The Great Spotted Woodpecker is the most common of three species that are found in the UK, alongside the lesser spotted and the green woodpecker. There are currently around 30,000 pairs across the country and they are found in both Scotland and wales and the east of northern Ireland.
Great spotted woodpeckers are a similar size to a common starling with a wingspan of around 36cm and growing to weights of 70 to 100 grams. This species is sexually dimorphic with both males and females having black wings with white bars and mottled tips, white cheek patches, a red patch under their tails and cream fronts. However, males have a red patch at the back of their heads that is absent in the females and juveniles can also be recognized by the red cap that runs all the way along the top of their heads.
This species is mainly found in mature broadleaf woodlands but they can also set up home in conifer plantations and in parks and gardens if they contain mature trees. Although they are omnivores their main diet consists of insects and grubs which they extract from under tree bark using their powerful beaks and long tongues. They will also eat a small amount of berries and seeds and are becoming more common at garden bird feeders. Throughout the spring and summer they will take the high protein eggs and chicks of other birds, sometimes chiselling their way through bird boxes in order to get to them.
Male Great spotted woodpeckers are territorial and claim their space by drumming their beak rapidly on a hollow or dead branch. Although they are faithful throughout the nesting period, females often move around between breeding seasons and may select a new mate each year. Typically nesting starts around April time in a chamber that both birds have made inside a standing tree trunk. This chamber has a well rounded entrance hole and can be more than 30cm deep but is not filled with any nesting material. Each pair will produce between 4 and 6 glossy white eggs which are incubated for 10 to 12 days before they hatch. Although both parents take turns to incubate them during the daytime, only the males incubate the eggs at night. Once the chicks hatch out they have a veracious appetite and almost constantly beg at the nest hole for their parents to feed them. After around 20 days of being fed in the nest by both the male and female, the young birds are ready to fledge. Interestingly, at this point the brood split into 2 groups, half are looked after by the father and half by the mother. This post-nesting care doesn’t last for very long though and after a further 10 days the young birds will be completely independent and move away from the nesting site. Unlike a lot of other smaller bird species, great spotted woodpeckers only produce one batch of chicks per year.
Although great spotted woodpecker numbers dropped sharply around 200 years ago, over the past 30 years they have seen a widespread increase in numbers. Its not really clear why this is but it may be in part due to Dutch elm disease providing them with lots of feeding opportunities. Not much is known about the average lifespan of this species but the oldest bird on record survived to be just over 11 years of age.
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