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The green woodpecker

David Chapman / 15 July 2010 ( 08 March 2021 )

Of all the birds likely to be encountered in the garden the green woodpecker is arguably the most striking.

Green woodpecker
Juvenile male green woodpecker photographed by David Chapman

I am often asked by curious people to identify a big yellow bird they have seen on their lawns. As big as a collared dove, and as colourful as a canary, it is difficult not to notice a green woodpecker in the garden, particularly if we hear it calling. The European green woodpecker  (Picus viridis) is the second most common woodpecker species in the UK (after the great spotted woodpecker) and the largest.

What noise does a green woodpecker make?

If you've heard the sound of a bird that sounds like laughing you've probably already heard the call of the green woodpecker. The green woodpecker's call is one of the most readily identifiable sounds in nature so it isn’t surprising that many local names for the green woodpecker are onomatopoeic. The best known is the 'yaffle' or 'yaffler' others include the 'laughing bird' and 'yuckel'. All of these describe a mad, high-pitched laughing sound which the bird makes when it is disturbed or just to communicate with others.

The distinctive laughing call of the green woodpecker.

Green woodpecker diet and habitat 

Unlike other woodpeckers in Britain, including as the great spotted woodpecker and lesser spotted woodpecker, the green woodpecker spends a great deal of its time on the ground because it feeds on insects, particularly ants. In fact my wife and I often see one on our patio feeding where ants emerge from the cracks, but generally these birds are timid and avoid people. 

Green woodpecker juvenile and adult differences

During the summer we are more likely to have close views of youngsters which have been born in the last few months and haven’t yet developed their fear of humans.

Juvenile green woodpeckers are similar in size to their parents though they are not quite as bright and colourful since they are covered in dark streaks and spots. Adults are green on their wings, grey-green underneath and red on the head; females have a black moustache whilst males have a red centre to their moustache (the photograph is of a juvenile male).

The green woodpecker in flight

When a green woodpecker takes flight its distinctive undulating flight pattern is an obvious feature whilst its bright yellow rump also becomes apparent; it is this colour which often forms the lasting impression of the green woodpecker.

Visit our British garden bird section for more on the bird species you might see in your garden, as well as garden bird photography tips, where to position a nestbox and how to stop squirrels and rats eating bird food

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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.