Great spotted woodpecker

The Great spotted woodpecker is the most common of only three species of woodpecker in the UK, the other two being the Lesser spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopus minor) and the Green woodpecker (Picus viridus). It is present all year round, apart from in extreme northern parts of Scotland, and is famed for its rapid drumming on the sides of trees. The Great spotted woodpecker is, without a doubt, one of the more striking species of bird in the UK.

Of colourful hue and memorable pattern, the Great spotted woodpecker is a stout bird, with black and white spotted wings and two main red patches (head and underbelly); the scarlet patch on the back of the (male) woodpecker’s head is a distinct and unique feature. A simple confusion can often emerge from the fact a young Great spotted woodpecker displays a scarlet patch on top of its head, which disappears after the first moult; these young birds can be easily identified as Lesser spotted woodpeckers, when in fact they’re not.

Latinate etymology

The genus name Dendrocopus is of Greek origin and is a combination of the words dendron, meaning “tree” and kopos, meaning “striking”; Major, of course, is derived from the Latin for “greater”, although by no means does this mean better; simply larger.

In contrast, the Great spotted woodpecker’s counterpart, the Lesser uses the Latin Minor, meaning “smaller”.

Image of a Great spotted woodpecker by Hoitsu Sakai, circa 1800. Japanese art.

Behaviour and habitat

The Great spotted woodpecker is widely distributed across northern parts of the northern hemisphere, an area that stretches from the UK all the way to Japan. Interestingly, there is hardly a hint of a Great spotted woodpecker in Ireland, even though they exist in abundance in England and Wales.

The Great spotted woodpecker spends the vast majority of its time clinging to trees. Shy of nature, it will attempt to hide from prying human eyes, although there never seem to be large problems attracting Great spotted woodpeckers to feeders in the garden. Both deciduous and coniferous trees are favoured, although there is a preference for broad-leaved trees in dense woodland areas.

If you’re looking for a Great spotted woodpecker, listen out in February for its distinctive drumming sound, a technique that is used for establishing territory; other birds do this through mainly song.

Why don’t Great spotted woodpeckers get headaches?

With all the “head banging”, you would expect a Great spotted woodpecker to get a severe headache. Well, they don’t, and there’s a simple reason why, and it is to do with less brain fluid.

When the Great spotted woodpecker drums a tree, its brain does not come into contact with the skull, and vibrates far less than, say, their human counterpart. But there’s more. In an article from the Independent, research was conducted by Chinese scientists in to how Great spotted woodpeckers do not damage their brains.

It turns out there are several complex morphological features that combine to create a shock absorber, including a flexible bone structure located between the beak and the skull. As a consequence of this research, it has been suggested that this natural design feature could be used to develop protective headgear in the future.

Great spotted woodpecker bird food

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