The great spotted woodpecker is a striking black-and-white bird with a very distinctive bouncing flight. Adults have a deep red patch under the tail and males have a very clear sugar-lump-sized red patch on the back of the neck. It spends most of its time clinging to tree trunks and branches and announces its presence with a sharp call, like a ‘tchik’, often repeated in a long series or by drumming its bill very rapidly against tree trunks.
The most characteristic feature of great spotted woodpeckers is their drumming against dead trees and branches or even telephone poles in the spring, which the male does to claim ownership of its territory. The drum roll tends to be very fast and ends abruptly. These birds are largely solitary, but initial contact with a mate is established by the drumming, which the male uses to attract a mate to his territory. Male and females hollow out a hole in a tree and line it with a few woodchips to make a nest. Both parents incubate the eggs (usually four to six), and feed the chicks. When the young fledge, the adults continue to feed them for a short time before they become independent.
The great spotted woodpecker is omnivorous, feeding on both plant and animal matter. They inhabit both deciduous and coniferous woodlands, especially those with mature trees. They are also found in parks and gardens and frequently visit hanging feeders, especially in winter, when insects are less abundant.
- Length: 22-24cm
- Wingspan 34-39cm
- Weight: 70-98g
- Average Lifespan: 2-7 years
Classified in the UK as Green under the Birds of Conservation Concern 4: the Red List for Birds (2015); Protected by The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.
The great spotted woodpecker is a resident breeder, widespread throughout England, Wales and Scotland, except in the far north of mainland Scotland. It is uncommon or rare on most Scottish Islands, with densities generally declining north of the Great Glen. Scotland represents the north-west limit of the species’ range.
When to see
January – December
- To withstand the force of drumming against trees, the two mandibles of the great spotted woodpecker’s beak are held together by a special locking device and the brain is protected by a cushion of muscles at the base of the bill, which act as shock absorbers.
- The great spotted woodpecker has an extraordinarily long sticky tongue, an incredible device for collecting small grubs and larvae from crevices in tree trunks. The tongue can extend up to 4cm beyond the tip of the bill and is so long that it has to be curled up in a sheath extending from the back of the bill over the rear of the bird’s skull.
- The woodpecker’s four toes are arranged with two toes facing forward and two facing backward. These ‘zygodactyl’ feet and allow the bird to climb up, and hang-on to, vertical tree trunks.