Save Woodpeckers

This story 'Knock! knock! Who’s there?' was published in Young World, The Hindu, Mar 31, 2001 http://www.hinduonnet.com/thehindu/2001/03/31/stories/13311104.htm
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Forest guards patrolling Karnataka's Nagarahole (Rajiv Gandhi) National Park which is a good habitat for woodpeckersIt was just another pre-monsoon evening inside the tropical jungles of Nagarahole National Park. Panthers watching, deer fleeing, tuskers rampaging, and if goddess of luck smiles, glimpse of the jungle king, the tiger, -it’s all in a day’s walk during the annual wildlife census in this wild haven. Sitting in front of the beautiful Kallahalla guesthouse, I was absorbed by unending stretches of Teak forest ahead. I always wondered and questioned myself, what prevented these lofty trees from those millions of armies of wood boring termites and other insects, which satiate their hunger by eating into the very heart of trees? In a flash, a Myna sized bird broke my gaze to settle on the trunk of one of the trees. It was a woodpecker! It briskly moved up the tree in a circular fashion, hammering its beak and plucking out tree boring insects as it did. I had my answer.

Of the many fictional idioms is this one, “Save a tree, eat a Woodpecker”. This myth seems to stem from the fact that the usual business of woodpeckers is to make holes in trees for feeding and nesting purposes. But does a woodpecker really harm trees? The answer is a big NO! Woodpeckers are among nature’s best biological pesticides. They save our forests by eating the marauding army of woodborers and termites, which otherwise would have turned our dense woods into barren deserts.

But what makes the woodpeckers hunt so effortlessly? This family of birds is highly specialised for spending a life clinging on to the branches and trunks of trees and feeding on the insects found over and within wood. They have a large head and the neck though slender, is very powerful. The bill is very hard and designed like chisel to hack into the timber. The tongue of a woodpecker is among the most specialized in birds. It is extremely long, cylindrical shaped, very protrusive and is barbed. Added to this, it is sticky, which helps it in catching its prey and pulling out larvae of beetle from their pupa.

The legs are short. The feet toes are paired, two pointing forward and two backward, and are very strong. The tail is also very interesting. It is rounded or wedge-shaped with the end feathers being pointed and stiffened. These tail features help a woodpecker for balancing the body and supporting, when climbing or clinging.

Although insects are the chief food, depending on the season, they also feed on fruits. Woodpeckers have a very strong and bounded flight. Many species of woodpeckers have a common habit of joining birds of different species in hunting insects. This habit is known as mixed foraging and this group of different birds is known as `Mixed hunting party' or 'Birdwave’. Woodpeckers have a habit of rapidly hammering against tree trunks, which produces a loud rattling sound known as `drumming ‘. Ornithologists suggest that this is not only a noise of excavation, but also to advertise their presence within a particular area. They consider this small area, usually a couple of square kilometres, as their territory and prevent other woodpeckers from coming in. It has also been found that, pairs maintain vocal contact and use drumming in communication.

Woodpeckers nest in holes in tree trunks and branches. Woodpeckers are termed as primary cavity (or hole) nesters. They do not use the same nest every year and drill new one every year. As a result, secondary cavity nesters- birds that can’t drill nest holes, like robins, owlets etc use the old nest holes. Hence, a large number of other birds are dependent on woodpeckers for their survival. But it is interesting from conservation point of view that, they mostly excavate holes in dead or rotten tree trunks or in the dead branches of live trees and it is only on occasions that they make use of live trees. Depending on the species they lay between 2 to 6 eggs, sometimes even 8.

Woodpeckers form a large family of the class Birds or Aves. There are approximately 216 species of woodpeckers in the world. Though they are distributed throughout India, they can be found in plenty in wooded regions, particularly the Himalayas, North-East and Western Ghats. Of the 32 species recorded in India, 13 species have been listed in Karnataka according to the first ever checklist of Birds of Karnataka compiled by birdwatchers Ameen Ahmed and Uday Veer Singh, IFS. While some of the woodpeckers like the goldenbacked woodpecker can be seen through out South India, many of them are confined to the wooded, heavy rainfall areas of Western Ghats. Among the rare and beautiful woodpeckers is the Heartspotted woodpecker. One evening at Nagarahole, after finishing the census, our team was relaxing. We were trying to beat the day’s physical stress by enjoying pranks of a small elephant calf, when a small woodpecker, having white spots over its black body on a nearby tree, drew our attention. Curious, we had a close look of it through our field glasses. It was a pleasant surprise to find that the spots were heart shaped. With the help of Salim Ali’s Book of Indian Birds, we could identify it as a heartspotted woodpecker.

Many of the woodpeckers, particularly those that are entirely dependent on forests, are threatened today. The large-scale deforestation particularly in Western Ghats for various reasons like dams, encroachments, roads etc has put a severe pressure on these beautiful birds. Also, since many of the woodpeckers nest in dead trees, it is extremely important to make people understand the importance of dead timber. Dead trees are as important as the ones that are live. Once the dead trees are removed from forests, then there will be no place for woodpeckers and those birds dependent on woodpeckers, to breed and raise their young ones. And if these are gone, then all the green trees will be at the mercy of wood boring insects. Hence no woodpeckers, no trees and obviously no forests! Therefore, if you want to save forests, you need to save woodpeckers!
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