One of the UK’s most eye-catching birds, the Great Spotted Woodpecker is a delight to watch as they deftly cling to tree trunks while foraging. They are the most common of three Woodpecker species on the British Isles and a regular sighting in many back gardens.
Great Spotted Woodpecker
Female Great Spotted Woodpecker
Juvenile Great Spotted Woodpecker
Great Spotted Woodpecker in natural habitat
Great Spotted Woodpecker in-flight
Great Spotted Woodpecker foraging on the ground in the forest
20cm to 24cm
34cm to 39cm
68g to 93g
The Great Spotted Woodpecker is a striking bird that is mostly black above and white below. Each wing has a prominent white bar and several white spots. They have a black cap, and black stripes on the side of the head create white cheek and neck patches.
These boldly marked birds also have a patch of red feathers under their tail in addition to their pied plumage. They have a straight black bill and robust legs and feet with two toes facing forward and two facing back.
Males and females look very similar, although they are easily distinguished if the back of the head is visible. Females have all-black crowns, whereas males have a small but distinct red spot.
Juvenile Great Spotted Woodpeckers are also distinguished from adults by their head plumage. In young birds, the crown is red from the forehead to the back of the head.
The Great Spotted Woodpecker is most easily confused with the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, a much smaller and rarer species with similar plumage. They may also resemble the much larger Green Woodpecker in poor light, although that species does not have black and white plumage.
Great Spotted Woodpecker Male
Great Spotted Woodpecker Female
Great Spotted Woodpeckers are medium-sized birds with a similar length and weight to the Starling.
Great Spotted Woodpeckers have a total body length of 20 to 24 centimetres.
The Western European subspecies have a body weight of 68 to 93 grams. Males are slightly heavier on average.
These birds have a wingspan of 34 to 39 centimetres and an average wing length of just over 13 centimetres.
Great Spotted Woodpecker in-flight through the forest
The Great Spotted Woodpecker produces a high-pitched ‘Kik’ or ‘Ki-ki-ki’ call and a drawn-out churring call. One of their most distinctive sounds is made by tapping on hollow resonant wood, rather than calling. Males, and occasionally females, also produce a rapid rolling drumming sound that lasts about two seconds.
Great Spotted Woodpecker calling from the top of a tree stump
Great Spotted Woodpeckers have a varied diet that includes woodboring grubs, beetles, ants, and many other invertebrates. They also feed on the eggs and chicks of other birds, frequently drilling into nest boxes to access the occupants.
These birds also eat plant material like nuts, acorns, fruits, berries, sap, and buds. They often visit bird feeders where they prefer suet and peanuts.
Great Spotted Woodpecker chicks eat insects, fruits, and berries provided by both parents. The young leave the nest after about three weeks but are fed for another week or so.
Great Spotted Woodpecker female feeding its young
Great Spotted Woodpeckers inhabit a variety of well-wooded habitats, including woodlands, coniferous forests, parks, and gardens. They avoid open, treeless habitats but will make use of smaller copses and avenues.
The Great Spotted Woodpecker is widespread in the United Kingdom, although absent from much of northern Scotland. Low numbers occur along the east coast of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
They also have an extensive range in the Northern Hemisphere, occurring throughout most of Europe and across Asia to Siberia, Japan, and South East Asia. They are also present in the North African countries of Morrocco, Algeria, and Tunisia.
Great Spotted Woodpeckers are primarily arboreal, spending most of their time in trees. They are most often seen clambering about on tree trunks, although they often visit bird tables and occasionally descend to feed on the ground.
Great Spotted Woodpeckers are increasingly common in the United Kingdom. Their population has increased four-fold since the 1960s, and there are now an estimated 130,000 resident breeding pairs.
Great Spotted Woodpeckers are reasonably common in wooded areas and even established gardens across most of the United Kingdom. A visit to mature broad-leaved woodland provides an excellent chance to see these striking birds. They may be located by their loud drumming and calls, although you may hear their soft tapping in settled weather.
Great Spotted Woodpecker clambering on a tree trunk
Great Spotted Woodpeckers can live for up to 11 years in the wild, although their average lifespan is much shorter.
Great Spotted Woodpeckers are most vulnerable to the Sparrowhawk and the Goshawk. However, sick or injured individuals could fall prey to a variety of other birds of prey and mammalian carnivores, including domestic cats.
Great Spotted Woodpeckers are protected in the UK by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.
Great Spotted Woodpeckers are not endangered. In fact, these birds are increasing in number and are classified as a ‘Least Concern’ species.
Great Spotted Woodpecker drinking from a watering hole in the forest
Great Spotted Woodpeckers nest in holes in live or dead trees. The male usually excavates the nest hole anywhere up to 26 meters above the ground, although usually much lower. He will excavate a new nest each year, although some pairs take the easier route and use nest boxes.
Great Spotted Woodpeckers first breed when they are a year old. Pairs form in the winter but do not lay their eggs until spring or early summer. They produce a single brood each year.
Great Spotted Woodpeckers lay four to eight glossy white eggs, each measuring approximately 26 millimetres long and 20 millimetres wide.
Great Spotted Woodpeckers generally breed with a new partner each year. They are usually monogamous in the nesting season, although females may mate with more than one male.
Great Spotted Woodpecker male at the nest with its young
Great Spotted Woodpeckers are strongly territorial and defend territories of several hectares. Keeping rival males out of their territory may require aggression when loud drumming fails to drive the message home. They can also be quite competitive around food sources and may quarrel among themselves or with other bird species.
Great Spotted Woodpeckers roost in holes excavated by themselves or other Woodpeckers. They may also sleep in nest boxes.
Great Spotted Woodpecker resting on top of the stump of a tree
Great Spotted Woodpeckers usually remain within the same area throughout the year. Northern European birds occasionally migrate when food sources are scarce, and large numbers may visit the United Kingdom in some years.
The Great Spotted Woodpecker is native to the United Kingdom. They disappeared from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland centuries ago but have returned without assistance and are making a steady recovery there.
Great Spotted Woodpecker in-flight
The Great Spotted Woodpecker is a beautiful species that many UK birdwatchers would love to see in their own gardens. Fortunately, they have become reasonably common garden birds and can be attracted by providing fat balls and suet, peanuts, and sunflower seeds. They will also forage naturally from old dead wood and trees and appreciate a shallow bird bath for drinking and bathing.
Once a common breeding bird in the UK, the Wryneck is now only a brief visitor en route between Northern European breeding grounds and African overwintering sites. What they lack in colour and song is made up by wonderfully textured plumage and some truly bizarre behaviours.
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker
There are eleven separate subspecies of the lesser spotted woodpecker. They are spread over a vast area from Europe, across central and southern Russia, into Northern China. This profile is limited to the recently reclassified subspecies of Dryobates minor comminutus (still known as Dendrocopos minor within some authorities) which is a resident of the United Kingdom. It is otherwise known as the British Lesser Spotted Woodpecker.
European Green Woodpecker
Woodpeckers belong to the family Picidae. There are over 230 recognised species of woodpecker from 33 genera, to be found across the world, albeit many species are specific to relatively small, isolated areas. As a family they can be found in almost all regions of the globe apart from Antarctica, Greenland, Madagascar and Australasia. This profile is limited to the 3 species of Picus viridis otherwise known as the Eurasian Green Woodpecker and concentrates on the Picus viridis viridis subspecies, common throughout the United Kingdom, France, Scandinavia and western Russia.
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