I’ve always learned that a bird’s beak should clue me in to what it eats. So why is a woodpecker on the bird feeder filled with sunflower seeds? Their bills are shaped like awls, not nutcrackers!
Still, I imagine that Massachusetts insect-eaters in winter feel as I do when finding a loose screw far from home and my trusty screwdrivers. They don’t have the proper tools, but… but… they need to do something! Delicious, energy-packed treats lie unguarded on that wooden platform! So, like me, they improvise. I pull out a dime to tighten the screw. They use their beaks in innovative ways.
These photos show a Northern Cardinal, which is a true seedeater. That black oil sunflower seed fits neatly in its beak and look how fast it pops apart. What a pro!
This Tufted Titmouse is an amateur compared to the cardinal. Notice how small its mouth is in comparison. That type of bill suits the bird in summer when gleaning insects off leaves and branches, but doesn’t work so well at this feeder. So instead of snapping the shell open with one quick motion, the titmouse grasps the seed with its feet and batters the husk with its beak until it breaks apart.
The long, narrow bill on this White-breasted Nuthatch is splendid for plucking insects out of crevices—and for chasing other birds from the feeder. It also makes a serviceable hammer. This species got its name from hacking nuts apart. (Nuthatch is corrupted from nut-hack, according to DeGraaf and Yamasaki in the reference below.) This dapper fellow (the female has a grayer cap) flies to a tree branch, shoves said nut into a hole of the correct size, and pounds on it until the shell opens.
And the Downy Woodpecker, whose presence started this essay? It prefers suet but uses its weapon-like bill to hammer open the occasional seed, exactly as the nuthatch does. But I’d bet it envies the cardinal.
Information from this post came from
Davis, W.E., Jr. 1995. Downy woodpecker and white-breasted nuthatch use “vice” to open sunflower seeds: is this an example of tool use? Bird Observer 23: 339-342. 6https://sora.unm.edu/sites/default/files/BirdObserver23.6_Page339-342_Downy%20Woodpecker%20and%20White-breasted%20Nuthatch%20Use%20%27Vice%27%20to%20Open%20Sunflower%20Seeds…_William%20E.%20Davis%2C%20Jr..pdf
DeGraaf, R.M. and M. Yamasaki. 2001. New England Wildlife: Habitat, Natural History, and Distribution. University Press of New England, Lebanon, NH.
Kaufman, K. 1996. Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston.