Gila Woodpeckers and Saguaro Cactus, Illustrating Neighborliness

Gila Woodpeckers and Saguaro Cactus, Illustrating Neighborliness

Dr. James J. S. Johnson

Thine own friend, and thy father’s friend, forsake not; neither go into thy brother’s house in the day of thy calamity: for better is a neighbor that is near than a brother far off.  (Proverbs 27:10)


[Gila Woodpeckers in Saguaro /  photo credit: North Mountain Visitor Center]

Like friends who help each other, the Gila Woodpecker and the Saguaro Cactus (Carnegiea giganteus, f/k/a Cereus giganteus)make good neighbors.

A photogenic icon of the hot desert, the Saguaro Cactus,  thrives in America’s arid Southwest – is what ecologists call a “keystone” member of that hot desert community. For example, the Sonoran Desert (which overlaps Arizona, California, and parts of Mexico) hosts the equivalent of “forests” of these jolly green giants, growing amidst other succulents, xerophytic shrubs, and ephemeral flowers.


[ Saguaro National Park, Arizona, near Tucson   /  photograph by Joe Parks ]

But, looking at Saguaro Cactus from a distance, would you guess that these prickly-spined tree-like columns provide homes for many desert denizens, including a variety of birds? They do!

The Saguaro cactus is in every way a keystone species on the Sonoran Desert’s bajadas [drainage-slope terrains]. Without it, much of the [desert neighborhood’s] richness of species would soon be dramatically reduced. For instance, many of the birds of the bajada either feed or nest (or both) on Saguaros. Gila Woodpeckers, Ladder-backed Woodpeckers, and Northern (Gilded) Flickers hollow our nest cavities that are later used by American Kestrels, Elf Owls, Western Screech-Owls, Purple Martins, and Brown-crested and Ash-throated flycatchers, as well as various species of bats.

Approximately 30 bird species, most recently the European Starling, have been documented to nest in woodpecker-carved Saguaro cavities. House Finches, Chihuahuan Ravens, Harris’s and Red-tailed hawks, and Great Horned Owls use the tall cactus arms as nest sites. Saguaro blossoms are fed upon by White-winged, Mourning, and Inca doves, Scott’s and Hooded orioles, House Finches, Cactus Wrens, and Curve-billed Thrashers. Sparrows and finches consume the [Saguaro] seeds.

[Quoting John C. Kricher, A FIELD GUIDE TO THE ECOLOGY OF WESTERN FORESTS (Houghton Mifflin, 1993), pages 279-280.]

Interestingly, the Saguaro Cactus is sometimes helped by its Sonoran Desert “neighbors”, in situations that ecologists call “mutual aid” relationships—with neighbors being neighborly. One example of this “mutual aid” is seen in the behavior of the non-migratory Gila Woodpecker.  (Like a good neighbor, Gila Woodpecker is “there”.)

A Saguaro whose stem is injured is subject to rapid and fatal necrosis from bacterial invasion. However, the site of the injury is an ideal place for a Gila Woodpecker to begin excavating a nest cavity. In doing so, the woodpecker may remove all of the diseased tissue [i.e., bacteria-infected soft tissue], essentially curing the cactus of what might have [become] a fatal bacterial infection.

[Quoting John C. Kricher, A FIELD GUIDE TO THE ECOLOGY OF WESTERN FORESTS (Houghton Mifflin, 1993), page 280.] Now that’s an appreciative neighbor, giving help when needed, returning good for good!  “For better is a neighbor that is near than a brother far off.”  (Proverbs 27:10b)


[Gila Woodpecker approaching Saguaro Cactus, Arizona /  Photo credit: Brian Small]

Trinidad Tanagers Contradict Competition “Law” Proposed by Darwinists

Speckled Tanager (Tangara mexicana) ©WikiC

Speckled Tanager (Tangara mexicana) ©WikiC

Trinidad Tanagers Contradict Cutthroat Competition “Law” Proposed by Darwinists


“Survival of the fittest” has been a dominating tenet of Darwinian evolution for more than 150 years now. But a trio of colorful birds, living on islands off Venezuela’s coast, provides debunking evidence that, as Dr. Steve Austin would say, Darwin was wrong, when he alleged that do-or-die competition was the fundamental force that shapes nature. So how do these birds dispute Darwin? By eating!

PAS-Thra Bay-headed Tanager (Tangara gyrola) by Michael Woodruff 2

Bay-headed Tanager (Tangara gyrola) by Michael Woodruff

Three varieties of Trinidad tanagers share bugs on the same trees as they silently undermine the “natural selection” myth’s survivalism principle. Without wasteful confrontations over limited food resources, found on the same trees that each of these birds forage upon: (1) speckled tanagers pick off bugs from tree leaves, (2) bay-headed tanagers prefer to eat bugs from under large branches, and (3) turquoise tanagers snap up bugs from twigs.1

Admitting that adversarial competition was lacking, these evolutionist scientists reported the following:  “In the 1960s, two ecologists made careful [empirical] studies on the island of Trinidad of the niches of eight coexisting species of tanager–brightly colored songbirds of the New World tropics. Of the eight species, three, the speckled (Tangara guttata), the bay-headed (T. gyrola), and the turquoise tanager (T. mexicana), were extremely closely related.  They all belonged to the same genus, lived in the same trees and bushes, and fed on insects and fruit. This suggests little in the way of division of resources, for all three species seemed to be using the same ones.  More detailed field observations, though, showed up the niche differences, as is clearly demonstrated by considering one aspect of the pattern of resource division.  In hunting for small insect prey in vegetation, the speckled tanager almost exclusively searches the leaves themselves.  It clings to them upside down, picking off insects, or it walks along small twigs, picking off insects from the leaves above it.  The other two species only rarely feed like this.  Instead, both obtain most of their insect prey form the undersides of branches.  The bay-headed species does this mainly on quite substantial branches, hopping along and leaning over each side alternately to reach under it for insects.  The turquoise tanager, in contrast, almost always takes insects from fine twigs, usually those less than half an inch in diameter.  It also has a predilection for the insects found on dead twigs, which are usually untouched by the other two species.  These detailed observations show that insect food resources and specific feeding areas on the island of Trinidad are neatly split even between very closely related birds.” [Quoting from Whitfield, Moore, & Cox, THE ATLAS OF THE LIVING WORLD  — see endnote #1 below.]

In other words, illustrating what ecologists call noncompetitive niche positioning, this tanager trio avoids antagonistic competition.1 To appreciate how this peaceful prey sharing upsets the presumptions of Charles Darwin, Thomas Huxley, and their modern ilk, it’s helpful to review why Darwin’s ideas were welcomed so fervently by academics who scoffed at Genesis.

Turquoise Tanager (Tangara mexicana) ©WikiC

Turquoise Tanager (Tangara mexicana) ©WikiC

Generations before Darwin’s “natural selection” theory first became popular, deists (people who essentially believed in a God yet rejected the Bible) like Charles Lyell and James Hutton, effectively laid the groundwork for the acceptance of evolution’s survivalism themes.  (Neither deists nor Darwinists anchor their research on Scripture, yet they also oppose each other.)

Both deists and Darwinists have misreported living conditions on Earth, yet they do so in opposite ways. Deists err on the “see no evil” extreme, underestimating the terrible fallenness of creation.2 Darwinists, however, overemphasize “conquer or be conquered” survivalism—even nominating death as nature’s hero and means of “progress”, instead of recognizing death as the terrible “last enemy” to be destroyed.3 Both extremes misrepresent nature as they actively oppose and/or passively ignore the facts of Scripture.   Unsurprisingly, the true portrayal of nature’s condition is found in holy Scripture, starting in Genesis, a Mosaic book that Christ Himself endorsed as authoritative (John 5:44-47).

The deists’ approach produces worthwhile observations of natural beauty, orderliness, and efficiency but then fails to account for how Earth “groans” after Eden.2  What about birds that peck other birds to death, while fighting over food and territory?  That’s not beautiful!  In the first half of the 1800s, deism failed to explain such ugly forms of competition, so many academics sought a humanistic theory that explained Earth’s uglier features—disease, deprivation, dying—without resorting to God’s revealed answers in Genesis.

Enter Charles Darwin’s magic mechanism of “natural selection”!—an animistic theory invented to substitute for God role as Creator.  This now-popular form of quasi-polytheistic animism often uses the alias “survival of the fittest.”

Darwin and his followers imagined the global ecosystem as a closed “fight-to-the-death” arena, swarming with vicious creatures scrapping for limited resources.  In a one-sum game (“red in tooth and claw,”4 adopting a phrase from Tennyson to fit Darwin’s theory), gain by one competitor meant loss to another.  This selfish competition was quickly heralded as “nature’s law”, so explaining wildlife interactions soon required interpretations based on that brutal assumption.2

But real-world data routinely refuse to fit the evolutionary paradigm. Yet like today, the  embarrassing and uncooperative facts were routinely dismissed and ignored during the 1800s and 1900s.5

Embarrassing Darwin’s theory, even moreso than a lack of wasteful competition, is the prevalent reality of mutual aid, also called mutualistic symbiosis, where different life forms help each other, such as algae and fungus coexisting as lichen or bees pollinating the flowers from which they harvest nectar. Like noncompetitive eco-niche positioning,1 mutual aid doesn’t harmonize with Darwin’s antagonistic competition “song,” so mutual reciprocity (and self-sacrificing altruism) displays are also censured from or marginalized by academics who are gatekeepers of science education curricula.6

Consequently, field studies are often skewed by researchers who quickly jump to conclusions that endorse antagonistic survivalism—as if “natural law” always requires adversarial competition.

Even today, modern Darwinians (both atheistic and theistic), lauding mystical “natural selection”, trumpet creation’s fallenness as Earth’s foremost feature — all the while discarding or disparaging or detouring the historical documentation that God has provided in Genesis regarding what triggered Earth’s undeniable fallenness.

Meanwhile, creatures like tree-snacking Trinidad tanagers make a mockery of Darwinian dogma, as they peaceably share food.


  1. Philip Whitfield, Peter D. Moore, & Barry Cox, The Atlas of the Living World (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989), pages 100-101 (quotation taken from page 100; picture portraying non-competitive eco-niche positioning on page 101).
  2. Deists believe in an intelligent Creator God, so they expect Him to make a “perfect” creation. However, because they dismiss the Bible, they imaginatively philosophize about what they think a perfect God would do with His creation—as they self-confidently assume that they know how a perfect God would think and act. Accordingly, deists are quick to recognize God’s caring handiwork in nature; they see orderliness, logic, beauty, and many good things — but they totally miss God’s wisdom as it is displayed in allowing Adam’s choice to trigger the earth’s present “groaning”, which is a temporary condition that (due to redemption in Christ) will be succeeded by a better-than-the-originally-perfect situation (that then needed no redemptive restoration by Christ). See James J. S. Johnson, Misreading Earth’s Groanings: Why Evolutionists and Intelligent Design Proponents Fail Ecology 101. Acts & Facts. 39 (8): 8-9 (August 2010).
  3. 1 Corinthians 15:26.
  4. Darwinists hijacked this phrase from Lord Alfred Tennyson, In Memoriam A. H. H., Canto 56 (1849).
  5. James J. S. Johnson, Jeff Tomkins, & Brian Thomas. 2009. Dinosaur DNA Research: Is the Tale Wagging the Evidence? Acts & Facts, 38 (10): 4-6 (October 2009); James J. S. Johnson, Cherry Picking the Data Is the Pits, Acts & Facts, 44 (7): 19 (July 2015).
  6. Gary Parker, 1978. Nature’s Challenge to Evolutionary Theory, Acts & Facts, 7 (10), July 1978; James J. S. Johnson, “Providential Planting: The Pinyon Jay”, Creation Ex Nihilo. 19 (3): 24-25 (1997); Steve Austin, Grand Canyon: Monument to Catastrophe. Santee, CA: Institute for Creation Research, 1994), pages 156-159.

Dr. James J. S. Johnson formerly taught ornithology/ avian conservation, as well as courses in  ecology, limnology, and bioscience, for Dallas Christian College, and continues to be a “serious birder”.  A condensed version of this creation science article appears as James J. S. Johnson, Tree-Snacking Tanagers Undermine Darwin, Acts & Facts, 45 (6):21 (June 2016).