Melanerpes aurifrons, Ch’ejum, Ch’ajum, Ch’ujum (Maya)

Merida tourist: “I saw a woodpecker with red on its head. Was it a Red-headed Woodpecker?”

Cherie Pittillo, nature appreciator: “Uh, no. That species lives in the US and into Canada.”

MT: “But I could see red on its head.”

CP: “I understand why you thought that. Many woodpecker species have red somewhere on their heads. Even Woody Woodpecker, the cartoon character, had a red head.  You may be amazed to learn that the Yucatan Peninsula has eleven species of woodpeckers.  Males, in all those species, have red somewhere on their faces, throats, crowns, or napes. Frankly, many females also sport a dashing red color too. Where did you spot your woodpecker?”

MT: “My friend and I walked down Paseo de Montejo and we heard this noise, and then we saw this woodpecker hammering a tree.”

CP: “That hammering sound could signal its territory to other woodpeckers. Did you notice anything else?”

MT: “Hmm, well, the back looked kinda black, and it flew across the street and I saw some white on its back.”

CP: “You saw the Golden-fronted Woodpecker, one of the most common woodpeckers in the city and in the peninsula. Its back is barred with black and white. I’m glad you spotted that white because it does have a white rump. The male has a red crown and nape but the female looks like she wears a grayish skull cap with cherry red hair flowing out from the bottom of it. When I first saw this abundant woodpecker, I misidentified it with an endemic species, the Yucatan Woodpecker. Both look similar, but the Yucatan is smaller with a shorter bill. What I didn’t understand is the coloring around or on top of the base of its bill. In birding jargon, that area refers to nasal tufts. The Yucatan Woodpecker has yellow gold nasal tufts, with yellow circling the base of the bill as well. But the Golden-fronted Woodpecker has, not gold, but RED above its bill! It reminds me of a red moustache. That is how it looks throughout the Yucatan Peninsula. However, in other parts of Mexico and the SW USA, the Golden-fronted Woodpecker wears a yellow moustache. Even some bird books don’t include that fact! So do you live in Merida?”

MT: “No, but our work requires us to be here March-August.”

CP: “That’s the same time as the nesting season for the Golden-fronted Woodpecker. They may have two-four chicks at a time and feed them fruit, insect larvae, and insects. When the young leave their tree cavity nest, the parents will raise another brood or two. Guess they are better breeder brooders than some other species. Are you a birdwatcher?”

MT: “I don’t know the names but I like to look. When I do, I forget about work or any other stresses. Somehow it relaxes my brain.”

CP: “You’ve realized one of life’s great lessons. Research shows that experiencing nature, in any variety of its forms, is self-renewal, even watching a bird for a few moments. Congratulations on your self-discovery!”

Sound link: http://macaulaylibrary.org/audio/103349

(To view Cherie’s beautiful color photos, click on the Related Gallery to the right of this column.)

Nature’s wonders inspire Cherie Pittillo, a wildlife photographer, zoologist, and author. Follow her friendly, feathered journey as she discovers the birds of the Yucatan Peninsula.

Editorial and Photography by Cherie Pittillo for use in Yucatán Today

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