Woodpeckers of Western Ghats: The stem borer trackers

Common Flameback

by Santosh Rajus – Woodpeckers have been one of my favorite birds from childhood since it was very rare to spot one and it was one of the first birds I saw making holes on huge and strong trees in search of food.

25 years later, I have gotten to observe so many different species of woodpeckers and I have earned the important role they play in the forest ecosystem and how cool they are. Woodpeckers belong to family Picidae and we have approximately 230 species worldwide, of which close to 12 species live in the Western Ghats alone. The common names of the twelve species are White-bellied Woodpecker, Greater Flameback, Lesser Flameback, Common Flameback, Lesser Yellownape, Rufous Woodpecker, Speckled Piculet, Heart-spotted Woodpecker, Brown-capped Pygmy Woodpecker, Yellow-crowned Woodpecker, Streak-throated Woodpecker and White-naped Woodpecker.

Some of the coolest adaptations of the woodpeckers are their long tongue, their shock-absorbing capability to avoid head injury, and their drumming sounds to communicate. The tongue of the woodpecker has backward-projecting barb tips and sticky saliva, which helps it to grab larvae. In order to avoid head impact injuries, studies have found that the woodpecker’s sharp beak, neck muscles, and brain orientation helps them distribute the force generated around their skull while pecking.

Drumming is a special feature of the woodpeckers where they choose different resonant objects to communicate. They use drumming to find a mate, to send territorial messages, to communicate food source availability, and as an alarm call for approaching predators.

During my field observation, I observed around 7 species of woodpeckers and they were all really amazing. The first species is the White-bellied Woodpecker. These woodpeckers are the largest of all the woodpeckers species found in the Western Ghats at a size of 48 cm. They are noisy while foraging and the wood pecking sound of these species is a loud drumroll. These woodpeckers were mostly observed looking for larvae on mid-level and canopy level.  

White bellied Woodpecker

The second species was the Greater Flameback (33 cm) and it was one of the most easy to spot. They are noisy when they are actively feeding and call out to each other. The Greater Flameback was observed feeding on decaying stems at the understory as well as at canopy levels.

Greater Flameback

The next two species are the Lesser Flameback (Black-rumped flameback) and Common Flameback (26-30 cm). They look very similar to the Greater Flameback, but the species can be differentiated based on their morphology. Similar to the Greater Flameback, these woodpeckers were observed feeding on both the mid- and canopy- level trees. Unlike the Greater Flameback, I found it harder to spot these two species.

Lesser Flameback

The fifth species of woodpecker that I observed is the Lesser Yellownape (27 cm). This species of woodpecker was observed feeding on prey at the mid-level canopy and ground-level live/decaying trees.

Lesser Yellownape

The next species of woodpecker is my favorite of all the woodpeckers. The Rufous Woodpecker is a medium sized woodpecker (25 cm) that has been often observed feeding on tree ant nests. The woodpecker was observed foraging from trees at all heights and also decaying trees at ground level. One of the coolest observations was their preference to build their nests on tree ant nests.

Rufous Woodpecker

The last species of woodpecker I observed was the Speckled Piculet. This is the tiniest of the woodpeckers found in India at a size of 10 cm. The woodpeckers were found feeding at the mid-level and decaying trees at ground level. These woodpeckers are one of the most important birds of our ecosystem as they also help us in keeping tree larvae under control. Tree larvae feed on the hardwood of dead and living trees. The tree larvae are also very important to the ecosystem helping us break down dead trees, but in some cases invasive beetle larvae can damage living trees severely and even kill the tree based on the larval infestation.

Speckled Piculet

From our observations, we have noticed woodpeckers feeding on larvae at all heights of trees and on both living and decaying species. Apart from helping us from severe stem borer infestation, studies have found that the woodpeckers (excavators) also play a key role in the survival of other cavity nesting birds who cannot excavate their own nest. Woodpeckers are really cool birds, so enjoy observing them and please don’t forget to update your observations on citizen science apps such as eBird and Indian Biodiversity Portal.

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