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Brief Encounters

Helmeted Woodpecker

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by Hugh Powell
Photograph by Martjan Lammertink

Many a woodpecker can be proud of its flamboyant colors and crest. But perhaps the most striking headdress of them all belongs to the rare Helmeted Woodpecker (Dryocopus galeatus) of South America’s Atlantic Forest. This bird—about two-thirds the size of the Pileated Woodpecker—sports an almost semicircular red crest and cinnamon face above black wings and long, buffy uppertail coverts. It’s a crimson sunburst in the trees.

Helmeted Woodpeckers are hard to find at the best of times—only three nests have ever been described, along with a few roost sites. Their choice habitat is undisturbed, mature Atlantic Forest, of which little remains. The birds seem adapted to dig in sodden, decayed wood of old forests, as evidenced by the slightly curved upper edge of the bill and lack of protective feathers over their nostrils (rare in woodpeckers). Helmeted Woodpeckers sometimes roost in natural cavities rather than excavating their own—as in the case of one female that slept in a large hole that also contained a White-eyed Parakeet pair incubating an egg.

Sadly, the Atlantic Forest itself is an endangered ecosystem, with almost 90 percent of its original extent now cleared away despite a native species diversity that rivals the Amazon. Recent, intensive studies have turned up new records for Helmeted Woodpecker, but the species probably numbers fewer than 10,000. It’s listed as Vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Thanks to a recent article in Neotropical Birding by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Martjan Lammertink and colleagues, we now know a little more about this spectacular species’ habits and prospects.

—Hugh Powell