Birds of the World






Totipalmate Swm



 NW Vultures







   NW Flycatchers


 Aust. Wrens
 Aust. Robins
 OW Orioles
 OW Flycatchers
 N Creepers
 OW Warblers
 OW Sparrows
 9-prim. Oscines

   Hawaiian Honycrp
   NW Sparrows
   NW Warblers
   NW Blackbirds


Piciformes - Honeyguides and Woodpeckers
Skip to:   
Families: Indicatoridae - Honeguides. Picidae - Woodpeckers, Ramphasitdae - Barbets, Toucans
Golden-olive Woodpecker, Banded Woodpecker, Red-crowned Woodpecker
  Order Piciformes - Honeyguides, Woodpeckers, 
   Barbets, and Toucans
Wiki     ToL      EoL
  355 species placed in 51 genera. Worldwide.
   Woodpeckers are mostly arboreal and insectivorous and nest in cavities. They share several traits with the Order Galbuliformes (Jacamars and Puffbirds) which is included within this order as the Suborder Galbulae by some authors (Wiki). These share zygodactyl feet with Type 6 flexor tendons, holorhinal nostrils, impervious nares, pelvic muscles AXY or AX, 14 cervical vertebrae, all thoracic vertebrae free, 5 complete ribs, metasternum with two pairs of notches (closed in some), a long deltoid muscle covering most of the humerus, eutaxic coverts, a tracheo-bronchia syrinx , the absence of downs (except young jacamars); white eggs, hole nesting, and young naked at hatching (altricial).
   Members of the Order Piciformes are desmognathous (toucans, some barbets), saurognathous (woodpeckers), or aegithognathous. The oil gland is variable and absent in some species. There are no caeca. There is a single left carotid. The furcula are incomplete.
   Sibley and Ahlquist (1990) place this order after waterfowl and buttonquail and ahead of the Coraciae (Jacamars and Puffbirds) but the general concensus is to group these "near-passerine birds" just ahead of the Order Passeriformes. Clements places the Galbuliformes ahead of the Piciformes.
   The Piciformes include our woodpeckers (Family Picidae) - plus a related and diverse assemblage of less familiar groups -
  Family Indicatoridae - Honeyguides
Wiki     ToL      EoL
  17 species, 4 genera. Old World tropics - Africa, mountains of India and southeastern Asia.
   They are usually dull (some have bright yellow in their plumage), but are unique because they feed on beeswax and honeycombs to which at least two species guide humans or other predators (particularly honey-badgers) to bees' nests. The group is closely related to barbets and woodpeckers.
   Honeyguides are relatively small with a particularly thick skin (a defense against bee-stings?). Their head is small. The bill is stout, but short and somewhat decurved. Their nostrils are in the center of a large nasal fossa (pit). Wings are slender - they have only 9 primaries and (10) 12 rectrices. All have light outer tail feathers. They have acute vision and a good sense of smell.
   They are blue-gray with olive tints above and lighter parts underneath. Some have bright yellow in their plumage. The wings usually have white panels in the primaries. They are usually solitary but numbers may accumulate around a rich food source to form mixed-species feeding flocks - there are dominance hierarchies among species when feeding and immatures are dominant over adults.
   Some species (the Greater Honeyguide, Indicator indicator, and Scaly-throated Honeyguide, I. variegatus) "guide" predators (men, honey-badgers, etc.) to beehives to open the hives so they can feed on beeswax or the waxy secretions of scale insects (Prodotiscus). They also eat the eggs and larvae of bees, the larvae of waxworms (Galleria mellonella) found in bee colonies, and feed on flying insects and spiders (and occasional fruits). They occur in tropical forests and wooded areas (reaching timberline in the Himalayas). Their song is a rapid trill or repetitive song of several phrases.
   They are brood parasites, often on hole-nesting species such as barbets, small woodpeckers, and flycatchers. They lay 1 egg in each host nest (they may lay up to 5 eggs in different nests in a week). Nestlings may eject their host's chicks or kill them with their hooked beak.
  Family Picidae - Woodpeckers, Wrynecks, Piculets
Wiki     ToL      EoL
  215 species, 28 genera (Sibley and Monroe, 1990). Clements (2007) lists 219 species. Dickinson (2003) and Harris (2009) list 210 species in 29 genera. Worldwide except for polar regions, Australia and New Zealand, Madagascar, and Oceana (they do not cross Wallace's Line).  Wrynecks occur in the Old World and piculets occur in the Neotropics, southern Asia, and Africa.

   The family may be divided into four subfamilies:
      Subfamily Jynginae - Wrynecks (Jynx - 2 species)      Wiki     ToL      EoL
These little woodpeckers flick about in branches like a songbird and often forage on the ground. They have the longest tongue of any bird
            which they use to extract insects (ants) from decaying wood or soil. Wrynecks are named for their behavior - they twist their neck into odd
            positions as they look about in a reptilian way. They lack the stiffened central tail feathers and are more likely to perch on horizontal
            structures. They use existing tree cavities rather than excavating their own. Wrynecks are widely distributed and strongly migratory in the             Old World. There is one Alaskan record for the Eurasian Wryneck, J. torquilla.
      Subfamily Picumninae - Typical Piculets (Picumnus, Verreauxia, Sasia ~30 species)       Wiki     ToL     EoL
            Small woodpeckers, pan-tropical in distribution but found mainly in South Africa. They lack the stiff central tail feathers of true woodpeckers
            and perch on a branch rather than an upright surface. Their bills are shorter and they often probe for insects in decaying wood. They may
            reuse woodpecker cavities for breeding rather than excavating their own.
      Subfamily Nesoctitinae - Antillean Piculet (Nesoctites micromegas - 1 species)      Wiki     EoL
            Endemic Hispaniola. Small woodpecker (larger than other piculets). They feed on insects and fruit, usually gleaned from the understory.
            They excavate a nesting cavity and lay 2-4 eggs. A surviving offshoot of proto-woodpeckers.
      Subfamily Picinae - Woodpeckers
         Tribe Dendropicini (Melanerpes, Dendropicos, Dendrocopos, Picoides, Veniliornis, etc. - 8 genera, ~92 species) -
             Red-headed Woodpecker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers
         Tribe Malarpicini (Campethera, etc. - 6 genera ~23 species)
         Tribe Picini (Picus, Dryocopus, Celeus, Colaptes, etc. - 6 genera ~55 species) - Northern Flicker, Pileated Woodpecker
         Tribe Megapicini (Campephilus, etc. 6 genera ~19 species)

   Picids range from small piculets (7 g) to the extinct Imperial Woodpecker, Campephilus imperialis (>600 g). Males are often larger than females (smaller in piculets). They have broad, rounded wings. Most woodpeckers have a distinctive rowing, jay-like, undulating flight.
   Woodpeckers are adapted for clinging to the bark of trees. They have short legs with zygodactyl feet (toes 1 and 4 point backwards, 2 and 3 point forward) although a few species lack the hallux ("three-toed" woodpeckers). Toe 4 is used in a lateral for forward position when climbing vertically. Toe 1 is small or functionless in climbing.
    Except for wrynecks and piculets, they have a tail with very stiff shafts that they use as a prop when they climb trees (they only climb upwards - some tree-climbers like nuthatches which don't use the tail, can also move downwards). They use straight, chisel-tipped beaks to drill into tunnels of wood-boring insect larvae which they extract with their long, extensile, barbed tongue (brush-tipped in sapsuckers). The bones of the skull are strengthened to absorb the impact of using the bill as a hammer to flake bark and excavate cavities in wood for their nests. The base of the maxilla is hinged.
   The tongue is coated with secretions of the sublingual glands which aids in the extraction of insect larvae (the tongue wraps around prey before it is extracted). Their nostrils are protected from dust and wood chips by a covering of stiff nasal feathers. In some, the nostrils are reduced to a slit. They close their nictitating membrane the millisecond before contacting wood to protect the eye.
   In addition to probing trees for wood-boring beetle larvae and grubs or scaling bark for insects and other invertebrates, they may catch flying insects on the wing, probe fallen branches on the ground, and eat fruit and nuts.  Some eat nestling birds. Sapsuckers and species of Picoides feed on sap from pits (nectar wells) which they excavate in tree trunks and branches. Some excavate ant nests or probe for them in the soil - ants are a particular favorite of flickers and wrynecks (they have particularly sticky tongues to gather small prey). Termites may be important to some tropical species.
   They will also fly from a perch to catch insects in midair (flycatch). Some (like our flicker) forage mainly on the ground. Smaller woodpeckers may be quite acrobatic as they forage.
   The tongue of many woodpeckers can be extended deeply into holes or cracks and beneath loose bark to extract insects, larvae or other food items (aided by a sticky saliva). The base of the tongue is supported by a long hyoid apparatus that, in some like the Hairy Woodpecker or Wryneck, wraps around the back of the neck and forward into the bony orbit of the right eye or nostril. This entire apparatus with the tongue at the tip can be extended in pursuit of elusive prey.
   They have 10-12 (13) primaries, 8-13 secondaries, and 10-12 tail feathers. The two old central tail feathers are retained until other rectrices are replaced - they are then shed and regrow. This maintains the tail as an effective prop during molt.
   Many pici are patterned in black or white. A few species are monomorphic but in many the males have a red or yellow crown patch. Many have spots and bars. Most temperate species are pied (black and white) except for crown or nape patches. Many are crested.
   Wrynecks are dull with cryptic colors. Sexes are alike.
   Piculets are brown or olive above and streaked or spotted below.
   Woodpeckers are usually solitary but a few form complex social groups (Acorn Woodpecker and; Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Picoides borealis).
   They use drumming (beating a resonant surface) is the equivalent of song used to announce territories and attract females. Vocalizations are often sharp chipping notes or longer series of metallic sounds. Piculets have thin notes and trills.
   As scansorial birds, woodpeckers occur widely in forests and woodlands, from lowlands to timberline, and in both deciduous and evergreen forests. A few are found in open grasslands or deserts with only scattered woody plants (using cacti or termite mounts for their nests).
   Most Pici are resident but the North American sapsuckers migrate, moving to more southern habitats in winter. The Northern Wryneck, Jynx torquilla, is also migratory. Species feeding on conifer seeds or mast may make irruptive movements dependent on food supply.
   Woodpeckers roost and nest in holes, usually in trees. One or both members of a pair (usually the male) may excavate a cavity and it may be used for many years (providing a roost in non-breeding seasons). The cavity is lined with wood chips. Most excavate soft wood in dead or diseased trees but some attack living portions of trees, often taking months to finish a cavity. Wrynecks use existing cavities.
   Most species are monogamous, but a few are loosely colonial or breed in tightly integrated groups (Acorn Woodpecker, below). They lay 2-9 (12) white eggs and both sexes incubate during the day, the male incubates at night. Incubation lasts 12-14 days. Their young are naked and blind at hatching (altricial) but rapidly develop feathers. Both sexes feed the young which fledge in 2.5 - 4 weeks.
   Woodpeckers also may store food in caches. The most notable storer among North American woodpeckers is the Acorn Woodpecker, Melanerpes formicivorous, of the southwest. They drill holes in trees and poles to store acorns. They live in communal groups (parents with helpers) of up to 16 individuals. They may store as many as 50,000 acorns in one tree. They defend their caches from squirrels and other birds that may attempt to raid them. They are usually solitary and have loud calls that facilitate mating and contact with others.
   Our medium-sized woodpeckers such as our flicker are adversely affected by the European Starling, Sturnus vulgaris. After preparing a cavity, it is occupied by a starling which the woodpecker is able to evict. However, on returning to the cavity the flicker finds it occupied by another starling - and so on - until the woodpecker becomes exhausted and starlings commandeer the nest site. With the passing of farm orchards and the removal of dead trees or pruning old branches, the loss of potential nest sites has also had a deleterious effect on many species.
Golden-olive Woodpecker
Golden-olive Woodpecker

Banded Woodpecker





Golden-olive Woodpecker, Piculus rubiginosus, Gilpin Trace, Tobago
Wiki     EoL     ToL
Red-crowned Woodpecker
Photos by Ed Konrad
Red-crowned Woodpecker,
Melanerpes rubricapillus. Speyside, Tobago
Wiki     EoL     ToL
    Banner - Red-belllied Woodpecker. Clemson, SC.