Kaempfer’s woodpecker (Celeus obrieni)

Also known as: Caatinga woodpecker, Piaui woodpecker
Synonyms: Celeus spectabilis obrieni
GenusCeleus (1)
SizeHead-body length: 26 – 28 cm (2)

Classified as Critically Endangered (CR) on the IUCN Red List (1).

Thought to be extinct in the wild, Kaempfer’s woodpecker was remarkably rediscovered in 2006, 80 years after the previous sighting (2) (3). Kaempfer’s woodpecker has a typical woodpecker build, with a powerful and stocky body, a strong, pointed bill that is adapted to hacking and chiselling at tree trunks, and a long, protractible tongue, armed with barbs to catch and extract insects from crevices. The feet are similarly adapted to its climbing lifestyle, with two toes pointing forwards and two back, a characteristic that allows Kaempfer’s woodpecker to climb with ease (4). The most obvious feature of Kaempfer’s woodpecker is its conspicuous chestnut-red, bushy crest, which sits prominently above the brownish-red head and pale bill (2). The breast and tail are black, but the hindneck, back and underparts are yellow to creamy, a feature that distinguishes Kaempfer’s woodpecker from more prominently streaked, related species (2) (5). 

Kaempfer’s woodpecker was originally known from a specimen collected in 1926 at Uruçui in Piauí State, central Brazil. However, it was rediscovered near Goatins in northeast Tocantins state in 2006. This elusive species has since been found at a number of fragmented sites across a large area, from Pedro da Água Branca, Maranhão State in the north, and the municipality of Dianópolis, Tocantins State in the south; and Serra da Raposa in Maranhão State in the east, and the municipality of Miracema do Tocantins in Tocantins State in the west (2) (3).

Kaempfer’s woodpecker is only found in Cerrado, a unique tropical woodland-savanna ecosystem in Brazil, with open gallery forest, where this specialist bird forages for ants in stands of bamboo (2) (6).

One of Brazil’s most enigmatic birds, almost nothing is known about the biology of Kaempfer’s woodpecker (2) (7). However, woodpeckers typically eat arthropods, although they will occasionally supplement their diet with fruit, seeds and berries, and even nestling birds. Insect food may be gleaned off branches, or extracted from burrows after a deep hole has been chiselled into the bark. Most woodpeckers are fairly sedentary and occupy territories, which they fiercely defend from rival birds. Nests are constructed inside holes in trees, and often reused each breeding season, with pairs of birds subsequently taking turns in incubating the clutch of eggs and feeding the young. Once fledged, juveniles may stay with the parent birds within the home range or, occasionally, accompany one of the adult birds until maturity is reached (4).

The greatest threat to Kaempfer’s woodpecker is the loss of its Cerrado habitat to infrastructure development and agriculture (2) (3) (7). Around three million hectares of Cerrado is destroyed each year within the region, with road construction and the expansion of soya crop cultivation the primary agents. The species’ habitat is also frequently degraded by artificial fires for cattle ranching (2). As a result of such severe threats, Kaempfer’s woodpecker is suspected to have a highly patchy distribution and a small population size, currently estimated at no more than 250 mature individuals (2) (3). 

As the species’ habitat is still relatively prevalent, and due to probable inconspicuous habits, something that is characteristic of Celeus woodpeckers, Kaempfers’s woodpecker may be more numerous than currently thought. However, with so little known about this elusive species there is a pressing need for further surveys to determine the full extent of the species’ range and to make estimates of the population size (2). 

SAVE Brasil has been working in partnership with Universidade Federal do Tocantins to identify new areas where Kaempfer’s woodpecker resides, and to study this enigmatic bird’s ecology, so that informed conservation recommendations can be made. So far, five new areas have been identified, one in the state of Tocantins and the other four in the state of Goiás, representing a significant expansion in the species’ known range. The next step is to implement an education project involving the local community and rural landowners, focusing on the conservation of the Kaempfers’s woodpecker habitat (6).       

For additional information on Kaempfer’s woodpecker, see:

For more information on bird conservation in South America, see:

For more information on this and other bird species please see:

Authenticated (27/09/10) by SAVE Brasil.

  1. IUCN Red List (May, 2010)
  2. BirdLife International (May, 2010)
  3. Pinheiro, R.T. and Dornas, T. (2008) New records and distribution of Kaempfer’s woodpecker Celeus obrieni. Revista Brasileira de Ornitologia, 16: 167-169.
  4. Perrins, C. (2009) The Encyclopedia of Birds. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  5. Short, L.L. (1973) A new race of Celeus spectabilis from Eastern Brazil. The Wilson Bulletin, 85: 465-467.
  6. SAVE Brasil (2010) Pers. comm.
  7. BirdLife International (December, 2006)