Lesser spotted woodpecker

(Dendrocopus minor)

The Lesser spotted woodpecker, known as Dendrocopus minor (opposed to “major”, its larger counterpart, the Great spotted woodpecker) is a bird of rarity, whose preference for living high up in trees can often mean it is difficult to observe, even during those periods when they are most active. If you want to take a picture, get ready to do some tree climbing.

It is, in fact, the smallest of the three UK-native woodpeckers, the largest being the stocky Green woodpecker, followed by the sublime Great spotted woodpecker. For comparison, the Lesser spotted woodpecker is roughly the same size as a House sparrow, around 15cm in length (6”); it’s cousin, the Great spotted woodpecker, is approximately 22-23cm (9”) in length, the same as a Blackbird.

Numbering only 2,000 breeding pairs in total in the UK, they have been subject to intense decline since the 1970s and are, therefore, classified as Red Status on the IUCN list of endangered and threatened species. There are numerous possible reasons for this rapid decline, but those most favoured arguments include the loss of ancient woodland habitat, increased competitive pressure from other species, as well as the removal of rotting trees.

There is a distinct difference between males and females, the clearest feature being the crimson-red crown of the male; females, on the other hand, are almost entirely black and white, and feature no colour at all. If you’re struggling to tell apart a Lesser spotted woodpecker from a Great spotted woodpecker, size is one factor, but also look for the black and white ladder which run downs the back of the bird. *Also see the comparison images below.



The toes of the Lesser spotted woodpecker, as with all other woodpeckers, have evolved a unique arrangement in which two toes face forwards and two face backwards. Take a look at the claws and you’ll notice how long and sharp they are. This intriguing adaptation of “claws and toes” allows woodpeckers to grip vertically to the sides of trees. What a marvel adaptation is.

Evolutionary adaptation of the toes of a Lesser spotted woodpecker

The adaptation that allows Lesser spotted woodpeckers to cling vertically to the sides of tree trunks.

How to distinguish between a Lesser and Great spotted woodpecker: official BTO Video



There is a distinct difference between males and females, the clearest feature being the crimson-red crown of the male; females, on the other hand, are almost entirely black and white, and feature no colour at all. If you’re struggling to tell apart a Lesser spotted woodpecker from a Great spotted woodpecker, size is one factor, but also look for the black and white ladder which run downs the back of the bird. *Also see the comparison images below.

Listen carefully to the sound of a Dendrocopus minor and you may notice its drumming is much quieter than that of the Great spotted woodpecker; their calls also last considerably longer, and are voiced in a specific pattern, which goes like “pee-pee-pee-pee-pee”.

Where to observe a Lesser spotted woodpecker?

Lesser spotted woodpeckers are not a common bird throughout the UK, and can only be found in certain areas, mainly isolated to the south of England. They are almost non-existent in the north of England, although there is a small pocket in Yorkshire. You won’t find any in Scotland, and in Wales it is only in the west that you may be fortunate enough to view one.

In terms of habitat and environment, you may see one in the New Forest high up in the canopies of open and aged deciduous trees, although they tend to nest at least 30 to 40 feet high, close to the top of the trunks. They display a distinctive method of flying, which is expressed in an undulating manner; and, if you are ever to see one up close, watch how they creep along the branches and flutter from branch to branch. It’s really quite fascinating.

What do Lesser spotted woodpeckers eat?

Lesser spotted woodpeckers almost exclusively consume insects and wood-boring larvae, although they are known to take spiders, too. There have been a small number of reports of Lesser spotted woodpeckers visiting gardens and taking both sunflower hearts and suet fats from bird tables and feeders. Fingers crossed, you never know your luck.

Taxonomy

Lesser spotted woodpeckers are sometimes referred to as Dryobates minor (Linneum 1758); more commonly, as per the RSPB specification, Dendrocopus minor. The genus Dryobates is derived from “druos”, which means woodland; minor is Latin for smaller. Prior to formal classification, Lesser and Great spotted woodpeckers were referred to as “Pied woodpeckers”.

Nesting behaviour

Lesser spotted woodpeckers begin to breed in late April and generally only produce a single clutch, which contains between 3 and 5 eggs; incubation lasts for around 11 or 12 days, after which it takes approximately 18 – 30 days for the birds to fully fledge. Holes in trees are often located in lofty positions high up in trees, as much as 30 or 40 feet up the trunk, and the hole is usually a maximum of 2 inches in diameter. Sometimes an old, naturally-formed hollow may be used for the purpose of nesting.

Nesting behaviour

Lesser spotted woodpeckers begin to breed in late April and generally only produce a single clutch, which contains between 3 and 5 eggs; incubation lasts for around 11 or 12 days, after which it takes approximately 18 – 30 days for the birds to fully fledge. Holes in trees are often located in lofty positions high up in trees, as much as 30 or 40 feet up the trunk, and the hole is usually a maximum of 2 inches in diameter. Sometimes an old, naturally-formed hollow may be used for the purpose of nesting.

What’s the difference between the Lesser and Great spotted woodpeckers?

First, it is important to note that the terms “lesser” and “great” do not refer to one bird being qualitatively better than the other, so we may reserve judgement here. It is a simple difference of size, that lesser means smaller, and great means larger. The major differences between the birds, apart from size, include the volume of calls and pecks. The Lesser spotted woodpecker expresses similar but much quieter sound.

Lesser spotted woodpecker - Dendrocopus minor

Lesser spotted woodpecker – Dendrocopus minor

Great spotted woodpecker - Dendrocopus major

Great spotted woodpecker – Dendrocopus major

Try the interactive Lesser spotted woodpecker

Attract Woodpeckers with the following food

Dried Mealworm

Dried mealworms are the perfect nutritional food for your garden birds. Try soaking them in water over night for an extra juicy treat for your Firecrests.

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Insect Suet Pellets

Containing a mix of real insects, these treats will give your garden birds a hearty meal in the winter months when natural food is scarce.

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Insect Suet Blocks

Insect suet blocks are made from high-quality suet blended with a mixture of dried insect, providing an instant energy boost for your garden birds.

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Mealworm Suet Cakes

These high quality energy-rich suet cakes are the perfect treat for your garden birds, specially blended with dried mealworm for added nutritional value.

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