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The Birding Life

By Budd Titlow

I’ve been doing wildlife-birding surveys for 45 years and I’d never seen anything quite like it. The trunks of two large pine trees displayed row after row of neatly drilled small holes. Closer inspection revealed acorns carefully tucked into most of these holes.

Curiosity got the best of me. I had to find out what was going on. I walked around to the base of the trees and — within minutes — I had my answer. A flock of about 10 woodpeckers — all clamoring wacha-wacha-wacha — descended on the tree trunks. For the next 15 minutes they flitted about the trees, noisily squabbling with each other and digging acorns and insect larvae out of the bark. Then they were off, only to return again 10 minutes later for another session of feeding and fighting.

If you haven’t experienced the playful antics of acorn woodpeckers, you’re missing a treat. Their raucous antics have earned them the title of “clowns of the oak-pine woodlands”. In the U.S., the primary habitat for these birds is found in the coastal and foothill areas of Oregon and California with extensions into oak-dominated forests of the Southwest.

Acorn woodpeckers are robin-sized birds with harlequin-feathered faces perched atop black-and-white bodies. Their off-kilter laughing calls inspired the distinctive “voice” that Walter Lantz gave to his Woody Woodpecker cartoon character.

“Granary Tree,” acorn-stuffed holes in the bark of a tree storing food for acorn woodpeckers. © Budd Titlow

Living in small (seven to twelve birds) family colonies, acorn woodpeckers exhibit some of the most extreme social behaviors found in the birding world. First and foremost is each colony’s diligence in establishing communal “granary trees” packed with acorns. Each fall during the peak of oak mast production, a colony of these woodpeckers begins drilling thousands of storage holes in the soft wood of large pines. Then — working cooperatively — the birds begin transporting acorns to their selected granary trees and carefully tucking them into the drilled holes.

Often supplemented by fruit, insects, and sap, the acorns sustain the woodpecker colony through the often-severe winter weather where they choose to live. Throughout the fall and winter — as the acorns shrivel and shrink — each bird in a colony dedicates most of its daily hours to moving them around to different-sized holes for a tighter fit. If the acorns aren’t snugly maintained, they become easy targets for squirrels, Steller’s jays, scrub jays, and other such “cache robbers” to steal.

A portion of an acorn woodpecker nesting colony © Budd Titlow

With the onset of April each year, the nesting season begins and each colony’s behavior becomes even stranger. The living arrangements would intrigue even the most outlandish Hollywood producer. In a polygynous mating system, multiple males and females share the same tree nesting cavity in which they all breed together. Yes you read that right — it is basically an avian orgy. Then the female who lays the first eggs experiences the ignominy of having her eggs pecked apart and eaten by the colony’s other adults. In a bizarre twist, the egg-laying mother often joins on this soiree of feathered cannibalism. But —not to fear — after the first clutch is devoured, the nesting females all lay additional eggs which are then judiciously nurtured.

While this nesting process would make even Casanova blush, the end result is usually quite successful. That’s because all of the adult and sub-adult “helper birds” pitch in to make sure the hatchlings are kept well-fed, safe, and secure until they can fend for themselves.

Adult acorn woodpecker © Budd Titlow

Adult acorn woodpecker holding extracted pupa © Budd Titlow

Adult acorn woodpecker holding extracted pupa © Budd Titlow

If you’re visiting San Diego County, acorn woodpecker colonies can be found throughout such high elevation locales as Laguna Mountain Recreation Area and Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. Based on my personal experience, these birds are extremely easy to find in both of these areas. Just keep your eyes peeled for the large granary trees packed with acorns. They’re just about everywhere you look — along roadsides and even bordering picnic areas and campgrounds. Once you successfully locate a few granary trees, wait for the wacha-wacha-wacha calls. Then watch as the sky fills with woodpeckers.

A professional wetland scientist (emeritus) and wildlife biologist, Budd Titlow is also an international/national award-winning nature photographer and a widely published writer. He has authored five natural history books: Coming Full Circle—A Sweeping Saga of Conservation Stewardship Across America, Protecting the Planet—Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change, Bird Brains—Inside the Strange Minds of Our Fine Feathered Friends, Seashells—Jewels from the Ocean, and Rocky Mountain National Park—Beyond Trail Ridge. Budd has also published more than 500 photo-essays and 5,000 photographs. He is currently using his writing and photography skills to focus public attention on the climate crisis and world-wide biodiversity loss—two of the most serious environmental threats our planet has ever faced.