L.A.'s Famous Woodpecker

March 8, 2017

Here in Los Angeles we've been getting some heavy rains over the last few months. This is good news for us and for the drought, but it's been making it tough for us to get out and enjoy nature around here. Finally, a few weekends ago, we had some gloriously sunny weather, so we went out to enjoy the wildlife and took a hike in the Santa Monica Mountains. The trails were clear, the hills soaked in green...but it was still so cold that we saw very few animals. It turned out that the best nature we would see that day would be found in the parking lot of a strip mall where we stopped for lunch. Behold, the acorn woodpecker, scientific name Melanerpes formicivorus.

Male acorn woodpecker
Did you know that the acorn woodpecker inspired the cartoon character Woody Woodpecker?

We parked right under an oak tree, leafless but teeming with woodpeckers.  We heard them before we saw them, up to six at a time, all swooping around this tree and hammering at the bark. That splendid fellow is a male, you can tell by how the red feathers in his cap reach all the way down to the white on his face. The females have a black band between the red and white, like this charmer.

Female acorn woodpecker

Both males and females were swarming this tree, but what were they doing? As we watched them, it seemed they were probing around in the tree bark and jamming acorns into the tree. The entire tree was studded with holes and stuffed with acorns.

Granary tree

It turns out that this is a granary tree, a dead tree that these woodpeckers take over, shove full of acorns, and use as a pantry when acorns are scarce. They will defend this tree and watch over their store of nuts, and I can confirm that they drove off a crow who tried to get in on the feast. I was impressed by how thick the acorns were in the tree bark, but even more delighted when I noticed the lamppost right next to the tree.

Acorn woodpeckers on lamppost

Never ones to waste an opportunity, the woodpeckers had jammed acorns into the seam of the light fixture and were defending it just as vigorously as the tree. These crafty birds, like the crows, jays, and even grackles we see in L.A., have adapted to our urban landscape and figured out how to exploit the new opportunities it offers. Our city is full of urban nature interactions like this one, even in a humble strip mall parking lot. So look closer when you move around Los Angeles, and don't miss all the creatures that live here with us, figuring out how to make the most of the city. 

All photos credit Daniel Geiger

(Posted by: Chris Thacker)

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