Great Spotted Woodpecker

Great Spotted Woodpecker (© Natural England/Allan Drewitt )Great Spotted Woodpeckers often turn up at the birdfeeder at the Natural England offices on The Lizard.
Photo: © Natural England/Allan Drewitt

Scientific name: Dendrocopos major

Conservation status: UK Birds of Conservation Concern, Green; IUCN Red List, Least Concern.

What to look for:

  • Colouring and appearance: Black and white (including black crown, white chest, white patch on wing). Males have a red patch on their crown and both sexes have red lower underparts. Juveniles have red on their foreheads, but this changes to black after their first moult.
  • Size: Length 22 cm, wingspan 36 cm.
  • Where: Mature woodlands and parks, and will visit gardens if peanuts are on offer. Found across the UK except northern Scotland. Distribution is more patchy in southwest England, Wales and Scotland. Global range is Palearctic.
  • Call: Sharp repeated ‘kick’ call, and, of course, drumming!
  • Similar species: Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, which is far less common and smaller.

Great Spotted WoodpeckerThe sound of a woodpecker’s drumming resonating through the trees is one of the characteristic sounds of British woodland in spring and summer. You’d think it would have a monster of a headache, but in fact not only does it have protective tissue in the skull, the woodpecker doesn’t drum that hard. It is the frequency of knocking (between 10 and 40 per second) that causes the sound to carry so far. The undulating flight of this distinctive bird is also easily recognisable, as is its habit of hopping up a tree trunk as it searches for food, tapping the bark to extract food from beneath.

All our British woodpeckers drum, of course, but the Great Spotted Woodpecker is far and away the most common and widespread, found in all parts of the UK apart from the far north of Scotland. Drumming is a territorial behaviour, performed by both males and females in spring at the start of the breeding season. Each pair hollows out a nest in a tree, a few metres from the ground, and the female incubates the single clutch of four to seven eggs which are laid in May to early June. Both parents care for the young after hatching.

Great Spotted Woodpeckers eat invertebrates, larvae and seeds. They may also take eggs and the young of other birds. They will even attack nest boxes, enlarging the entrance hole to steal the eggs or hatchlings inside.

Did you know…?

…Doing it for themselves: Great Spotted Woodpeckers will use nestboxes, but only if you place some soft wood inside, so they can hollow out their own cavity.

…Great Spotted Woodpeckers have been observed wedging nuts in clefts on trees so they can hammer them open using their strong bill.

More information and references:

Svensson, L., Mullarney, K., Zetterstrom, D.,1986. Collins Bird Guide, second edition (translated by Christie, D., Svensson, L.). HarperCollins, London.

Published: February 2015
Author: Amanda Scott
Photos: © Natural England/Allan Drewitt