Colours of Wildlife: Cardinal Woodpecker

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Cardinal Woodpecker

Willem is a wildlife artist based in South Africa. He says "My aim is simply to express the beauty and wonder that is in Nature, and to heighten people's appreciation of plants, animals and the wilderness. Not everything I paint is African! Though I've never been there, I'm also fascinated by Asia and I've done paintings of Asian rhinos and birds as well. I may in future do some of European, Australian and American species too. I'm fascinated by wild things from all over the world! I mainly paint in watercolours. . . but actually many media including 'digital' paintings with the computer!"

Cardinal Woodpecker by Willem

Today we have a common species of birdie once again. This is a Cardinal Woodpecker, Dendropicos fuscescens. It is quite small, the size of a sparrow at 14-16 cm/5.5"-6.3" in total length. In general, however, Africa's woodpeckers are small compared to those of Asia, Europe and the Americas. On this continent, the Cardinal Woodpecker is probably the most abundant and widespread woodpecker. It is found in all of sub-Saharan Africa other than treeless grasslands, barren deserts, and some regions of equatorial rainforest where it's replaced by different species.

A Cardinal's Cap

Some people when speaking about this woodpecker will mention the red patch it has on its head, and say that it got its name for this, since it resembles the red headgear (not to mention the rest of their uniforms) that cardinals of the Catholic Church wear. This only impresses people with no knowledge of woodpeckers. The thing is, pretty much all of them have red patches on their heads, making the feature of no identifying value at all! Furthermore I must qualify – male woodpeckers tend to have larger red patches on their heads than females of the same species. And in the cardinal woodpecker, the female actually lacks the red patch altogether. So half of the birds don't even have any 'cardinal's red' on them at all. Once again, as has often been the case in this column, the casually sloppy, inappropriate naming of critters is exposed.

So if the red on the head is of no identifying value, then what is? In South Africa, at least, this species can easily be identified by a number of features. It is small, our smallest; its bill is shorter than any others' – a useful way to tell, is to see that its bill is shorter than the length of the rest of its head. Its coloration is also unique: it has a single black 'moustache' stripe, a dull, streaky patch over its 'ears', dark streaks on its belly, yellowish bars on its back. The male has a brown rather than black forehead, while the female has a brown forehead and the back of her head that is red in the male, is black. Lastly the cardinal's call is a rapid, rather high-pitched 'kree-kree-kree-kree…' (up to eight 'krees' in a sequence). Indeed, this call is the first giveaway of the bird being present. It is quite different from the call of the other common South African woodpecker, the golden-tailed, which is a single, loud wailing call.

In action, cardinal woodpeckers are busy little birds. They hop and creep up tree trunks and venture out into tangles of vines and onto thin twigs, hanging upside down below them to inspect every little crevice for tasty little critters. They sometimes even drop to the ground to seek food such as grasshoppers and termites. Their small size and short bills mean they don't peck as powerfully as the larger species, so they don't go as deep beneath the tree surface, but they peck away bark and soft wood to expose wood-eating larvae or pupae and will hammer into seed pods for the little weevil grubs that feed on them. They'll also consume spiders and other little things they find on the bark. They have long tongues with sharp, barbed tips like tiny harpoons, on which they spear the unfortunate little critters they manage to locate. Apart from insects and other invertebrates, they eat small amounts of fruits as well.

Yet another funny thing is that laypeople don't understand or even are aware of the distinction between the different kinds of pecking a woodpecker does. We've all seen cartoon woodpeckers rapid-fire pecking through an entire tree in seconds. Now we know that cartoons aren't real, but still people think of this rapid-fire pecking as what a woodpecker does. They'll think of the drumming sounds they hear woodpeckers making, as being the sound they make as they chisel into a tree. That's not the case at all. The rapid drumming woodpeckers make, is a territorial display. They don't even penetrate the wood or bark at all while they do that. They often select a bit of wood or bark with a hollow behind it, so they can get a nice loud and resonating drumming sound. They then just tap on that, very rapidly, to produce the drum. Enterprising woodpeckers have even started using metal poles and posts and other human constructions to drum on, producing louder sounds (and thus better displays) than can ever be produced by hammering on wood. People who don't understand the distinction between this drumming, and pecking into wood, will see woodpeckers drumming on metal and think the birds are totally stupid, instead of totally clever!

Next, apart from this rapid territorial drumming, there are three more kinds of pecking woodpeckers do. The first is exploratory or probing pecking. In this case again the woodpecker is not actually trying to peck into the wood. Instead it taps the wood as it inspects a tree, to hear if there are hollows deeper in. A hollow sound might mean that there's a cavity holding a fat and juicy grub behind. Once it finds a promising cavity, the woodpecker does the next kind of pecking, which is pecking into the bark and/or wood, to expose the grub so it can extract it using its tongue. These pecks are strong but not as fast as those used in drumming. The woodpecker will try to expose its prey as quickly as possible in as few pecks as necessary, so they are careful and measured. The last kind of pecking a woodpecker uses, is that of pecking into a tree so as to excavate a hollow in which it can nest. Here the woodpecker must peck its hardest, because it aims to penetrate deep into the wood. It appears that a woodpecker pecks while holding the tip of the bill slightly open, so that it can not only penetrate deep, but also jerk out a small chip of wood as its head pulls back again. This kind of pecking is powerful, the woodpecker using the full weight of its body to drive its head forward. But it still can't peck through a tree in seconds or even minutes! A large woodpecker might take two to three weeks of diligent chipping away to make itself a suitable nest hollow.

Woodpeckers have all sorts of specialisations for pecking. Their bills are straight with sharp, chisel-like tips. Their nostrils are very narrow slits, usually covered in feathers, to keep little wood splinters out. Their brains lie above the line that goes directly through their bills to the rears of their skulls, so as to escape the worst of the force. Their brains also being small and not surrounded by much cerebrospinal fluid, don't suffer from shocks as much. The arrangement of bones and muscles in their skulls and necks also absorb some of the shock. Their necks and torsos are very strong so as to produce the force they need for pecking. Their feet have a special arrangement of toes. The cardinal woodpecker has the typical configuration shared by other small to medium-sized woodpeckers, of two toes on each foot going forward and two backward, ensuring a firm grasp going in all directions. Lastly, woodpeckers have stiffened tail feathers, which props their bodies as they climb vertically up against trees.

In South Africa, cardinal woodpeckers occur in a greater variety of habitats than any other. Because of their small size, they can make use of smaller trees than others, even utilising large shrubs in semi-desert regions for feeding and nesting. They furthermore occur in thicket country, in savannah, and in dry to moist woodland. They're generally absent from moist, tall forest in South Africa, but elsewhere in Africa they do inhabit a variety of forest types, only eschewing high mountain forest and some of the tall, equatorial rainforest where other woodpeckers take their place. Because of not being as potent at pecking as others, they make much use of soft and dead wood.

Most of the time, cardinal woodpeckers occur in pairs. They're monogamous and quite loyal. Both sexes excavate the nesting hole. The female lays up to four eggs; the male helps her incubate them and, later, to brood and feed the chicks. After fledging, the chicks accompany their parents for a brief while, before dispersing to find territories of their own. Like other woodpeckers, these are quite territory-bound; once settled, they can remain in a small area for the rest of their lives. They'll only move if adverse environmental conditions force them to. When encountering other cardinal woodpeckers in their territory, they'll call, flick their wings, bob their bodies, weave their necks, point their bills and raise their crown feathers to assert themselves. But they're fairly tolerant of other species, often joining the larger golden-tailed woodpeckers and a variety of other insect eaters in mixed bird parties that methodically forage their way through the bush. They're sometimes taken advantage of by honeyguides who lay their eggs in the woodpeckers' holes; the aggressive young honeyguide chick kills the woodpeckers' own chicks and are raised by them instead. The chicks are also sometimes preyed on by the gymnogene or harrier-hawk which I hope to feature here soon; this double-jointed bird of prey can insert its lower legs into the woodpecker cavities and extract chicks with their clawed feet. But the woodpeckers do seem on the whole to be coping well with these threats. The biggest challenge for them is the destruction or alteration of their habitat by humans, but they are to some degree adaptable, and I see them from time to time in my own garden. Still, they as well as many other bird, not to mention mammal, reptile, amphibian and invertebrate species, will certainly benefit from better protection of their wild habitat.

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