Woodpeckers of Sri Lanka

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CHISELING FOR FOOD: Woodpeckers belong to the Family Picidae and the Order Piciformes. With over two hundred and fifteen species around the world, there is tremendous diversity among the woodpeckers. This number includes the Ivory Billed Woodpecker, which has been rediscovered after many years.

Brown Capped Indian Pygmy Woodpecker

Brown Capped Indian Pygmy Woodpecker
photo by AntoGros licensed under CC BY 2.0

There are nine species of woodpeckers in Sri Lanka. This includes three endemic sub species. One of the Sri Lankan species is different, and it has no crest like the others. It also has a different nesting habit.

The sexes are generally similar except that the males have a little more red colour on their heads than the females. Woodpeckers generally live in pairs and in a particular territory but soon after nesting time they are sometimes seen in groups.

Woodpeckers fly in an undulating manner in that they flap their wings for a while and then stop flapping for a while.

In flight, the bird moves up and down slightly as well as moving in a forward direction. When looking for food it moves up from the bottom of a tree with its head held up and the tail against the tree for support.

Woodpeckers are specially adapted for a life that is spent mainly in climbing tree trunks to eat the ants, insects and grubs they find.

Some woodpeckers, in the order Piciformes, have short legs and zygodactyl feet, with two toes pointing forward, and two backward. The curved claws are strong, compressed and very sharp.

These feet, though adapted for clinging to a vertical surface, can also be used for grasping or perching as well. Several species have only three toes. The long tongue found in some woodpeckers can be darted forward to capture insects in cavities and cracks.

The tail in the species found in Sri Lanka have the shafts of their tail feathers thick and flexible. These species use their tails as a prop when pecking on the trunk of a tree.

The beak of these birds are straight, hard and wedge-shaped at the tip making it suitable for chiselling into wood to obtain their food. This type of beak is also useful to excavate nest cavities in the trunks of trees.

Woodpeckers gained their English name because of the habit of some species of tapping and pecking noisily on tree trunks with their beaks.

Black Backed Woodpecker

Black Backed Woodpecker
photo by U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service – Northeast Region licensed under CC BY 2.0

This is both a means of communication to signal possession of territory to their rivals, and also a method of locating and accessing insects and larvae found under the bark or in long winding tunnels in the tree.

First, the woodpecker locates a tunnel in which there are insects or grubs by tapping on the trunk. Once a tunnel is found, the woodpecker chisels out the wood till it makes an opening into the tunnel. Then it extends its tongue into the tunnel to try to locate the grubs.

The tongue of the woodpecker is long and worm-like but hard, acutely pointed and barbed at the end. The tongue can be put out far out of the beak. The tongue is covered with a sticky saliva and is used to extract grubs from their holes in the trees and to collect mouthfulls of small insects, ants and termites. With its tongue the woodpecker skewers the grub and draws it out of the trunk.

Woodpeckers have strong necks to be able to absorb the shocks when pecking at and chiselling strong tree trunks.

Woodpeckers also use their beaks to create larger holes for their nests which are 15-45 cm (6-18 inches) below the opening. These nests are lined with wood chips and hold the 2-5 white eggs laid by the females.

The eggs are white and because the nests are out of sight, they are not visible to predators. Therefore, the eggs do not need to be camouflaged. Cavities created by woodpeckers are also re-used as nests by other birds, such as some ducks and, owls, and mammals such as tree squirrels.

Woodpeckers are shy birds that do not remain in the presence of people for too long. They are difficult to spot and often will quietly fly off or go round the trunk of the tree on which it is, if someone approaches it.

Rufous Woodpecker (Celeus brachyurus)

Rufous Woodpecker (Celeus brachyurus)
photo by jasonbkk licensed under CC BY 2.0

Woodpeckers are a “core species” of forest and woodland avifauna since their presence is a fundamental requirement to the existence of a wide range of other birds. Woodpeckers drill new nest holes each year, and thus many old nest cavities are available for an entire range of hole-nesting species.

The common names of the woodpeckers in Sri Lanka have been changed and taxonomists have changed the scientific names.

This leads to confusion when trying to identify these birds in the field. For instance, the names in Henry’s Guide differ from the recent publications on these birds. Since Henry’s is still the most authoritative book, it cannot be discounted.

In an earlier article, I have described what a species is. Today since we will be dealing with three sub-species, I will explain how a sub-species is classified. One of the criteria of a species is that they can successfully interbreed with others within the same species.

However, there are instances where those of the same species, living in different locations have taken on certain characteristics that make them different, in some ways, from those of the same species but living in a different locations.

Therefore, they are given a third scientific name to identify them as a sub-species. If some representatives of the two sub-species get together they would be able to breed since they are from the same species.

The Black-rumped Flameback Woodpecker

The Black-rumped Flameback (Dinopium benghalensis jaffnense), Greater Flame-backed (Chrysocolaptes lucidus stricklandi) and the Red-backed Woodpecker (Dinopium benghalensis psarodes) are three sub-species that are endemic to this country though the main species itself is not endemic to Sri Lanka as it is also found in India.

The Small Scaly-bellied Green Woodpecker

Small Scaly-bellied Green Woodpecker

Small Scaly-bellied Green Woodpecker

The Small Scaly-bellied Green Woodpecker (Picus xanthopygaeus) is called Karelle in Sinhala and Maram kotti in Tamil, and is about the size of a large barbet or the Red-backed woodpecker.

Sexes are similar but the female lacks the red on the crown of the head and the nape of the neck. This bird is paler than the Yellow-naped Woodpecker with which it is sometimes confused.

This bird is confined to the sparse wooded country in the Uva basin. Even in this restricted area it is not common. It is also found, very rarely, further east in the Passara and Badulla areas.

Unlike other woodpeckers, it is a solitary bird and again unusual to the other species. It moves about rocks and boulders in search of its food which consists mainly of grubs, ants and other insects.

Henry says that the breeding season of this bird is during the south-west monsoon. As with most woodpeckers, the nest is a hole cut in the trunk of a tree or a suitable branch of a tree. The entrance to the nest is about two inches in diameter. At the bottom of the foot deep cavity, two to three eggs are laid.

The Ceylon Yellow-naped Woodpecker

The Ceylon Yellow-naped Woodpecker is also called Lesser Yellow-naped Woodpecker (Picus chlorolophus). This is called Konda Kaha Karelle in Sinhala and Maram Kotti in Tamil. This Tamil name is applied to all woodpeckers. This bird is endemic to this country.

This woodpecker is about the size of a common mynah. The sexes are alike except that the female lacks the crimson stripe like a moustache which the male has. Also the head of the female is a grayish green. It is found in the hill country going up to about 6,000 feet.


It is also found in the wet zone but not in large numbers. It is commonest in the foothills of the wet zone. It likes the jungle and well-wooded village gardens. This woodpecker can be seen, quite often in the company of other birds that move about together as flocks of mixed species.

Its food consists of insects, grubs and larvae. Unlike other woodpeckers, this species descends to the ground and looks for its food in decaying logs and cow dung. It is also not so shy of the presence of humans.

The breeding season is from about January to May. The nest is a hole high up in a tree generally about 10 feet up the trunk but some nests at two or three feet from the ground have also been found. Two or three white eggs are laid as the other woodpeckers.

The Yellow-fronted Pied Woodpecker

The Yellow-fronted Pied Woodpecker is also called Yellow-crowned Pied Woodpecker (Dendrocopos mahrattensis), and called Karelle in Sinhala.

This woodpecker is one of the smallest woodpeckers we have. The smallest being the Pigmy Woodpecker, it is about the size of a Red-vented Bulbul. It gets its name from the white spots on the black feathers on its back.

The male has a red crown and yellow side of the head. The female, however, has no red head but is yellow all over. It is difficult to find in its habitat easily due to its small size and colouration that has a camouflage effect.

This is a dry zone bird, which ascends up to 3,000 feet on the eastern side of the mountains especially the foothills of the Uva hills. It is also common in the two driest areas of the country, the Hambantota district and the north-western coast. It prefers open areas and shrub forests to thick forests.

This bird is seen when in flight or heard when pecking on trees to get at its food. Otherwise, it is difficult to locate. It moves about in pairs but groups of this species are also encountered.

The breeding season is from June to about August, and two or three white eggs are laid. As with other woodpeckers, the nest is a hole in a convenient tree or on a suitable branch of a tree. If a branch is used as the entrance to the nest, it is on the underside of the branch.

The Ceylon Pigmy Woodpecker

The Ceylon Pigmy Woodpecker is also called Brown-capped Woodpecker (Dendrocopos nanusi), and called Mal Karelle in Sinhala. This species is endemic to the island. This is the smallest species of woodpecker in the island. It is about the size of a house sparrow. The sexes are alike except that the female does not have the small red speck on the side of its head.

This woodpecker has wide distribution throughout the wet and dry zones of the low country going up to 4,000 feet. Its food consists mainly of ants, termites and sm

 Ceylon Yellow-naped Woodpecker

Ceylon Yellow-naped Woodpecker

all grubs. It prefers open wooded country.

Henry says that although common in most parts of its range, it eludes observation by its habit of working at a considerable height on trees, where its tiny, speckled form does not attract attention.

It is a fascinating little bird to watch, as it hammers vigorously on dead twigs, woody knots etc. looking for prospective colonies of ants. Whilst doing so it regularly makes a shrill call to its mate. The Pigmy Woodpecker breeds from February to July.

The nest is generally high up on the dead branch of a tree. The dead branch makes it easier for the bird to excavate the nest. The nest hole, as a result of being up and away from predators, is not as deep as the nest holes of some of the other woodpeckers. Generally two or three eggs are laid.

The Rufous Woodpecker

The Rufous Woodpecker (Celeus brachyurus) is called Dumburu Karelle in Sinhala.

 Crimson-backed Woodpecker

Crimson-backed Woodpecker

This woodpecker is about the size of a mynah in size. It is dark chestnut in colour and is easily distinguished from other woodpeckers. The female is a little duller than the male in colour.

It is not very common in its habitat, which is the low country. It is found all over the low country going up to about 2,000 feet. The rufous woodpecker is a shy bird and is rarely seen close to human habitations. It is rarely seen in jungles close to villages.

Generally found in pairs, this woodpecker keeps in touch, regularly, with its mate, while feeding with a chirp-like note. Its diet is similar to that of the other woodpeckers being ants, termites and grubs.

It comes down to the ground to examine cow-dung and decaying wood looking for ants etc. It prefers to fly short distances from tree to tree, but if a longer flight is necessary, it flies in the undulating manner of the other woodpeckers.

The most interesting feature of this woodpecker is its nesting habits. Unlike the other woodpeckers, it does not build its nest in a hole in the trunk of a tree. It excavates the large globular nests of the Crematogaster ants.

This nest is made of a papier mache like substance by the ants. The nest cavity is dug out in this nest whilst the ants, which carry a very vicious sting, and are still in occupation of the nest.

There seems to be a symbiotic relationship between the ants and these birds. Two or three eggs are laid in this oval nest. They are white and have a slightly rough surface unlike the smooth eggs of the other species of woodpeckers. Though the eggs are well protected by the presence of these ants, their colouration indicates the need for some form of camouflage.

The Ceylon Golden-backed Woodpecker

Ceylon Golden-backed Woodpecker and Ceylon Red-backed Woodpecker

Ceylon Golden-backed Woodpecker and Ceylon Red-backed Woodpecker

The Ceylon Golden-backed Woodpecker (Dinopium benghalensis)is called Pita Rang Karelle in Sinhala. There are two sub species of this woodpecker. The Black-rumped Flameback (Dinopium benghalensis jaffnense) and the Red-backed Woodpecker (Dinopium benghalensis psarodes). They are difficult to distinguish in the field. and called Pita Ratu Karelle in Sinhala.

These birds are also the size of a mynah. The sexes are alike but the female has less red on its head. The golden coloured back makes this species easy to distinguish in the field. The Black-rumped Flameback and the Red-backed Woodpecker are two sub species that are endemic to this country.

The Black-rumped Flameback is found in the northern part of the island especially in the Northern and the North Central Procinces. It is found in the coastal areas from Puttalam, through Mannar and Jaffna going round to Trincomalee.

The Red-backed Woodpecker is common throughout the low country both in the wet and dry zones. It is the most common woodpecker in the country found in some urban areas as well. It has a variety of habitats.

The two species inter-mix at and inter-breed in the common boundary they share in the forests of the northern part of the North Central Province. The hybrids of these have a number of, sometimes slight, colour variations.

This woodpecker lives in pairs. It forages for food amongst all types of trees. It keeps in touch with its mate with a rattling sound. The Red-backed goes up to 4,000 feet but does not seem to breed in the higher elevations.

The highest a nest of this species has been found is 3,000 feet.

The breeding season is from March to June and, Henry says that there is another short season in August – September. The three eggs that are laid are a glossy white similar to the eggs of the other woodpeckers.

The Black-backed Yellow Woodpecker

 Ceylon Pygmy Woodpecker

Ceylon Pygmy Woodpecker

The Black-backed Yellow Woodpeckeris also called the White-naped Woodpecker (Chrysocolaptes festivus) and is called Pita Rang Karelle in Sinhala. This is a very pretty bird. This bird is a little bigger than a mynah. The male and female have the same colouration except that the female lacks much of the red on the head.

This bird is not common and found only in the arid areas of Hambantota and in the drier areas of the northern part of the island. It seems that the breeding season is from January to March and then again in July to September. The coconut tree is a popular choice for its nest hole. Two white eggs are laid

The Crimson-backed Woodpecker

The Crimson-backed Woodpecker or Layard’s Woodpecker or Greater Flame-backed Woodpecker (Chrysocolaptes lucidus stricklandi). One name is Layard’s Woodpecker. It is named after the British Ornithologist Edgar Leopold Layard. This is also a sub species endemic to Sri Lanka. The main species, however, is also found in India.

 Black-backed Woodpecker

Black-backed Woodpecker

It is a forest loving bird found in many parts of the island except in the highest hills. The breeding season is from October to March. The nest hole is generally high up in a tree. One to three eggs are laid.

Woodpeckers are a necessary part of our ecosystems, especially considering the fact that they get rid of, as food, many of the boring insects and other insects that are a danger to the trees.

Removing these pests prevents the tree from succumbing to death due to the loss of its trunks and branches. They are useful to a range of other birds, as they nest in holes that the woodpeckers have excavated.

By Jayantha Jayawardene
Daily News

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