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DNA metabarcoding reveals broad woodpecker diets in fire-maintained forests

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Stillman, Andrew ; Caiafa, Marcos ; Lorenz, Teresa ; Jusino, Michelle ; Tingley, Morgan W.

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Ecological disturbance is a key agent shaping the spatial and temporal landscape of food availability. In forests of western North America, disturbance from fire can lead to resource pulses of deadwood-associated arthropods that provide important prey for woodpeckers. Although the foraging strategies among woodpecker species often demonstrate pronounced differences, little is known about the ways in which woodpeckers exploit and partition prey in disturbed areas. In this study, we employed DNA metabarcoding to characterize and compare the arthropod diets of 4 woodpecker species in Washington and California, USA—Black-backed Woodpecker (Picoides arcticus), Hairy Woodpecker (Dryobates villosus), Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus), and White-headed Woodpecker (Dryobates albolarvatus)—primarily using nestling fecal samples from burned forests 1–13 years postfire. Successful sequencing from 78 samples revealed the presence of over 600 operational taxonomic units (OTUs) spanning 32 arthropod orders. The nestling diets of two species in particular—Northern Flicker and Black-backed Woodpecker—proved to be much broader than previous observational studies suggest. Northern Flicker nestlings demonstrated significantly higher diet diversity compared to other focal species, all of which displayed considerable overlap in diversity. Wood-boring beetles, which colonize dead and dying trees after fire, were particularly important diet items for Black-backed, Hairy, and White-headed woodpeckers. Diet composition differed among species, and diets showed limited differences between newer (≤5 yr) and older (>5 yr) postfire forests. Our results show mixed evidence for dietary resource partitioning, with three of the four focal species exhibiting relatively high diet overlap, perhaps due to the pulsed subsidy of deadwood-associated arthropods in burned forests. Woodpeckers are frequently used as management indicator species for forest health, and our study provides one of the first applications of DNA metabarcoding to build a more complete picture of woodpecker diets.


Black-backed Woodpecker; Hairy Woodpecker; molecular scatology; next-generation sequencing; niche partitioning; Northern Flicker; White-headed Woodpecker; wildfire


Stillman, Andrew N; Caiafa, Marcos V; Lorenz, Teresa J; Jusino, Michelle A; Tingley, Morgan W. 2022. DNA metabarcoding reveals broad woodpecker diets in fire-maintained forests. Ornithology. 139(2): ukac009. 14 p.

Last updated on: May 26, 2022