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Acorn woodpecker has it all wrong

It looks like a woodpecker. Well, sort of. And it acts like a woodpecker "¦ sometimes. Simply put, acorn woodpeckers are oddballs.

They even look something like a cartoon character. In fact, their call was the inspiration for the sound of Woody Woodpecker. I'm dating myself, but I bet many readers remember this Saturday cartoon.

The male has a red cap over a black and cream-colored face. The female has a smaller red cap, and white eyes give both genders a wild sort of look. Many people describe them as "clown-faced."

This woodpecker has got it all wrong. First it is a vegetarian, feeding primarily on acorns, though it also eats insects, fruit, even sap. Other woodpeckers have never tasted a vegetable. They are insectivores feeding on insects gleaned from bark and grubs drilled from the trunks of trees. Occasionally they might eat berries.

To help them digest this strange food, acorn woodpeckers swallow grit. This is why you often see them along the roadside. Chickens and pigeons also eat grit to help grind up seeds in their gizzards, but not any other woodpecker in our area. Maybe we should call them acorn chickens or acorn pigeons, anything but a woodpecker.

Acorns are available only in the fall, and most birds don't store food for the lean times. Again, acorn woodpeckers are an exception. A social group drills thousands of small holes into the trunks of one or several trees. These trees are called granaries, and the soft wood of a Ponderosa pine is ideal for this. They'll tap in an acorn, keeping it safe from the weather. This is all good except that jays and squirrels find granaries terribly convenient.

One woodpecker cannot both provision and protect a granary. As soon as the bird leaves to harvest the next acorn, a jay or squirrel often removes the first. This is a major reason why acorn woodpeckers live in groups of four to eight birds, sometimes more. At least one bird always stays behind to protect the store.

A social group consists of a mixture of adult males and adult females plus fully grown offspring that have yet to set out on their own. A single bird or even a pair cannot hope to initiate a new granary on its own. Consider how many holes a single bird would have to drill and provision all at once to be able to survive the lean season. Most granaries have taken generations of woodpeckers to create; they are a precious resource.

Because they can't go it alone, young birds must find another group that already has a granary and is willing to accept it. They often wait a year or more for an opening before leaving home.

Acorn woodpeckers are threatened in the valley, in part because of the loss of Ponderosa pines on the valley floor, plus a loss of oak habitat. Please protect the Ponderosas that do remain and encourage your neighbors to protect theirs. Planting young Ponderosas to eventually replace those that have been lost would help this oddball remain a part of our community.

Stewart Janes is a biology professor at Southern Oregon University. He can be reached at janes@sou.edu.

Rob Duncan of Medford submitted this photo of an acorn woodpecker for the 2008 Oregon Outdoors Wild Birds Photo Contest.