Peru is a bird watcher’s heaven, a country where more than 1800 bird species can be found (more than the total number in North America and Europe combined), 85% of which are resident (non-migratory), and 117 of which are found no where but Peru (endemic). This means you might see a great diversity of just one type of bird, for example, woodpeckers, and in fact, there are 39 different species of Peruvian woodpeckers (compared to just 7 species in Minnesota).
Woodpeckers of Peru – Drawings by Larry McQueen, from Birds of Peru
Is the incredible woodpecker diversity due to the number and density of trees with accompanying grubs in the Amazon rainforest? Perhaps, only indirectly, because 30-50% of Peruvian woodpeckers surveyed eat primarily ants — ground and tree nesting varieties, supplemented with other insects, fruits, and seeds. It may be the ant diversity and abundance that is partly responsible for woodpecker diversity in the rainforest.
Leaf cutter ants would seem to be particularly vulnerable to attack by ant-loving birds, as they march in long columns from trees where they harvest leaves to their underground nest where they feed the leaves to their fungus garden.
Termite nests are large, highly visible structures with just a thin exterior shell to protect the millions of termites within. They would also seem to be vulnerable to ant-loving birds.
In North America it is the flickers that are the ant specialists. Northern Flickers, for example (Colaptes auratus), are often found in grassy areas or open areas in forests, probing the ground for ants. Colaptes flicker species are divided into two groups — the more terrestrial foragers, like our Northern Flicker, and arboreal foraging specialists in the rainforest. Both groups love to dine on ants, but find them in different places.
Andean Flickers occur, as their name implies, in open grass- and shrublands of the Andes, where they find not only ants, but other invertebrates by probing into the soil with their stout bill.
Andean Flicker-probing for insects, or worms, or ants. These are large birds (13 inches in length) and I wouldn’t want to get poked with that sharp beak.
Found something good…
Male and female Andean Flickers look alike, except for the red patch on the back of the male’s head.
The more arboreal members of the Colaptes genus (4 species in Peru) have solid green-brown backs, spots or scales on their breast, and bright red napes. They are so similar, they are difficult to tell apart without a really good look (e.g., birds in the lower part of the central panel of the first image).
This spot-breasted Woodpecker looks nothing like the Andean Flicker, but it does look very much like the other 3 Colaptes species with which it shares the arboreal ant-eating niche.
Another major consumer group of ants and termites in the Peruvian rainforest are the five species in the genus Celeus. These are medium-sized birds whose color is more homogeneous (all brown, all yellow, etc.) but usually have a distinctive red mustache or crest (see top row of left and center panels in the first image).
We could hardly believe this was a woodpecker, with its all yellow body and brown wings. The Cream-colored Woodpecker male has a distinctive red mustache.
This is one species where the female is just as beautiful as the male. Both male and female specialize on ants and termites, often foraging near water (which is where we found them).
Chestnut Woodpeckers forage for ants and termites higher on trees than Cream-colored Woodpeckers do, but they often supplement their diet with fruit.
These are just a few of the colorful woodpeckers we were fortunate to see in Peru, and of course, makes me want to go back for another visit to “woodpecker heaven”.