Saguaro Cactus vs Gila Woodpeckers

By Dave Hanks

Gila Woodpeckers live in southwestern Saguaro/Mesquite scrublands. They are very vocal and you can hear their song floating on the morning desert air. The Saguaro is important to the bird. It is within cavities in the cacti that this woodpecker nests. The holes are drilled and then let sit for several months, until they dry out. Old cavities are used by Elf Owls, as well as other species.

Saguaro is ideal. The fleshy, water conserving, stems have a waxy surface that prevents evaporation and keeps nest sites cool. A shallow root system allows the plant to maintain its water content by maximizing water absorption when it does rain. Water is an important coolant, keeping the 3 to 5 eggs from overheating during the 12 to 14 day incubation period.

The Saguaro is tall (15 to 50 feet) with several large arms. The stem is fluted and columnar. Holes are drilled in the recesses between the flutes. Two inch spines (the cactus leaves) are clustered on the outer edges if the flutes. These spines are protective: giving some shade, allowing air circulation for a cooling effect, and discouraging invasion of the plant by most animals.

Male Gila Woodpeckers forage on the stems and arms. The females prefer diseased areas. Both eat beetles, grasshoppers, ants, and the Saguaro fruit. The fruit is a green, 3 inch oval that when split open yields a pulpy, bright red flesh – which is highly desired by all. As a result the Saguaro’s seeds get spread.

The male Gila Woodpecker can be identified by his red crown, which the female lacks. This bird is common in its habitat and easy to observe. Whenever we are in Saguaro/Mesquite forests, we always encounter it.

(A male resting in a Mesquite tree)