Falling asleep after a big meal is commonplace among us humans that over-indulge on festive occasions like Thanksgiving.  But I have never seen it happen to a bird until I saw this Downy Woodpecker male fall asleep at a suet feeder.  Here is the sequence of action I observed the other day.

Oh boy, a nice meal of fat to start the day.

“Oh boy, a nice meal of fat to start the day.”  Actually I have seen more birds at the suet feeder lately and I wonder if it has something to do with our up and down “spring” weather.  

There was much pecking and gobbling of suet for a few minutes.

There was much pecking and gobbling of suet for a few minutes.

Ooohh, maybe I ate too much!  I feel ill.

Then, a long pause in the feeding activity.  Feeling a little full?  The woodpecker’s third eyelid (nictatating membrane) is closed over its eyes. The neck is contracted and the bird seems to be hunching down on its legs.

Feeling really sleepy -- too much fat intake at one time?

Feeling really sleepy — too much fat intake at one time?  The posture is really relaxed in this last frame.

Why does food, especially food high in fat, make us (and animals) lethargic?  Some say it is the chemicals in the food itself (e.g., the tryptophan in the turkey), and others believe it is the chemicals that the body releases as the food is ingested (e.g., hormones that communicate from the gut to the brain telling it what has been eaten and how much).  Either way, the signal the brain receives (indicating satiation) causes a dramatic change in behavior to cease eating and relax.

There is a good reason to relax after a full meal, allowing more blood flow to the gut to absorb the ingested nutrients.  It’s the old law of supply and demand.  The limited volume of blood needs to go where the demand is highest — in this case, the gut.

But…small birds that go to sleep in plain sight of the abundant natural predators are going to be dead ones, so this is kind of unexpected behavior.  Lucky for this bird there weren’t any Cooper’s or Sharp-shinned Hawks in the neighborhood.

9 thoughts on “Sated!

  1. I’ve never seen anything like that. It is odd behavior and you’re right, he is very vulnerable to predators. Makes me wonder if something else is going on…

    • I don’t think he was sick or anything like that. He was perky whe he flew to the feeder, and he was perky again when he flew away. But entirely too comfortable while he was feeding.

      • I didn’t even know woodpeckers had a nictitating membrane! I guess it makes sense as it protects their eyes from flying wood chips when drilling into trees. Fascinating.

  2. Great observation and wonderful photos of this sweet little woodpecker. I noticed one woodpecker hiding under the deck rail a while ago while looking up. When I followed the direction I saw a hawk up in a tree far above him. He stayed motionless until the hawk flew away.

  3. I’ve had birds sleep on my feeders. I thought it might be their way of staking a claim to the food or territory. I have one under the porch roof and that seems to be the most popular perhaps because it’s under cover. Great photo series!

  4. I spent a few minutes just now watching a motionless male Hairy Woodpecker at our suet feeder. I was dressing to go outside to take him gently from the feeder because I thought for sure he had died, frozen to death (it’s -10 this morning, though I know birds are hardy survivors of this cold, too) or simply coincidental natural causes. Then he moved! Perked right up, jumped around to the other side of the feeder, sat a bit, jumped a little more, then flew away. I hadn’t realized birds might simply fall asleep at feeders. Reminded me of one especially busy week nearly a decade ago when I actually fell asleep in my chair at a restaurant! Thanks very much for this post — I appreciate your sharing your experience and lovely photos. Very helpful!

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