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THE GREAT SPOTTED WOODPECKER

Meet the Model , Woody the Great Spotted Woodpecker

The Great spotted woodpecker , Dendrocopos major is one of three native woodpeckers here in the U.K ( the other two species are the Lesser spotted and Green woodpecker ) The Great spotted woodpecker is actually smaller than most people imagine being roughly the same size as a Blackbird. It’s easily confused with the lesser spotted woodpecker, which is much smaller (roughly sparrow-sized) and has distinctive white stripes on its back. The GSW have white cheeks with black lines underneath and a black cap. Males can be identified by a red patch on the back of the neck. They have a pale breast with black upper parts, and a bright red rump. Their wings are black with white spots. It has a wingspan of 34 to 38cm and an average weight of around 85g. The beak is thick and powerful. The average lifespan in the wild is approximately two years.

Great spotted woodpeckers can be found across mainland Britain, but are limited to the west of Ireland. Mature broadleaved woodland is prime habitat, but great spotted woodpeckers can be found  in coniferous woodland and parks or gardens with plenty of mature trees. Listening out for the great spotted woodpecker’s distinctive drumming is the easiest way to tell if the species is around. You might also see the holes woodpeckers have made in tree trunks when hunting. Sightings in woodland are often fleeting, as these birds can be shy of humans. The best views are often available in gardens, where woodpeckers are attracted to feeders containing nuts, seeds and suet.

Insects are the great spotted woodpecker’s main prey. It uses its powerful beak to hammer holes in tree bark and then extracts beetle larvae with its long, flexible tongue. Caterpillars, adult beetles and spiders are also taken. In spring, the chicks and eggs of smaller birds are often eaten. Species that nest in tree cavities are targeted as woodpeckers can use their beaks to access these spaces. Nuts and seeds are also an important food source, particularly in winter. When woodpeckers hammer into wood to get at grubs, they also have another anatomical adaptation designed to help them feed. The roots of their tongues are coiled round the back of their skulls and can be extended a prodigious distance to harpoon insect larvae in their tunnels. The Great Spotted Woodpecker’s tongue protrudes 40mm beyond the tip of the bill

The great spotted woodpecker’s beak plays a key role in its breeding behaviour. Males use it to hammer against dead trees, making a drumming sound. This proclaims ownership of its territory, warning off any rivals. Such activity would cause brain damage among most birds, but woodpeckers have a shock-absorbing skull that means they are not affected by the impact.  The beak is also used to excavate a nesting cavity within a tree. Once the hole is ready, four to six eggs are that measure 27 mm × 20 mm and weigh about 5.7 g .They are laid from mid-April to June. The eggs are incubated by either adult during the day and by the male at night,for 10–12 days before hatching. Both birds brood and feed the naked chicks and keep the nest clean. The young fledge in 20–23 days from hatching. Each parent then takes responsibility for feeding part of the brood for about ten days, during which time they normally remain close to the nest tree.

The great spotted woodpecker population is doing well and has increased by more than 300% since the 1970s. There are now around  25,000 to 30,000 pairs of these striking birds breeding in Britain. They do need woodland, but that does not mean they will not visit isolated groups of trees or even single ones if they have nice dead wood on them with lots of grubs to eat. A few pairs now breed in Ireland, making them a recent colonist. It’s thought the species may have benefited from an increase in dead wood caused by Dutch elm disease, as well as the availability of food in gardens. As this species relies on mature trees and woodland, it’s important that these habitats are protected to safeguard the great spotted woodpecker’s future.

Their current conservation status is green and as with most wildlife they are protected in law b the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. 

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All images © Wild by Photographic Solutions 2018

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