Woodpeckers in the UK

Great spotted woodpeckers by Dave Wesson
Garden and Home Gems category winner - Photography Competition 2020

Voluntary Communities and Wildlife Officer Megan has spotted some spotted visitors in her garden over the spring and summer.

One regular visitor of my garden bird feeders has been the great spotted woodpecker. I noticed one coming down to to visit my peanut feeder and to munch on my sunflower seeds most days whilst being at home during lockdown. I have also regularly noticed more than one at once, showing they are likely nesting and breeding nearby.

The great spotted woodpecker is one of three woodpecker species we have in the UK, the other two being the lesser spotted woodpecker and the green woodpecker. The great and lesser spotted woodpeckers are very similar in appearance, with distinct black and white colouring on their feathers. The main difference between the two is that the lesser spotted is a lot smaller, and it is much less common. If you spot either of these, you should be able to determine the gender of the adults, as males will have a patch of red on their heads at the nape of their neck, whereas the females will not. Juveniles, however, may possess a red crown that covers the whole head.

Our third woodpecker, the green woodpecker, looks completely different to the other two. The name gives it away: it is green in colour with red on the top of its head. This is the largest of the three, and can be recognised by its very distinctive call that almost sounds like someone laughing! This call has led to one of their local alternative names: the yaffle. Green woodpeckers will spend more time feeding on the ground in open spaces, as they love looking for ants, whereas great and lesser spotted woodpeckers prefer to spend more time in trees looking for food. For a great spotted woodpecker, the chosen method of feeding is to peck on the trees looking for yummy insects that are hiding in the bark.

Green woodpecker feeding young at nest

Green woodpecker feeding young at nest. By Jon Hawkins - Surrey Hills Photography

All three woodpecker species possess specialised tongues that are so long that they extend around the back of their skull, that are covered in sticky saliva to help them catch the creepy crawlies. This is especially useful to help them obtain any insects that are hiding deep in crevices.

Along with pecking the trees for feeding, they may also peck for other reasons. The official term for the pecking is ‘drumming’, and woodpeckers may also exhibit this drumming in order to communicate with each other. In April and May, they will also drum in order to make their nests as they excavate holes in trees.

For us all this pecking and drumming sounds pretty painful, and the amount woodpeckers do it (some up to 600 times a day!), might make you think they have a sore head. Luckily for them they are prepared for this, having shock absorbent tissue around the base of the skull and the bill, to help reduce the impact of the drumming. A fascinating adaptation that helps them cope with this increased pressure.

Woodpeckers are a regular visitor to bird feeders, as they use up a lot of energy whilst drumming, so they need to stock up on food reserves. I have noticed that the ones visiting my garden can be a lot more timid than other birds, and I have watched them in trees nearby making sure the coast is clear before they come down. So if you do have them near you, make sure you give them a little bit of space and they will happily visit your feeders. If you are out on a walk you will most likely be able to hear them drumming before seeing them, but when flying they are easy to spot, as they have a very distinctive undulating flight where they bounce up and down, with green woodpeckers often calling, or 'yaffling', as they go.

So make sure you keep your ears and eyes open when you are in your garden and on a walk, and you might be able to get a glimpse of these colourful birds.