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Golden-fronted Woodpecker
Melanerpes aurifrons
Order
PICIFORMES
– Family
PICIDAE
Authors: Husak, Michael S., and Terry C. Maxwell

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Introduction

Golden-fronted Woodpecker, male; Roma, TX
Figure 1. Distribution of the Golden-fronted Woodpecker.
Golden-fronted Woodpecker, female; Roma, TX

A sedentary species whose distribution straddles the temperate and tropical regions of Middle America, the Golden-fronted Woodpecker ranges into the United States only to Texas and southwestern Oklahoma. Exhibiting complex geographic variation, this woodpecker is composed of 3 to 4 distinct but intergrading groups of subspecies. Earlier in the twentieth century the subspecies themselves were considered separate species. Only the nominate race occurs north of Mexico.

Throughout its limited U.S. range the Golden-fronted Woodpecker is a species of the dry brushlands and semiopen woodlands of the southern plains. The greatest density of this species in the United States is in the mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa) brushlands of south Texas. It is often common and calls loudly, hence a conspicuous species. Its appearance, behavior, and vocalizations are similar to those of the closely related Red-bellied Woodpecker (M. carolinus), with which it hybridizes.

The Golden-fronted Woodpecker consumes about as much fruit and nuts as it does insects. In summer in Texas, individual woodpeckers stain their faces purple from eating fruit of the prickly pear cactus (Opuntia spp.). Late-fall and winter concentrations of this woodpecker in riparian pecan (Carya illinoinensis) tree stands attest to its taste for nuts. It seldom excavates wood for insects; rather it gleans, probes, or sallies for its food. It excavates its own roost and nest cavities.

Remarkably little has been published on the natural history of this species. Brief and incomplete general accounts are available in Bent 1939 and Oberholser 1974; a more complete account in Short 1982 . Papers, monographs, and theses on systematics (Selander and Giller 1963), interspecific behavior (Selander and Giller 1959), differential niche use between sexes (Selander 1966), foraging (Selander 1966, Askins 1983, Kujawa 1984), hybridization with Red-bellied Woodpeckers (Smith 1987), territoriality and associated behaviors (Selander and Giller 1959, Husak 1997a, 1997b, 1997d), breeding-season displays (Husak 1996), and assorted life history observations (Skutch 1933, 1945, 1969) constitute the few significant studies that focus on this species. The Golden-fronted Woodpecker’s nutrition, physiology, development, and population biology, as well as much of its reproductive biology, remain unknown. Geographic variation in any aspects of its natural history other than foraging ecology is unstudied. Much of the information available has been gathered from Texas and, to a lesser degree, Central America.

What is known of the population trends of this species does not justify concern; indeed this species seems to have increased in numbers and distribution within the past 40 years in much of Texas and Oklahoma. The proliferation of mesquite on rangeland favors this woodpecker.