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7 Fascinating Facts About the Cardinal Woodpecker

Birds are one of the most beautiful and interesting creatures on our planet, with a wide range of colors and characteristics that truly make them stand out. One such bird is the Cardinal Woodpecker, scientifically known as Chloropicus fuscescens.

This species of woodpecker can be found in various parts of Africa and is known for its unique plumage and identification features. This article is a comprehensive guide that will provide you with all the information you need to know about the Cardinal Woodpecker, from its identification to its molts.


Field Identification:

The Cardinal Woodpecker measures approximately 19 centimeters in length, making it one of the smaller members of the woodpecker family. It has a distinct red crest on its head, which is flanked by black and white stripes on both sides.

Its throat and underparts are pale cream, and the upperparts are black with white spots. The male has a red patch on the nape, while the female does not.

Similar Species:

The Cardinal Woodpecker can sometimes be confused with other birds, which share similar traits. The Brown-backed woodpecker is one such species.

Although it has a red crown, it lacks the black and white stripes on its head. Another bird that can be confused with the Cardinal Woodpecker is the Bennett’s woodpecker.

This species has a similar red crest on its head, but it has a yellow patch on its nape, which differentiates it from the Cardinal Woodpecker. Plumages:

The Cardinal Woodpecker goes through a series of plumages during its lifetime.

Here are some of the molts it undergoes:

– Juvenile Plumage: Young birds have brown upperparts and buff-colored underparts. They also lack the red crest of mature birds.

– First Basic Plumage: In this molt, the young bird begins to resemble the adult, with paler, less-marked head and breast stripes. – Second Basic Plumage: This molt occurs after the bird’s first breeding season.

The bird’s head, back, and wings are now black, and the breast and belly are pale cream. – Third Basic Plumage: In this phase, the coloration changes slightly, with more white spots appearing on the upperparts.

– Fourth Basic Plumage: This plumage is similar to the third but with a more pronounced red crest on the head. Conclusion:

The Cardinal Woodpecker is a fascinating bird with unique identification features, such as its red crest on the head, black and white stripes, and pale cream underparts.

It can be identified by using its distinct features. It undergoes several molts during its lifetime, including Juvenile Plumage, First Basic Plumage, Second Basic Plumage, Third Basic Plumage, and Fourth Basic Plumage.

By understanding the identification and plumage of the Cardinal Woodpecker, you can better appreciate this amazing bird species. Systematics History:

The taxonomy of a species is an evolving field, and the Cardinal Woodpecker is no exception.

Its scientific name, Chloropicus fuscescens, has undergone several changes since its discovery. In the past, it was considered a member of the Dendrocopos genus; however, recent molecular and morphological analyses have prompted a revision of its classification.

Geographic Variation:

The Cardinal Woodpecker can be found in various parts of Africa, and its distribution has a significant impact on its appearance. The species exhibits geographic variation in plumage color, with birds from west Africa being more yellowish than those from central and southern parts of the continent.


There are six recognized subspecies of the Cardinal Woodpecker, each with its unique characteristics:

1. Chloropicus fuscescens fuscescens: Found in Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ivory Coast, and Ghana.

2. Chloropicus fuscescens analis: Native to Nigeria, Cameroon, Central African Republic, and Congo.

3. Chloropicus fuscescens poensis: Occurs in Gabon, Congo, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

4. Chloropicus fuscescens verreauxii: Found in southern Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique.

5. Chloropicus fuscescens suahelicus: Native to eastern and southern Kenya and Tanzania.

6. Chloropicus fuscescens leuconotus: Occurs in Angola, Zambia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Related Species:

The Cardinal Woodpecker belongs to the woodpecker family, Picidae, which consists of approximately 240 species worldwide. It is closely related to other woodpecker species found in Africa, such as the Rufous-sided broadbill and the Lesser-spotted woodpecker.

Historical Changes to Distribution:

The distribution of the Cardinal Woodpecker has undergone significant changes over time. Fossil and molecular evidence suggests that the genus Chloropicus originated in Asia, and its ancestors colonized Africa during the Miocene epoch (235.3 million years ago).

During the Pleistocene epoch (2.6 million-11,700 years ago), the climate started to fluctuate, leading to cooler and drier conditions. These changes act as barriers to the dispersal of some species of birds.

For the Cardinal Woodpecker, changes in climate led to changes in its distribution.

It is believed that during the Pleistocene epoch, the species was more widespread, possibly inhabiting areas that are now unsuitable for its current distribution.

The most likely explanation for its current distribution pattern is that it survived glaciation periods in the wet evergreen forests of West and Central Africa. Anthropogenic factors, such as deforestation and climate change, are currently affecting the distribution of the Cardinal Woodpecker.

The species is threatened in some areas due to habitat loss and fragmentation, making it more difficult for them to move and find resources. In certain regions, populations of the species are declining.


The Cardinal Woodpecker is an incredibly diverse species, exhibiting a wide range of geographic, morphological, and behavioral variation. Although several subspecies have been identified, the genetic and morphological distinctions between them are not well-understood.

While little is known about the former distribution of the species, recent anthropogenic factors such as habitat loss and fragmentation have been observed to impact the species. Overall, it is clear that comprehensive studies are needed to better understand the ecology and conservation of this fascinating species.


The Cardinal Woodpecker is commonly found in various types of forests, including moist evergreen forests, semi-deciduous forests, and gallery forests. Within these habitats, the species prefers open spaces with scattered trees, edges, and forest clearings.

In West Africa, the species is found in the Guinean forest zone, which spans from Senegal to Ghana. The forests in this zone have high species richness and are characterized by large trees with tall canopies.

In Central Africa, the Cardinal Woodpecker is found in the Congo Basin, which is predominantly moist evergreen forest, with some areas consisting of semi-deciduous forest. Movements and Migration:

The Cardinal Woodpecker is mainly a resident bird that does not move long-distances.

However, seasonal movements and altitudinal migrations have been reported in some areas. For example, in Tanzania, the species is found in coastal plains and lowlands during the rainy season and moves to higher altitudes during the dry season.

Juvenile birds may disperse from their natal territories to establish new breeding territories. Dispersal distances are not well-known, but some birds may travel several kilometers away from their natal territories.

There is little known about the seasonal movements of the Cardinal Woodpecker and its migration history. However, there are population fluctuations in some regions that may suggest that seasonal migration contributes to the bird’s movements.

Threats to Habitat and Migration:

The habitat of the Cardinal Woodpecker is under threat from deforestation and forest degradation, as well as climate change. Human activities such as logging, agriculture, mining, and road construction can fragment forests and reduce habitat quality, making it harder for the species to survive.

Climate change increases the frequency of extreme weather events, such as droughts and flooding, which can reduce food availability and nesting sites for the Cardinal Woodpecker. Moreover, habitat fragmentation and destruction can impact the ability of the birds to move and migrate to suitable habitats, which is crucial during times of environmental stress.

Climate change can also alter vegetation patterns, causing the species to move to new ranges, which can further exacerbate habitat loss. Conservation and Efforts:

The conservation of the Cardinal Woodpecker can help prevent the decline of the species and protect its habitats.

In Africa, the logging industry remains the biggest threat to forests and a crucial component of efforts to protect the woodland is to ensure responsible forestry practices. Similarly, sustainable tourism practices need to be put in place to protect the habitat of the Cardinal Woodpecker.

Furthermore, the creation of protected areas (PA) is a recommended strategy for the protection of the Cardinal Woodpecker. Protected areas can help to stabilize the population of the species and can serve as a valuable research tool for studying the biology and behavior of the species.

There are currently several protected areas across Africa covering the Cardinal Woodpecker’s range, including in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon, Uganda, and Tanzania. Conclusion:

The Cardinal Woodpecker is a habitat specialist and is reliant on healthy forest ecosystems for its survival.

Unfortunately, environmental pressures such as logging and climate change are affecting the habitats of the species. The Cardinal Woodpecker may face additional challenges to its migration patterns with habitat fragmentation and environmental changes.

It is important that conservation efforts be put in place to protect this species and its habitats, ultimately helping to stabilize population declines and protect the ecological functioning of forest ecosystems. Diet and Foraging:


The Cardinal Woodpecker has a distinctive feeding technique.

They use their strong beak to peck rapidly at the bark of trees, searching for insects hiding underneath the surface. They also use their beaks to chisel holes in the wood, looking for insects and their eggs.

The species climbs trees vertically and uses their tail to brace themselves against the trunk, which provides stability and balance while foraging. Diet:

The Cardinal Woodpecker’s diet consists mainly of insects, including ants, termites, and beetles.

They also feed on caterpillars, crickets and spiders. Occasionally, the species will eat fruit or seeds when insects are scarce.

The species’ diet is highly dependent on the availability of insects, which varies seasonally. Metabolism and Temperature Regulation:

Woodpeckers have a unique metabolism, which allows them to extract more energy from their food and sustain high levels of physical activity.

This metabolism is thought to be an adaptation to their feeding behavior, which requires a lot of energy and muscle power. They also have a unique thermal regulation system, allowing them to maintain a stable body temperature during cold winter months while foraging for food.

Sounds and Vocal Behavior:


The Cardinal Woodpecker uses a range of vocalizations to communicate with other birds, generally making sounds that are soft, mellow, and often repeated. The species vocalizes to establish territory, attract a mate and form pair bonds, and keep in contact with their mate during nesting.

The most common call of the Cardinal Woodpecker is a soft ‘pik’ or ‘pink’, which is used to maintain contact during short flights or while foraging. The species also produces a sharper ‘pic pic pic’ sound, which is used to establish territory and attract potential mates.

Other vocalizations produced by the species include smooth rolling and shorter trills, which are used to communicate with one another. Another form of communication utilized by this species is the drumming of its beak.

This drumming can be heard over relatively large distances and is used by the species to announce its presence or territory and as a form of attracting a mate. Different drumming patterns also communicate messages about age, gender, and sexual development of the bird.


The Cardinal Woodpecker has an interesting and unique foraging behavior that is specialized to be able to effectively extract insects from trees. Their diet is also incredibly adaptable, ranging from insects to seeds and fruit.

The species possesses a specialized metabolic system that fosters energy extraction and assists with regulation of body temperature. Vocalization plays a significant role in communication and behavior, with distinct calls and drumming patterns used to maintain territories, attract mates and keep in touch with each other.

These adaptations of the Cardinal Woodpecker allow it to thrive in the diverse habitats of Africa, making it a remarkable species domiciled on the continent. Behavior:


The Cardinal Woodpecker is an active bird with strong legs and feet, which allows them to climb trees and feed while braced against the trunk.

Their strong tail muscles provide additional support, stability, and balance while foraging. The extended length and structure of their tongue enables them to reach deep into tree crevices and holes to extract insects.

Self Maintenance:

To keep their feathers in good condition, the Cardinal Woodpecker uses their beak to preen their plumage. Birds also preen themselves as a form of social behaviour, which helps to reduce the incidence of ectoparasites, communally exchanging preening for mutual grooming.

Agonistic Behavior:

The Cardinal Woodpecker is a territorial bird with an agonistic behavior characterized by a combination of visual displays and vocalizations. Agonistic behavior is also observed in the defense of their feeding territories and nest sites.

They use their beaks and wings to threaten and scare off potential predators or competitors. Sexual Behavior:

Mating behavior of the species occurs during the breeding season, with pairs establishing their nesting territories around February.

The species forms monogamous pair bonds, with both parents taking an active role in caring for their offspring. During courtship, males perform a series of drumming displays to attract a mate, which can range from a series of soft taps to rapid-fire tapping.


The breeding season of the Cardinal Woodpecker varies by region, with nesting occurring between January to August, depending on habitat and climate conditions. The species constructs their nests in holes excavated in trees, with both males and females taking turns chiseling out the holes.

The species is known for making multiple holes in a single tree cavity and using them at various stages of nesting. The species lays up to three eggs per clutch, which are incubated for 11-12 days before hatching.

The chicks are altricial, meaning they are born blind and featherless and are entirely dependent on their parents for food and care. The species typically has two broods per year, although this can vary depending on habitat conditions.

Demography and Populations:

The population of the Cardinal Woodpecker is estimated to be around 250,000 individuals, which is believed to be relatively stable. However, in some areas, the population may be declining due to habitat loss and fragmentation.

The species is classified as a species of least concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Research on the demography and population dynamics of the Cardinal Woodpecker is limited, and there is currently little known about the distribution, abundance and habitat requirements of the species across its range.


The Cardinal Woodpecker is a fascinating species with intriguing behaviors, including locomotion, self-maintenance, agonistic and sexual behavior, as well as unique breeding patterns. The species’ strong territorial defense and relatively stable population make it a noteworthy species.

However, the population of this species in some areas is under threat from habitat loss and fragmentation due to anthropogenic factors. Further research and conservation efforts are needed to understand and protect this beautiful and captivating bird species.

The Cardinal Woodpecker is an incredible bird species with unique and fascinating behaviors, from its feeding technique to its vocalizations and nesting patterns. The species’ specialized adaptations enable it to forage and thrive in different habitats, making it an important component of forest ecosystems in Africa.

Additionally, the species’ population dynamics, including its territorial defense and sexual and breeding behavior, provide valuable insights into avian biology and demography. With its populations threatened by deforestation and climate change, it is vital that conservation efforts continue to protect this species and its habitats.

The Cardinal Woodpecker is truly a marvel of nature with much to offer to our understanding of avian biology and the role of biodiversity in maintaining healthy ecosystems.

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