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Like other woodpeckers, this species has a straight pointed bill, a stiff tail to provide support against tree trunks, and zygodactyl or “yoked" feet, with two toes pointing forward, and two backward. The long tongue can be darted forward to capture insects.
Its back plumage is dull olive in colour, and is marked with paler dots and bands. The underparts are white, heavily streaked with black, and the rump plumage is tawny. The white throat and face are separated by a conspicuous black malar stripe, and the fore crown is olive brown.
As with other woodpeckers, the head pattern varies with age and sex. The male has a red hind crown and nape, the female has a dark hind crown and black nape.
Juvenile males have a red hind crown and black nape. The small crest is raised when the bird is excited.
The call is a high-pitched krrrek-krrrek-krrrek.
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