Woodpeckers, Hoopoes, Flickers – Are They Linked?

Birding often evokes a sense of déjà vu – we see birds across different geographies and zoological families, but they so remind us of each other!

One of these cases was when I was on safari in India, and I spotted a small bird in  a thicket of grass. I recognized it as a Hoopoe, a ground-dwelling bird with an elegant crown of feathers often found in Africa and Eurasia. Some of the features I observed when I first saw it were its crest, sharp bill, the striping on its back and wings, and the fact that it was foraging along the ground.

Hoopoe (Kabini, Karnataka, India) – January 2019

These reminded me of some of the birds I had seen in the United States – specifically, most woodpeckers and flickers.

Nuttall’s Woodpecker (Fremont, California) – August 2020

This is a female Nuttall’s Woodpecker that I observed near my home in Fremont, California. It looks like a conventional woodpecker – black-and-white body, sharp beak, and a speckled, striped body.

Northern Flicker (Fremont, California) – August 2020

The third character in our study is this Northern Flicker which I photographed in my backyard in Fremont, California. It resembles most woodpeckers – stripes and speckles, the sharp bill, and size. But there is one feature here that takes away from the woodpecker-like appearance – it is ground-foraging, which most woodpeckers rarely do.

Flickers are closely related to woodpeckers – both are part of the order Piciformes and the family Picidae. One key  difference between them is that flickers can be found in trees and on the ground, unlike other woodpeckers, which are usually only found in trees. They are closely related, but the Northern Flicker, with its brownish-grey coloring and habit of ground-foraging – seems to show characteristics that resemble the Hoopoe!

The hoopoe has a different classification from woodpeckers. It is part of the order Bucerotiformes and the family Upupidae. Despite their similar appearance and behavior, they do not bear any zoological resemblance to woodpeckers. I soon learned that there was more to this taxonomic mystery than met the eye.

The Bucerotiformes order contains three groups of birds: hoopoes, wood hoopoes, and hornbills. These all have similar habitats, appearances, diets and behavior. Ornithologists have noted a resemblance to the Coraciiformes family, which includes kingfishers, bee-eaters and motmots. Recall a post earlier, where I discussed how kingfishers resemble woodpeckers in flight, but do not have any zoological resemblance. Could this be something similar?

White-Throated Kingfisher (Kabini, Karnataka, India) – January 2019

I further learned that ornithologists are investigating a potential link between the Piciformes, Bucerotiformes and Coraciiformes families. While there is no direct taxonomic link between these families, experts hypothesize that they are paraphyletic, sharing a common ancestor. There might be more to this than meets the eye!

What do you think? I believe that the different families share a common ancestor, and that eventually, these resemblances in behavior and appearance might be explained. This discovery shows that there may be more than a superficial resemblance between hoopoes and woodpeckers,  and now opens up a whole new scientific question – who is the mysterious ancestor that relates all these distant bird families? 

Post Sources:

  1. https://scienceblogs.com/tetrapodzoology/2011/06/27/hoopoes-and-woodhoopoes
  2. https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/browse/taxonomy/Picidae
  3. https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Northern_Flicker/overview

Published by kabirsamsi

High School Senior in Fremont, CA. I enjoy music, programming and ornithology. My other hobbies include biking and watching soccer and cricket. Check out my birding blog, KBirdVentures! (link below) to see my photos and read up on different news in the avian world.

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