What’s really going on when there’s a flap at your bird feeder? It’s the pecking order playing out before your eyes!
Strictly speaking “pecking order” refers to the way chickens figure out who’s who in their flocks. For other birds, the correct term is ‘dominance hierarchy’, but for this article I’m mostly going to use the more familiar ‘pecking order’.
Read on to find out how and why birds establish a pecking order - I guarantee it'll add a whole new dimension to your birdwatching!
So what is pecking order all about?
You probably know that birds are very social creatures.
Just like people, they need a system for understanding who’s the ‘boss bird’ – who goes first at the feeder, who gets the best mates, who owns the territory, who gets the best nesting sites and more.
Dominance hierarchy (or pecking order) refers to the ranking system within a bird population, both between species and also between birds of the same species.
What is the pecking order for?
You’ve heard it said that Nature runs on ‘survival of the fittest’? When birds climb to the top of their pecking order they can claim a bigger share of available food and can exclude other birds from the safest most desirable nesting places.
The dominance hierarchy helps maintain order, reduce conflict, and ensure that dominant birds receive the best of everything.
That’s great for the bullies. But what happens to the other birds?
Lower ranking birds have to spend more energy to get food and mates. They’re also stressed from always being on guard against attacks and from having to searching for alternate food sources.
The end result is that the bully birds survive and reproduce, while subordinate birds may not.
Why do birds fight over bird feeders when there’s plenty of food?
When you’re a bird you can never be 100% certain that the next meal will be there when you need it. If you find a good supply, you want to keep it for yourself.
And to keep it, you have to defend it against the competition.
A full bird feeder offers a steady supply of easy food, especially when natural food is hard to find, so it makes sense that bird feeders can become territorial hotspots. (Water sources, nesting boxes and bird-friendly plantings can also lead to a struggle for control of these resources.)
So it makes sense that bird feeders often become territorial hotspots.
Some dominant birds will claim a feeder as ‘theirs’ and defend it against all comers.
Watch here as Attila the Mockingbird defends ‘his’ feeder:
Dominant birds will defend a larger territory too.
In the next video, a couple of male Northern Mockingbirds perform a ‘boundary dance’, in which one male guards the edge of his territory against intrusion by another. Notice that the bird on the right seems slightly bigger than the one on the left.
Video by Rhododendrites, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
How do birds establish dominance?
A bird’s gotta have the ‘right stuff’ to rise up the pecking order. But what does that mean, exactly?
Size, strength and experience matter
An ongoing study by Eliot Miller (and others), a postdoctoral researcher at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, used masses of data gathered by citizen scientists to figure out the most, er, dominant factor in the interspecies pecking order.
The study looked at interactions among 136 bird species across North America to observe who came out on top after a confrontation.
Not too surprisingly, it turns out that most often the bigger the bird, the more dominant it will be.
But there are a few exceptions. In particular, Downy Woodpeckers and Rufous Hummingbirds are extremely aggressive. In fact, bird expert Pete Dunne has called the Rufous Hummingbird
the ‘devil in feathers’.
Here’s a video clip that shows why:
When it comes to establishing dominance, experience matters too. A bird that is older and knows the territory will have a competitive advantage over a young bird.
A few fighting skills help
There’s more to dominance to being big and strong: a mastery of martial arts is essential.
Here’s a list of some of the birdy kung fu you might see being played out around your feeders:
Vigorous wing flapping, intended to intimidate other birds and deter competitors.
Aggressive body language such as raised crests, fluffed feathers, erect tails and other tricks to make them look bigger and more imposing.
Erected posture with puffed-out chest and head held high, a stance that confidence and readiness to defend their food and territory.
This Northern Mockingbird looks like he's trying to become an angel.
But he's really telling other birds that he's the king of the hill!
Belligerent actions including raising or flapping wings, lunging, charging, pecking at or attacking other birds. Pecking can range from mild nudges to more forceful strikes.
Look closely at this photo and you’ll see that the aggressive Green Finch (on the left) has knocked the smaller Blue Tit completely off his feet.
This kind of direct aggression is often accompanied by plenty of enraged screeching and squawking.
Physical attacks, such as chasing, pecking or displacing subordinate birds from feeding areas, perches, or nesting sites.
Wing strikes: Birds may use their wings to strike at rivals, delivering blows or slaps to establish dominance or to defend their position at the feeder. Wing strikes are often accompanied by vocalizations and other aggressive displays.
Watch this video clip to see how a White-winged Dove fends off a Blue Jay at the feeder. Do you see any of the tactics mentioned here?
Bill displays, such as pointing the bill towards a rival or displaying a ‘gaping’ or threatening posture. This communicates aggression and dominance, warning other birds to keep their distance.
In this video, several birds compete over a tray feeder. The Blue Jay gives a great demonstration of gaping (and other dominance tactics). But watch what the dove does with his wings at 2:00 minutes, and how he puffs out his chest feathers.
Territorial defense such as aerial displays, posturing, or direct physical confrontations. This kind of direct aggression is often accompanied by plenty of enraged screeching and squawking.
Shoving and blocking: dominant birds may physically displace rivals by using their bodies to into the rival bird or forcefully push or nudge them away from the feeder. Bullies may also use their bodies to prevent anyone else from getting at the food.
Using higher perches. Dominant birds are usually more vigilant and pay more attention to their surroundings. Higher perches on feeders and trees helps them keep an eye on the territory.
Subtle intimidation: Blue jays, mockingbirds and doves are big on drama.
In this photo, a House Finch (right) keeps a wary eye on the Dark Eyed Junco and American Goldfinch while everyone eats
Other birds like Black-capped Chickadees or Tufted Titmice may use posturing, wing flicking, or quick movements to signal their dominance and deter other birds from approaching the feeder.
And some species, like Goldfinches or Sparrows establish an uneasy peace by partitioning a feeder into different zones for each species. Aggression is diminished as long as each bird respects the boundaries and multiple species can coexist at the feeder.
How do subordinate birds get by?
Life’s harder at the bottom of the totem pole. In order to survive subordinate birds have to find effective strategies for avoiding conflict and accessing food.
Here are some of the strategies you might see non-dominant birds using around the bird feeder:
Delaying: waiting until the big boss is distracted or gone to eat. They may settle on feeding at regular times when they’re less likely to encounter a dominant bird, such as early morning or late evening.
Stealth: Using subtle movements and/or using nearby plants or structures as cover to feed discreetly without being noticed by the big boss.
Feeding in groups: flocking with other subordinate birds to reduce the risk of aggression from the bullies.
Staying close together reduces their individual chances of being attacked and increases their overall feeding success.
Living on the edge: subordinate birds may explore the edges of the feeder, where they can feed with less interference.
Picking up the scraps: subordinate birds take advantage of food spillage around the feeder. By scavenging on the ground or on nearby surfaces they can find food without directly competing at the feeder.
Eating natural foods more often, reducing their dependence on the feeder and decreasing competition with dominant birds.
Feeding at lower perches: by staying slightly below the dominant bird's position, they can access food without directly challenging the dominant's authority.
Grab and go: subordinate birds often make a quick stop at the feeder, grab a small amount of food and retreat to a safe distance. Spending less time at the feeder means less exposure to confrontation.
Standing down: when close to a dominant bird, subordinate birds may take on a submissive position to avoid creating or escalating a conflict. This can include crouching, lowering their heads or bodies, fluffing their feathers or even briefly retreating to signal a non-threatening attitude.
Keeping a sharp lookout: subordinate birds are constantly on guard, watching the behavior of dominant birds to anticipate potential conflict. They’ll watch dominant birds' movements, vocalizations, and displays, and adjust their own behavior accordingly to avoid conflicts and get more feeding opportunities.
Social learning: All that watching sometimes pays off. Younger or less powerful bird can learn to mimic dominant behavior and may even become confident enough to challenge the established hierarchy.
It’s tough to be number two, but these strategies help subordinate birds navigate the pecking order at feeders and increase their chances of survival.
Pecking order can change
You might think that once established the pecking order is set in stone, but it’s not. For example, the pecking order may relax a little if there’s lots of food around.
But when food is hard to find dominant birds may exert more control, forcing subordinates to adjust even more to avoid conflict.
On the other hand ‘junior’ birds may seize a chance to move up the pecking order when a dominant bird gets sick or injured, or when new birds join the community and upset the existing social structure.
Breeding season can affect the pecking order too, making males more aggressive and territorial.
Cardinals are especially noted for being peckish in mating season:
Who’s who in the bird world?
Some bird species are more aggressive than others, leading to distinct dominance dynamics. For example, Blue Jays, House Sparrows or European Starlings can be very aggressive towards intruders.
On the other hand, certain species of finches, such as House Finches or American Goldfinches, tend to be less less aggressive and more cooperative at a bird feeder.
Miller and company found that the most dominant species you might see on your bird feeders are, in order from most to least dominant:
- Ravens and crows
- Western Bluebird
Miller’s study found that there’s also a clear hierarchy of dominance between species.
For example, House Finches outrank Purple Finches which in turn outrank Dark Eyed Juncos. Miller and company call it a sort of rock-paper-scissors type of relationship and found many such triads during their study.
There’s a very cool interactive graphic that illustrates some of these relationships on the All About Birds website (you might have to scroll down the page to see it. )
Here’s a screen capture:
Just go to the page and hover over each bird to see how it fares when competing against other birds in the diagram.
And even though male Northern Cardinals are known for their dominant behavior at feeders, they’re actually in the middle of the Miller et al interspecies pecking order.
For example, a cardinal is no match for a Downy Woodpecker:
(BTW, this video was captured by a ‘smart’ bird feeder with a built-in camera.)
Learn more: All your smart bird feeder questions answered
Bird feeders and pecking order
As you can probably guess, bird feeders affect pecking order dynamics by their very presence and by the number, type and placement of bird feeders in an area.
For example, the total number and arrangement of feeding ports can make it either easier (ports few and close together) or harder (ports many or widely space) for dominant birds to control access to the food.
Here are some other ways bird feeders impact pecking order:
When multiple feeders are available, you may see the dominant birds establish territories around specific feeders and defend them against intruders. This could even lead to distinct dominance hierarchies forming around each feeder.
Amount of food available
When feeders are kept full, dominant birds may be less aggressive but when feeders are nearing empty, they may amp up their bullying to secure the remaining food.
Natural food sources
Placing your bird feeders near natural food sources like native plants or fruit-bearing trees makes it easier for all the birds to fill their tummies in relative peace, especially the lower ranking birds.
Feeders placed at different heights can cater to different bird species with varying dominance behaviors. Dominant birds that prefer higher perches may reign supreme at elevated feeders, while species with more subordinate tendencies feed at lower, less defended feeders.
You can encourage a more harmonious bird community by considering these factors when choosing and placing your bird feeders.
Providing a variety of feeder types, strategically locating feeders, and keeping feeders full will ease the intensity of dominance interactions and promote a more balanced feeding environment for your birds.
5 Tips for spotting dominance behavior at your feeders
- Be patient: Dominance behaviors can take time to unfold, so spend take your time observing the feeder to witness these interactions. As with birdwatching in general, avoid rushing or making sudden movements that may startle the birds.
- Find a clear view: Position yourself where you have a clear view of the feeder and the birds' interactions. Consider using binoculars or a camera with a zoom lens to get a closer look.
- Pay attention to the birds' postures, wing displays, vocalizations, and other behaviors that indicate dominance or submission. These cues can provide insights into the interactions and pecking order.
- Watch who goes first: Notice which birds approach the feeder first, which birds yield or wait, and any displacements that occur when new birds arrive. This can help you understand the pecking order and how birds establish their positions.
- Keep your distance: While observing, respect their natural behaviors and avoid interfering with their feeding dynamics.
Enhance your birdwatching experience and gain a deeper appreciation for the fascinating world of bird dominance at feeders by following these tips.
Remember to be patient, respectful, and enjoy the privilege of witnessing these natural behaviors.
The pecking order (or dominance hierarchy) serves an important purpose in the bird world. It helps the strongest, fittest birds survive and reproduce and prevents all-out birdy gang wars by making sure everyone knows their place.
While alpha birds use various tactics to bully their less feisty fellows, lower ranking birds can usually adapt their behaviors enough to get along.
Some species, like hummingbirds and blue jays, are especially aggressive while others, like cardinals, are more prone to act out during mating season.
Bird feeders can increase competition among birds but now that you understand pecking order, you can arrange your bird feeding station so your birds can eat in (relative) peace.
It’s easy to spot dominant and submissive bird behaviors once you know what to look for. Noticing them can add a whole new dimension to your birdwatching experience!
How do the birds express dominance at your bird feeders? Share your observations in the comments!