Definitions

piculet

piculet

[pik-yuh-lit]
piculet, common name for a small bird of the family Picidae, which includes the woodpecker and the wryneck. Like the true woodpeckers, piculets are large-headed and have long, sticky tongues, but they lack the stiff, balancing tail feathers of the larger woodpeckers. Hence, while they can climb vertically, they are often found perched on horizontal branches. Their short, rounded bills also lack the power to drill into living trees and are used instead to probe for insects and larvae in rotted logs. Gray or olive green above with black-marked, white underparts, piculets are found throughout the tropical forests of both the Old and New Worlds. A common species is the Antillean piculet, Nesoctites micromegas. Solitary and vagrant birds, piculets lay from two to eight glossy white eggs per clutch in unlined tree-hole nests. Both mates share in incubation and in the care of the young, which are blind and featherless. Piculets are classified in the phylum Chordata, subphylum Vertebrata, class Aves, order Piciformes, family Picidae.

The piculets are a distinctive subfamily of small woodpeckers which occur mainly in tropical South America, with just three Asian and one African species.

Like the true woodpeckers, piculets have large heads, long tongues which they use to extract their insect prey and zygodactyl feet, with two toes pointing forward, and two backwards. However, but they lack the stiff tail feathers that the true woodpeckers use when climbing trees, so they are more likely than their relatives to perch on a branch rather than an upright trunk.

Their bills are shorter and less dagger-like than the true woodpeckers, so they look for insects and grubs mainly in decaying wood. Similarly, they re-use woodpecker holes for nesting, rather than making their own holes. The eggs are white, as with many hole nesters.

Typically these birds have grey or dull green upperparts and dark-streaked white underparts.

Systematics and evolution

Although not well known from fossils, the evolutiuon of piculets is now considered rather straightforward. The disjunct occurrence of the genera, with one African species of the Southeast Asian Sasia and one Southeast Asian species of the American Picumnus is of comparatively recent origin. Molecular dating, calibrated with geographic events in the absence of a good fossil record, points at the Late Miocene, c. 8 MYA, as the point where the two genera divided into their two respective lineages. At that time, there was a notable global cooling period. The molecular distances between piculets and woodpeckers are comparatively small for subfamilies, agreeing with the hypothesis that the split between the three groups of woodpecker-like picids subfamilies occurred only during the Miocene climate optimum, around 15 MYA. The later radiation of South American piculets is probably to changes in topology and climate fluctuations during the Pliocene and Pleistocene. The genus Verreauxia may be accepted because of pronounced morphological similarities, but the two Picumnus lineages, despite having diverged long ago, are virtually alike except for head coloration (Fuchs et al., 2006).

The Antillean Piculet (Nesoctites micromegas) has proven to be a very distinct species evolutionarily between piculets and woodpeckers (Benz et al., 2006) and thus is nowadays placed in a subfamily of its own.

The arrangement of species in the genera follows del Hoyo et al (2002).

Genus Picumnus

Genus Verreauxia (sometimes included in Sasia)

Genus Sasia

References

  • Benz, Brett W.; Robbins, Mark B. & Peterson, A. Townsend (2006): Evolutionary history of woodpeckers and allies (Aves: Picidae): Placing key taxa on the phylogenetic tree. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 40: 389–399. (HTML abstract)
  • del Hoyo, J.; Elliott, A. & Sargatal, J. (editors) (2002): Handbook of Birds of the World, Volume 7: Jacamars to Woodpeckers. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. ISBN 84-87334-22-9
  • Fuchs, J.; Ohlson, J. I.; Ericson, Per G. P. & Pasquet, E. (2006): Molecular phylogeny and biogeographic history of the piculets (Piciformes: Picumninae). Journal of Avian Biology 37(5): 487-496. (HTML abstract)

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