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Nuttall’s Woodpecker: a Californian Special

CATEGORY: In the News · Urban Wild |
On Jul 17, 2023


You’ll probably hear its distinct voice before you see the elusive Nuttall’s woodpecker. The call is a loud rattling with just a couple notes that most new birders find easy to learn. Other times you may first hear them drilling or “drumming” into bark or dead wood. The reason Nuttall’s do this varies. They could be looking for food as they poke under the bark of trees; however, they also could be marking their territory or punching out a cavity since they are cavity-nesters.

A pair of Nuttall’s will drill a new nest each year, often into soft, dead wood. Their favorite trees in Griffith Park are elderberry, oak and sycamore. They line their nests with wood chips to cradle the eggs. These cavity nests create a high level of security for the brood. While the parents share the egg incubation tasks, the male is usually saddled with the construction job. When they’re finished rearing the chicks, other species, such as Griffith Park’s many Bewick’s wrens and the oak titmouse, will use the cavities the next season.

Nuttall’s favor the oak woodland habitat of the Park where they find and devour ants, bugs, various creepy crawlers, and also berries, fruit and seeds. Harvesting from poison oak is not a problem!

There is little chance of confusing this species with the Park’s larger, gregarious acorn woodpecker. Acorns have more of a laughing call and are everywhere in Griffith Park. To hear and see a Nutttall’s is indeed very special!

This woodpecker species gets its name from a celebrated British naturalist, Thomas Nuttall (1785-1851). Although not formally trained as an ornithologist, he spent much of his career in America following the paths of pioneers such as Lewis and Clark. He is credited with discovery of many flora and avian species. However, it was an associate collecting specimens for Nuttall in 1843 who brought this small woodpecker from the Wild West to England.

This limited-range species doesn’t stray from its year-round residency in much of the western half of California, and slightly extending into Baja. Nuttall’s are not found in the rest of the country, nor anywhere else in the world. Very Californian!

Not sure if what you are hearing is a Nuttall’s woodpecker? We recommend the free Merlin bird id app for your smartphone! The sound identification feature works quite well.

~Gerry Hans, FoGP President



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