At first, I heard two quick taps and then there was continuous drumming. The noise came from a tree barely a few feet away from me but I couldn’t spot the source of the sound. After some minutes of peering into the undergrowth, I saw a few chips of wood flying off the trunk of the tree. A diminutive woodpecker was busy searching for grub. I could scarcely believe my eyes; I had never seen such a small woodpecker before. This was my introduction to the Speckled Piculet in the forests of Coorg a few years ago.
Woodpeckers are some of the most charismatic birds around us. They have several adaptations that work together to help them feed on their favourite foods. Their beaks are strong and sturdy, with a chisel-like tip for drilling holes in wood. Their eyes are protected by special membranes that prevent them from popping out of their sockets while the bird is pounding away at the wood. Their long tongues have a barbed tip and are covered in sticky saliva. All these help the birds capture and extract insects from tree barks, and the holes that they drill into the wood.
Drumming is the sound created by a woodpecker’s bill tapping wood in a very rapid, rhythmic succession. During mating season, both males and females advertise by drumming as loudly as possible on the best sound-producing object available. Both excavate cavities for nesting and roosting outside of the breeding season. A woodpecker may start to make a hole, then abandon it, only to start another hole, often just inches away from the first hole.
When one hears the loud drumming of a woodpecker on a tree, it can be hard to understand how they manage to do that without hurting themselves in the process. For one, woodpeckers have tiny brains; the bigger the brain, the higher the mass and thus the higher the risk of brain injury. The outside of a woodpecker’s skull is made of dense bone while the inside is porous bone, which provides a cushioning effect. The force applied during pecking is distributed around the skull to the sturdy bone at the base and the back, keeping the pressure off the brain.
With their distinctive colouration and a tendency to creep up and down trunks of trees, woodpeckers are very interesting birds to watch and photograph, and we are lucky to have 12 species of woodpeckers in Karnataka.
The Greater Flameback is a large woodpecker and is distributed widely throughout the Indian subcontinent. The male always has a red crown. Similar to other woodpeckers, the Greater Flameback uses its bill to dig out food from trees, and its zygodactyl feet and stiff tail to provide support against tree trunks. The long tongue can be darted forward to extract wood-boring arthropod prey. While it mainly feeds on small invertebrates, the Greater Flameback also drinks nectar. It nests in tree holes, laying three or four white-coloured eggs. The bird prefers open forest habitat and also inhabits mangrove forests.
Also known as the Lesser Golden-backed Woodpecker, the Black-rumped Flameback is found widely distributed in the Indian subcontinent. One of the few woodpeckers that is seen in urban areas, it has a characteristic rattling-whinnying call and an undulating flight. This is the only Golden-backed Woodpecker with a black throat and black rump. Unlike the Greater Flameback, it has no dark moustachial stripes. The subspecies found in the Western Ghats is sometimes separated as tehminae (named after Salim Ali’s wife) and is more olive above, has fine spots on the black throat, and the wing-covert spots are not distinct. The bird is also seen in open forests and farming areas as well as wooded parts of urban areas.
The Common Flameback may not be as common as its name seems to indicate. It is harder to find than the Black-rumped Flameback and the Greater Flameback. It has a flaming golden back and a long, solid black moustachial stripe. Both sexes have black eye stripes that join the black rear-neck stripes. The male has a red crown while the female has a black one. The natural habitats of the Common Flameback are subtropical or tropical dry forests, moist lowland forests, and mangrove forests.
Sometimes referred to as the Indian Pygmy Woodpecker, the Brown-capped Pygmy Woodpecker is small with distinctive pink-rimmed irises. It is found in Nepal, India and Sri Lanka. Often seen as part of mixed flocks in open forests, it moves from tree to tree in search of food along with nuthatches and minivets. The call is a faint “kirrr”.
The Rufous Woodpecker is found in most parts of Asia. It is a medium-sized woodpecker with a short crest and slightly curved black bill. It has black vermiculations on its rufous body and a dark eye stripe. The male has small red patches at the eyes. It is known for its unique ability to nest in the nests of Crematogaster Ants.
Small in size with black-white spotted upperparts, the Yellow-crowned Woodpecker is a handsome bird. It flies from tree to tree, alighting low down on the trunk and moving upwards jerkily, straight, or in spirals, halting at intervals to tap on the bark or peer into crevices for lurking insects. The tail is pressed against the stem to form a supporting tripod. Usually found in thick scrub forests, it feeds on insects, ants and grubs that are captured by means of the long, extensile, barb-tipped tongue. The flight of the Yellow-crowned Woodpecker is swift and undulating, attained by a series of rapid wing beats followed by short pauses.
The White-bellied Woodpecker is a magnificent large bird with a conspicuous white rump. It is one of the largest woodpeckers after the Great Slaty Woodpecker. These birds prefer mixed bamboo forests and large shade trees in coffee and cardamom plantations in South India. Large dead or dying trees are crucial for their survival since they are essential for nesting. Food consists largely of the grubs of wood-boring beetles and pupae of ants. However, they have been observed feeding on the fruits of Macaranga peltata and Olea dioica.
With a bright yellow tufted nape, red patch on the head and green coloured body, the Lesser Yellownape is a colourful bird. This species is widespread and found throughout tropical and sub-tropical Asia. These birds nest in tree holes, laying two to four white-coloured eggs. They have a low-pitched single note call and can often be seen feeding with other birds in mixed flocks.
The Streak-throated Woodpecker is a widespread species in India and some other parts of Asia. The call is a sharp single “queemp”. This is a medium-sized, green woodpecker with a streaked throat and scaly white-coloured underparts. It is sometimes seen feeding on the ground.
Distinguished from the other flamebacks by the conspicuous white nape, the White-naped Woodpecker is a large bird. Usually found in agricultural areas near coconut palms and in open scrub forests, this woodpecker is a widespread but scarce breeder in India. Its “kwirri-rr-rr-rr-rr” call can be heard occasionally as it moves from tree to tree in search of insects. It largely feeds on ants, larvae of wood-boring insects and sometimes fruits. Both the male and female help in excavating a new nest hole every year.
The tiny and cute Heart-spotted Woodpecker has heart-shaped spots on its plumage. It is compact in size, with a thin neck, large head, a prominent crest and a very short rounded tail. Its diet consists of ants, larvae, termites and other insects. In India, the bird is largely found along the Western Ghats and is usually seen in pairs, flying from tree to tree. The oversized head and crest gives it a smart but very comical look.