In the mid-1990s, scientists identified a peculiar feather fossilized in amber from the Cordillera Central, Dominican Republic, which seemed to belong to a woodpecker (Picidae). This fossil, preserved for at least 15 million years, belonged to one of the oldest vertebrate lineages of Hispaniola and the entire Caribbean – the Antillean piculet, also known as carpintero bolo (referring to its “tail-less” appearance), or carpinterito (little woodpecker). Although this enigmatic bird was initially grouped with the South American piculet subfamily, today it is placed between South American piculets and modern-day woodpeckers in its own subfamily (Nesoctitinae). It is the sole species in its genus Nesoctites, reflecting its evolutionary lineage outside the woodpecker subfamilies.
Long before we had genetic data, the Antillean piculet’s rather “un-woodpecker like” behavior betrayed its distinctiveness, in how it feeds, flies and communicates. Instead of the characteristic undulating flight of many woodpeckers, it flies fast and straight. It does not cling to branches and tree trunks in typical woodpecker fashion, instead, it forages more like a songbird, hopping along branches to find insects or fruit. Last, our piculet does not use its bill like a woodpecker: It does not drum (rapid loud tapping with the bill) to signal territoriality or use its bill to hammer on wood to excavate prey.
The Antillean piculet prefers dense vegetation, in both dry and humid habitats, up to 1,770 meters in elevation. It is common in Sierra de Bahoruco, Cordillera Central and Cordillera Septentrional in the Dominican Republic, and on Massif de La Hotte in Haiti. This little bird with its big voice is more easily heard than seen, and produces great diversity of energetic and antiphonal vocalizations. During its antiphonal calls, one bird calls repeatedly, and each time its mate responds less than a second later. And what a voice! The piculet’s song is likely to inspire anyone who hears it, prompting one to whistle in response or invent a mnemonic phrase, such as the Spanish tu-tu-lu-fe-o, – and – al-pícaro-no-le-fía (roughly translated as “I don’t loan money to rascals”). The Antillean piculet’s small size, pale olive plumage and yellow-streaked underparts, make seeing it a challenge for birdwatchers. Both sexes have a yellow crown, but the male’s is topped by a conspicuous red patch.
“It behaves more like a songbird than a woodpecker.” Anabelle Stockton de Dod
“The Bolo sings differently and it is not harmful.” Anonymous cacao farmer, comparing the Antillean Piculet and Hispaniolan Woodpecker
With its attractive plumage, rounded body and short tail, the Antillean piculet is a remarkable bird to behold. At first, it may seem timid, but this bird is actually quite curious, loquacious and even aggressive within its territory, especially during breeding. The Antillean piculet nests in natural cavities, including abandoned Hispaniolan woodpecker holes, or in cavities that it excavates in trees, palms or cacti. The nesting habits of this species have been little studied, but we do know that it actively and aggressively guards its nest. Although this species is not threatened across its entire range, it is considered locally threatened in Haiti due to forest loss there. In the Dominican Republic, this piculet can often be found on the hillsides of shade coffee and cacao plantations, where its joyful song pleases farmers - who are perhaps relieved to not have encountered the often despised and misunderstood Hispaniolan woodpecker.