1902 Encyclopedia > Woodpecker


WOODPECKER, a bird that pecks or picks holes in wood, and from this habit is commonly reputed to have its name; but since it is in some parts of England also known as "Woodspeight" (erroneously written "Wood-spite")—the latter syllable being cognate with the German Specht and the French Epeiche, to say nothing possibly of the Latin Picus—the vulgar explanation seems open to doubt. More than 300 species of Woodpecker have been described, and they have been very variously grouped by systematists; but all admit that they form a very natural Family Picidse, which according to the view taken in this series of articles belongs to the Order Picarise. Prof. Huxley (Proc. Zool. Society, 1867, p. 467) would separate the Woodpeckers still more under the name of Celeo-morphas, and Prof. Parker (Trans. R. Microsc. Society, 1872, p. 219) would raise them still higher as Saurognathee. They are generally of bright particoloured plumage, in which black, white, brown, olive, green, yellow, orange, or scarlet—the last commonly visible on some part of the head—mingled in varying proportions, and most often strongly contrasted with one another, appear; while the less conspicuous markings take the form of bars, spangles, tear-drops, arrow-heads, or scales. Woodpeckers inhabit most parts of the world, with the exception of Madagascar and the Australian Region, save Celebes and Flores; but it may be worth stating that no member of the group is known to have occurred in Egypt.

Limicoline birds.

more recently into "High-holder." Another set of names includes

Of the three British species, the Green Woodpecker, Gecinus or Picus viridis, though almost unknown in Scotland or Ireland, is the commonest, frequenting wooded districts, and more often heard than seen, its laughing cry (whence the name "Yaffil" or "Yaffle," by which it is in many parts known), and undulating flight afford equally good means of recognition, even when it is not near enough for its colours to be discerned. About the size of a Jay, its scarlet crown and bright yellow rump, added to its prevailing grass-green plumage, make it a sightly bird, and hence it often suffers at the hands of those who wish to keep its stuffed skin as an ornament. Besides the scarlet crown, the cock bird has a patch

the lower mandible, a patch that in the hen is black. "Wood-peckers in general are very shy birds, and to observe the habits of the species is not easy. Its ways, however, are well worth watch-ing, since the ease with which it mounts, almost always spirally, the vertical trunks and oblique arms of trees as it searches the inter-stices of the bark for its food, flying off when it reaches the smaller or upper branches—either to return to the base of the same tree and renew its course on a fresh line, or to begin upon another tree near by—and the care it shews in its close examination, will repay a patient observer. The nest almost always consists of a hole, chiselled by the birds' strong beak, impelled by very powerful muscles, in the upright trunk or arm of a tree, the opening being quite circular, and continued as a horizontal passage that reaches to the core, whence it is pierced downward for nearly a foot. There a chamber is hollowed out in which the eggs, often to the number of six, white, translucent, and glossy, are laid with no bedding but a few chips that may have not been thrown out. The young are not only hatched entirely naked, but seem to become fledged without any of the downy growth common to most birds. Their first plumage is dull in colour, and much marked beneath with bars, crescents, and arrowheads.
Of generally similar habits are the two other Woodpeckers which inhabit Britain—the Pied or Greater Spotted, and the Barred or Lesser Spotted Woodpecker—Dendrocopus major and D. minor—each of great beauty, from the contrasted white, blue-black, and scarlet that enter into its plumage. Both of these birds have an extraordinary habit of causing by quickly-repeated blows of their beak on a branch, or even on a small bough, a vibrating noise, louder than that of a watchman's rattle, and enough to excite the attention of the most incurious. Though the Pied Woodpecker is a resident in Britain, its numbers receive a consider-able accession nearly every autumn.
The three species just mentioned are the only Woodpeckers that inhabit Britain, though several others are mistakenly recorded as occurring in the country—and especially the Great Black Wood-pecker, the Pious martins of Linnams, which must be regarded as the type of that genus. This fine species considerably exceeds the Green Woodpecker in size, and except for its red cap is wholly black. It is chiefly an inhabitant of the fir forests of the Old World, from Lapland to Galicia, and across Siberia to Japan. In North America this species is replaced by Pious pileaias, there generally known as the Logcock, an equally fine species, but variegated with white ; and further to the southward occur two that are finer still, P. principalis, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, and P. imperialis. The Picinse indeed flourish in the Now World, nearly .one-half of the described species being American, but out of the large number that inhabit Canada and the United States there is here room to mention only a few.
First of these is the Californian Woodpecker, Melanerpes for-micivorus, which has been said to display an amount of providence beyond almost any other bird in the number of acorns which it collects and, as shewn in the accompanying figure, fixes tightly in holes which it purposely makes in the bark of trees, and thus "a large pine forty or fifty feet high will present the appearance of being closely studded with brass nails, the heads only being visible." An extraordinary thing is that this is not done to furnish food iu winter, for the species migrates, and after journeying a thousand miles or
more only returns in spring to the forests where its supplies are laid up. It has been asserted that the acorns thus stored are always those which contain a maggot, and, being fitted into the sockets pre-pared for them cup-end foremost, the enclosed insects are unable to escape, as they otherwise would, and are thus ready for consump-tion by the birds on their return from the south. But this state-ment has again been contradicted, and moreover it is alleged that these Woodpeckers fol-low their instinct so blindly that "they do not distinguish between an acorn and a pebble," so that they "fill up the holes they have drilled with so much labor, not only with acorns but occasionally ^ with stones" (cf. Band, | Brewer, and Ridgway, SSSKSMB North American Birds, ii. pp. 569-571).
The next North-
American form deserv-
ing notice is the genus
Colaptes, represented in
the north and east by
0. auratus, the Golden-
winged Woodpecker or
Flicker, in most parts

bird, but in the south Oahforman Woodpecker (Melanerpes
and west replaced by formicivorus).

the allied C. mexicanus, easily distinguishable among other char-acteristics by having the shafts of its quills red instead of yellow. 11 is curious, however, that, in the valleys of the upper Missouri and Yellowstone rivers, where the range of the two kinds overlaps, birds are found presenting an extraordinary mixture of the other-wise distinctive features of each, and these birds have been de-scribed as hybrids. It would be premature to say whether this view be correct or not, and in regard to it Dr Coues has well re-marked (Birds of the Northwest, p. 294), "that it is only in virtu o of missing links we are enabled to predicate species in any case," thereby- indicating the possibility (not entertained for the first time) that these supposed hybrids are examples of the more generalized form of Colaptes, which becomes differentiated further to the north and south into the specialized C. auratus and C. mexicanus. Thus the subject is one highly interesting to the student of evolution.
Some other Woodpeckers deserve especial notice,—among them the Colaptes or Soroplex campestris, which inhabits the treeless plains of Paraguay and La Plata, and had become fully adapted to a terri-torial mode of life, as long ago observed by Azara and Darwin, but yet has readily returned, since the opportunity has been afforded, to the arboreal habits of its relatives, as remarked by Mr Hudson (Proe. Zool. Society, 1870, pp. 158-160). A similar provision of habit and haunt obtains in a South-African Woodpecker, Geo-colaptes olivaceus, which lives almost entirely on the ground or rocks, and picks a hole for its nest in the bank of a stream (Zoolo-gist, 1882, p. 208).
* When more is known it will very likely be found that a somewhat similar state of things exists in the Palasarctic area in regard to the various local races of, or " species " allied to, Dendrocopus major and D. minor respectively. At present the only cases that seem to be strictly parallel are those furnished by the genera Coracias (cf. HOLLER) and Euplocamus (cf. PHEASANT).
6 Monographie des Piddles, 4 vols, folio, Metz, 1859-62.
The Picidee offer a fruitful ground for taxonomical speculation. At least three Subfamilies are admitted by all modern systematists—the Woodpeckers proper, Picinse; the Piculets, Picumninx, which are small birds wanting the stiff rectrices of the former; and the WRYNECKS (q.v.). Sundevall (Conspectus Avium Picinarum, Stockholm, 1866) gave up the attempt to establish genera in the first of these, though he separated the 254 species which he admitted into 4 Series and 30 Tribes, thereby differing from the method of Malherbe, who, in his great monograph of the Family, recognized 277 species and 19 genera, as well as from Prof. Cabanis, who (Mus. Heineanum, iv. part 2) strove to establish 48 genera in about three-fourths of the whole Family, and from G. E. Gray, who in his Hand List recognized 4 Subfamilies, 19 genera, 74 subgenera, and 312 species. It seems obvious that until

the aid of the anatomist is invoked no satisfactory
arrangement can be supplied, and it is not certain that
even then will the desired end be reached, for Macgilli-
vray, who furnished Audubon with elaborate descriptions
of parts of the structure of several North-American forms,
found considerable differences to exist between species
which can hardly be but nearly allied. Some of the most
striking of these differences often lie in the form and
development of the hyoid bones, and of the muscles which
work the extensile tongue. Unhappily the subject does
not seem to have been pursued by any other investigator;
but it may be mentioned that some limited researches on
the pterylosis, conducted by Kessler (Bull. Soc. Nat.
Moscou, xvi. p. 285), in addition to those of Nitzsch,
indicate that as being also a promising line of inquiry,
though one that has scarcely been attempted by any
other workers. (A. N.)


6 Geographical Distribution of the Family Charadriidae, p. 506,
pi. This work will be found of much interest to those who would
speculate on the causes which have led to the distribution of existing
"Whetile" and "Woodwale," which, different as they look, have a common derivation perceptible in the intermediate form "Witwale." The Anglo-Saxon Wodake ( = Woodhack) is another name apparently identical in meaning with that commonly applied to Woodpecker.
The number of English names, ancient and modern, by which these birds are known is very great, and even a bare list of them could not be here given. The Anglo-Saxon was Higera or Uigere, and to this may plausibly be traced 1' Hickwall," now-a-days used in some parts of the country, and the older "Hickway," corrupted first into "Highhaw," and, after its original meaning was lost, into "Hewhole," which in North America has been still further corrupted into "Highhole" and

It often happens that, just as the Woodpecker's labours are over, _a pair of STARLINGS (q.v.) will take possession of the newly-bored hole, and, by conveying into it some nesting-furniture, render it unfit for the rightful tenants, who thereby suifer ejectment, and have to begin all their trouble again. It has been stated of this and other Woodpeckers that the chips made in cutting the hole are carefully re-moved by the birds to guard against their leading to the discovery of the nest. The present writer has had ample opportunity of observing the contrary as regards this species and, to some extent, the Pied Woodpecker next to be mentioned. Indeed there is no surer way of finding the nest of the Green Woodpecker than by scanning the ground in the presumed locality, for the tree which holds the nest is always recognizable by the chips scattered at its foot.
The expression Picus martius was by old writers used in a very general sense for all birds that climbed trees, not only Woodpeckers, but for the NUTHATCH and TREE-CREEPER (qq.v.) as well. The ad-jective martius loses all its significance if it be removed from Picus, as some even respectable authorities have separated it.
The persistency with which many writers on British birds have for years included this species among them is a marvellous instance of the durability of error, for not a case of its asserted occurrence in this
country is on record that will bear strict investigation, and the origin
of the mistake has been more than once shewn.

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