Great spotted woodpecker

David Chapman

Writer and photographer, David Chapman, introduces the great spotted woodpecker.

Of the three species of woodpecker found in Britain, the great spotted is the most likely to be seen in our gardens at any time of the year but during February it isn’t the sight of one which is most appealing, but the sound.

It is during early spring that woodpeckers begin to establish their territories. Unlike most other birds they don’t do this by singing but by drumming. The cushioned head of a woodpecker enables it to hammer out a resonating beat on wood striking the tree at a rate of up to twenty times per second. When a woodpecker sets about finding a tree on which to drum it chooses a healthy, solid one where it can create the loudest possible sound.

Solid trees are not as useful for other purposes. Beetles and grubs are most common in rotten wood so this is where the woodpecker searches for food. When it comes to creating a nest hole the woodpecker must chisel out a cavity within a tree trunk so a partly rotten tree is useful here too. It may take up to four weeks for a pair of woodpeckers to dig out a nest hole from scratch but the work is shared equally between male and female.

Distinguishing between the two sexes is straightforward since the male has a red patch on the back of his head whereas the female’s head is simply black and white. Later in the year, during the summer, we may also see juvenile great spotted woodpeckers in our garden; these have a red cap which distinguishes them from both of their parents.

If you don’t hear one first then there is a good chance of identifying a great spotted woodpecker in flight. Their undulating flight path is a characteristic feature, and very obvious once witnessed.

Great spotted woodpeckers will take to nest boxes in gardens and will also come to bird tables. They particularly like peanuts and will also take fat, cheese and suet. If you have woodpeckers visiting your garden then enjoy them but don’t miss the opportunity of getting out early in the morning during February to listen for one drumming, this really is one of the most atmospheric sounds of nature.

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