The Lesser Spotted Woodpecker is the United Kingdom’s rarest woodpecker species, and its unexplained decline is of great concern. This elusive, sparrow-sized species presents a real birdwatching challenge.
The Lesser Spotted Woodpecker is a small pied bird with a straight, black bill. Unmistakeably a woodpecker, they are tiny compared to the other UK woodpecker species.
They are black above, with irregular white barring on the wings and lower back that blur and merge somewhat on the upper back. Their underparts are whitish from the tail to the face, with fine dark streaking on the breast and spots on the lower belly and under their tail. The tail is black above with white outer tail feathers (rectrices), and whitish below.
Females are similar to males but have a white and black crown with no red markings. Like the adult male, juveniles of both sexes have a red cap but differ in having duller plumage.
The Lesser Spotted Woodpecker looks most similar to the Great Spotted Woodpecker, although that species is much larger and has red feathers under its tail.
Male Lesser Spotted Woodpecker
Female Lesser Spotted Woodpecker
Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers measure just 14 to 16 centimetres in length.
Adults typically weigh 17 to 25 grams, with an approximate average of just 21 grams.
These small birds have a 25 to 27 centimetre wingspan.
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker perching on a branch during winter
The Lesser Spotted Woodpecker is best located by listening for its drumming and calls, particularly on spring mornings. These elusive birds produce a high-pitched piping ‘Ki-ki-ki’ or ‘kee-kee-kee call,’ similar to the Kestrel. They also tap on wood, producing an even, rolling drumming sound that is softer than the more commonly heard Great Spotted Woodpecker.
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker searching for food
Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers eat insects, spiders, and other invertebrates. They find their prey on the bark and foliage in the warmer months but search under bark or drill into wood cavities when food is scarce.
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker chicks eat small insects like aphids, caterpillars, and grubs. Both parents bring food to the nest, although males are often the more devoted parents.
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker bringing food to the nest
Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers are woodland birds that prefer mature broadleaf woodland, especially with plenty of Oak trees and dead wood. They can also be seen in orchards and occasionally in well-wooded gardens.
Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers are confined to England and Wales in the United Kingdom but widespread across Europe and Asia, reaching Kamchatka in the east. There is also a small population in North Africa. There are at least 11 recognised subspecies, each with different ranges.
Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers spend most of their lives in trees, often foraging in the high canopy among thin branches. They live within large home ranges in the winter but occupy smaller nesting territories in spring and summer.
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker at a watering hole
Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers have become very scarce indeed, although their shy nature, small size, and habit of foraging in treetops and dense vegetation make them a challenging species to monitor. Their severe decline since the 1980s is of great concern, and they are now on the United Kingdom’s red list of conservation concern.
Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers are rare and localised in England and Wales, making them a challenging species to find. RSPB Nagshead and RSPB Highnam Wood in Gloucestershire and the New Forest offer chances of spotting (or hearing) these birds.
February to April is the best time to find Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers in the United Kingdom as they are especially vocal and trees are not yet in leaf. However, they are present throughout the year, and a patient birdwatcher could be rewarded in any season.
Female Lesser Spotted Woodpecker sitting on a branch
Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers have an estimated lifespan of 5 to 10 years.
Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers are protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act in the UK.
Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers have declined drastically in the United Kingdom. Despite their increasing local rarity, these birds are not officially endangered at a species level and remain in the ‘Least Concern’ category on the IUCN’s Red List.
Pair of Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers, female (left) and male (right)
Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers nest in holes that they excavate in trees up to twenty metres above the ground. Suitable trees include Birch, Elm, Alder, and Willow, especially if they are near water. Dead trees are particularly important, although they also use dead branches on live softwood species. The nest is visible as an excavation with a small entrance hole of about three centimetres in diameter.
Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers nest in the spring and summer, usually from April to June. Nest excavation may take several weeks, and the eggs hatch after about 11 days. Their chicks fledge after a further three weeks or so.
Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers typically lay a single clutch of four to six glossy white eggs each year.
Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers are monogamous and may form long-lasting partnerships, although both males and females occasionally mate with a second partner.
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker peeking out of its nest hole
Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers defend nesting territories in the breeding season. These birds drum on dead wood to highlight their presence to nearby rivals and prevent the need for physical conflict.
Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers are diurnal birds that roost in tree cavities at night. These may be old nests or holes excavated specifically for sleeping.
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker in-flight leaving its nest hole
Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers are not known to migrate in the United Kingdom, although they are partially migratory in northern Europe.
Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers are a native, non-introduced species in England and Wales.
British Lesser Spotted Woodpecker
14cm to 16cm
25cm to 27cm
17g to 25g
Williamson’s sapsuckers are found in scattered breeding locations between southwestern Canada and parts of the southern and western United States. Winter territories extend into central Mexico. Unusually for a woodpecker, male and female Williamson’s sapsuckers are very different in appearance, with males a striking, bold black, white, yellow and red, and females mainly a cryptic mottled brown, with heavy light and dark barring.
Arizona woodpeckers are small woodpeckers, native to a small area centered on oak, sycamore and pine forests in the southwestern corner of Arizona and across the border in a strip that runs through western Mexico. Due to their remote nesting sites, there is little detailed information available about this species.
Similar in habits and appearance to the more widespread northern flicker, the gilded flicker is a colorful resident of the desert landscapes of the southwestern US and northwestern Mexico, where it excavates nest cavities high up in giant saguaro cacti.
Formerly known as cactus woodpeckers, ladder-backed woodpeckers are native to the desert landscapes of the southern United States and Mexico. They construct nest cavities in trees or cacti on arid scrublands, where they feed on insects and larvae living on the thorny vegetation.
Only found in mountainous pine forests of the western United States and in a small region of British Columbia, white-headed woodpeckers are one of North America’s least numerous woodpeckers. Habitat loss, due to logging and removal of snags from coniferous woodlands, is a potential threat to the stability of the species’ population.
The only North American woodpecker to excavate cavities in living, green wood, the red-cockaded woodpecker is also the most endangered on the continent, with a population of only around 15,000, a decline of more than 80 percent since the 1970s.
A small woodpecker native to oak woodlands of western California, the Nuttall’s woodpecker takes its name from the British naturalist Thomas Nuttall. Year-round residents of the extreme southwest corner of the United States, Nuttall’s woodpeckers excavate their own cavities, but do not reuse them in subsequent seasons, making them a key contributor to the survival of secondary-cavity nesters, such as wrens and titmice.
Black-backed woodpeckers are found in coniferous forests of southern Canada and parts of the northern United States. Their inky black plumage acts as effective camouflage against the charred trees of burned forests they inhabit after forest fires, where they thrive, feasting on the larvae of wood-boring beetles.
American Three-toed Woodpecker
One of two North American woodpecker species with three toes, the American three-toed woodpecker is widespread across much of Canada and also resident in the Rocky Mountain states of the US. Three-toed feet are a particularly useful adaptation that allow these woodpeckers to lean back further while clinging to a tree, and therefore deliver stronger, more powerful blows when striking the trunk.
Native to the western coastal regions of North America, red-breasted sapsuckers are unmistakable woodland birds with a crimson head and breast and bold white shoulder stripe. Perhaps what makes them more remarkable still are the neat rows of holes they drill into trunks of trees to access the sweet sap inside.
The Ivory-billed Woodpecker is a controversial bird. Officially listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List, they are generally believed to be extinct. Still, some birdwatchers cling to the hope that these majestic birds still haunt the forests of the American Southeast.
An active, noisy and conspicuous bird, the golden-fronted woodpecker adds a splash of color to the mesquite brushlands of southern Texas. Fruit, nuts (especially pecans) and seed make up a large portion of its diet, which also comprises insects and larvae, gleaned from the trunks of scrubland vegetation.
The Pileated Woodpecker is an impressive bird by all accounts. As the largest American representative of the Picidae family, they are twice the weight of any other surviving woodpecker in the United States.
Named for its characteristic call, or perhaps the flash of white rump and brightly colored wing feathers, the Northern Flicker is a large, handsome woodpecker that you’re more likely to see foraging on the ground than up in the trees.
The deserts of the Southwest are home to a unique and rowdy woodpecker species. Gila Woodpeckers are adapted to life in the arid zone, where the mighty Saguaro cactus replaces regular trees.
The Hairy Woodpecker is a bold and bright forest bird that occurs almost throughout North America. They are regular and welcome visitors to backyard bird feeders, although less common than the similar Downy Woodpecker.
Despite their name, the most conspicuous feature of red-bellied woodpeckers is the vibrant red coloring on the head, crown and nape of males of the species. The “red belly” is limited to a pinkish patch, barely visible unless at very close range. These highly patterned black-and-white woodpeckers are present across much of the eastern US, where they are both common and widespread.
A colorful member of the woodpecker family, the red-headed Woodpecker is widespread across the east-central United States. It is an occasional visitor to backyard feeders in winter, with its brilliant crimson head in deep contrast to its black and white body making it instantly recognizable.
Often dubbed the “clown-faced woodpecker”, acorn woodpeckers are distinctive red-crowned woodland birds found along the Pacific Coast of the United States. As well as their striking appearance, they are known for their intricate carpentry work to create “granaries” in trees for storing acorns.
Anything but a typical woodpecker, the Lewis’s woodpecker forages for flying insects like a flycatcher, has the shape and stature of a crow or jay, and the coloring of a hummingbird. They are not particularly skilled at excavating nest cavities and their drumming abilities are limited.
Known for their fondness of tree sap and ability to drill neat rows of sap wells into tree trunks, red-naped sapsuckers are the most common species of sapsucker in the western regions of North America, and favor aspen stands and ponderosa pine forests for both nesting and foraging.
The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker does not have the most flattering (or accurate) name. Widespread across the eastern half of North America, these birds are one of just four species in the Sphyrapicus genus.
America’s most common woodpecker is also its smallest. The boldly marked Downy Woodpecker is a familiar little bird of forests, woodlands, and backyards across the United States and Canada.
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.
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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