West Indian Woodpecker Melanerpes superciliaris

Robert A. Askins, Michael E. Akresh, and William K. Hayes
Version: 2.0 — Published October 29, 2020


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Agonistic Behavior

Communicative Interactions

Threat displays are sometimes directed toward mates. Males appear to be dominant to females, which may account for differences in foraging locations, with the male more frequent in upper branches and the female more frequent on the lower trunk (4).

Territorial Behavior

Threat displays are used against territorial intruders and competitors for nest cavities.

Kirkconnell (40) provides brief descriptions of display postures used as threats during agonistic encounters:

  • Gaping (yawning). The bill is opened and pointed at an adversary.
  • Crest-raising display. This threat display is not used frequently in West Indian Woodpeckers. It is similar to the Red Enhancement threat display in Red-bellied Woodpecker (M. carolinus) in which the red feathers on the nape and (in the male) crown are raised (41).
  • V-wing display. The wings are raised above the back and held in place in a V. This appears to be similar to the Full Threat display of the Red-bellied Woodpecker (41).
  • Flutter-aerial display. This is an aerial form of the V-wing threat display. It is similar to the Floating Threat display of the Red-bellied Woodpecker (41). This display was used when an intruder was close to the nest.
  • Bill-positioning posture. The bill is pointed directly at an opponent as the head is stretched forward and the body and tail are aligned with the bill.
  • Head-swinging display. The bill and head and sometimes the entire body are swayed from side to side. This is a threat display in agnostic encounters, but is also used in nest exchange with a mate.
  • Head-raising posture. This is often accompanied by gaping the bill.


Mated pairs occupy territories that appear to be defended both during the breeding and nonbreeding seasons. They respond to playback of territorial calls during both seasons (42). On San Salvador the estimate for average territory area based on maps of territorial boundaries for five pairs was 2.8 ± 0.2 ha (41). Territory size likely varies depending on the density of suitable nesting sites and number of adjacent pairs present (MEA unpublished data).

Sexual Behavior

Mating System and Operational Sex Ratio

West Indian Woodpeckers are generally monogamous, and pairs often forage close together while maintaining contact with one another by calling (4). However a female on Abaco laid eggs in the nests of two different males during the same breeding season (49). The female contributed to incubation and initial feeding of the young at the nests of both males, and at one point she participated in nesting activities at three nests of the two males at the same time. None of the other 56 color-marked pairs observed during this study showed evidence of polyandry.

Courtship, Copulation, and Pair Bond

Some of the displays used in threat displays against intruders (see above) also appear to function for establishing pair bonds or coordinating nesting activities (40). Gaping (holding the bill open and pointing toward the mate) is often used with tapping when mates exchange places during nest building. The V-wing display is also used in nest exchange, and the Flutter-aerial display may be used during courtship, nest construction, and incubation. The Head-swinging display is employed by a bird at the nest entrance to trigger incubation exchange; this display may be effective because it creates alternating dark and light conditions within the next cavity. Knocking from inside the nest apparently is only used for nest exchange and not in other contexts.

Social and Interspecific Behavior

Nonpredatory Interspecific Interactions

Kirkconnell (40) describes social interactions between West Indian Woodpeckers and other species of birds in Cuba. The Cuban Green Woodpecker (Xiphidiopicus percussus) is dominant to West Indian Woodpecker and almost always supplants and chases it during aggressive interactions. In contrast, nest cavities of the endangered Fernandina's Flicker (Colaptes fernandinae) are usurped by West Indian Woodpeckers, which remove the eggs and may kill the nestlings. The Loggerhead Kingbird (Tyrannus caudifasciatus) often catches insects that fly away from epiphytes where a West Indian Woodpecker is pulling out leaf litter to search for prey.

Aggressive behavior (chasing, calling) between Pearly-eyed Thrasher (Margarops fuscatus) and West Indian Woodpecker was observed on San Salvador (42), as well as with American Kestrels (Falco sparverius) on Cuba . Both species may compete with the woodpecker for suitable nesting sites (18).

Kirkconnell (40) also lists numerous species of birds and mammals that use West Indian Woodpecker cavities for nesting or shelter. On Abaco, the majority of endangered Bahama Swallow (Tachycineta cyaneoviridis) nests were in woodpecker cavities, either in the cavities of Hairy Woodpecker (Dryobates villosus) in dead pines or West Indian Woodpecker in utility poles (50). Bahama Swallow nests in West Indian Woodpecker cavities had a lower nest success rate because the larger diameter of the entrance makes them more susceptible to predation, including predation by West Indian Woodpeckers. On San Salvador, a pair of were observed using an old excavated cavity in a sabal palm that was probably excavated by a West Indian Woodpecker (MEA unpublished data).

On Abaco, a pair of West Indian Woodpeckers was supplanted from a nesting cavity under the eaves of a house by European Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) (43).


Kinds of Predators

Owl pellets from a Barn Owl (Tyto alba) nest site on Grand Cayman included West Indian Woodpecker bones (51).

Recommended Citation

Askins, R. A., M. E. Akresh, and W. K. Hayes (2020). West Indian Woodpecker (Melanerpes superciliaris), version 2.0. In Birds of the World (T. S. Schulenberg and B. K. Keeney, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.weiwoo1.02