As the temperature drops, garden birds, which for many of us have been absent for several weeks, will start returning to feeders. 

Mike Bevans sent us this photo of a moment of drama around the sunflower hearts! Here, the goldfinch on the left is backing off as the larger great spotted woodpecker asserts its claim to those energy packed seeds. 

A great spotted woodpecker scares a goldfinch from a sunflower seed feeder

Goldfinch and great spotted woodpecker - image by Nature's Home reader Mike Bevans

A bird feeding station set up where you can easily watch from the sofa or the kitchen sink can provide hours of entertainment. And watching how the ‘pecking order’ works is all part of the experience.

‘Pecking order’ is technically a term that refers to the way birds interact within a flock of their own species. I see it in my own bantam hens at home. Lilian’s clearly the boss and there’s an order in which her flock-mates, Jennifer, Peggy and Jill are allowed to feed, drink, lay or settle down to roost after she has done so. A hen who forgets her place will get a sharp reminder if she’s overstepped the mark.

You’ll see this in wild birds too. In a flock of woodpigeons feeding on the ground, the dominant birds will be at the centre, safer from predators, and the birds at the bottom of the pecking order stay on the outside.

A male house sparrow’s place in his colony matches the size of the black ‘bib’ of feathers on his chest. The male with the largest bib gets the best nesting site and access to food first at the bird table. Both the sparrows in the images below were photographed in their breeding season. If they were in the same flock, I'd expect the one on the left to be more dominant.

Male House Sparrows

Male house sparrows - images by Ben Andrew (

As Mike’s photo shows there’s also a pecking order between different bird species when it comes to feeding. In our garden, goldfinches will happily perch on the sunflower seed feeder munching away until disturbed. The larger house sparrows will push them out of the way. These in turn will make way for the starlings who aren’t after the seeds at all. They just want a place to wait as their flock squabble over mealworms: these are birds who seem to be constantly jostling for position in their hierarchy.

Great spotted woodpeckers are normally top of the bird hierarchy in the gardens they visit. No-one is going to mess with that huge pointy beak – I don’t even think Lilian would tussle for position over that! The females have black and white heads, and the males have a red patch on the back of the head. The bird in Mike’s photo is a juvenile, which has a red cap – think of it as part of its school uniform if it helps you remember!

Great spotted woodpeckers

From left to right: Great spotted woodpeckers - juvenile (Nigel Blake), adult female (Ben Andrew) and adult male (Chris Gomersall) - all from

So it’s time to get those feeders stocked up ready to bring the show to your garden or balcony, where you can get to know your feathered visitors and watch their daily dramas unfold!

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  • What a wonderful article! As a wheelchair user I watch this battle at my bird feeder for Sunflower hearts every day and now know that I am indeed witnessing the dominant members of each species wearing their unique plumage to declare their rightful place in the pecking order which was further reaffirmed when I heard a Buzzard’s cry and the bird feeder went silent!