The green woodpecker

David Chapman / 15 July 2010

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

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 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.

Unlike other woodpeckers in Britain, 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. 

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). 

When one 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.

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