WERC welcomes new animal ambassador

Clarabelle, the acorn woodpecker, is WERC's newest animal

Knock knock. Knock knock. Knock knock. If you’re hearing this,
it’s not someone pulling a joke on you, but an acorn woodpecker
(Melanerpes formicivorus) storing food nearby in its granary.
Colleen Grzan

Special to South Valley Newspapers

Knock knock. Knock knock. Knock knock. If you’re hearing this, it’s not someone pulling a joke on you, but an acorn woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorus) storing food nearby in its granary. Finding its cache of acorns should be easy – just look for a dead oak tree (called a snag) or a telephone pole pocked with thousands of small holes and stuffed tightly with acorns. This granary serves as an emergency pantry but the resourceful bird also feeds on ants (its Latin name means “ant-eater”), beetles, flying insects and wild fruit.

All woodpeckers have a skull that is thick and shock-absorbing, a physical development which allows them to withstand their constant hammering without getting a pounding headache. The base of their tongue wraps around the skull, anchoring behind the nostrils, and extends far enough to reach deep into wood-bores to catch a tasty grub. A woodpecker’s feet, which have two toes in front and two toes in back, are ideally adapted to climbing trees and their stiff tail props them upright while they drill holes.

In the U.S., the non-migratory acorn woodpecker ranges from the Pacific states to the Southwest. The species is unique in that it’s a familial and communal bird, sharing nesting and rearing duties with up to 15 members within its colony. It’s a complex society, divided between the breeders and “helpers,” which are usually the group’s offspring. They are very territorial and status-conscious, normally tolerating only other members of their group. When an acorn woodpecker is found injured or orphaned, it is extremely important to the rehabilitator that the bird is returned within two weeks to the exact colony from which it came, since its place in the commune will be filled by another woodpecker. Any later than two weeks and the displaced bird will be rejected and chased away from the food source, and will starve to death.

Such was the prognosis of this female acorn woodpecker. She was an orphaned nestling that was brought to another wildlife facility. The location of the bird’s original group was unknown and so she could not be returned to the wild. Because of the unique and fascinating attributes of this species and because this bird had became imprinted onto humans, she was transferred to the Wildlife Education and Rehabilitation Center as an educational animal, with permission from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Look at the picture of this woodpecker and you’ll see why the species is often called clown-face. With her boldly-patterned black, white and yellow face and body, and a perky red “cap,” WERC’s newest animal ambassador has been aptly named “Clarabelle.” For you youngsters who didn’t grow up in the ’50s, Clarabelle was the clown on “The Howdy Doody Show.”

Want to hear a joke? Why is the acorn woodpecker a dentist’s favorite bird? Because it drills and fills!

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