The Fascinating Acorn Woodpecker

by Beverly R. Martin | Jun 1, 2024 | 0 comments

Acorn Woodpecker on mossy branch
Acorn Woodpecker. Photo © Alain Poirot|

“RAT-TAT-TAT! Rat-tat-tat!”

Listen to that woodpecker. It is a common enough sound, but how about a woodpecker that turns a wooden building or telephone pole into a granary for its cache of food? Let me introduce you to the Acorn Woodpecker. Known as Melanerpes formicivorus in the scientific world, this unique bird thrives in oak forests along the West Coast and south through Central America into Colombia, South America.

What does this woodpecker look like? It’s dressed in a fine suit of black and white and wears a red cap. The male pulls his cap lower over his forehead than a female. The woodpecker is about 8 inches (20 cm) long.

I enjoy watching one of these birds winging its way across the blue California sky, from oak tree to granary and back again. The white wing patches glisten in the sun as it flaps its wings a few times before swooping in a downward arc. It perches on a telephone pole and greets the others already there with what the bird books describe as “aka, aka” or “yakup,” but what I think sounds more like “cracker, cracker!”

Acorn Woodpeckers live in coalitions of up to fifteen birds. All the mature females in the group lay their eggs in the same nest. Some juvenile birds help to raise the fledglings.

Fruit, sap, insects, and acorns are all included in this bird’s diet.

They come back to their caches of acorns—in dead trees, wooden walls, and utility poles—year after year. And they don’t give up! Our neighbor had trouble with woodpeckers storing acorns in the outside wall of his house, which he wasn’t living in at the time. So he replaced the plywood and hung some shiny ribbons to discourage the busy woodpeckers. That didn’t last very long. The birds soon drilled through the wood and stocked up their larder again!

As these cached acorns dry out, they shrink and don’t fit the hole so well anymore. I learned that Acorn Woodpeckers spend a large part of their time adjusting acorns and moving them to smaller holes. I stood with binoculars and camera one afternoon and watched a telephone pole fairly buzzing with woodpeckers. One would arrive with an acorn in its beak, poke it into a hole, move around a bit, find an acorn that needed adjusting, and move it to a different hole. Meanwhile, others would arrive and do the same thing. Acorn shells adorned the ground at the base of the pole. The birds ignored me as long as I stood still.

Once their precious acorns are stored away, the woodpeckers have to keep a sharp eye out for thieving Steller’s Jays and California Scrub Jays. The jays enjoy acorns just as much as the woodpeckers, especially acorns all prepared for the taking!

One year our family was intrigued to see a woodpecker with an overgrown, curved beak coming around. He seemed to be surviving somehow because we kept seeing him at our feeder. He eventually appeared with the long part broken off.

Some years ago we cut down an old dead tree on our property. When it toppled, pieces of dry dog food came rolling out. Both the jays and the woodpeckers had been stealing dog food and storing it away in the tree. The funniest part was that later we saw the birds reclaiming the dog food and flapping away to cache it somewhere else!

Acorn Woodpeckers are a unique part of the ecosystem here in California. It seems we have to outsmart them if we don’t want our house walls full of acorns!

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