The great spotted woodpecker is a colourful and exciting bird that is at its most conspicuous in late winter as a shortage of insects drives it to garden feeding stations …
Winter is a great opportunity to get a close encounter with one of our most striking garden visitors: the great spotted woodpecker. This, our commonest and most widely distributed member of the clan, is now found across most of mainland Britain.
It was not always thus: they are at the edge of their range in the British Isles and completely absent from Ireland. Indeed, until 120 years ago they were missing from Scotland and much of Wales.
This is because woodpeckers are insectivores and vulnerable to winter weather when their natural diet is increasingly hard to find. At such points they will turn to protein-rich alternatives like nuts, but these were particularly scarce at the end of the 19th century when tree cover was barely 5%.
Since then the Forestry Commission has more than doubled our woodland, but the recent spate of mild winters coupled with the trend to garden bird feeding, is probably more important. Whatever the reasons, great spotted woodpeckers have fared extremely well over the past few decades with numbers and range expanding dramatically.
The birds live up to their name by digging insects out of rotten wood with their powerful bills, but the characteristic drumming heard over the coming months is a territorial display, rather than a search for food. This consists of a rapid series of about 16 blows delivered in less than a second on a particularly resonant branch. For years scientists argued this must be a call rather than hammering because of inevitable brain-damage to the bird, but we now know there is a soft patch of tissue between beak and brain to absorb the impact.
This and its distinctive ‘tchik’ calls mean it is usually not too difficult to track down this shy bird. When seen, its bold black and white plumage is striking (along with the males’s scarlet crest), but the large red flash under the tail distinguishes it from its smaller and rarer relative, the lesser spotted woodpecker.
Although naturally shy, they occur almost everywhere and can often be lured in by selective feeding – particularly during cold snaps. They are less interested in standard seed mixes than most birds, but high-calorie feeds like suet, cheese and peanuts will often entice them to visit suburban gardens regularly.