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The lesser spotted woodpecker

David Chapman / 07 August 2019

The lesser spotted woodpecker is the smallest and shyest of British woodpeckers.

Lesser spotted woodpecker
Male lesser spotted woodpecker photographed by David Chapman

British woodpecker species

In Britain we have three species of woodpecker. The most frequently seen, for most of us, is the great spotted woodpecker. This is the large black and white woodpecker which might be seen visiting the peanut and fat ball feeders in our gardens. Males can be distinguished from females by the red spot on the back of the head whilst both genders have a red vent (the plumage under the tail). In July there might be youngsters in your garden and these have red heads which fade as they moult into adult plumage.

The second most common woodpecker is the green woodpecker. This is an unusual one because it spends much of its feeding time on the ground. It loves nothing more than digging for ants and their larvae in areas of short grass, so these birds might be seen on your lawn or sometimes on the patio, if you have plenty of ants. Green woodpeckers are incredibly colourful and even bigger than great spotted woodpeckers. They have green wings, buffish-green underparts and a bright yellow patch on their rumps which becomes their most obvious feature in flight. Seen close up their red head makes a striking contrast and still closer the female has a black moustache whereas the male’s is mostly red.

Now for the third woodpecker. The hardest to see, the smallest, the shyest and the rarest. The lesser spotted woodpecker is tiny when compared to our other woodpeckers, it is a similar weight and length to the great tit but is much more difficult to see as it lives for most of the year in the tops of mature trees.

Identifying the lesser spotted woodpecker by sight and sound

The plumage of a lesser spotted woodpecker is similar to the great spotted variety in that it is mostly black and white but instead of having the large white spot on its wings, for which the great spotted was named, it has bars of small spots across its wings. Like the great spotted, the lesser spotted also has a splash of red, but only on the male which has a red cap (see photo), neither male nor female have any red on the vent area.

Look closely at a lesser spotted woodpecker and you might notice it has a very short, insubstantial beak. Despite this lesser spotted woodpeckers have the ability to drum against trees to proclaim their territories in spring. Compared to the great spotted woodpecker, which is the only other woodpecker in the UK that does this, their drumming is lighter, quicker and shorter. Lesser spotted woodpeckers also call to proclaim their territories, this call is just one note repeated as a high-pitched ‘qui-qui-qui’.

Nesting habits of the lesser spotted woodpeckers

In spring both male and female spend time digging out a nest hole in a dead tree where they lay a clutch of between four and six eggs in April or May. This nest hole can be much lower to the ground than the birds would otherwise normally venture and this can give us our best chance to observe these wonderful little birds.

The adults spend most of their days collecting caterpillars, moths, beetle larvae and small insects to feed to their offspring. It takes about three weeks for them to fledge so by the time we get to July their youngsters should be out of the nest and roaming freely.

Lesser spotted woodpeckers are dependent on mature deciduous trees for nesting and finding food so they primarily live in forests and parkland habitats. They also have a liking for older orchards and many show a preference for riverside alders. They will even come into gardens and some have started to feed from bird feeders.

Within the UK they are commoner towards the south east and biased towards good habitat. So the home counties, the New Forest and the Forest of Dean are strongholds. They are absent from Scotland, Ireland and much of northern England; further west they are extremely scarce: rare in Cornwall and West Wales but with a small population in Devon.

In total the RSPB estimates a British population of between 1000 and 2000 pairs making this a very rare bird and one which we should strive to support. For the sake of birds such as this it is important that we don’t fell all of our dead trees. Health and safety concerns have driven many landowners to bring down trees which might have been used by woodpeckers, this should only be done where there is a definite threat to safety. Fortunately many conservation groups including The National Trust, Woodland Trust and the RSPB have started to manage their woodlands with this in mind but we are very short of mature woodland in this country and growing more is going to take time.

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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.