RECORD: Darwin, C. R. 1870. Notes on the habits of the pampas woodpecker (Colaptes campestris). [Read 1 November] Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London no. 47: 705-706.

REVISION HISTORY: Scanned, OCRed, corrected and edited by John van Wyhe 2003-8, textual corrections by Sue Asscher 3.2007. RN3


[page] 705

Note on the Habits of the Pampas Woodpecker (Colaptes campestris). By CHARLES DARWIN, F.R.S.

In the last of Mr. Hudson's1 valuable articles on the ornithology of Buenos Ayres*, he remarks, with respect to my observations on the Colaptes campestris, that it is not possible for a naturalist "to know much of a species from seeing perhaps one or two individuals in the course of a rapid ride across the Pampas." My observations were made in Banda Oriental, on the northern bank of the Plata, where, thirty-seven years ago, this bird was common; and during my successive visits, especially near Maldonado, I repeatedly saw many specimens living on the open and undulating plains, at the distance of many miles from a tree. I was confirmed in my belief, that these birds do not frequent trees, by the beaks of some which I shot being muddy, by their tails being but little abraded, and by their alighting on posts or branches of trees (where such grew) horizontally and crosswise, in the manner of ordinary birds, though, as I have stated, they sometimes alighted vertically. When I wrote these notes, I knew nothing of the works of Azara, who lived for many years in Paraguay, and is generally esteemed as an accurate observer. Now Azara2 calls this bird the Woodpecker of the plains, and remarks that the name is highly appropriate; for, as he asserts, it never visits woods, or climbs up trees, or searches for insects under the bark†. He describes its manner of feeding on the open ground, and of alighting, sometimes horizontally and sometimes vertically, on trunks, rocks, &c., exactly as I have done. He states that the legs are longer than those of other species of Woodpeckers. The beak, however, is not so straight and strong, nor the tail-feathers so stiff, as in the typical members of the group. Therefore this species appears to have been to a slight extent modified, in accordance with its less arboreal habits. Azara further states that it builds its nest in holes, excavated in old mud walls or in the banks of streams. I may add that the Colaptes pitius, which in Chile represents the Pampas species, likewise frequents dry stony hills, where only a few bushes or trees grow, and may be continually seen feeding on the ground. According to Molina, this Colaptes also builds its nest in holes and banks.

* P.Z.S. 1870, p. 158.

† Apunt. ii. p. 311 (1802).

1 William Henry Hudson (1841-1922), ornithologist and popular writer. See Correspondence vol. 18.

2 Félix d' Azara (1746-1811), Spanish explorer and army officer who surveyed Spanish and Portuguese territories in South America. Azara 1802-5. Darwin noted in his Banda Oriental notebook, p. 6 on 15 November 1833 'woodpecker nest in hole'; see also Zoology notes, p. 154, and Steinheimer 2004, appendix, p. 17. Darwin referred to ground living woodpeckers in Origin pp. 184, 186, 204 and 471. Darwin first added the name Colaptes campestris to the 1861 3rd edn of Origin, p. 202. The campo flicker nests both in mud banks and holes in trees (Winkler et al. 1995, p. 326).

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Mr. Hudson, on the other hand, states that near Buenos Ayres, where there are some woods, the Colaptes campestris climbs trees and bores into the bark like other Woodpeckers. He says, "it is sometimes found several miles distant from any trees. This, however, is rare, and it is on such occasions always apparently on its way to some tree in the distance. It here builds its nest in holes in trees." I have not the least doubt that Mr. Hudson's account is perfectly accurate, and that I have committed an error in stating that this species never climbs trees. But is it not possible that this bird may have somewhat different habits in different districts, and that I may not be quite so inaccurate as Mr. Hudson supposes? I cannot doubt, from what I saw in Banda Oriental, that this species there habitually frequents the open plains, and lives exclusively on the food thus obtained. Still less can I doubt the account given by Azara of its general habits of life, and of its manner of nidification. Finally, I trust that Mr. Hudson is mistaken when he says that any one acquainted with the habits of this bird might be induced to believe that I "had purposely wrested the truth in order to prove" my theory. He exonerates me from this charge; but I should be loath to think that there are many naturalists who, without any evidence, would accuse a fellow worker of telling a deliberate falsehood to prove his theory.


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Citation: John van Wyhe, editor. 2002-. The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online. (http://darwin-online.org.uk/)

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