El Carpintero – The Woodpeckers

VIII

EL CARPINTERO

In California and along the southwestern boundary of the United States lives a woodpecker known among the Mexicans as El Carpintero, the Carpenter.

Carpentering is both his profession and his pastime, and he seems really to enjoy the work. When there is nothing more pressing to be done, he spends his time tinkering around, fitting acorns into holes in such great numbers and in so workmanlike a fashion that we do not know which is more remarkable, his patience or his skill. Every acorn is fitted into a separate hole made purposely for it, every one is placed butt end out and is driven in flush with the surface, so that a much frequented tree often appears as if studded with ornamental nails. “What an industrious bird!” we exclaim; but still it takes some time to appreciate how enormous is the labor of the Carpenter. Whole trees will sometimes be covered with his work, until a single tree has thousands of acorns bedded into its bark so neatly and tightly that no other creature can remove them.

Work of Californian Woodpecker.

Work of Californian Woodpecker.

We may take for examination, from specimens of the Carpenter’s work, a piece of spruce bark seven inches long by six wide, containing ten acorns and two empty holes. As spruce bark is so much harder and rougher than the pine bark in which he usually stores his nuts, this specimen looks rough and unfinished, and even shows some acorns driven in sidewise; but for another reason I have preferred it to better-looking examples of his work for study. As we shall see later, it gives us a definite bit of information about the bird.

They often use white-oak bark, fence-posts, telegraph poles, even the stalks of century-plants, when trees are not convenient. (Merriam, Auk, viii. 117.)

Think of the work of digging these twelve holes. Think of the labor of carrying these ten large acorns and driving them in so tightly that after years of shrinking they cannot be removed by a knife without injuring either the acorn or the bark. Yet how small a part of the woodpecker’s year’s work is here! How long could he live on ten acorns? How many must he gather for his winter’s needs? How many must he lose by forgetting to come back to them? We cannot calculate the work a single bird does nor the nuts he eats, for several birds usually work in company and may use the same tree; but all the woodpeckers are large eaters, and the Californian has been singled out for special mention.

Can we estimate the amount of work required to lay up one day’s food? Judging by the amount of nuts some other birds will eat, I should think that all ten acorns contained in this piece of bark could be eaten in one day without surfeit. The estimate seems to me well inside of his probable appetite. I have experimented on this piece of bark, using a woodpecker’s bill for a tool, and it takes me twenty minutes to dig a hole as large but not as neat as these. Doubtless it would not take the woodpecker as long; but at my rate of working, four hours were spent in digging these twelve holes. Then each acorn had to be hunted up and brought to the hole prepared for it. This entailed a journey, it may have been only from one tree to another, or it may have been, and very likely was, a considerable flight. For these acorns grew on oak-trees, and we find them driven into the bark of pines and spruces.

The Woodpeckers

This it is which gives our specimen its particular interest. While oaks and pines may be intermingled, though they naturally prefer different soils and situations, and in the Rocky Mountains the pine-belt lies above the oak region, spruce and oak trees do not grow in the same soil. The spruce-belt stands higher up than the pine. As these nuts are stored in the bark of a spruce-tree, we have clear evidence that the bird must have carried them some distance. For every nut he made the whole journey back and forth, since he could carry but one at a time,—ten long trips back and forth, certainly consuming several minutes each.

Then each acorn had to be fitted to its hole. We have already spoken of the accuracy with which this is done, so that the Carpenter’s work is a standing taunt to the hungry jays and squirrels which would gladly eat his nuts if they could get them. A careful observer tells us that when the hole is too small, the woodpecker takes the acorn out and makes the hole a little larger, working so cautiously, however, that he sometimes makes several trials before the acorn can be fitted and driven in flush with the bark. Some of these acorns show cracks down the sides, as if they had been split either in forcibly pulling them out of a hole not deep enough for them, or in driving them when green and soft into a hole too small for them. Of course after each trial the acorn must be hunted up where it lies on the ground and driven in again, and this takes considerable time.

As nearly as we can estimate it, not less than half a day must have been spent in putting these acorns where we find them. With smaller acorns, stored in pine bark, less time would have been required; but weeks, if not months, of work are spent in laying up the winter’s stores.

How the woodpecker’s back and jaws must have ached! Surely he is human enough to get tired with his work, and it is not play to do what this bird has done. Some of the acorns measure seven tenths of an inch in diameter by nine tenths in length, and the bird that carried them is smaller than a robin. How he must have hurried to reach his tree when the acorn was extra large! Yet he took time to drive every one in point foremost. Even those that lie upon their sides must have been forced into position by tapping the butt. He knows very well which end of an acorn is which, does our Carpenter.

But what is the use of all this work? Why, if he wants acorns, does he not eat them as they lie scattered under the oaks, instead of taking pains to carry them away and put them into holes for the fun of eating them out of the holes afterward? The absurdity of this has led some people to surmise that the Carpenter chooses none but weevilly acorns, and stores them that the grub inside may grow large and fat and delicious. This would be very interesting, if it were true. There must of course be more weevilly acorns on the ground than he picks up, so that he could get as many grubs without taking all this trouble, and there is no reason why they should not be as large and good as those hatched out in holes in trees. When I wish to keep nuts sweet, I spread them out on the attic floor in the sun and air, keeping them where they will not touch each other. The Carpenter does practically the same thing. Is it probable that he tries to raise a fine crop of grubs in this way? If so, one or the other of us is doing just the wrong thing. But if weevils are what the Carpenter wants, then the nuts in the bark should be wormy; yet only two of them show any sign of a weevil, and of these one appears from its dull color and weather-beaten look to be a nut deposited several years before the others by some other woodpecker. Every other acorn is as hard, shining, and bright colored as when it fell from the tree. Evidently the bird picked these nuts up while they were fresh and good; perhaps he chose them because they were good and fresh. The possibility becomes almost a certainty when we observe that naturalists agree that the Carpenter uses no acorns but the sweet-tasting species. Now there are likely to be as many grubs in one kind of an acorn as in another, and he would scarcely refuse any kind that contained them, if grubs were what he wanted. The fact that he takes sweet acorns, and those only, shows that it is the meat of the nut that he wants. And all good naturalists agree that it is the kernel itself that he eats.

Why he stores them is not hard to decide when we remember that the Californian woodpecker, over a large part of his range, is a mountain bird. Though we think of California as the land of sunshine, it is not universal summer there. The mountain ranges have a winter as severe as that of New England, with a heavy snowfall. When the snow lies several feet deep among the pines and spruces of the uplands, the Carpenter is not distressed for food: his pantry is always above the level of the snow; he need neither scratch a meagre living from the edges of the snow-banks, nor go fasting. His fall’s work has provided him not only with the necessities, but with the luxuries of life.

But why does he spend so much time in making holes? He might tuck his nuts into some natural crevice in the oak bark, or drop them into cavities which all birds know so well where to find. And leave them where any pilfering jay would be able to pick them out at his ease? Or put them in the track of every wandering squirrel? Jays and squirrels are never too honest to refuse to steal, but they find it harder to get the woodpecker’s stores out of his pine-tree pantry than to pick up honest acorns of their own. So, like the woodpecker, they lay up their own stores of nuts, and feed on them in winter, or go hungry.

We have had very little aid from anything except the piece of bark we were studying, yet we have learned that the Californian woodpecker is a good carpenter; that he works hard at his trade; that he shows remarkable foresight in collecting his food, much ingenuity in housing it, good judgment in putting it where his enemies cannot get it, and wisdom in the plan he has adopted to give him a good supply of fresh nuts at a season when the autumn’s crop is buried under the deep snow.

If I were a Californian boy, I think I should spend my time in trying to find out more about this wise woodpecker, concerning which much remains to be discovered.

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This is Chapter VIII from The Woodpeckers book. Our writer, Fannie Hardy Eckstorm, wrote this in 1901. There are 16 chapters, plus the Forward, which are about the Woodpecker Family here in America. All the chapters can be found on The Woodpeckers page. I added photos to help enhance the article. In 1901, photography was not like today.

Woodpeckers belong to the Picidae – Woodpeckers Family.


Acorn Woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorus) Female ©WikiC

Acorn Woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorus) Female ©WikiC

Lee’s Addition:

He who gathers in summer is a wise son; He who sleeps in harvest is a son who causes shame. (Proverbs 10:5 NKJV)

The bird mentioned in this article is actually the Acorn Woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorus bairdi). The subspecies, named “bairdi” is the “El Carpintero.” It has just a slight difference in coloration, but is still an Acorn Woodpecker.

Click this link to see a video of the “bairdi” subspecies.

It appears that the Lord has given this Woodpecker some very good work ethics.

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