Nubian Woodpecker male
Nubian Woodpecker male

Woodpecker, piculet and wryneck in east africa

Order – Piciformes contains largely arboreal, insectivorous bird species. Almost all species in the order Piciformes are zygodactyl. 2 toes point forward, 2 toes backwards. This seems to be ideal for an arboreal lifestyle.

Suborder – Picoidea, Infraorder – Picides – contains Honeyguides, African Piculet, Wrynecks and Woodpeckers. There are 2 families only. Indicatoridae – Honeyguides and Honeybirds and Picidae – Woodpeckers, Piculet and Wrynecks.

Woodpeckers – Family Picidae, subfamily Picinae

There are 240 species in 35 genera woldwide. Woodpeckers are found on many continents in areas with trees where they find their main diet insect in or on the wood. Few Woodpecker species don’t depend on trees for survival. African Woodpecker species are mainly green with white dots or streaks and some red on the head. The beak is chisel shaped and sharp pointed.

To support themselves on in a vertical position they have stiff tail feathers.
Who doesn’t know the knocking sounds of Woodpeckers? They can perform 20 hits in a second. There are some adaptions to avoid damage to the brain. The brain has very little liquid and is tight on the bone. The head is equipped with many strong muscles which serve as shock absorbers. The knocking on wood can be to find food, mark the territory or make the nest hole. The hits are straight to avoid twists of the muscles. They close their eyes before they knock on wood to avoid splinters in the eyes.

Also interesting in Woodpeckers are their long tongue. The tip is hard and has some little hooks to pull out the larvae or insect stuck in the dead wood – here you find more information. Woodpeckers live alone or in pairs. The sexual dimorphism is mainly in the colouration. Old trees are important for Woodpeckers since they host many insects.

Wryneck – Family Picidae, Subfamily Jynginae contains just 2 species
They are similar to Woodpeckers, but the bill is shorter and less dagger like. Their chief prey are ants but also other insects which they find on tree stems and branches and decaying plant material or wood.

They like using old Woodpecker nests. Very special and what gave them their name, Wryneck can turn their heads almost 180°.

Sasia africana or Verreauxia africana – African Piculet is the only representative of the Sasia genus in East Africa. It is a tiny bird with a very short tail. In East Africa it is restricted to Semliki National Park in SW Uganda in the Albertine Rift.

To give you as actual information as possible we use Avibase, the books “Birds of Africa South of the Sahara”, “Birds of East Africa”, “Birds of Kenya and Northern Tanzania”. Then we put the most characteristic information to the photo.

You can also follow us on Facebook “Bird photography Safaris Kenya” and see the numerous species as well as the beautiful photos from Lorenzo Barelli.

Click on the photo for larger view. The names of the photographers are on the photo and in the text. Without the generosity of several amazing bird photographers it had not been possible to create the pages with so many illustrated bird species. Those photos without name are from Elvira Wolfer.

Since most of the species listed here have a wide distribution range you can find many of them during most of our wildlife and birding safari tours, just listen to the sound when they hack on wood. To find a particular species or subspecies we will advise you on the most suitable itinerary.

Uganda especially the Albertine Rift and there Semliki National Park host a few very special species. Some are more West African species and best to find in Uganda. We would adjust our Uganda Safari accordingly and a local qualified birding guide would take you to spots where the difficult to find species might be spotted.

Eastern Grey Woodpecker, Grey-headed Woodpecker, Mountain Gray Woodpecker (Dendropicos spodocephalus rhodeogaster) is endemic to highlands from central Kenya to NW Tanzania. Female with grey head by Per Holmen, Ndutu, male by Elvira Wolfer, Masai Mara. The nominate form occurs in Sudan and Ethiopia.

African Grey Woodpecker (Dendropicos g. goertae) is found in woodland in NW Kenya, Uganda, S Sudan, DRC. Photos Per Holmen, male from Kisumu, female from Baringo

Olive Woodpecker (Dendropicos griseocephalus kilimensis or persimilis) is locally common in montane forests from 900 – 3.700 m in NE Tanzania. The subspecies ruwenzori occurs from SW Uganda to S Tanzania. Photo Per Holmen, South Pare Mountains

Elliot’s Woodpecker (Dendropicos e. elliotii) is found in SW Uganda and Rwanda. It is rather an uncommon resident in highland forests up to 2.300 m. Photo Per Holmen, Bwindi impenetrable Forest

Brown-backed Woodpecker, female (Dendropicos obsoletus ingens) is found from NE Uganda, central Kenya to N Tanzania. Photo Lorenzo Barelli. The species occurs to West Africa, the nominate form is found in Uganda.

Brown-backed Woodpecker, male (Dendropicos obsoletus crateri) is the subspecies around Ngorongoro Crater. Photo Per Holmen

Cardinal Woodpecker (Dendropicos fuscescens hartlaubi) inhabits different habitats from SE Kenya to most of Tanzania. Photos Per Holmen & Elvira Wolfer. There are 5 subspecies in EA which partly overlap and interbreed. Lepidus has an olive plain back and lives in dense mountain forest in EA. Hemprichi NE Uganda to E Kenya. Centralis in W Tanzania. Massaicus E Uganda, Central Kenya to lowland N Tanzania.

Cardinal Woodpecker (Dendropicos fuscescens massaicus) the subspecies from E Uganda to Central Kenya and Northern Tanzania lowland. Male by Jacques Pitteloud, female by Elvira Wolfer – both from Central Kenya

Stierling’s Woodpecker (Dendropicus stierlingi) is a species that prefers Miombo Woodland. It is rare from Southern Tanzania to Mozambique and Malawi.

Specklebreasted Woodpecker (Dendropicus poeciloaemus) can be found in open woodland in SW South Sudan, NE DRC, Uganda, N Rwanda, W Kenya.

Gabon Woodpecker (Dendropicus g. gabonensis) is only known from Semliki National Park in Uganda in East Africa where it is probably very uncommon.

Bennett’s Woodpecker (Campethera b. bennetti) is uncommon and restricted to open woodland and Miombo from E Rwanda to SW Tanzania. The subspecies capricorni occurs further South.

Nubian Woodpecker (Campethera n. nubica) is endemic in NE Africa in savanna and acacia woodland from sea level to 2.300 m. The subspecies pallida occurs from S Somalia to the Kenyan coast.

Reichenow’s or Speckle-throated Woodpecker (Campethera scriptoricauda) is locally common in Miombo and other open woodland from C and E Tanzania to Malawi and Mozambique. Photo Per Holmen

Golden-tailed Woodpecker (Campethera a. abingoni) is locally common in riverine forest and thickets below 2.000 m. The nominate occurs from W Tanzania, to NE Namibia and part of Southern Africa. Photo Per Holmen.

Golden-tailed Woodpecker (Campethera abingoni kavirondensis) is found from E Rwanda, N Tanzania to SW Kenya. Photos Jacques Pitteloud, Masai Mara. The subspecies chrysura occurs in East Africa in W Uganda.

Little Spotted Woodpecker or Green-backed Woodpecker (Campethera cailliautii nyansae) occurs from SW Uganda to SW Kenya and SW Tanzania. Masai Mara

Little Spotted Woodpecker or Green-backed Woodpecker (Campethera c. cailliautii) is found from Coastal Somalia through E Kenya, NE Tanzania and Zanzibar. Photo Per Holmen. The 3rd subspecies loveridgei lives from Central Tanzania to Mozambique.

Fine-banded Woodpecker or Tullberg’s Woodpecker (Campethera tullbergi hausbergi) is found in highlands in Kenya East of the Great Rift Valley and extreme N Tanzania. Photo Per Holmen, Mt. Kenya

Fine-banded Woodpecker (Campethera taeniolaema) occurs from DRC, to Ruanda, Uganda, Burundi, W Tanzania and W Kenya. It is split from C. tullbergi

Bearded Woodpecker (Chloropicus (Dendropicos) n. namaquus) is the more southern subspecies from DRC, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya to Southern Africa. Photo Lorenzo Barelli

Bearded Woodpecker (Chloropicus (Dendropicos) namaquus schoensis) which is found from Ethiopia, Somalia to Northern Kenya. In schoensis the face stripes join. They inhabit different biotopes up to 3.000 m but both subspecies might occur near the equator. Photo Lorenzo Barelli, Shaba, female

Yellow-crested Woodpecker (Chloropicus (Dendropicos) xantholophus) has its most Eastern distribution area in Kakamega rain forest region. They like mature, tall trees and are scarce. Photo Per Holmen, Kakamega

Brown-eared Woodpecker (Pardipicus c. caroli) occurs from Benin, Nigeria, Cameroon, Angola, W Kenya to NW Tanzania in various kind of forests from 700 – 1.800 m. Photo Lorenzo Barelli, Kakamega Forest

Buff-spotted Woodpecker (Pardipicus nivosus herberti) is the subspecies of DRC, C Uganda and W Kenya in thick forest and secondary growth below 1.800 m. Photo Lorenzo Barelli, Kakamega Forest

African Piculet (Sasia africana) occasionally placed in the genus Verreauxia. A more West African species, but can be found in SW Uganda. Photo Per Holmen, Semliki Forest

Eurasian or Northern Wryneck (Jynx t. torquilla) is a very rare migrant to East Africa’s open bushland from October to April. In Kenya inland are only very few records, in Tanzania only 1. Photo Elvira Wolfer from near Nairobi

Red-throated Wryneck, Rufous-breasted Wryneck, Rufous-throated Wryneck (Jynx r. ruficollis) is widespread but only locally common from E to S Africa in open woodland. Photo Jacques Pitteloud, Aberdare National Park. The subspecies pulchricollis is found in NW Uganda with more rufous above.