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During my trip to South Llano River State Park in Junction, Texas, back in March, I spent hours enjoying the several bird blinds throughout the park. Each one was beautiful, but there was no shortage of interested bird watchers crammed into them. To get the most out of these lovely blinds, I woke up at sunrise and walked to the nearest blind with a thermos of hot coffee, a coat, and my binoculars. And just like that, I was alone to watch the morning activity of the park’s aviary residents.
As I was watching a Ladder-backed Woodpecker on a nearby feeder, my eyes were immediately drawn to the bright yellow and orange nape of the stunning Golden-fronted Woodpecker (no offense to the Ladder-back). I took a mental picture and began flipping through the pages of the provided Sibley guide in hopes of identifying it. I couldn’t wait to tell my wife about the sighting and spent the rest of the trip marveling at their beauty whenever I could.
A few weeks later, at Big Bend National Park, I was at the Rio Grande Village Campground. Once again, I was lucky enough to see another Golden-fronted Woodpecker at the base of a tree! This bird has quickly become a favorite the more I am fortunate enough to observe it.
The Golden-fronted Woodpecker belongs to the order Piciformes, which encompasses woodpeckers and close relatives. They are further classified into the Picidae family, comprised of wrynecks, piculets, and sapsuckers. Their genus Melanerpes includes 25 species of woodpeckers with colorful red, yellow and orange characteristics joined by black and white barring. The Golden-fronted Woodpecker is closely related to the Red-bellied Woodpecker, and the two species have hybridized where their range overlaps.
How to Identify a Golden-fronted Woodpecker
The Golden-fronted Woodpecker is frequently compared to the Yucatan Woodpecker and the Red-bellied Woodpecker. These comparisons are primarily due to their similar coloration. The Golden-fronted Woodpecker is larger and has a longer beak. But let’s suppose you’ve never heard of the Yucatan Woodpecker or the Red-bellied Woodpecker and start from scratch!
The Golden-fronted Woodpecker is a medium-sized bird falling between a robin and a crow. From the edge of their bills to the tip of their toes, their length ranges from 9 to 10 inches. They weigh around 2.6 to 3.5 ounces and have a wingspan of 16 to 17 inches. Males are larger than females by 14% and have bills 9 to15% longer than female Golden-fronted Woodpeckers.
The Golden-fronted Woodpecker has a long pointed bill accompanied by a light grayish-brown head, breast, and flanks. The abdominal area is also light gray, and females have subtle yellow feathers. Their tail feathers are black with white speckles. The most prominent feature of this bird is the captivating golden nape and nasal tufts, ranging between red and yellow. They have red feathers at the base of the bill. Males are more colorful than females. Their wing feathers are a black and white barred pattern similar to most woodpeckers, but the Golden-fronted Woodpecker has denser black coloring than other subspecies. Both male and female Golden-fronted Woodpeckers have grayish-green legs and feet.
The Golden-fronted Woodpecker has four subspecies that vary in size and coloration. The subspecies Aurifrons is the only Golden-fronted Woodpecker found in the United States. Here are a few of the differences between the subspecies based on their distribution range:
- Texas and Mexico: Yellow to orange nap
- Yucatan Peninsula: Red nape and orange nap farther south.
Vocalization and Communication
You can commonly find Golden-fronted Woodpeckers perching atop dead trees or sitting very still on top of a utility pole. They do not drum as frequently as other species of woodpeckers. Drumming is the noise produced from their rapid pecking on an object. Their call is similar to a Red-bellied Woodpecker but is often a louder “chuh-chuh-chuh” or “churrr.” You can hear this bird’s vocalizations year-round. Golden-fronted Woodpeckers have a call for every type of circumstance, from greetings, distress, warnings, and combative situations; they are not afraid to speak out.
When their territory is threatened by trespassers, they will be sure to give a warning call. Trespassers come in the form of predators, humans, and animals attempting to steal food.
Non-verbal communication is standard among Golden-fronted Woodpeckers. A mated pair will communicate sexual behavior by exchanging tapping, and although very rare for females, a male Golden-fronted Woodpecker will drum to mark his territory.
Golden-fronted Woodpecker chicks will begin making a begging call during their first week of life. As they gear up to fledge, this call changes to a wheezing sound.
Where Does a Golden-fronted Woodpecker Live: Habitat
The Golden-fronted Woodpecker is found in southwestern regions of Oklahoma, throughout central Texas, extending throughout eastern Mexico. Temperate riparian woodlands, or woodlands situated along river banks, are their preferred habitats. They favor areas with the following trees:
- Cottonwood (Populus)
- Mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa)
- Willow (Salix)
- Cypress (Cupressus)
- Juniper (Juniperus)
- Oak (Quercus)
The arid tropical scrubs of Mexico, Honduras, and Nicaragua are also suitable conditions for the Golden-fronted Woodpecker. Other preferred habitats are savannas, grasslands, and scrub forests. Their elevation range is sea level to 2,500 meters. They are not a migratory species.
Golden-fronted Woodpecker Diet and Feeding
Golden-fronted Woodpeckers are omnivorous birds, meaning they’ll eat practically anything. Their diets consist heavily of grasshoppers, beetles, ants, cicadas, acorns, and berries. They will gladly tolerate corn, plant seeds, moths, small lizards, and other insects as suitable meals.
Diets can vary based on their location and the season. During the summer, corn, wild fruits, pecan, acorns, and the larva of various arthropods are more plentiful and make up most of the Golden-fronted Woodpecker’s diet. Cactus fruits, citrus, berries, and beans are their top scores during the fall and winter. The subspecies Aurifrons, found in the United States, have been documented sustaining themselves on a diet of primary acorns, fruits, and berries in Texas.
Golden-fronted Woodpeckers will store or cache food like fruit and nuts in inconspicuous places where another bird is unlikely to find them. While it isn’t typical behavior, they have been observed visiting stores in the winter months. Other less common but noteworthy meal choices for the Golden-fronted Woodpecker are eggs, dog food, and carrion (decaying animal flesh).
The Golden-fronted Woodpecker searches for its meals by hunting or gleaning around tree trunks, branches, and limbs. Most hunting takes place below 20 feet on large tree trunks. They will also forage on the ground in clear open areas.
Attracting Golden-fronted Woodpeckers
If you live within their distribution range, it is not uncommon to receive this bird as a backyard visitor. I urge you to plant a fruit-bearing or nut-bearing tree that may increase your chances of receiving Golden-fronted Woodpeckers. They are too beautiful of birds to pass up! Another way to encourage them to visit your backyard is to put out fruit and nut bird feeders in the winter when food is scarce. Here are a few feeder foods that are highly likely to entice a Golden-fronted visitor:
- Citrus Fruits
- Sunflower Seeds
Golden-fronted Woodpecker Breeding
Golden-fronted Woodpeckers are another bird you can cue the “awws” for. They display monogamous behavior and stick together long after the mating season has ended. This species does not have a designated breeding season, and breeding times depend on their location, but in general, it occurs sometime between January to early July. When it comes time for a bonded pair to breed, they will drum and vocalize more frequently with one another. As mentioned above, this is considered sexual behavior.
During the breeding season, aggressive behavior is common towards animals that pose a threat. When a Golden-fronted Woodpecker feels threatened, it will respond by expanding its wings fully and lunging toward the perpetrator. They will also swing their head and point their bill toward them.
Golden-fronted Woodpecker Nesting
Golden-fronted Woodpeckers choose nesting sites that are located in tree trunk cavities. They will excavate a cavity if needed. Ideal nesting locations are six to twenty feet above ground in mesquite, oak, cedar, elm, pecan, or cottonwood trees. A utility pole, fence post, or bird box will do the job when no nesting sites are available.
Nesting cavities have entrance holes that are two inches wide and twelve inches deep. Once the nesting site is suitable, the Golden-fronted Woodpecker will gather woodchips to place along the cavity floor.
Unlike other species of birds, the Golden-fronted Woodpecker, both male and female, are responsible for nurturing its young. The male will take night duty, incubating eggs and keeping hatchlings warm, while the female takes the daytime shift. When a parent is not spending time tending to their offspring, they are foraging for food for themselves and the chicks. Even some birds can’t escape changing diapers! When it comes to potty training, mom and dad keep the nest tidy by removing fecal matter.
Once the little freeloaders (just kidding) have been in the nest for about three weeks, the male Golden-fronted Woodpecker will move on and consider his parenting position dissolved. After one month of undivided attention, the chicks will fledge. In some cases, they are seen interacting with their parents post-fledging.
Golden-fronted Woodpecker Eggs
A bonded pair of Golden-fronted Woodpeckers will typically raise between two to three broods, with the female laying anywhere from four to five eggs per season. A female can lay up to seven eggs, though this is more uncommon.
In some situations, a female may lose her clutch due to cold weather or predators. If this happens early enough in the breeding season, she will quickly find a mate and attempt to try her luck at a second clutch.
Golden-fronted Woodpecker Population
The estimated global breeding population of Golden-fronted Woodpeckers is about 5.3 million, according to Partners in Flight, an avian conservation assessment and population estimates database.
While the species has learned to adapt to deforestation and artificial interferences, it still experiences susceptibility to habitat loss.
Every living thing plays a vital part in the circle of life. While we hate to see life end, learning how that life benefits the world around us is essential. Parasitic species need homes too! Golden-fronted Woodpeckers are home to a type of nasal mites (Sternostoma porteri) and protozoans (Plasmodium Vaughan). They also provide nesting cavities for other species of birds. Sometimes they offer them against their will. In the case of Starlings, they will try to force Golden-fronted Woodpeckers out of their nesting sites.
Golden-fronted Woodpeckers are considered pests to utility companies and some homeowners for the damage they can cause to utility poles and wooden fencing. But hey, would they even bother with those nesting sites if we stopped cutting down trees?
Is Golden-fronted Woodpecker Endangered?
The Golden-fronted Woodpeckers is not endangered and is listed as “Least Concern” by the Internation Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). They do not have any additional protections through the Migratory Bird Treaty Act since they do not migrate. There are no focused conservation efforts for the species.
Golden-fronted Woodpecker Habits
Mud bathing and sunbathing are standard practices among Golden-fronted Woodpeckers. They also frequent ponds, puddles, and bird fountains for a splash about.
Gold-fronted Woodpeckers can be seen hopping along in a straight line on branches and flat surfaces.
Golden-fronted Woodpecker Predators
Woodpeckers of all species have a long list of animals that would consider them a tasty meal. While Golden-fronted Woodpeckers are watchful birds, they inevitably fall prey to the following animals:
- Feral Cats
- Snakes (Nest Raider)
- Grackles (Nest Raider)
Golden-fronted Woodpecker Lifespan
There has not been ample research conducted on Golden-fronted Woodpeckers’ longevity in the wild; however, the maximum lifespan recorded for a Golden-fronted Woodpecker is five years and eight months.
Answer: Golden-fronted Woodpeckers are omnivores who consume various insects, nuts, berries, seeds, and fruits. Their diet varies based on the season and availability of specific food sources. During the summer months, corn, pecans, wild fruits, and small insects are a few of their top choices. During the winter and fall, beans, cactus fruits, and citrus are common dietary choices.
Answer: No. Golden-fronted Woodpeckers are considered full-time residents of their geographical range. Their specific location will vary depending on winter food sources, but they typically remain within a local radius.
Answer: The Golden-fronted Woodpecker is roughly 2.33 to 3.5 ounces. They can grow 8.7 to 10.2 inches tall and have a 16.5 to 17.3 inches wingspan. They are a sexually dimorphic species, meaning males are larger than females.
Answer: Golden-fronted Woodpeckers have yellow-orange napes with a red crown and heavy black and white barring along their back and wings. They have yellow nasal tufts. Their breast is a grayish-white with some light yellow coloring.
Answer: The Golden-fronted Woodpecker lives in North America. It prefers riparian woodlands, mesquite, and tropical rainforests. You can spot this bird throughout most of central and southern Texas, extending to Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras.
Casto, S. D. (2006). GOLDEN-FRONTED WOODPECKER. The Texas Breeding Bird Atlas. Retrieved June 28, 2022, from https://txtbba.tamu.edu/species-accounts/golden-fronted-woodpecker/
Hickman, T. (n.d.). ADW: Melanerpes aurifrons: Information. Retrieved June 28, 2022, from https://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Melanerpes_aurifrons/
Golden-fronted woodpecker. Audubon. (2021, October 20). Retrieved June 28, 2022, from https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/golden-fronted-woodpecker#
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