of the downy woodpecker’s defenses is to flatten themselves against the bark of a tree.
Since I never saw or heard a hawk, I will never know for sure that is what happened. One thing I do know is I will never forget this experience and hope I will witness this behavior again.