Acorn Woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorus)

Woodpeckers on a whole are pretty fascinating birds. I remember as a kid every time I heard that distinctive tapping sound I’d run around and search for wherever the woodpecker was. I was always enamoured by their strange method of eating and they way the woodpeckers perched on the sides of trees instead on the branches. So I’m fairly excited to be posting about a woodpecker today.

The acorn woodpecker lives in the southwestern United States down to northern South America, and relies heavily on acorns (what a shocker) for food. They look pretty much how I expect woodpeckers to look, mostly black with a white underbelly, throat and face, and a bright red cap to top it off. I don’t know why that’s what I expect them to look like, but when I picture one in my head, it looks almost exactly like an acorn woodpecker. Here’s a picture:

AcornWoodpecker1LR (1)

One of the most notable things about acorn woodpeckers has to do with what they eat. Pretty obviously this is mostly acorns, but it’s the way these birds eat and store acorns that’s impressive. A group of acorn woodpeckers will create a massive store of acorns in any kind of wooden structure they can find. The woodpeckers drill holes in these structures and then place a single acorn in each hole for storage. As the acorns dry, they shrink and the birds must move them to appropriate sized holes. Acorn woodpeckers spend a fair amount of time on granary maintenance.

The woodpeckers fiercely defend their stores from any would-be poachers, which isn’t surprising, considering how much time the birds spend creating their larders. Acorn woodpeckers hoard ridiculous amounts of food this way – they can store 50,000 acorns in a single tree. As I said, ridiculous. They also aren’t very choosy about what they use to keep acorns in. The woodpeckers have been known to use fence posts, utility poles and car radiators.

An acorn woodpecker storing an acorn in its granary

An acorn woodpecker storing an acorn in its granary

Such large amounts of food in one place lead to groups of birds living together, and acorn woodpeckers have been known to nest communally. In these groups, all female breeding birds lay their eggs in one single nest cavity. Before they lay, however, the females destroy any eggs in the nest. Over a third of eggs laid in communal breeding groups are destroyed by their own kind. Which seems exceedingly wasteful to me, but that’s how the birds do it.

Of course like many animals these days the acorn woodpecker is threatened by habitat loss. Any species that relies so heavily on one source of food is always vulnerable should that source start to decline. And of course these guys need additional trees for storage and nesting. Although they are currently listed as a species of least concern by IUCN (the International Union for Conservation of Nature), the threat to this species remains. Residents in acorn woodpecker habitats are encouraged to preserve mature oak trees, and to leave dead branches and trees intact for granary sites.

As I said before, I was always fond of woodpeckers as a child, and am even more fond after reading about this industrious little bird. You have to admit that it’s pretty impressive to store 50,000 seeds in one tree. So congratulations to the acorn woodpecker for earning my respect.

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