a web page by Don Roberson
  • 216 species worldwide (except Australasia)
  • DR personal total: 116 species (54%), 31 photo'd

Woodpeckers are simply impressive birds. I am pleased whenever I can photograph one. I felt particularly lucky to photograph this pair of White-naped Woodpecker in India (left). But these were not a "pair" in the traditional sense — the yellow-crowned female was feeding the red-crowned bird. I think the red-crowned one was her now full-grown fledgling. She had been working a long time to get out the thick grub, and the shot was taken just before she shoved the big grub down the youngster's gullet.

I felt even luckier when Handbook of the Birds of the World chose to publish this photo. Yet, although my cover letter described the circumstances, the eventual HBW text read: "Courtship displays of woodpeckers feature many elements that are used when showing aggression. The crown feathers are erected, the head raised and the wings drooped. Mate-feeding has been observed as part of the courtship ritual of only a few picid species, among them two Dinopium and two Melanerpes, but has only rarely been reported for the White-naped Woodpecker. Here, the red-crowned male of the latter has just presented his yellow-crowned mate with a beetle larva" (Vol. 7 at p. 376).

Well, er, no. That's not what happened. But it's a nice photo anyway.

Woodpeckers are a large family of similarly designed birds found in forested areas around the globe. They have evolved to deal with chiseling wood, including "shock-absorber" head musculature, extremely long tongues, and stiff tail feathers helping them perch upright on trees (Winkler & Christie 2002). Woodpeckers are often a "core species" of the woodland avifauna [except in two major areas that don't have any woodpeckers: Australasia and Madagascar]. I am very fond of the woodpeckers that live in my yard on the Monterey Peninsula. This male Nuttall's Woodpecker (right) was bringing food to nest hole just outside our bedroom window in June 2002. We had left a tall stub of this dead Monterey pine when we had to remove the top-heavy canopy for safety reasons, and the next year we were rewarded with a pair of Nuttall's that fledged a youngster. The tree stub would eventually crumble in high winter winds a few years later, but "our" family of these attractive little woodpeckers still frequents the neighborhood. Hairy Woodpecker Picoides villosus also nests occasionally in the yard, as do a small party of Acorn Woodpeckers.

Acorn Woodpecker breeds cooperatively in communal groups featuring one or two lead males, a harem of females (mostly sisters), and youngsters from the previous year, one of the most unusual breeding systems in the natural world. Much of the research has occurred in the oak woodlands of Monterey County, California (where I live), and some fascinating facts are in MacRoberts & MacRoberts (1976), Koenig (1981), Koenig & Mumme (1987), and Stacey & Koenig (1984). Acorn Woodpeckers also collect and store acorns in "granary trees" against lean times (below). They are also frequent at my bird feeder, eating ordinary bird seed in times when acorn crops are poor.

More fine woodpeckers occur in the red fir/lodgepole pine forests of the Sierra Nevada. There is almost nothing so pleasant on a lazy summer day in the mountains as listening for the tapping of woodpeckers and chasing each one down. The ultimate highlight is finding a rare Black-backed Woodpecker (left); this male was accompanied by a young fledgling.

Woodpeckers come in a great variety of shapes and colors. Flickers specialize in feeding on the ground, often focusing on ants. The Campo Flicker (below) of southern South America is such a species. Even it has the stiffly pointed specialized tail feathers that allow woodpeckers to perch vertically on tree trunks.

Another specialized group are the sapsuckers of North America. They drill small holes into the cambium layer of living trees, causing sap to ooze forth slowly. They do this on a set of favored (usually young) trees and then follow their "trap line" from tree to tree, drinking the sap and sometimes consuming insects attracted to it. Birch, aspen, willow and orchard fruit trees are often favored, but they use some live oaks and key into certain non-native trees (like pepper trees). In all, their regular little square holes have been documented on over 250 species of native trees. The juvenal-plumaged Yellow-breasted Sapsucker (below left) is perched near an oft-drilled tree; this particular individual was a rare vagrant to coastal California. In the summer, Red-breasted Sapsucker (below right) breeds in the mountains and humid coastal forests of northern California.

Woodpeckers are often termed "core species" because their presence is a fundamental requirement to the existence of a wide range of other birds. Woodpeckers drill new nest holes each year, and thus many old nest cavities are available for a entire suite of hole-nesting species. Many smaller species of North American swallow are dependent on woodpecker holes, as are virtually all the small owls, various bluebirds, and a huge array of small birds (wrens, chickadees) that use them advantageously. Thus the nest hole drilled by a Gila Woodpecker (above left), a small woodpecker of the American southwest, will be reused by other birds. The nest holes of large species like the Northern Flicker (above right) are particularly important for cavity-nesting species in western North America, and especially Purple Martins.

With over two hundred species around the world, there is tremendous diversity among the woodpeckers. The two wrynecks of the Old World are included within the family, and there are well over two dozen species of tiny piculets in the world's tropics. There are also huge forest-dominating species in the several genera, including the genera Dryocopus and Campephilus.
These powerful birds, such as the two Mulleripicus from the Philippines (Sooty & Great Slaty Woodpeckers), are always prized by birders. A distant shot of Great Slaty Woodpecker is above, and one of Black Woodpecker is to the right. My shots here are not much, but experiencing a huge woodpecker deep in virgin jungle is always a memorable experience. Among the huge woodpeckers nine species of extant Campephilus in the New World, and four (or more? the genus needs revisions) species of flameback (Dinopium) in southeast Asia.

Alas, two the world's most awesome woodpeckers have apparently become extinct within my lifetime. The Ivory-billed Woodpecker Campephilus principalis of the southeastern U.S. and Cuba (which may have been a separate species) was always scarce, but loss of sufficient tracts of wild habitat doomed it by World War II. There have been widely reported recent sightings, but no substantive evidence has yet convinced the scientific community that the species is still extant. The Imperial Woodpecker C. imperialis of virgin pine forests in the Sierra Madre of nw. Mexico was even larger, and has not have been confirmed since 1957. It appears these two great birds have been lost forever.


Photos: The presumed mother and child White-naped Woodpecker Chrysocolaptes festivus was at Tiger Moon Resort, Rajashan, India, on 26 Mar 2001. The Nuttall's Woodpecker Picoides nuttallii was feeding young at a nest hole in my backyard in Pacific Grove, California, on 5 June 2002. The acorn-storing Acorn Woodpecker Melanerpes formicivorus was in Monterey, California, on 8 Feb 2006. The adult male and young Black-backed Woodpecker Picoides arcticus were at Donner Pass, California, on 5 Aug 2006. The Campo Flicker Colaptes campestris was feeding on the ground in the Brazilian Pantanal in Aug 1999. The juvenal Yellow-bellied Sapsucker Sphyrapicus varius was a vagrant at Monterey, California, on 5 Jan 2007. The adult Red-breasted Sapsucker S. ruber was at Plaskett Meadows, California, on 18 June 2006. The female Gila Woodpecker Melanerpes uropygialis was at her nest hole in Brawley, Imperial Co., California, on 14 Apr 2005. The female Northern Flicker Colaptes auratus was coming out of her nest hole in Sacramento, California, in April 1980. The Great Slaty Woodpecker Mulleripicus pulverulentus was on Palawan I., the Philippines, in Dec 2005. The Black Woodpecker Dryocopus martius was at Huzu Beishan, Qinghai, China, on 23 June 2004. All photos © Don Roberson; all rights reserved.

Bibliographic note:

Family book: Rating
Short, Lester. 1982. Woodpeckers of the World. Delaware Mus. Nat. Hist., Monogr. Ser. 4.

Family book: Rating
Winkler, Hans, David A. Christie, and David Nurney. 1995. Woodpeckers: An Identification Guide to the Woodpeckers of the World. Houghton Mifflin, Boston, MA.

These two major family books represent their decades well. Short's 1982 was a true monograph, based heavily on his own research and incredibly detailed in its discussion of behavior, vocalizations, and interactions with other birds. It is a thick 676 pages. Color plates of all species (by George Sandström) are bound together in back; there are no range maps; details of distribution are set out at length in the text. Taxonomy was one of Short's primary interests, so there is much here on this topic.

The Winkler/Christie book (Nurney was the artist) is a standard "cookie-cutter" family book, much like the Pica Press series — although this one is by Houghton Mifflin, so better in some ways — with color plates facing a short i.d. text bound together in the front, and then detailed species accounts with range maps. The introductory chapters are much shorter than in true monographs, but at 406 pages this is a heftier effort than many other family books in this format.
Neither has particularly outstanding art. In Short's tome several species, sometimes from different continents, are shown together on a single branch in a variety of positions; Nurney's art in the newer book is "field guide" style, with all birds on each plate facing the same way in the same posture. The latter layout is better for comparing difficult species to each other, but neither format strikes any evocative note, and I knock off one star from each book for underwhelming art.

The differences in decades is apparent in the number of species covered, although the exact same set of birds is at issue. Short, writing at a time when "lumpers" were in the ascendancy, lists 198 species. Winkler/Christie list 214 species and, as one would expect, spent some time talking about the new taxonomic proposals of Sibley & Ahlquist (1990).

One wants a family book to have an outstanding bibliography for the group, and the Winkler/Christie effort looks better in this regard. Of course, they cite "Short (1982)" as the primary, seminal source for much of their work. One must consult the Short book for any questions of taxonomy (Winkler/Christie follow Short closely on subspecies decisions), and for any question of vocalization or behavior. The clear range maps in Winkler/Christie even up their deficiencies on Short's strong topics. It does appear to me that Short will be more authoritative on New World topics (he is an American and knows North American woodpeckers particularly well), while Winkler/Christie are comparatively weak on New World species (I think all the authors and the artist are British), but presumably would be stronger on Old World topics, particularly those in the Western Palearctic.

A disappointment in both books is their failure to address the finer points of identification. Neither gets much beyond the "field guide" stage of i.d., although Short is very strong on subspecific variation. For example, here in Monterey County we occasional get claims by visiting birders of a male "Black-backed Woodpecker" in our mountains. Such a claim is presumed erroneous, and certainly all those from the summer are wrong, since the Sierra Nevada population just doesn't move enough to send vagrants across the treeless Central and Salinas valleys to the Santa Lucia Mountains. The details are always much too insubstantial — a woodpecker with an orange or yellow forehead, a striped face, and an "all-black" back, but no critical details about the fine details of facial pattern, or the presence/absence of flank barring, or details of tail or covert patterns. Such birds are not "Black-backed Woodpeckers." But what are they?

Since they are always reported in late summer, when juvenal Hairy Woodpeckers are fledged and obvious, I assume all reports are juvenal Hairies. Such birds do have yellow or orange forecrowns, accounting for that point not shown in the birder's field guide, and one could learn that character of Hairy juvenal plumage in either Short or Winkler/Christie. But what of the "all-black" back? Both books discuss variation in Hairy (especially birds from Newfoundland) that have essentially black backs -- but certainly a Newfoundland Hairy Woodpecker is not in Monterey's mountains in summer. I think the answer is in Short (1969) which details (with photos) a melanistic Hairy Woodpecker from New Mexico, or a black-backed bird in otherwise prominently white-backed populations. This rare aberration could account for the once-in-a-decade claim of "black-backed" woodpeckers in Monterey, which are melanistic juvenal Hairy Woodpeckers. But you couldn't find this out in either of the family book under discussion. Winkler/Christie don't discuss this i.d. problem (although there is a "similar species" category for every bird) and don't cite Short's paper anywhere. Even more strange, Short (1982) doesn't cite his own paper anywhere either! [He cites numerous other publications by him, but not this one.] The only i.d. text that includes this discussion is in Trochet et al. (1988), yet another obscure paper [and one not mentioned by Winkler/Christie].

Both books are weak on vagrancy. Neither, for example, mention vagrant Red-headed Woodpeckers in California (although Short does mention that western populations are "highly migratory") nor things like range extensions in Ringed Woodpecker (Remsen et al. 1976). So, even despite the rather "out-in-left-field" discussion in these concluding paragraphs, I end up being disappointed in both books. They are, actually, both rather fine publications but I can't bring myself to give either of them better than a 3 (out of a possible 5) score.

Christie's (2002) account of the family in the Handbook of the Birds of the World series is quite nice, with many stunning photographs.

Literature cited:

Clements, J. F. 1991. Birds of the World: A Checklist. 4th ed. Ibis Publ., Vista, CA.

Christie. 2002. Family Picidae (Woodpeckers), pp. 296–555 in Handbook of the Birds of the World (del Hoyo, J., A. Elliott & J. Sargatal, eds). Vol. 7. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, Spain.

Koenig, W. D. 1981. Reproductive success, group size, and the evolution of cooperative breeding in the Acorn Woodpecker. Amer. Naturalist 117:421-443.

Koenig, W. D., and R. L. Mumme. 1987. Population ecology of the cooperatively breeding Acorn Woodpecker. Monographs in Population Biology 24. Princeton Univ., Princeton, N. J.

MacRoberts, M. H., and B. R. MacRoberts. 1976. Social organization and behavior of the Acorn Woodpecker in central coastal California. Ornithol. Monographs 21.

Remsen, J. V., Jr., J. S. Luther, and D. Roberson. 1976. A Ringed Woodpecker Celeus torquatus in Colombia. Bull. Brit. Ornith. Club 96: 40.

Short, L. 1969. An apparently melanistic Hairy Woodpecker from New Mexico. Bird-Banding 40: 145-146.

Sibley, C. G., and J. E. Ahlquist. 1990. Phylogeny and Classification of Birds: A Study in Molecular Evolution. Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, CT.

Stacey, P. B., and W. D. Koenig. 1984. Cooperative breeding in the Acorn Woodpecker. Scientific America 251: 114-121.

Trochet, J., J. Morlan, and D. Roberson. 1988. First record of the Three-toed Woodpecker in California. W. Birds 19: 109-115.




  page created 11–29 Apr 2000, revised 3-14 May 2008  
all text & photos © Don Roberson, except as otherwise indicated; all rights reserved