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The Secret Lives of Woodpeckers

Male Banded Woodpecker (Chrysophlegma miniaceum) in Rimba Ilmu.

Woodpeckers are more common than we think. If you haven’t spotted one outside a TV screen, it is most likely due to any (or a combination) of these worrying reasons:

1. Roman mythology decided to make things right.

Okay, more implausible than worrying. Woodpeckers belong to the family Picidae, which is drawn from the word Picus (is also a genus of green-backed woodpeckers). Picus was a Roman king who was, by all accounts, a strong and handsome hunter who unfortunately spurned the advances of the witch Circe. She cursed him, turning him into a woodpecker, and when his friends protested, transformed them all into different beasts. Eventually she went mad and died.

In a hypothetical happy ending, Circe would have repented of her actions and turned Picus back into a man, but she did not, and therefore woodpeckers are still among us.

Male Common Flameback (Dinopium javanense) in Rimba Ilmu Botanic Garden.

2. You’re not surrounded by trees.

On a more serious note, woodpeckers depend on trees for shelter and food, and have evolved into specialised birds for these functions. With their short legs and sharp, backward-pointed toes, they cling easily to trunks while pecking. Their stiff tail-feathers act supports their weight against the tree surface as they move back and forth.

Their stout, sharp beaks and spongy bone tissue in their skulls are adapted to withstand the punishing head-banging they put themselves through. To reach delectable morsels of wood larvae and ants, woodpeckers have long, extendable tongues, which probe crevices in wood after they peck their way through the bark.

Male Common Flameback (Dinopium javanense) dashing out of sight.

3. You’re not observant enough.

This is especially true in tropical Malaysia. Our lush rainforest trees mean that woodpeckers are usually hidden in the thick foliage, making them difficult to spot even with their colourful crests and backs.

Not all is lost, however—woodpeckers usually give themselves away with their ‘drumming’, or rhythmic pecking sequence, usually on hollow trunks or even metal surfaces such as utility poles. Drumming signals territorial claims, but may also be a form of courtship behaviour.

Female Common Flameback (Dinopium javanense) peeking out of her nest.

4 .You don’t recognise a woodpecker when you see one.

Of course, to identify a woodpecker, you have to spot one in the first place—that means you have to look up once in a while! Once spotted, woodpeckers are fairly easy to differentiate from other birds even if they’re not pecking away. They scurry around on bare vertical trunks, the way most birds move on normal horizontal surfaces. Their flight pattern is usually undulating, with wings folded against their bodies after a burst of flaps.

Differentiating between woodpecker species is easy to do due to their characteristic markings on their vibrantly-coloured bodies. The males usually have red colouring on or around their heads, whereas the females have plainer crowns.

Male Laced Woodpecker (Picus vittatus) peering inquiringly within.

5. Your neighbours (or your family) have decided that they’re sick of holes in their walls.

A house is a great resonant amplifier for woodpecker drumming behaviour. This usually leaves shallow, clustered dents in the wood, but if the woodpecker decides it has found a comfortable home, roosting or nesting holes may be drilled in the sidings. Some siding types are also attractive to infesting insects, so the woodpecker may find your house an exciting foraging place. Woodpeckers in temperate countries also stuff acorns into drilled holes, in preparation for winter.

You may enjoy having a woodpecker community under your own roof (literally) but in the event that you don’t, you can use visual deterrents such as reflective tape or toy windmills. Sticky repellents are not recommended as they may get smeared on feathers and impair the bird’s ability to fly and stay warm.

The RIMBA Project hooks up with UM Big Year to bring you a series of all-things-bird! If you're interested in joining us on our 2015 - Birdwatching Odyssey, sign up here or say hello on Facebook!

#articles #umbigyear #vanessating #BenjaminOng #nurulfitrahmarican #woodpeckers #biodiversitymap

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