Despite its poor reputation in the countryside, the Hispaniolan woodpecker is an admirably elegant and colorful bird, with a lively temperament. Its back is streaked with black and yellow zebra-like stripes, while its creamy-olive belly and grayish forehead and face clearly contrast with its bright red nape. The male’s crown is bright red, while the female’s crown is jet black. This woodpecker’s upright silhouette, clinging to trunks and branches, and its distinctive undulating flight can be observed in nearly all habitats of the island, from low land pastures with scattered palms to dense mountain forests. In common with other woodpeckers worldwide, it has a particularly strong, elongated beak, designed to chip away at tree trunks and palms in search of insects and larvae.
This bird helps to control tree pests, and according to a recent study its diet contains a greater proportion of fruit than previously thought, thus highlighting its importance in seed dispersal and forest regeneration. No other Hispaniolan bird deserves the title “engineer” more than this woodpecker. Its diligent work excavating its own nests in tree trunks, also provides nest cavities for a range of rare bird species, including the Hispaniolan parrot and trogon, as well as providing refuges for reptiles, such as the Hispaniolan boa.
The Hispaniolan woodpecker played an important role in the Taíno culture of Hispaniola and Puerto Rico. The Spanish settlers first described the myth of the inriri (woodpecker), which was able to create women by pecking at people without gender, after the abduction of all the women in the village. The unmistakable silhouette of the inriri is still evident in pictographs at the Las Cidras cave in Cordillera Central. Today, this bird is still part of the culture of Dominican farmers, although it is little appreciated. Phrases such as “I do not hate it, but I do not want it,” “this devil has no control” and “the only harmful bird” typify farmers’ views of this species. This is because it often pecks at, and damages commercial fruits, including oranges, avocados and cocoa pods.
“They looked for a bird called inriri, formerly called inriri cahubabayael, which makes holes in the trees, and in our language is called a woodpecker. And likewise they took those women without the sex of male or female, and they tied their hands and feet, and they brought the aforementioned bird and tied it to their bodies. And believing they were trees, the bird began his customary work, picking and burrowing holes in the place where the sex of women is generally located.” Taíno myth, Fray Ramón Pané
So significant has been the hatred for this “enemy of the farm,” that the Dominican government instituted a woodpecker bounty program in 1976. Stories about sacks full of woodpecker’s tongues waiting to be exchanged for rifles or bounty money are common in the memories of Dominican cocoa farmers of a certain age. Although woodpecker hunting was eventually banned, farmers continue to control this species by hanging scarecrows, bright objects and red cloths on their farms, and even creating home-made bazookas to scare off the woodpecker. Despite this, the raucous laughter of the woodpecker continues to resound across nearly all landscapes of our island.