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What is a Great Spotted Woodpecker?

By R. Britton
Updated Mar 05, 2024
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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.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a Great Spotted Woodpecker?

The Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major) is a medium-sized bird native to Europe, Asia, and parts of North Africa. It's known for its distinctive black and white plumage with red underparts, and its ability to drum on trees with its beak to communicate and search for food.

What does the Great Spotted Woodpecker eat?

Great Spotted Woodpeckers have a varied diet that includes insects, larvae, seeds, nuts, and occasionally tree sap. They are particularly fond of beetles and their larvae, which they extract from under tree bark using their long, sticky tongues.

How does the Great Spotted Woodpecker find its food?

These woodpeckers use their sharp beaks to tap and drill into tree bark, listening for the sound of insects moving underneath. Once prey is detected, they chisel away wood to reach it. Their barbed tongues are adept at extracting insects from crevices.

Where can you find Great Spotted Woodpeckers?

Great Spotted Woodpeckers are commonly found in woodlands, forests, parks, and gardens across their range. They prefer areas with mature trees that provide ample foraging opportunities and nesting sites.

How do Great Spotted Woodpeckers nest and raise their young?

These birds are cavity nesters, often creating a new hole in a tree each breeding season. The female lays 4-6 eggs, and both parents share incubation duties. After hatching, the chicks are fed by both parents until they fledge about 20 days later.

Are Great Spotted Woodpeckers endangered?

Great Spotted Woodpeckers are currently not endangered and are classified as Least Concern by the IUCN Red List. Their population is stable and widespread, benefiting from the increased availability of suitable habitats and feeding sites, such as bird feeders in gardens.

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