Walk through the southern beech forests of Chilean Patagonia and listen closely for a reverberating “toc toc toc.” That’s the pecking of the largest known woodpecker in South America, the Magellanic Woodpecker. These birds, endemic to austral temperate forests, are extremely territorial: they claim their territories with sounds, most commonly knocking their beaks against trees. Check out the fascinating video below about BBC’s David Attenborough’s encounter with a woodpecker duo, fighting for their territory.
As you can see from the video, Magellanic Woodpeckers (Campephilus magellanicus are beautiful and easily recognizable birds. The males have mostly black bodies with a bright crimson head and crest. The females lack the red head and crest, but do have a bit of red at the base of their beaks and a curled crest. The sexual dimorphism in this species also involves attributes such as bill size and feeding preferences: females mostly forage on small substrates such as twigs and high branches while males tend to eat trunks and large branches.
These woodpeckers often travel with their mate or in a family group of about three to five birds. Magellanic Woodpecker mates are monogamous and share equal roles when breeding: both excavate nests, incubate eggs, brood, clean nests, and feed nestlings. Most nests are hollowed out in trees and the common clutch size is just one egg. If the couple produces two eggs, generally only one will nest successfully. Offspring usually stay with the family group for up to two years and are fed by their parents during this period.
The Magellanic Woodpeckers are the only woodpecker in its range, resulting in little intraspecific competition. However, these woodpeckers do compete with Austral Parakeets, along with a few other birds, for sap. They feed on sap flowing from pecked trees, along with grubs, beetles, eggs, spiders, fruit, smaller species’ nestlings and small vertebrates. Insects make up the majority of their diet– their genus, Camepephilus, does mean “lover of grubs,” after all.
To forage, these birds mostly peck and excavate from both live and decayed trees. If you listen closely to the tapping and pecking of a Magellanic Woodpecker, you can tell when the bird is feeding. The tapping associated with feeding is variable in intensity, frequency, and duration. This is opposite to the communicative pecks, which are deliberate and repetitive. Pecking and tapping on trees is not the only means of communication for these birds though. They also have various vocalizations including various nasal notes. These vocalizations are used to attract mates, to communicate movement amongst families, and to scare off predators.
Spread across the Andes of Chile, Southwestern Argentina and Tierra del Fuego Island, the Magellanic Woodpecker is the southernmost distributed woodpecker. They thrive in old growth and undisturbed forests. Changes in structural forest components after timber extraction, forest conversion, and fragmentation are the main threats to this species. In fact, the Ivory-billed and Imperial woodpeckers, two very similar species to the Magellanic woodpecker, are extinct or near extinction due to habitat modification and overhunting. Luckily, the unique Magellanic woodpecker is protected from hunting in both Chile and Argentina.
Magellanic Woodpeckers are an extremely important species in the future Patagonia National Park. They act as keystone habitat modifiers within this region. The large holes they create while feeding and nesting in trees are eventually abandoned and then provide nesting, roosting, hiding and feeding sites for other birds, small mammals, reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates. We hope Magellanic Woodpecker will prosper in the future Park, and that generations of bird lovers will walk through the forests, listening for that signature tapping.