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Species in the Spotlight: Woodpeckers

Updated: May 5, 2021

A pair of great spotted woodpeckers nest in at tree at the Nature Reserve. Photo by Shaun Hickey (2019)

Just three species of woodpecker are found in the UK, and we are lucky enough to have two of these species regularly nesting in Rivacre Valley.

The great spotted woodpecker is mostly black and white, and about the size of a blackbird. The males have a distinctive red patch on the back of their head and young birds have a red crown. They feed mainly on insects, seeds and nuts, and will visit bird tables and feeding stations (especially in winter, when insects are more scarce).

They spend almost all of their time in the trees, spiralling up the trunks to extract insects from under the bark with their long tongues. Though they are difficult to spot amongst the branches, they are one to listen out for, as you can often hear their loud bursts of mechanical drumming - their main form of communication - throughout spring. Careful observation of our woodpecker population at Rivacre Valley has also revealed that the extremely vocal hatchlings can often give the nesting locations away with their screaming. The eggs, laid in May, hatch after 16 days and the chicks fly three weeks later.

Great spotted woodpeckers are known to predate other species' eggs and hatchlings, sometimes pecking a hole in the side of a nest box in order to gain entry. This is one of the reasons that we tend to fit metal over the openings of our nest boxes in the Reserve, in an attempt to deter the woodpeckers and protect the young of other, more vulnerable species.

European green woodpecker. Photo by Rick Bowler (2017)

Our second species, the European green woodpecker, is significantly larger, with a bright yellow rump and red on the top of its head. The black ‘moustache’ also has a red centre in males. Their diet consists almost entirely of ants, which they dig up from the ground using their strong, long beak. They lick up the ants with their tongue, which is so long that it curls around the back of their skull.

At Rivacre, you can often spot them pecking on the golf course in the warmer months, however they are very timid and will startle easily if approached.

Unlike most other woodpecker species, the European green rarely drums on trees, except to carve out holes for nesting in. Instead, its loud, laughing call is often said to be one of the most characteristic woodland sounds, and is commonly referred to as 'yaffling'. The species was the basis for the Dr Yaffle character from the children's TV show Bagpuss in the 70s.

Scientists believe that through evolution, woodpeckers have developed key adaptations to prevent their repetitive pecking from causing them damage. Their thick skulls contain sponge-like bones that wrap tightly around their brains to absorb the impact. Special membranes prevent their eyes from popping out of the sockets whilst drilling. The shape of their beak has also evolved to help distribute the shock waves, and continues to grow throughout their lifecycle to avoid getting worn down.

Both species nest in cavities that they carve into the interior of living or dead trees. Some holes can be used for nesting for 10+ years, and not necessarily by the same pair. Woodpeckers perfectly demonstrate the need for deadwood and fallen branches to be left to lie, not cleared, as they rely on them heavily for both nesting and feeding.

According to the RSPB, both species’ conservation status are ‘green’ (of the least concern), which is great news, thanks to woodland and grassland habitats such as Rivacre supporting their numbers.

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