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What is a Great Spotted Woodpecker?

R. Britton
R. Britton

The great spotted woodpecker, or Dendrocopos major, is a rather small bird measuring up to 9 inches (23 cm), with a wingspan of 15 inches (39 cm). This bird is native to the United Kingdom, Europe and parts of Asia, and lives mainly in mature woodland areas. With a life span of around 10 years, the great spotted woodpecker is not migratory and tends to remain in the same territory for many years. Like most birds that do not migrate, this woodpecker feeds seasonally, changing its primary diet according to the time of year.

The primary diet of the great spotted woodpecker consists of insects and invertebrates, as well as seeds and nuts offered in feeders or on bird tables across their native range. During late autumn through winter and early spring, this woodpecker eats sap, berries and any other food that has a high sugar or fat content to sustain them. This is because, like most birds that remain in one place throughout the year, they expend a lot more energy to stay warm during the cold winter months.


During spring and early summer, the great spotted woodpecker will often feed on eggs and the young of smaller songbirds if they find a vulnerable nest site; this provides an added source of protein. The woodpecker uses an anvil tree — a tree with a suitable split in the trunk — to break into hard or shelled food items. This bird places the food into the split and uses its powerful beak to hammer at it until it breaks open and the bird can get at the food inside.

This species has a long tongue, measuring 1.5 inches (4 cm), which is incredibly long in comparison to the size of the bird. The tongue is covered with fine hairs and is sticky. It is used to extract insects from cracks and crevices and from beneath tree bark. The characteristic tapping noise associated with woodpeckers has a variety of purposes. The great spotted woodpecker taps to remove bark in search of food, to attract a mate, to hollow out a nest and also as a territorial display to warn off other woodpeckers.

Mainly black plumage covers the back and crown of the bird. The great spotted woodpecker has a white underside with white cheek patches and a white streak on each wing. This species has a bright red patch on its underside, near the tail, and the males have a red stripe across the back of the head. This small bird has specially adapted feet that allow it to cling to the side of trees, with two claws facing forward and two backward. This allows the bird to hold fast to the tree while hammering at the wood.

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