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Greater spotted woodpecker { Birds of Europe}

Updated on May 23, 2015

Greater spotted woodpecker .Adult male

Originally posted on Flickr uploaded to Commons by Ariefrahman
Originally posted on Flickr uploaded to Commons by Ariefrahman | Source


The Greater spotted woodpecker ,Dendrocopos major,belongs to the Order of birds known as the Piciformes and the family Picadae within that order. The genus name of Denrocopos derives from the Greek Dendron=a tree+ kopos=cutter. The specific name of major =greater-larger.

In the UK the bird is on the Green list of conservation concern {no current concerns} with an estimated 140,000 pairs -summer. There is a race of conservation concern 'anglicus'.which is on the Amber list {declines of between 25-50% over the last forty years or so}.,because it is an important population.

The European population is estimated between 4-8 million pairs in summer. Populations vary from country to country and there follows a few selected examples.The Austrian population is estimated at between 60,000-120,000 Breeding pairs {BP}. Belgium 25,000-40,000 BP. Croatia, 10,000-25,000 BP. France 40,000-1,600,000 BP. Germany,450,000-830,000 BP. Russia {the whole of} 8-10 million BP. Sweden 100,000-250,000 BP and Ukraine 450,000,1,130,000 BP { Source Birdlife international}

They are birds of deciduous woodland,forests and villages.The Gaelic name for the bird is Snagan-daraich, the Welsh Cnocell Fraith Fwyaf. The Irish Morchnagaire Breac

Black woodpecker feeding chicks.


Black rumped Flameback Dinopium benghalense

Taken on the Indian subcontinent
Taken on the Indian subcontinent | Source

Hispaniolan Woodpecker


What are Woodpeckers ?

Woodpeckers are part of the Picadae family of birds ,they are near Passerine birds {in ornithologist parlance} a name given to tree dwelling birds often believed to be related to the true Passerines {perching birds}.

The Picadae to which our subject belongs are just one of eight living families in the order Piciformes. other members include Puffbirds,Barbets,Toucans and Honeyguides. There are about 200 species and about 30 genera in this family.

Members of the Picadae have strong bills for drilling and drumming on trees and long sticky tongues for extracting their food. Woodpeckers {and Wrynecks **}all possess Zygodactyl feet that is to say they have four toes,the first and fourth facing backwards and the second and third facing forwards. This arrangement aids the birds ability to grasp limbs and the trunks of trees.

They are capable of walking vertically up a tree trunk.They have very strong legs.They also have stiff tail feathers which aids as a support when the bird is perched on a vertical surface. All members of the Picadae nest in cavities, with almost every species nesting in tree cavities. There are however, examples such as those that inhabit deserts that will nest inside holes in Cacti.. They have also been recorded making holes in commercial structures.

Here we review the lifestyle and habits of the greater spotted woodpecker and as always we commence with a description of the species under review.

** this species has already been reviewed in this series.

White backed woodpecker . Dendrocoos leucotos


Greater spotted woodpecker

Crossley's ID Guide to Britain and Ireland. Richard Crossley
Crossley's ID Guide to Britain and Ireland. Richard Crossley | Source

Description of the greater spotted woodpecker Dendrocopos major

The beak of the adult bird is about the same length as the head,of a dark shiny horn colour,with greyish bristly feathers covering the nostrils. The forehead,ear coverts and a circle around the eye,a dull dirty white. The top of the head a dark bluish black. The back of the head is bright scarlet. The nape of the neck,black, the colour passing forward in a stripe to the back and backwards towards the wings.

The back,rump and tail coverts black. The wings are black variegated with white marks,and here and there a large ,well defined patch of white on the scapulars seen clearly in flight. The tail is partly black,some of the feathers tipped and marked with white. The throat,neck,breast and belly a dirty white colour. The vent and under tail coverts orangey red.. the female lacks the red patch on the back of the head. The birds are about 22-23 cm long {( inches} and weigh 70 -90 grams { two and a half to three and a quarter ounces.}

Greater spotted woodpecker Courtesy of Murdock Keith . Standard You Tube license

Familiar Wild Birds. Swaysland   1883
Familiar Wild Birds. Swaysland 1883 | Source

General and historical information.

The species is found all over the European continent from Russia to Italy,Sweden to France,Denmark and Norway to Germany and other countries. In the UK it is somewhat of a success story being, it seems, commoner now than in earlier times.

Morris 'A History of British Birds' 1867, remarks " In this country it is of local distribution dependent entirely on the nature of the locality,and nowhere to be called common. Wooded districts are,of course, its resort and it is most frequent in the Midland counties,in Parks Forests and Woods and is occasionally seen in gardens. It becomes much rarer further north"

Coward in his 'Birds of Cheshire' { north west England},1907, seems to confirm this he states " The greater spotted woodpecker,is a rather scarce resident in Cheshire,occurs sparingly during the autumn and winter in all parts of the county but in the breeding season it is necessarily confined to woods where it can find suitable nesting places.. The bird has seldom been known to breed on the Wirral {Mersey peninsula}. Brockholes states that a pair nested in May 1860,in Patrick Wood near Bromborough Mills and in July 1865 four young birds were obtained at Hooton."

The bird now breed throughout the country where there are trees and the habitat is suitable. They are often seen in gardens and have adapted to take food from bird feeders as the video above confirms.The birds are often seen in flight which is straight and strong on longer journeys but more familiarly short flights between trees which is somewhat undulating. They are seldom seen on the ground as is the case with the Green Woodpecker **, but rather alights ion a tree trunk or some vertical location.

When one is walking towards the tree in which the bird has landed,one will notice that the bird skilfully moves around the other side of the trunk out of sight.They are unsociable birds,but active,strong and lively. The habit of drumming on a tree trunk is territorial and can be heard from some distance. Being territorial and very inquisitive they can be attracted towards you. if the drumming is imitated by hitting a stick in rapid motion against tree trunk the birds will approach very near to you as they come to see who the 'rival'is.

Tapping the strong beaks much less noisily they disturb insects in the crevices of the bark which are procured by the long sticky tongue. Like other members of this interesting family the tongue is long and so arranged that it can be protruded to a considerable extent. It sides and tip are furnished with barbed filaments of a horny nature ,which serves the purpose of impaling insects and the process further perfected by the copious secretion of a glutinous saliva. When the tongue is not in use it is stored away in a coil like manner.

** This species has already been reviewed in this series.

Greater spotted woodpecker.

Originally posted to Fllickr uploaded to Commons by Magnus Manske.
Originally posted to Fllickr uploaded to Commons by Magnus Manske. | Source

Keeping wild birds in cages was once a popular pastime.


The Greater spotted woodpecker in captivity

In the days before it became illegal to capture wild birds {with a few licensed exceptions} it was a common pastime. Bird-catchers made a good living from procuring the birds by any means {usually with mist nets} and selling them to bird keepers,and to the markets as food. As this is part of our avian history the following paragraphs relate to that period.

Stevenson,relates, " One which was kept alive for some time by a person in this city in 1857,fed upon Barley meal and insects. The latter were extracted from pieces of old bark supplied fresh every day or two and fastened to the inside of the cage."

Lord Lilford observed " The young of this woodpecker are much less difficult to keep in confinement than other species as they take readily to a fruit and vegetable diet and thrive upon it. They become very tame,and if set loose in a room will examine the furniture closely and methodically,and clamber over the clothes of their keeper,search his pockets for food,and come down from the cornice or top of book-shelves,pictures &c at once on the offer of a fly or meal-worm"

On July 7th,1883 {Zoologist,1883,pages 473-478} the Rev.H.A.Macpherson wrote that he had a young male of this species given to him. It had been captured before leaving the nest and had already been in confinement for about a fortnight in a shallow box,which had so cramped its limbs that when first placed in an aviary cage it could not stand. After a short time however,it has sufficiently recovered to demolish a saucer of bread and milk. "{ Bread and milk should never be fed to young birds }

The Rev, goes on to say-" When I came in,it ran up a strip of cork bark,moving thence to cling to the wires of the cage dome and flat corners. presently it assumed a posture of repose clinging back downwards to the under surface of a broader natural bough placed horizontally across the dome, the head and tail thus being in the same place.About 7 pm,it showed symptoms of drowsiness and buried its head in the inner scapular feathers,clinging to the top of the virgin cork,tail downwards."

" On July 8, the woodpecker made a hearty breakfast of Pain au laite. I threw in some meal-worms on the cage bottom,but though he eyed them covetously,he would not descend to pick them up. Finding that he fenced vigorously with a stick,which I was stirring him up with,it occurred to me to spilt its extremity and insert a meal-worm into the cleft. He seized the first thus pushed to him,but dropped it after a little cry of surprise. I then offered him six more meal-worms,after which he expressed his satisfaction of his 'inner man' by tapping vigorously on the bark,not to drive out insects,but purely to express his feelings,just has the Nuthatch ** 'beats a tattoo', if she has swallowed a sumptuous bluebottle. As I write July 8,2 pm,the woodpecker is flitting from one strip of cork to another,uttering a cry which may be rendered 'cack-cack' from time to time he darts his tongue into the crevices of the cork"

" July 9. It is noticeable that when the woodpecker wants to descend,he slides down the cork in jerks,tail downwards,like his wild brethren,in contradisdinction to the nuthatch. Strawberries pushed to him in the cleft of the stick he accepts gratefully. A moment ago he nearly choked in trying to swallow a large husk,and,now that his shyness is working off,he accepts the fruit and also meal-worms from my fingers"

Female greater spotted Woodpecker.

Originally posted to Flickr,uploaded to Commons by Snowmanradio.
Originally posted to Flickr,uploaded to Commons by Snowmanradio. | Source

Egg of the Greater Sotted Woodpecker


Breeding nest and eggs,.

This species is an early breeder and even in the north of the country their territorial drumming can be heard in February. The Greater spotted woodpecker in the main nests in holes in trees which it excavates for itself. It prepares a nice, neat, round hole for the entrance, a smooth passage, and an enlarged terminal chamber for the reception of the eggs.

The female will deposit four to six eggs of a polished creamy white.These will be incubated by the female with occasional relief from the male for a period of about 16 days,less if conditions are favourable. The young will be ready to leave the nest in a further 20-24 days.

Greater spotted Woodpeckers nest.Courtesy of Maurice Baker Standard You Tube license


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    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago from Lancashire north west England

      Hi Deb,

      Your very welcome ,and thank you for all the wonderful birds you have introduced to me from your part of the world. Best wishes to you.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      3 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      What a beautiful bird. Thanks for sharing all this wonderful material. I especially enjoyed the video at the end.

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hi Sally that bird feed mixture sounds great and I am glad this species was one of the first to visit. Like you I do not like to see birds in captivity but it was an important part of our avian history and much of what we know today about birds came through them being kept by ornithologist to study in detail. Thank you for your kind comments. Best wishes to you.

      Nell Rose,

      Hi Nell great to see you too, thank you too,for your kind and appreciated comments. Best wishes to you.

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 

      3 years ago from England

      Hi Dave, beautiful hub and info, I love the photos, and its great to see you!

    • sallybea profile image

      Sally Gulbrandsen 

      3 years ago from Norfolk


      Hi Dave, I recently started feeding the wild birds with a mix of peanut butter, suet, bird seed and oats and one of my first visitors was this great spotted woodpecker. How exciting was that! I managed to get a few photos before he disappeared. I can definitely recommend the food though, even the little Robins love it.

      Interesting story about keeping a Woodpecker in captivity. I am so glad this is no longer allowed. I don't much like the idea of keeping anything in captivity. Good read as always, especially this one about one of my favorite birds.

      Best wishes,



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