Saturday Magazine
Pygmy Woodpecker: smallest of the lot

by Jagath Gunawardene
Woodpeckers are members of the family Picidae and have a strong, pointed, chisel-like beak that is used to cut away the bark and wood of trees to extract small creatures on which they prey and to dig nest holes during breeding. They are arboreal (tree-living) in habits. Their feet have long toes, arranged in the zygodactyle manner, that is, two toes pointing forward and the other two pointed back. The long toes end in long sharp claws that help them to hang on firmly and to grip the branches and trunks of trees when moving along. Their wings are broad but short. The tail feathers have stiff shafts that act as a support when climbing. Their tongues are exceptionally long and secrete a sticky liquid that helps them to catch insects lurking inside deep holes.

The Picidae family has eight species in Sri Lanka, and in nine forms. This is because one species has both, a predominantly red and yellow sub-species. Therefore, there are two predominantly red, two predominantly yellow, two green-backed, two black and white (or pied) and one rufous brown coloured birds. The smallest of the Woodpeckers found in Sri Lanka is the Pygmy Woodpecker, and is also known as the Brown-capped Woodpecker. In Sinhala, it is known as Mal-kerala and Chuti-kerala.

The Pygmy Woodpecker (Dendrocopus nanus gymnopthalmus) is only 13 cm (5 inches) long, and is even smaller than the House Sparrow. The top of the head (crown), nape and hindneck are black. A broad black band runs from the eye to the nape leaving a broad white above it. The chin, throat and the rest of the head are white. The wings and back are dark, brownish-black or black with white barrings on the back and white spots on wings. The black tail is also spotted with white. Under parts are a dull white or greyish white. The white undertail coverts have brown barring and is often conspicuous because these birds are mostly viewed from below. The male has an indistinct, thin, red-band on the supercilium (eyebrow area). The beak is grey with a darker tip, feet grey or brownish grey and the eyes are lemon yellow.

It is usually found in pairs or alone, moving in the higher branches of trees. An active bird, it is mostly on the move, flitting from branch to branch or hopping nimbly from one twig to another. Although many species of woodpeckers can only climb or cling on to vertical trunks and branches, the Pygmy Woodpecker spends much of its time perching on slender wings, often across the branch like many passerines do. It can also hang on to thin branches and can even turn around, reminiscent of the movements made by the velvet fronted blue nuthatch. It is not often seen on large branches and on tree trunks that are preferred haunts of other species of woodpeckers. It often utters a long drawn, metallic sounding "tri-tri-tri" somewhat like the sound made by an alarm clock. This call often make its presence known because of its small size, the camouflage colouration, the habit of keeping to the higher branches of trees all make it to go unnoticed. If one is patient, a bird can be spotted by following the call, as its active nature make it to be seen in a short time.

The Pygmy Woodpecker feeds on small creatures found on branches, beneath the bark or in the woods. It can be seen hammering away the bark and wood to expose the creatures hiding in the bark. The flight is fast and powerful, but is without the undulations seen in the flights of other woodpeckers. The nesting period is, according to W. W. A. Phillips, is from February to June and occasionally, if conditions are favourable from October to December. It digs a nest hole into the trunk of the tree. The eggs, numbering two or three are said to be white in colour. Both birds take part in nesting activities. The young is browner in the upperparts and have a pale brown streaks on the breast.

The Pygmy Woodpecker has a wide distribution in both the Wet and Dry Zones in the low country and in the hills upto an elevation of 1,500 meters. It is seen in the hills of both Uva and Central Provinces too. These birds always need tall trees with some shade and possibly could be spotted in home gardens such as on jak trees because it has preferences for jak, mango and breadfruit trees. The clearing of trees has reduced its numbers in growth and distribution, but is not a threatened species.

The Pygmy Woodpecker is found in four sub-species or forms. The sub-species found in Sri Lanka Dnanus gymnopthalmus is endemic to the country, and differs from others. They have a darker, almost black colouration. The terms "brown-capped" and "brown-crowned" refer to the brown crown seen in the three forms found in India. The form found in Sri Lanka has a black crown and there is no discernible brown colour in the region, making such names confusing to many.