There are 215 species of woodpeckers (Picidae) in the world. The word, ‘woodpecker’ is a synonymous word well known as a forest bird hammering or drumming at tree trunks, creating rattling sounds in search of tree grubs. Perhaps too… stating a territorial claim?
Woodpeckers are also popularly used as mimicry icons in commercials, television sit-com shows and cartoons. Their intelligent behaviours have been well documented in various field guides and observed with much fascination and added humour.
A recent visit to one of the forest reserves in Malaysia, encompassing more than 56,000 hectares of prime, tropical virgin forest, yielded further interesting observations of the largest species of all woodpeckers.
It brought out a trio of Great Slaty Woodpeckers (Mulleripicus pulverulentus) performing a dramatic sequence, leading to a finale performance of a well choreographed repertoire of a silhouetted singing trio, much to the amusement and delight of a one-person audience in an open-air, forest auditorium (left).
I chanced upon the site during one of my morning birding sessions. The ruckus and alarm calls that came from a tall, broadleaved deciduous tree caught my attention to some birds fleeting in the tree canopy.
As I looked up against the hazy, bad-lighted morning sky, I noted several restless birds that sounded like broadbills wailing away. I noticed dark, brown birds with two large white spots, each on the under winged coverts as one took off from the tall tree.
I could recognise the calls of a Dollarbird (Eurystomus orientalis) but these were no such birds nor could they be Common Mynas (Acridotheres tristis) mimicking calls. Could they be Banded Broadbills (Eurylaimus javanicus) high on my wanted list?
Before I had the opportunity to investigate and to confirm further, a pair of huge, grey looking birds with featherless long necks and sharp, chiselled-like pointed beaks suddenly appeared from some unknown perch.
It’s the arrival of the Great Slatys!
Their powerful ringing cries, their sheer huge size of 45-51cm length and rapid flapping of their heavy wings sent those canopy birds scrambling as the two Great Slaty Woodpeckers, Thor and Teresa, made their arrivals known.
They landed on their favourite perch – a horizontal branch of the tall deciduous tree (right).
At about 50 feet away, they were the closest sighting of Great Slatys and the largest of all the 42 species of SE Asean species, if not the world… I’ve seen!
Thor the male began inspecting two large cavities of the trunk nearby. When these cavities first appeared, I had no idea. But they looked a bit too large for barbets or woodpeckers – their size, being half of the Great Slatys.
Could they be old, used cavities made by Great Slatys?
Do they make cavities first and then mate afterwards?
Thor, the macho Grey Slaty, recognised by his broad, red moustachial stripe, began a perpendicular ascend and worked his way up, scaling the trunk with his polydactilous feet (above left).
The distinctive shrill notes of Teresa, the female Great Slaty, sounded like pulling the trigger of a semi-automatic, machine gun. The enticing calls caught the attention of Thickneck, the second, male partner bird that was hiding in the canopy of a tree opposite.
Thickneck was dueting with Teresa. I could hear his calls but could not see him as he remained hidden.
On hearing a keen competitor, Thor swiftly flew off the trunk, circled down and alighted beside Teresa, announcing his presence.
Woodpeckers may reverse their steps but are unable to scale down trees with their heads downwards like nuthatches.
Thickneck flew into view and decided he too was in a mood for some action. He landed cautiously on the same horizontal branch, obscured by the main trunk of the tree, a little distance away from the pair.
Thor wasted no time to mount Teresa. A copulation act, lasted just about a second took place under two parallel strings of cobwebs as captured on my digiscope (above right).
“Me… first! Me…first!” squeaked Thor, the No.1 partner.
“Just what you think you are doooing…?” asked Thickneck,
“Oh, go away! Can’t we have a bit of privacy here… you mind?” Thor replied abruptly.
“What’s the hurry Thor? I was just having a bit of a ‘sing song’ session with Teresa, that’s all.” added No. 2 partner, quite innocently.
“Don’t believe ya!” replied Thor.
He dismounted and alighted on the tree trunk with two cavities. He then began an act of territorial advertisement by symbolically drumming on the trunk (above left).
“Tok Tok Tok Tok Tok!”
‘This patch is mine, mine, mine! You hear?” hollered Thor.
Thickhead followed after Thor (above right).
“I want a bit of banging too…” squawked Thickhead, as he chased Thor up the tree and proceeded to rapidly hammer the trunk with his chiselled-shape bill competitively.
Territorial and lover’s dispute went on for five minutes.
Having reconciled their differences I thought, the trio led by Thor, released their grips on the trunk and abseiled in undulating flights towards a tall ficus-looking tree, more than 200 metres away.
The trio landed in equidistant from each other. Thor took top position, Thickhead below with Teresa in between them both.
The result, is a rare opportunity to present and view the beautifully choreographed behaviours of lovers’ quarrel – all very well synchronised by their raising of wings, each time they squawked harmoniously in avian language (above and below). Their expression and body language said it all!
AVIAN WRITER DAISY O’NEILL, PENANG, MALAYSIA