woodcreeper or woodhewer, common names for woodpeckerlike birds of tropical forest and brush, constituting about 50 species in the family Dendrocolaptidae. Supported by their stiff tails, they cling vertically to tree trunks, progressing upward in short hops, circling the tree while exploring crevices for spiders and small insects, especially carpenter ants. When they reach the branches, they fly off to begin their curious climb from the base of another tree. Exception to this behavior is shown by the great rufous woodcreeper (Xiphocolaptes major) of N Argentina, a ground feeder, and the ocherous-billed woodcreeper (Dendrocincla meruloides) of Trinidad, noted for following columns of marching ants. Woodcreepers resemble the woodpeckers in form, having short legs with powerful, sharply clawed feet, stiff-shafted tail feathers, and moderately long, woodpeckerlike bills. Woodcreeper bills vary, however, from the long scimitar-shaped beak of the scythebill (Campylorhaphus falcularius), half as long as the bird itself, to the short beak of the wedgebill (genus Glyphorhynchus), with its slightly upcurved lower mandible. Found from Mexico to all but southernmost South America, woodcreepers are typically olive-plumaged with reddish wings and tail and striped heads and underparts. They range in body length from 5 to 15 in. (13-38 cm). They typically lay their two to three plain white or whitish eggs in leaf-lined tree holes, which, unlike true woodpeckers, they do not excavate for themselves. They usually take over the abandoned nests of other cavity nesters, such as the woodpecker. Woodcreepers are classified in the phylum Chordata, subphylum Vertebrata, class Aves, order Passeriformes, family Dendrocolaptidae.

The woodcreepers (Dendrocolaptinae) comprise a subfamily of sub-oscine passerine birds endemic to the neotropics. They were formerly considered a distinct family Dendrocolaptidae.


Generally brownish birds, the true woodcreepers maintain an upright vertical posture, supported by their stiff tail vanes, and feed mainly on insects taken from tree trunks. They range from 14 to 35 centimetres in length. However, woodcreepers often form part of the core group at the center of flocks attending army ant swarms. Though unrelated, they superficially resemble the Old World treecreepers. Woodcreepers are arboreal cavity-nesting birds; 2-3 white eggs are laid and incubated for about 15 to 21 days.

These birds can be difficult to identify in that they tend to have similar brown upperparts, and the more distinctive underparts are hard to see on a bird pressed against a trunk in deep forest shade. The bill shape, extend/shape of spots/streaks, and call are useful aids to determining species.


The former family has been merged into the ovenbird family, Furnariidae. Analyses of mt and nDNA sequence data showed Sclerus leaftossers and Geositta miners to be basal to the Furnariidae and the woodcreepers (Irestedt et al. 2002). Maintaining Dendrocolaptidae as a separate family between them and the other furnariids created a paraphyletic Furnariidae, hence the merger.

Interestingly, the xenops, which were usually considered to be ovenbirds with a somewhat woodcreeper-like plumage, are in fact closely related to the latter (Fjeldså et al., 2005). They are best considered to form a separate tribe and give a good impression of how the ancestors of the woodcreepers must have looked like. The true woodcreepers are characterized by a belly feather growth pattern not found in any other birds.

The systematics of the Dendrocolaptinae were reviewed by Raikow (1994, based on morphology) and Irestedt et al. (2004, based on analysis of nuclear and mitochondrial DNA sequences). As the latter paper revealed, the commonplace convergent evolution of bill morphology hampered Raikow's analysis. Color patterns, on the other hand, were more in agreement with the molecular data, but the generally drab coloration of the woodcreepers renders this character less informative than desirable. The work of Irested et al., on the other hand, was severely limited by unavailability of samples of many phylogenetically interesting taxa.

For example, the Deconychura species apparently belong into separate genera, but only D. longicauda was available for molecular analysis. Moving Lepidocolaptes fuscus to Xiphorhynchus restores monophyly of Lepidocolaptes, and Xiphorhynchus was very much under-split (Aleixo, 2002a,b). Hylexetastes may contain anything from 1 to 4 species.

It remains unresolved whether the Scimitar-billed and Long-billed Woodcreepers' distinctiveness is due to strong selective pressure (and therefore rapid morphological evolution) of forms related to Lepidocolaptes and Dendrexetastes, respectively, or to long-time evolution of distinct lineages which separated early in the evolution of the group, with genetic similarity due to long branch attraction. The data gained from the myoglobin intron II DNA sequence disagrees strongly with mtDNA cytochrome b sequence data regarding the validity of Lepidocolaptes in general Irestedt et al. (2004); as the latter agrees much better with morphological and biogeographical data it therefore is used here.

More detailed studies are needed to resolve these questions, namely reevaluation of morphological data in the light of the molecular findings, and new molecular studies which thoroughly sample the questionable genera.

Additionally, the species-level taxonomy of several groups requires further study. Examples of "species" where vocal and morphological variations suggests that more than one species-level taxon could be involved are the Curve-billed Scythebill and the White-chinned, Olivaceous, Strong-billed and Straight-billed Woodcreepers.

Subfamily Dendrocolaptinae - woodcreepers

Tribe Xenopini - xenops

Tribe Dendrocolaptini - true woodcreepers


  • Aleixo, Alexandre (2002): Molecular systematics, phylogeography, and population genetics of Xiphorhynchus (Aves: Dendrocolaptidae) in the Amazon basin. Ph.D. dissertation, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, LA. PDF fulltext
  • Aleixo, Alexandre (2002): Molecular Systematics and the Role of the "Várzea"-"Terra-Firme" Ecotone in the Diversification of Xiphorhynchus Woodcreepers (Aves: Dendrocolaptidae). Auk 119(3): 621-640. DOI: 10.1642/0004-8038(2002)119[0621:MSATRO]2.0.CO;2 HTML abstract
  • Fjeldså, Jon; Irestedt, Martin & Ericson, Per G. P. (2005): Molecular data reveal some major adaptational shifts in the early evolution of the most diverse avian family, the Furnariidae. Journal of Ornithology 146: 1–13. [English with German abstract] (HTML abstract) PDF fulltext
  • Irestedt, Martin; Fjeldså, Jon; Johansson, Ulf S. & Ericson, Per G.P. (2002): Systematic relationships and biogeography of the tracheophone suboscines (Aves: Passeriformes). Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 23(3): 499–512. (HTML abstract)
  • Irestedt, Martin; Fjeldså, Jon & Ericson, Per G. P. (2004): Phylogenetic relationships of woodcreepers (Aves: Dendrocolaptinae) - incongruence between molecular and morphological data. Journal of Avian Biology 35(3): 280-288. (HTML abstract)
  • Rajkow, Robert J. (1994): A phylogeny of the woodcreepers (Dendrocolaptinae). Auk 111(1): 104–114. PDF fulltext
  • Remsen, J. Van (2003): Family Dendrocolaptidae (Woodcreepers). In: del Hoyo, Josep; Elliott, Andrew & Sargatal, Jordi (editors): Handbook of Birds of the World, Volume 6: Broadbills to Tapaculos: 358-447. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. ISBN 84-87334-50-4

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