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Official Magazine of the Nature Society (Singapore)
  The Hen-pecked Spouse of
Our Smallest Woodpecker

"I suddenly realised I was nature's perpetual student"—says Ms Ong Kiem Sian, veteran birder and bird-photographer as she watched two pairs of parenting woodpeckers.

"Aunty Sian, do you know there is a bird making a nest?" said Lionel See, a teenager who well knows about my passion for birds. (He should know ... it was his father, See Swee Leng, an ardent birdwatcher, who introduced me to the fascinating world of birds about 8 years ago.)

I looked up and, following the direction Lionel was excitedly pointing, saw a Brown-capped woodpecker (now known as the Sunda woodpecker) pecking ferociously on the trunk of a dead Curry-leaf tree. We were in the compound of Dunman Road Church at Katong.

I was thrilled with this sighting as it meant I would have the opportunity to see the progress of a nesting pair of the smallest woodpecker in Singapore.

Senior See had told me to watch carefully to see which of the pair was building the nest. Up to this time, I had seen this species, the Brown-capped woodpecker on many outings in our parks and gardens, also in rural and mangrove areas, but never had I realised that the male is slightly different in appearance from the female. Bird guide books pointed out that the male should have a red streak behind its eye. I looked intently to see if I could make out the red mark that would distinguish the male but did not see it on either of the nesting birds. Not yet.

One day, while one bird was working hard on its nest-hole, making a knocking sound as hard beak chipped away at woody trunk, its other half arrived and immediately the first bird moved aside to make room for the second bird. To my surprise, the second bird started to peck at the face of the first bird. It pecked so hard, the head feathers of the first bird stood up. Suddenly I saw a red patch appear above the eye and it dawned on me what was happening. I knew the little bird with the red streak must be the long, suffering male!

Having made her point, the female now entered the nest hole and continued excavating and enlarging the space from the inside.

At this time I had also come to know of another pair of nesting Brown-capped woodpeckers. This second pair was nesting in a Yellow Flame Tree at Marina South Park and I spent all my free time shuttling from one nest to the other. Like many other bird species, the woodpecker parents would take precautions before approaching their nest. After catching prey they would fly, with catch in beaks, to a tree near their nest and, only after carefully looking around to see if the coast was clear of predators, would they fly to their nest. Generally, the predators of young chicks are orioles, mynas, crows and raptors.

The strong rapid pecks
send wood chips flying.
The pecking sounds may be
heard from a distance,
betraying the whereabouts
of a woodpecker.

The female testing out
their nest-hole size

The female at the
mouth of her nest-hole,
with a caterpillar
for her young

A fastidious parent bird
removes a faecal deposit
from the nest-hole. These
deposits by the nestlings
are produced 'conveniently
bagged up' with a thin
membrane for easy removal

Diagram of an old nest-hole
showing its dimensions
By now, I was watching the birds so closely that on several occasions, I was able to see the red streak on the male's head, behind its eye, whenever it was not covered by brown feathers. It was also obvious to me that male and female woodpeckers are directly and quite equally involved in building their nest and raising their young.

Their housekeeping habits are also beyond reproach. Faecal deposits from the chicks were regularly removed from the nest by the fastidious parents. I deduced that, much like humans, the male did the exterior building work while the female was the interior designer —the one who decides on the right and comfortable size of their home. The expectant pair kept up their hard work for about six to seven weeks: they pecked incessantly, not only enlarging the nest but also making decoy holes, to ensure the safety of their eggs.

Two weeks after the female laid her eggs, their young hatched. It was as busy a time for me (as tireless photographer and observer), as it was for the parenting pair. They seemed to be kept constantly busy, feeding their fast growing chicks with caterpillars and insects. With so much attention lavished on the chicks, they soon grew big and robust, and as they did, their calls grew louder. Soon the young birds' calls resembled the call of the adults.

At last, three weeks after hatching, the young grew bold enough to leave their nest. But this did not mean the end of parental watchfulness and indulgences. The parent birds continued to feed their fledging offspring additional food, even while the youngsters learned to look for their own food, with growing success and confidence.

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