By John Keeling
The golden-fronted woodpecker is the commonest of the woodpeckers we see on the lakeshore. If you visit the LCS gardens, or walk along the beach you are likely to hear the cheerily trilled ‘chirrrr, chirrrr’ above you. Look up and you may see the bird hanging on to the side of the trunk of a tree, working its way upward, all the while seeking insects in the crevices of the bark. They are not shy birds. You will sometimes even see one clinging to the top of a concrete telephone pole, where it will have a good view and perhaps find some insects if it is lucky.
This species is found from Texas as far south as Nicaragua, and are year-round residents. At nine inches long they are regarded as medium-sized woodpeckers. To identify the bird, look at the head. The face is buff colored, and in our part of the range the male has the “gold-red-orange” sequence of patches at the bill, the cap and the nape, as you can see in the photo above. The wings are barred black and white, while the breast is buff. The female is almost the same, but lacks the red cap, showing only the gold and orange patches.
It is not clear whether the ‘golden-fronted’ name refers to the gold around the bill, or the scarcely-seen lemon yellow coloring on the lower belly.
In the spring time the male will choose a nesting territory of several acres which it will defend for the duration of the nesting period. It will mate with a chosen female, and will chip out a nest hole in a living or dead tree some 10 to 20 feet above the ground. The relationship is usually monogamous. The female lays about five eggs which are incubated by the male at night and by the female during the day. After 13 days the eggs hatch and both parents share in the responsibility of feeding the young for the 25 days before they fly, and for a few weeks after that.
Sometimes the male will choose to nest in a tall cactus, fence post or a telephone pole. A hundred years ago in the early days of the telephone, it was encouraged in the US to shoot these woodpeckers because their nesting holes seriously damaged the telephone poles that were being erected across the nation.
Their diet changes with the season, as occurs with many bird species. In the summer they feed on insects such as ants, flies, beetles, and grasshoppers, supplemented by the occasional small frog or lizard. In the fall, when the young no longer need feeding, the birds may wander extensively to find other food sources such as fruits, berries, nuts and seeds.
Woodpeckers have unusually long, barbed tongues designed to retrieve insects that the bird may see or hear deep inside crevices. This tongue is so long that when it is retracted it curls in a circle inside the skull round the right eye.