December 16, 2018
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Berry-eating woodpecker spices up a winter day

Courtesy of Steve Mirick
Courtesy of Steve Mirick
Pileated woodpeckers are especially fond of carpenter ants, and will dig deep into a tree to find them. But they do eat fruit occasionally.

Now I’ve seen everything. Picture this: I was stopped at the light on Stillwater Avenue in Old Town, waiting to enter I-95. A crow-sized shadow crossed the road, and landed in a crabapple tree in front of a convenience store.

I was instantly alert. The behavior seemed unusual. This bird wasn’t likely to be a crow. Crows don’t often land in small, flimsy fruit trees. Furthermore, crows swoop down from above. This bird had crossed the road on a low, flat trajectory, and it had the stiff-winged, undulating flight of a …

Pileated woodpecker! There it was, clinging to a twig, gulping down berries. In all my life, I had never before seen such a thing. I scurried to my library of bird guides. I scoured the internet. Sure enough, they do eat berries, even poison ivy berries. Insects and grubs make up the bulk of a pileated woodpecker’s diet. They are especially fond of carpenter ants, and will dig deep into a tree to find them. But they do eat fruit occasionally.

Pileated woodpeckers will also visit backyard suet feeders, or so I’m told. I’ve never seen that, either. These woodpeckers breed and forage in my yard, but I’m guessing they don’t like where I hang the suet. In an effort to lure them, last year I attached a suet feeder to the nearest tree. The squirrels went bonkers. No longer deterred by the baffles and obstacles I routinely place in their way, they ripped open the new feeder and carried off the suet. My failed experiment ended in less than an hour. Make no mistake, the squirrels and I are at war. They’re winning.

A mated pair of pileated woodpeckers defends a territory year-round. They don’t tolerate intruders, although they relax the rules of engagement in the dead of winter. A wandering woodpecker in February may be accosted by nothing more than a few calls and a half-hearted drum. But by March, an interloper can expect a physical attack if he doesn’t skedaddle.

My berry-plucking woodpecker was lucky. In many winters, the fruit would have been gone by now, devoured by other birds. It’s been a quiet year for species such as pine grosbeaks and bohemian waxwings. Typically, one or both of these Canadian-breeding species invade Maine when the fruit is just getting soft. Apparently, there is enough food up north that they haven’t wandered this far south yet. I’ve seen cedar waxwings and a handful of robins picking the berries, but even they have been rather quiet this winter.

As it turns out, hairy and downy woodpeckers also eat fruit. I’ve never seen them pluck crabapples either, but at least I already knew that they supplemented their diets with vegetative matter. They sometimes eat the sunflower seeds at my feeder, maybe as a change of pace from the suet.

The truth is, woodpeckers often surprise me. I’ve seen yellow-bellied sapsuckers hawking for insects, flying off the tree trunk to snatch bugs in mid-air. I vividly recall watching a red-headed woodpecker do this in Tennessee, 20 years ago. Very strange.

Speaking of strange, something odd is happening in the Gulf of Maine. Dovekies and thick-billed murres are swimming close to shore in unusual numbers. Both species are members of the Alcidae family, and cousins to the Atlantic puffin. Alcids use their wings to propel themselves underwater, much like the unrelated penguins of the southern hemisphere. Unlike penguins, they retain the ability to fly, albeit on short stubby wings. They have to flap fast to stay airborne, somewhat like bumblebees.

Six alcid species occur in Maine. Atlantic puffins, common murres, razorbills, and black guillemots nest here. The nearest nesting island for thick-billed murres is in Witless Bay, Newfoundland. Dovekies nest even farther north. This tiny seabird is plentiful in arctic waters, perhaps one of the most abundant birds in the world. Both stray south in winter, but they are not commonly seen from shore. This year, they are.

Most reports of these unusual seabirds have come from York County. They have been spotted at the Nubble Lighthouse and the Cliff House in York, Marginal Way in Ogunquit, and Dyer Point in Cape Elizabeth. A few more have been seen farther north.

Dovekies are tiny, half the size of puffins. Like most alcids, they are black on top, white below. Thick-billed murres are larger than puffins, with stubby-looking bills. Searching the Maine coast in winter for such rare delights is like a birding treasure hunt. Good luck.

Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at He can be reached at

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