WOODY WOODPECKER, LOVE'S LABOUR LOST



An expert in international and Indian family laws and author of nine books, Anil Malhotra and his wife, Simmi, maintain a veritable garland of greenery around their shared house while painted stones bejewel their interiors in Sector 16, Chandigarh. The green couple’s curiosity was piqued no end when they found mango wood chips cluttering the floor of their courtyard and no culprit in sight. Then, a very busy would-be mother flew into a hole in the mango tree in their courtyard, bobbing her head out of the hole periodically like a cuckoo clock. Realising that the chips were from the woodpecker’s deep new hole, a nest, an awestruck Malhotra described it as a “tunnel dug to perfection, an engineering marvel”.


The first mystery was resolved as the bird was identified as a Black-rumped flameback, a golden-black-reddish bird and one of the very few woodpecker species commonly seen in city gardens. But matters got murky when a large greenish-brown bird with a woodpecker-like bill arrived on the scene and also entered the hole. Budding nature enthusiasts as they are, the Malhotras presumed it was the woodpecker’s mate.


However, the supposed mate was actually the Brown-headed barbet, a different species and one that is known more by sound than by sight. The barbet is known in local cultures as the ‘Bada Basanta’ because come spring and it commences characteristic calls in deafening choruses, kor-r-r, kutroo-kutroo-kutroo, reminiscent of the dreaded lockdown sirens or even an ambulance wailing in the far distance! A secretive and well-camouflaged bird, the Bada Basanta sings of spring’s blossoms, the augury of warmth, and of love’s whiff in the air.


A few days later, the Malhotras found that the woodpecker had been evicted from the scene. The “mate” (barbet) had occupied the hole actually drilled by the woodpecker.


Fact is that the barbet drills its own nests but prefers to do so in softer, rotten branches. In the instant case, the barbet had found a fresh nest made by the woodpecker, reviewed it as eminently suitable, and promptly occupied it for its own procreation without having to indulge in hard, drilling labour!


Woodpeckers are regarded as ecological or ecosystem engineers as they excavate holes for roosting and nesting and thus alter habitat. These holes are in turn used by other birds, some of whom cannot drill cavities. Woodpeckers are like porcupines, the latter digging extensive burrow systems with many chambers, some of which are occupied by pythons, bats, monitor lizards and jackals.