Pale-billed Woodpecker and Alexander F. Skutch
I was walking in our forest on a hillside trail in mid-November and suddenly heard the characteristic drumming, just two loud knocks in rapid succession, of the impressive (14½” or 37 cm) Pale-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus guatemalensis). This is not a common sound, but coincidentally just two weeks earlier I had heard the same distinctive drumming in lowland rainforest on the Caribbean slope of Costa Rica. An excellent video from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology demonstrates how these woodpeckers communicate, and how, with simple science, two students managed to “converse” with Pale-billed Woodpeckers in Costa Rica.
While most birds communicate with specialized songs or the distinctive calls of their species, woodpeckers use not only their voices, but also proclaim their territory or call to their mates by producing rhythmic instrumental sounds, using their head as a hammer. Their chisel-hard bill against hard dry wood such as the remains of a hollow trunk or the broken end of a branch can supplement the woodpecker’s vocal cords and serve as a telegraph instrument. Alexander Skutch, one of the world’s best-known ornithologists and who worked most of his life observing birds in San Isidro, just a few hours away from San Vito, called woodpeckers the original drummers, “who sent their stirring rolls resounding through the air long before man invented drums and drumsticks.”
The Pale-billed Woodpecker has a call, which I have yet to hear, that’s been described as a bleating sound. It has been compared to the call of the highly hunted, probably extinct, Ivory-billed Woodpecker of the southeastern United States. The ill-fated Ivory-billed—an even larger bird, 20” or 51 cm long—was part of the same genus as the Pale-billed—Campephilus.
With remarkably acute hearing, woodpeckers waste little energy just randomly tapping and searching for their insect prey. Moving silently through the woods, they can hear the sounds of insects and their larvae moving under bark or in rotting wood. As seen in the photo above of the well-excavated tree top (and in the video link), Pale-billed Woodpeckers hack off splinters or chips that may be several inches long as they work to open holes in insect-infested trunks. Their thin, flexible and long white tongues are adapted to reach deeply into larvae burrows or ant tunnels. Their wood excavation skills are also used to create their year-round residences.
Woodpeckers almost always nest in monogamous pairs. Dr. Skutch observed a female Pale-billed Woodpecker incubating eggs for 4.5 hours on one day, while the male sat for 19.5 hours, including night duty. Jennifer Ackerman, the science writer and author, most recently, of The Genius of Birds, lauded male woodpeckers as superior bird dads. She confirmed what Dr. Skutch observed–that woodpecker pairs relieve one another during the day, but the male alone incubates at night.
In Dr. Skutch’s renowned book, Life of the Woodpecker, I learned that woodpeckers belong to the order Piciformes, of which toucans are also a part. In the Southern Zone of Costa Rica, one of the most flashy and aggressive birds we have is the Fiery-billed Aracari, a toucan that moves around in roving bands of up to 10 birds. Dr. Skutch once observed the price a pair of Pale-billed Woodpeckers paid after their industrious efforts to build a custom residence had just concluded. Although Pale-billed Woodpeckers are large birds with powerful beaks, the pair calmly gave up their new dwelling to Aracari usurpers. Up to five Aracaris can sleep together in a completed woodpecker hole (Stiles and Skutch, p. 249).
On another occasion, Dr. Skutch observed a small arboreal animal called the Kinkajou crawl out of a cavity that he thought was still serving a pair of Pale-billed Woodpeckers. Life is hard out there in the forest!
Dr. Skutch wrote in the preface to his book: “For half a century, few birds have fascinated me so much as the woodpeckers. [In Life of the Woodpecker] I try to convey to the reader the interest and charm that makes some of us lifelong friends of these unique birds.” Indeed, the book is pure pleasure to read.
Dr. Skutch died in 2004, just eight days shy of his 100th birthday. He wrote 25 books on ornithology and philosophy, and over 200 scientific articles on birds. His gentle conclusion after 70 years as a botanist, naturalist and ornithologist was that there is no real evidence of a God watching over us, but rather that the “universe operates itself.” He thought our job is to “preserve, understand and enjoy” nature, never needlessly harming anything. Dr. Skutch represents for me a role model I do my best to emulate. Over a long and industrious lifetime, protecting a beautiful tropical nature preserve, he was faithful to his gifts of caring for birds and sharing what he learned from his observations.
Pale-billed Woodpeckers range from N Mexico to W Panama. In Spanish the bird is known as the Carpintero Picoplata, Dos Golpes, or Carpintero Chircano.
Life of the Woodpecker, by Alexander F. Skutch, Paintings by Dana Gardner, Ibis Publishing Company, Santa Monica, CA, 1985.
Birds of Costa Rica, by F. Gary Stiles and Alexander F. Skutch, Illustrated by Dana Gardner, Comstock Publishing Associates, A Division of Cornell University Press, Ithaca, N.Y., 1989, pp. 249 and 258.
Interview with Alexander F. Skutch on NPR: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1899701