Bird Battle Royale: Acorn Woodpeckers Fight to the Death, and Other Birds Like to Watch

Acorn woodpeckers like to watch a good fight, and scientists aren't sure why.
Acorn woodpeckers like to watch a good fight, and scientists aren't sure why. / NaturesDisplay/iStock via Getty Images

With the coronavirus pandemic making it difficult for spectators to congregate for sporting events, nature appears to be holding its own clash of tiny titans with chirping crowds. When acorn woodpeckers duke it out to claim territory, other woodpeckers gather to watch the carnage, a trait Woody Woodpecker never told us about.

A new paper published in the journal Current Biology has shed new light on this game of acorns and the birds' ability to draw eyewitnesses who use branches instead of bleachers. Acorn woodpeckers, which are prevalent in wooded areas from Oregon to Mexico, are so named for their desire for acorns, which become a necessary component of their winter survival. When one group of woodpeckers has stockpiled enough acorns and stuffed them into dead trees known as granaries, other groups may descend upon their territory, picking a fight involving multiple groups. The winner gets the acorns.

The groups are often related to the core founders of the acorn supply, which may die off and leave a power vacuum to fill. Known as helpers, the birds can be offspring looking to establish their own base of operations and begin to breed themselves.

Using radio tags, researchers were able to track the activity of woodpeckers and their explosions of violence. What’s curious about these avian struggles is the fact that other birds not directly involved in the bout will fly away from their own acorn stashes for the express purpose of pulling up a stick and watching the brutal fight unfold. Some encounters may be demonstrations of might, with angry chirping and ruffled feathers. Others end with gouged eyes, broken wings, and birds tumbling to the ground while locked in combat.

Researchers aren’t entirely sure why the birds risk leaving their own homes unmonitored in order to attend the proceedings. It’s possible that it’s a social event, though not for amusement purposes so much as a way to collect information on the local hierarchy.

[h/t Smithsonian]