THE golden-backed woodpecker (Brachypternus aurantius) is the only member of the Picidae family I have seen within Madras municipal limits ; other woodpeckers may visit the city of Madras, but I have never seen them. If they do come at all, it is only at rare intervals ; possibly the profession tax keeps them at a distance. Brachypternus aurantius is in its way a handsome bird. Its figure, it is true, is not beautiful, being workmanlike rather than ornamental. Its plumage, however, is as gaudy as the illustrations in the " tuppence coloured " picture-books of the Lord Mayor's Show, which are hawked in the streets of London on the 9th of November.
The cock bird has a crested head of the brightest crimson. The upper part of his back is rich golden yellow, which becomes olive-brown lower down, and black towards the tail. The wings are similarly coloured, except that the feathers are marked with large white spots. The sides of the head are white, relieved by bold black streaks. The breast and lower parts are black and white.
The hen bird differs but slightly from the male. She has the crimson chest, but the feathers of her head, instead of being tipped with crimson, are spotted with white. That so trivial a difference should be due to sexual selection I find it difficult to believe. The species nests in holes in trees ; hence there is no reason why, so far as protection is concerned, the hen should not exactly resemble the cock in outward appearance. This is by no means the only point in the colouring of the woodpecker which needs elucidation.
Although the tribe displays a great variety of colour, no tint of blue is, I believe, ever seen in the plumage. Again, the young birds of some species are more gaily coloured than the adults -: a most unusual phenomenon.
The woodpecker, being a highly specialized bird, is a perfect example of adaptation to environment. Its peculiar form is the expression of its unusual habits. Its beak is powerful, and is used as a pickaxe. With it the bird can excavate a nest in decaying wood, or dig out the insects which lurk in rotten timber. The bird also, by tapping its beak, frightens out of their lair insects which are hiding in the bark; and woe betide them when once they show themselves!
The woodpecker is provided with a chameleon-like tongue, which is armed with backwardly-directed bristles and a plentiful secretion of saliva of the "stick-fast" variety. The tongue is shot out at the insect with lightning speed, and in less than the twinkling of an eye the luckless creature is being hustled down the woodpecker's gullet.
One enthusiast thus describes the bird's tongue :
" It has the appearance of a silver ribbon, rather, from its transparency, of a stream of molten glass, and the rapidity with which it is protruded and withdrawn is so great that the eye is dazzled by following its motions; it is flexible in the highest degree."
Now, I must confess that my eye has never been dazzled in following the motions of the woodpecker's tongue, for the simple reason that it is unable to follow them, nor do I believe that any other human eye can. Imagination must, I think, be the source of the above description. I daresay if we could see the movement of a woodpecker's tongue at work it would look like a stream of molten glass!
Watch a toad, or even a lizard, catching insects, and what you appear to see is the poochee taking a voluntary jump into the mouth of its enemy. The insect, of course, does nothing so foolish. The motion of the toad's tongue is so rapid that the human eye cannot follow it. If tapping does not cause the insects to leave their hiding-place in the bark, the woodpecker drags them out by inserting its sticky tongue in the crevices. As the insects in question are mostly ants, I do not feel very deeply for them. The world can well spare a few ants.
The woodpecker's tail is not ornamental. As regards looks, it is but an apology for a tail. It is composed of a business-like set of bristles, which are very stiff and point downwards. But, ugly as they are, the bird could ill afford to lose them. They support it during its gymnastic performances on the trunks of trees. The breast of the woodpecker is flatter than that of most birds ; this, also, is an adaptation to its scansorial habits.
Lastly, the bird's feet are admirably adapted to climbing. Its claws enable it to cling without effort to the smoothest bark. Some woodpeckers have four toes; our friend with the golden back has but three, nor does the loss of one appear in any way to interfere with its powers of locomotion. It can run up the stem of a toddy palm as easily as a human being can walk across the road.
The woodpecker is a tree-trunk acrobat. The bird adopts a unique method of progression; it moves in a series of jerks, just as a mechanical toy does, except that the movements of a woodpecker are as silent as the flight of a bat or an owl. Head, tail, and legs all work together, and jerk the bird whither it listeth. It usually progresses with its head pointing upwards, and can move with equal ease upwards, downwards, sideways, and in a straight line or spirally. The agility of the bird baffles description. It moves as though there were no such thing as gravity.
For gymnastic prowess, a woodpecker I saw the other day "fairly takes the cake." I was out one morning after a night of heavy rain and beheld a woodpecker disporting himself in the angle formed by the forked trunk of an old tree. The bird was dancing up and down like a jack-in-the-box, flirting his wings with each movement. I turned my glasses on to him and saw drops of water flying every time he shook his wings. The bird was taking a bath in the water that had collected in the hollow formed by the bifurcation of the trunk. He was bobbing up and down in the little pool, just as the orthodox lady bather at Margate does; but instead of clinging for dear life to the bathing-machine rope the woodpecker held on to the trunk of the tree.
Presently he ran a little way up one limb of the trunk, shook himself, and then jumped upon the other limb. This was quite a feat, for the bird's head was pointing upwards and his breast was, of course, pressed close to the trunk, both before and after the leap, so that the bird had to turn a complete semicircle while in the air. Then, after another dip or two, the bird ran up the trunk, hopped on to a branch, flew off, and was soon lost to view amid the foliage of a distant tree.
The woodpecker is not much of an aeronaut; his powers of flight are to some extent sacrificed to his tree-climbing propensities. His flight has been well described as " first a flutter, then a dip with closed wings." But this suffices to carry him from tree to tree, and the bird seems very proud of being able to fly at all, as he nearly always utters his laughing scream while on the wing.
The golden-backed woodpecker lays its eggs in a hole in a tree. It may either scoop out the nest itself or utilize a natural hollow. The bird has enough intelligence to make use of a ready-made hole, but there is a limit to its intelligence. Mr. William Jesse once found some eggs laid in the hollow of a decayed branch exposed to the sky; the bird had nevertheless cut out a hole on the under-side, although it was quite unnecessary! But we must not laugh at the bird for a little mistake such as this. Human beings sometimes do equally silly things.
A carpenter was once given an order to make a dog kennel to accommodate a retriever and her puppy. The kennel arrived. Although one-chambered, it had two entrances, a large and a small one. On being asked why he had made two doors, the thoughtful carpenter replied that he had made the big one for the mother and the small one for the puppy!
Woodpecker's eggs, like those of nearly all birds which lay in holes, are white. In such cases it is important that the eggs should be conspicuous, otherwise some might become separated in the dark from the main clutch and so fail to be hatched. Birds cannot count, but they can see.
There are fifty-six species of woodpeckers found in India, and all of these, with the exception of one genus, comprising three species, nest in cavities in trees. The exceptional genus, which is known to ornithologists as Micropternus, lays its eggs in holes made in the large ants' nests which are attached to the branches of trees. As woodpeckers feed chiefly on ants, their laying eggs in the nests of these insects is obviously a case of adding insult to injury.
But the Micropterni seem to be in every way disreputable birds. Blanford informs us that they have a "peculiar, strong, unpleasant smell," and that "their plumage is almost always smeared with a gummy substance derived from ants' nests, and the heads of ants are often found attached to their tail-feathers."