Quirky, Hoarding Woodpeckers Star in Documentary

They drill thousands of acorns into trees to save them for winter.

acorn woodpecker in a tree
Acorn woodpecker.

Russell Kaye / Courtesy of The WNET Group

Acorn woodpeckers are hoarders. These quirky red-capped birds collect loads of nutritious acorns and then wedge them into trees, tattooing them with their beaks into holes they create. They guard their stash and rely on the nuts to keep them fed throughout the winter.

They drill the acorns into a single tree, called a granary tree. One tree can have as many as 50,000 acorns, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Filmmaker Ann Johnson Prum recently turned her lens to these unusual birds as part of a PBS Nature documentary, “Woodpeckers: The Hole Story.”

Prum talked to Treehugger about why she’s so fascinated by woodpeckers and her interesting adventures while filming them.

Treehugger: Why were you intrigued by woodpeckers? Did you have any personal experience with the loud and industrious birds?

Ann Johnson Prum: Woodpeckers are all around us whether we live in a city or the country and everyone knows them. I thought they would be a wonderful animal to explore using new scientific studies and new camera technologies to really get inside their lives like never before.

With 239 woodpecker species, how did you decide which ones to cover?

We wanted to show the different ways woodpeckers have conquered different habitats around the world. So I wanted to spend time during nesting season with two very different woodpeckers—the acorn woodpecker that gathers and stores acorns, and the black woodpecker—a large, elusive, powerful woodpecker in Europe. I also wanted to show woodpeckers that have adapted to living where there are no trees, so we travelled to Argentina to film the Andean flicker that lives high in the Andes above the treeline, and the Gila woodpecker that lives in the deserts of the American Southwest and nests in Saguaro cacti.

The acorn woodpeckers were particularly fascinating. The documentary explains that “wealth is a whole lot of work.” What was it like to watch these birds laboring to store their acorn stash?

When you watch an acorn woodpecker stashing its coveted acorns and testing and re-testing whether they still fit in the holes that have been made for these nuts, you can't help but project a human neurotic or OCD feeling onto them. Their behavior reads to us as absolutely obsessive and compulsive. But for the woodpeckers it's how they insure there will be enough food and protein to help raise their young and keep their family well fed.  

What were some of your more interesting adventures in filming the birds? Were some more difficult than others to find?

Travelling to western Poland during the Ukrainian War was interesting. The little town we stayed in was absorbing and welcoming Ukrainian refugees and we were able to see firsthand how the Polish people were literally opening their doors to these refugees. We worked with a Polish biologist who helped us find nests of the black woodpecker. The nests were quite high, so my colleague Mark Carroll climbed the nest tree every morning to install our cameras high in the trees. Then we monitored the nest and ran the cameras remotely from the ground. 

downy woodpecker in tree
Downy woodpecker.

Russell Kaye

After documenting so many species, do you have any favorites?

I think they all are amazing and unique! After coming back from Poland there was a little downy woodpecker family nesting in a tree in my backyard. So that little family quickly became my favorite. 

How do woodpeckers compare to other subjects you’ve documented? Have they inspired any future projects?

I love building films around animals that we know at least a little, but then exploring them in a new way that our viewers will always remember. I am always working to help people better appreciate the nature right outside their door—and woodpeckers are a bird we all know something about, even if it is from a cartoon character!

You can watch the documentary on-demand on PBS or YouTube.

View Article Sources
  1. "Acorn Woodpecker." The Cornell Lab.

  2. "Acorn Woodpecker." The Cornell Lab.