The Enigmatic Great Slaty Woodpecker and its Vanishing Habitat

by Dr. Leons Mathew Abraham

India is home to more than 1300 species of birds. More than three fourth of this are residents/migrants to the Himalayas and the northeastern region. This region is also home to a lot of primary dipterocarp forests in the country. Dipterocarps are a family of tall trees that make up the emergent layer of many tropical forests across the globe. These dipterocarp forests are home to a large number of ecosystem engineers like woodpeckers — ecosystem engineers are organisms which significantly modify their habitat by creation or destruction. The holes excavated by woodpeckers become home to many species of birds, mammals, and parasites. Thus, a healthy population of woodpeckers in a forest can positively impact many other species in a forest.

Photos: Meera Sinha (Left); Leons Mathew Abraham (Right)

Male Great Slaty Woodpecker from Garbhanga Reserve Forest.

The Indian subcontinent alone has 36 species of woodpeckers. Out of these, Great Slaty Woodpecker (Mulleripicus pulverulentus) is the largest Old World woodpecker, which is a Vulnerable species rapidly declining all over its range. It is a specialized woodpecker associated mostly with well-aged forests. They are found very locally across an extensive range extending from North India to the Philippines.

Great Slaty Woodpeckers are a cacophonous species whose presence in a forest can be detected easily. Flocks of this species require an extensive home range of undisturbed forests where they move across long distances in search of termites, stingless bees, and larvae of wood boring beetles. Generally, in a flock of 3–6 birds, the pairs among them stay in contact with each other by calls. They are cooperative breeders; each pair may get help from a third individual in nest excavation. The sexes are sexually dimorphic - males have a red cheek patch and dull yellow chin and throat, and a chisel-shaped bill, tailor-made for wood excavation while females lack the red on the cheek and have a more slender bill. The enigmatic displays of this bird include swaying of the head with wing and tail feathers widely extended.

In India, most of the population of Great Slaty Woodpeckers are in contiguous sal forests. Moreover, large-bodied birds like Hornbills and Great Slaty Woodpeckers utilize climax trees for nesting. Harvesting climax trees of primary forests by selective logging is a common practice followed in silviculture. Inadvertent logging of dipterocarp trees, both legally and illegally, for a variety of uses is a problem across the globe.