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.
The Wryneck is a distinctive bird, unlikely to be mistaken for any other in the United Kingdom.
The Wryneck is a small woodpecker-like bird with cryptic grey and brown camouflage. Their most prominent features are a dark stripe along the back and crown, a brown streak through each eye, and another across each shoulder.
The crown, back and upper tail are grey, while the wings are mottled brown. Their underparts are whitish and finely marked, becoming buff at the throat and cheeks. Wrynecks have brownish bills, eyes, and legs. Like other birds of their family, these birds have zygodactyl feet.
Male and female Wrynecks have very similar plumage. Juveniles appear similar to adult birds but have darker plumage, with heavier barring on the upper parts, underparts, and tail.
Wryneck perching on the stump of a tree
The Wryneck is a small bird, intermediate between a Robin and a Starling.
The Wryneck has a total body length of 16 to 18 centimetres.
Their weight varies from 30 to 50 grams.
They have a wingspan of 25 to 27 centimetres.
Wryneck perching on wood at ground level
The Wryneck is rarely heard in the United Kingdom, although its song may be confused for a small bird of prey.
The Wryneck’s song is a simple series of ‘Kwee-kwee-kwee’ notes repeated about a dozen times. The effect is similar to the call of the Kestrel. They also produce various other vocalisations, including greetings and alarm calls.
Wryneck in song
Wrynecks may be related to woodpeckers, but these birds do most of their foraging on the ground. Continue reading to learn about their specialised diet.
Wrynecks feed predominantly on ants and their larvae which they catch on the ground. They use their bill to open ant nests and their long sticky tongue to extract their prey. These birds also feed on various other insects, invertebrates, tadpoles and birds’ eggs.
Wryneck chicks eat ants and their larvae. Both parents feed the chicks for 20 to 22 days until they leave the nest and then another week or two until they become fully independent.
Wryneck with a beak full of ant larvae
The Wryneck has a wide distribution range, although they are difficult to find in the United Kingdom.
Wrynecks occupy various habitats, including short grassland, open woodlands, and old orchards. They choose areas with abundant ant colonies that provide their primary food source.
Wrynecks used to be widespread in the United Kingdom, although they are now seen only near England’s south and east coasts. They also turn up on Scotland’s Orkney and Shetland islands.
These birds have an extensive global range, encompassing the mid-latitudes of Europe and Asia to the Pacific Coast, large parts of Southeast Asia and the Indian Subcontinent, and a wide band across Central Africa.
Wrynecks spend much of the day and night in trees. Unlike other birds from the woodpecker family, they rarely cling and climb tree trunks. These birds may look for food among the branches, although they generally descend to feed on the ground.
Wryneck perching in natural habitat
Wrynecks are scarce but regular visitors to the United Kingdom. Less than 300 individuals are believed to pass through the UK each year on migration.
Wrynecks are most often seen near the south and east coasts of England. You are most likely to spot these rare ant-eating birds in the Autumn months of August and September, although smaller numbers pass through in April and May.
Wryneck clinging on to the side of a tree trunk
Adult Wrynecks have an average lifespan of about two years and a maximum lifespan of about ten years.
Wrynecks could fall prey to a variety of birds of prey, carnivorous mammals, and reptiles. Sparrowhawks, stoats, and weasels are all potential predators in the United Kingdom.
Wrynecks are a Schedule 1 species on the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.
Sadly, the Wryneck has declined massively in the United Kingdom and is now extinct here as a breeding bird. The cause of their decline is not fully understood, although changes in rainfall, pesticide use, and habitat destruction could be to blame.
At a species level, the Wryneck is a ‘Least Concern’ species with a vast global range. Although not endangered, their population is believed to be in decline.
Wryneck perching in natural habitat
Wrynecks nest across most of Continental Europe and through Asia to Japan. Active nests have not been confirmed in the UK for over 20 years. However, it is possible that some still breed in northern Scotland. They nest in natural tree cavities, old woodpecker nests, or artificial nest boxes.
Wrynecks lay seven to twelve white eggs, each measuring approximately 20 millimetres long and 15 millimetres wide.
Wrynecks are generally monogamous in the breeding season, and females are highly faithful to their partners. However, males may begin nesting with a second female before the first season’s offspring have fledged.
Wryneck returning to its nest to feed its young
Wrynecks use deception to defend themselves from predators rather than aggression. Even as nestlings, these birds know how to hiss and move in the manner of a snake to frighten would-be predators.
Wrynecks usually roost in tree cavities.
Wryneck looking out from the inside of a tree trunk
Despite their local extinction as a breeding species, these birds can still be seen on passage through the United Kingdom. Continue reading to learn more about Wryneck migration.
Wrynecks are highly migratory across most of their range. The birds that pass through the United Kingdom do so on their annual spring and autumn migrations.
Wrynecks that nest in Europe and Western Asia fly south to overwinter in Africa, while central and East Asian breeders overwinter in south Asia. Populations in the Mediterranean and North African regions migrate short distances or move between high and low altitudes according to the seasons.
Wrynecks are no longer a breeding species in the United Kingdom. Those that pass through are only temporary visitors as they move between breeding and overwintering grounds in Europe and Africa.
Wryneck perching on the side of a tree trunk
Wrynecks have a strange and unique way of defending themselves against predators. These birds extend and twist their neck in a sinuous, snake-like fashion to fool their enemies into thinking they are more dangerous than they really are. They may even hiss to complete the ruse.
You only have to look at the Wryneck’s generic name (Jynx) to know there’s something mysterious about these birds! Their extraordinary snake-like movements when confronted with a predator led to the old belief that these birds could put a spell on people.
Eurasian Wryneck, Northern Wryneck
16cm to 18cm
25cm to 27cm
30g to 50g
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.
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker
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.
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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