Hen-pecked Spouse of
Our Smallest Woodpecker
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
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.
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
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
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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