The virtues of vengeance

We had a little fracas in our front yard yesterday. My wife has several bird feeders out there, and a tree branch is draped with disgusting lumps of suet which have attracted multiple species and individuals of woodpecker — there are a couple of big pileated woodpeckers that hang out around here regularly now. Unsurprisingly, this concentration of happy birds attracted an unwelcome visitor.

There was a lot of squawking and frantic fluttering and panic-stricken birds flying away from our house.

That got me thinking. The woodpeckers are rather helpless, with the choice of eating or being eaten. If I were in that position of a predator blocking my access to food and threatening to kill and eat me, I’d be pissed off and talking to the neighbors about what to do about it. Maybe we’d contact local communities and trade goods and services to recruit samurai — you know, like maybe 7 of them — to hunt down and kill the predator that I’m personally helpless against, so that I can resume gnawing frozen fat off a tree branch.

Woodpeckers don’t have that capability, but humans do. It seems to me that this attribute of revenge and organized overkill might have been a major advantage in our evolution. Other animals certainly make the effort to eliminate competition, but we’re really good at building cooperative specialists to mob anyone who interferes with our living, or annoys us a little bit, or makes a rude comment on Twitter.

We may have overdone it, but our local woodpeckers would probably appreciate being able to find an ally to chase off the bad guy.

Actually, they do have Mary, who’ll go out and wave her arms and yell at the offending bird, but she’s going to go away for a few weeks. I’ll still be here for most of that time, but I’ll probably just watch the drama and muse about the evolutionary pressures imposed by predation.


  1. says

    “It seems to me that this attribute of revenge and organized overkill might have been a major advantage in our evolution.”
    No offense PZ but that sounds a bit like “Evolutionary Psychology”. I though that was something that bothered you?

  2. says

    Actually, they do have Mary, who’ll go out and wave her arms and yell at the offending bird, but she’s going to go away for a few weeks.

    But predators also need to eat something, or else they will starve to death. I don’t think that humans should harm predatory wild animals by denying them meals.

  3. robro says

    I don’t know about pileated woodpeckers, but small birds are not helpless against raptors. They can be very aggressive at driving off threats. Compared to a hawk, small birds are agile and quick in flight, swooping around a hawk in an aggravating way. They will even gang up on a raptor, and sometimes different species will join together in driving off a hawk. Hawks are actually limited in their defense particularly when they are in flight.

    Of course, the hawks win some too.

    By the way there’s an article in this month’s Scientific American about bird intelligence. The authors cite evidence that birds have developed unique neural networks that give them some capabilities similar to human intelligence.

  4. starskeptic says

    Ray Ceeya@1
    No offense, Ray but in order for that to be EV, the thinking behind it would have to be completely inverted…

  5. wonderpants says

    Not sure what you’re objecting too here. If you put up something that attracts a lot of small or midsized birds to a small area, you’re eventually also going to have a bird of prey or other predator turning up too, thinking it’s their very own fast food spot! As someone else said, they gotta eat too.

    Besides, cats kill far more birds than birds of prey do.

  6. rabbitbrush says

    PZ, I don’t know what you/Mary expected, but when you feed birds you also feed birds to birds. I feed birds. When a sharp-shinned hawk shows up (as in your pic), I think it’s pretty cool. Distressing, but she has to eat, too.

    Cats, on other hand…I trap cats that wander into my yard and kill birds; and take them to the humane society. Every one I have taken there has found a home, whether it be the original caretaker or a new one. And I love cats. I have two who live with me, but they never go outside.

  7. quotetheunquote says

    @ 8 –
    It’s one of the Accipter genus, Cooper’s Hawk or Sharp-shinned Hawk. Really hard to say, based on the one photo, which of the two it is, the two being very similar in plumage. Size is diagnostic (Cooper’s is larger), but you kind of have be able to catch it it and measure wing length…

  8. quotetheunquote says

    Dork. “…have to be able…”

    @ Jack16.

    Bald Eagles, yes, Red-tailed Hawks, maybe?, but these guys, no. They’re small-to-medium-sized bird specialists, they rely on living prey. Never heard of them going for anything not moving (yes, falconer’s birds will take “pre-killed” meat, but they’re trained on it from birth).

  9. nomdeplume says

    Australian birds do exactly what PZ is suggesting. A hawk or eagle elicits warning calls from small birds like wrens. It has been shown that other birds recognise these and respond with evasive action. And, after that initial warning, groups of several different species will work together to mob the predator, distracting them at first then harassing yhem until they leave to look for easier pickings somewhere else. I have seen our biggest raptor, the wedge-tail eagle, pursued by angry groups including the tiny wagtail, the small peewit and the medium-sized magpie, harassed while sitting in a tres until they move, then pursued for some kilometres, higher and higher, until the harassed eagle leaves the area.

  10. kestrel says

    OK, you put up a bird feeder. Hawks are birds. You are feeding them. I don’t see a problem here…

  11. aronymous says

    I saw a birdfeeding video on youtube (so be assured it’s true) that said to take the feeders down for about a week. The birds cover a wide daily range and will find food.

  12. quasar says

    Another Australian here. Noisy Myners are particularly aggressive: if you know their warning call you’ll never not know when there’s a hawk around.

    It hardly seems fair, since the Grey Goshawk we have around here is a gentle species that mostly survives on insects and small lizards. It’s not uncommon to see a goshawk sitting on a branch minding it’s own business while half a dozen of the little bullies divebomb it and smack it in the head with their wings.

  13. dorght says

    One day out in the yard I heard a squawk at the bird feeder and turned to see a juvenile duck passing low close too my left, an ambitious coopers hawk to my right. The chase and squawking continued out of my sight so not sure of the outcome but I’m betting the hawk had difficulty getting airborne after dinner.
    Coopers hawks are amazing ambush flyers usually popping up over an obscuring fence or roof to try and catch a meal unaware (usually pigeon at our “bird feeder”). That means they have built a mental map of the area. I’ve seen more misses the hits. Life as a raptor ain’t easy either.
    A few days of birds making themselves scarce and the hawk will move on.

  14. rrhain says

    When I was working for Sony, there was a hawk/falcon of some sort sitting on one of the lampposts for the parking lot. Just minding its business.
    The crows were having none of it and spent a good time dive bombing it in an attempt to drive it away. Eventually, the hawk got tired of all the harassment and left.

  15. chigau (違う) says

    The local bluejays and magpies used to harass my neighbour’s cat whenever she went out into the back yard. She would fight back and occasionally got one.
    Years go by, cat got old. And possibly blind and possibly deaf.
    Whilst she was sunning on the porch, the magpies were forced to land and walk right up to her in order to harass.
    She got at leas

  16. Mark says

    I used to think hawks were majestic until I saw one in my yard, not a dozen feet from my kitchen window, calmly plucking the feathers from its dead prey. It was a thorough and messy process with bits of feathers scattered all over my flowerbed. It was a massacre.

  17. rockwhisperer says

    I live in the suburban South San Francisco Bay Area in California, and I keep seed feeders and hummingbird feeders out all year long. (Anna’s hummingbirds aren’t a migratory species.) Occasionally a Cooper’s hawk stops by in the summer, but we have neighborhood crows who form an Unwelcoming Committee. The hawk doesn’t stay long. I keep trying to get a good photo of them, but the crows pretend not to understand my cry of “wait, wait, let me get my camera!”

  18. brightmoon says

    I believe that the little dinosaurs mob raptors. I had a female goldfinch chase me down the street just because she saw me looking for her nest. Bird who weighs a few ounces vs a grown woman. Guess who won ( it wasn’t me)

  19. numerobis says

    procyon: I’ve repeatedly witnessed ravens and gulls joining forces to harass a falcon. Falcons fly in pairs. There’d be one falcon just soaring and screeching like it was just a beautiful day, and their mate would have a raven and a gull after them taking potshots with the falcon diving to get out of the way or flipping around to show talons uncomfortably close to the attacking bird’s face.

    They wouldn’t give up until the falcon eventually did and would flap its way out of there (falcons are way faster even than gulls, never mind ravens). Then they’d go after the mate.

  20. unclefrogy says

    I live in L. A. harbor I planted a coast live oak I got from the botanic garden plant sale. it is in its historical range and when I had dogs I had lots of different kinds of birds visit that tree I would find small clumps of feathers from time to time on the ground took me a while before I figured out that birds of prey visited as well I have seen just about all of them once or twice in that tree from great big red tail to a tiny kestrel. including falcons. They came for the birds. All the dogs have died and I have not replaced them yet and now the birds are far fewer. I have cats now I have adopted some of the alley cats a tom who does next to nothing all day and likes to stay indoors except when there is a cat in season outside some where. I also have adopted a female who is a very good hunter I taught her that the invasive eastern fox squirrels are meat she can catch them ( they like bird nests very much)
    but with cats there are not any nesting birds or even many visitors just some finches now and a couple of Phoebe that chase flying insects. the birds don’t like bird eaters hanging out under their nests apparently I have fewer less squirrels that’s good but way more raccoons coming into the yard tearing through potted plants and water tanks and the occasional roof.
    there is another thing you can supply for birds that is way more fun then a feeder, take the head of an old and worn-out string mop and place it up high where you can see it easily and the birds are safe all of them will come to it to grab some excellent nest material they will remove every strand and put on a great show doing it. nail it up on a pole and let it weather. cotton one is better.
    just ask one of the janitors for an old one.
    uncle frogy

  21. Diane says

    Before Thanksgiving, I head a great commotion on our deck. To my surprise, my 2 cats, 3 squirrels were all on the deck with a blue jay on the railing. Opened the door and saw a hawk walking towards a sea gull who was between the hawk and our shed.
    I threw a plastic watering can near the hawk, mostly noise. It looked at me and flew a way.
    The poor sea gull just stood there for about 5 mins. Went back on the deck the squirrels and blue jay still there.
    Needless to say, my cats came in and did not go out for the rest of the day.
    I try and intervene, know everybody has to eat, but at least once a year, I have to dispose of remains of fish or bird carcass in my garden.

  22. Sonja says

    My office overlooks the Minnesota River Valley National Wildlife Refuge. We see a lot of birds of prey in flight, but one day we saw something extraordinary. Three small birds were harassing a hawk in flight, absolutely tormenting it. The hawk’s response was to gain altitude, but the small birds followed it. This is why I cannot identify the species of either birds because they kept climbing and climbing. It was amazing how high the hawk flew, yet the small birds were relentless.