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Acorn Woodpeckers

by Clark Tate

A splash of red or a flurry of black and white accompanied by a riotous, medium-pitched waka-waka call in a western oak forest between Oregon and Central Mexico likely means that you have happened upon the astonishing acorn woodpecker. These colorful birds live like forest gypsies in multigenerational family groups of a dozen or more. They wear a red crown over a pale yellow face and throat; have light, raccoonlike rimmed eyes; and dark, straight beaks ringed in black. Easy to identify in flight due to a white patch on each wing that flashes with the woodpecker’s distinctive wingbeat, these mid-sized denizens of the forest measure 8.5 inches with a 15.5-inch wingspan.

The gregarious bird, whose voice and behavior were the inspiration for Woody Woodpecker, gained its moniker from its favorite pastime—hoarding acorns. Each group maintains an acorn granary with as many as 50,000 holes packed tight to foil squirrels. Extremely territorial, acorn woodpeckers defend their stash and up to 15 surrounding acres. They usually build granaries in mature or dead trees, which can come to resemble cribbage boards riddled with holes, but they occasionally make use of manmade structures. A group of Arizona woodpeckers once deposited 485 pounds of acorns in a wooden water tank and couldn’t retrieve them.

Even more complex than their food storage rituals are their mating rites. Up to seven breeding males and three breeding females lay in one nest! Alas, this communal utopia has its downside. A breeding female destroys any eggs in the cavity nest before she begins laying, a competitive behavior that ends when all of the females in the flock have actively begun producing eggs—which means a period of violent yolk-shed during which the ruined eggs are moved to another cavity and eaten by the group.

We’re not here to judge.

Eventually, 4 to 5 white eggs are left that are tended by all, including the young of previous years. The cooperation works well. Acorn woodpeckers have lived to be 17 years old, and the population appears stable.

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