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Field Notes - Snail Eating Sapsucker (May 16, 2008)

I observed a Red-breasted Sapsucker fly past my vehicle and land in a nearby tree in Harrison Mills in the early afternoon. I stopped to get a closer look at the bird pecking at a rotted part of a tree that looked like a cavity. I thought it might be the entrance to a nest until I looked more closely and saw it was not very deep. What caught my eye was the snail shell the sapsucker had in its beak. I watched as it seemed to try and wedge the snail into the rotten wood. After several tries, using different angles and locations, it seemed to have success in securing the snail. It then pecked at the snail shell and was seen to eat the contents! This is the first time I've observed a woodpecker eating a snail and using a clever manner to get inside the shell. To me, this is close to the actions of jays and crows but who hold their prey, such as nuts, in their feet while using their beaks to open the item. In the sapsucker's case, its feet are already occupied in keeping the sapsucker attached to the tree trunk so a different angle has to be taken in getting inside things with tough shells. I enjoyed watching the bird at work and the photography opportunity it presented. It will be certainly worthwhile to watch for other similar occurrences with similar prey and among other woodpecker species as I have not encountered any description of such behaviour before.

From field notes of G. Gadsden 2008

Links and sources:
Ehrlich, Dobkin and Wheye, (1988)


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