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Great spotted woodpecker: facts, history and identification

David Chapman / 15 February 2017 ( 08 March 2021 )

Writer and photographer, David Chapman, introduces the great spotted woodpecker, the UK's most common woodpecker.

Great spotted woodpecker
Great spotted woodpecker photographed by David Chapman

The great spotted woodpecker is the most common of our UK woodpecker species, found throughout England and Wales and in much of Scotland and the east coast of Northern Ireland. This handsome black and white woodpecker is most often heard tapping away in February, and can even be spotted at the bird table.

British woodpeckers

Of the three species of woodpecker found in Britain, the great spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos major) is the one most likely to be seen in our gardens at any time of year, and most frequently heard drumming in February. The other species, the green woodpecker and lesser spotted woodpecker, are seen less frequently, although green woodpeckers can sometimes be seen feeding on lawns. Lesser spotted woodpeckers are generally only seen in mature English woodlands, with The New Forest and Forest of Dean key habitats.

Another bird, the wryneck, is also in the woodpecker family and can be seen in the UK in autumn while it migrates from Scandinavia to Africa.

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Why do woodpeckers hammer wood?

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, and both males and females drum.

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.

Finding a nesting site

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.

Identify the difference between male and female woodpeckers

Distinguishing between the two sexes of greater spotted woodpeckers 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.

Both male and female great spotted woodpeckers have a bright red underside at the base of the tail.

Juvenile greater spotted woodpeckers

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. This often leads people to confusing them with middle spotted woodpeckers, a species found on the continent, but middle spotted woodpeckers are not migratory and have not been known to cross the channel.

If you spot a red-headed woodpecker in the UK it's either be a juvenile greater spotted woodpecker or a green woodpecker, although the male lesser spotted woodpecker does have a red cap he is much more rare and mainly found in English woodland and parkland, with a small amount in Wales.

Great spotted woodpeckers in the garden

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.

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.

From blue tits to goldfinches, find out how to spot and attract a whole wonder of garden birds in our guide to common garden birds.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.