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UC research: Woodpecker life is a Game of Thrones

UC researchers tag woodpeckers with an innovative antenna that doesn’t obstruct flight. Credit: Hana Londoño Oikawa

Scientists at UC Natural Reserve System’s Hastings Natural History Reservation have gained a whole new perspective on the acorn woodpeckers (Melanerpes formicivorus) they’ve watched for decades. The birds turn out to be a lot more sly and strategic than researchers had long believed.

Like the fictional nobles in “Game of Thrones,” the birds will do anything to conquer their own kingdom. Their goal is to secure a good granary tree, which houses the acorn stash critical to a woodpecker family’s survival.

A massive granary tree affords a woodpecker family plenty of advantages. They’re more likely to survive harsh winters, raise surviving chicks, and ensure the triumph of their own bloodlines.

Good granaries are tough to come by. It takes an age to build one — the hole for one acorn might take ten minutes to excavate, and large granaries may hold tens of thousands of acorns. Competition to secure the biggest granaries and their surrounding territory is fierce.

A granary goes up for grabs only after all breeders of one sex in a family group have died or left. When a breeding spot opens up, birds from other families battle over the succession.

Successful combatants don’t show up alone. Instead, groups of siblings from other territories duke it out.

Clashes may last for days, with foes hunting one another through the trees, grappling in midair, falling to the ground, and hammering one another with their powerful bills.

Read the full story about what UC researchers have learned about the woodpeckers using innovative solar tracking tags.

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