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The Great Spotted Woodpecker: Both A Hero And A Villain

Updated on August 2, 2014

The Hero Or Villain Of The Piece?

This is a male great spotted woodpecker, note the red patch on the back of his nape, that helps differentiate the two sexes in terms of plumage.
This is a male great spotted woodpecker, note the red patch on the back of his nape, that helps differentiate the two sexes in terms of plumage. | Source

Feeding The Family

The Fruits Of Labour

These holes were originally made by a lesser spotted woodpecker, but will be used by many other species, including starlings and tits.
These holes were originally made by a lesser spotted woodpecker, but will be used by many other species, including starlings and tits. | Source

The Hero

A visit by a great spotted woodpecker to a bird table or hanging feeder is always something of an event, especially in June when the red capped youngsters may come along too. Woodpeckers are dramatic birds, bold black and white and red, and their entrance inevitably has a sense of drama about it. When the woodpeckers land, the smaller birds often hang back, or even scatters, seemingly nervous of that mighty bill.

Earlier in spring, that same long, chisel like beak is put to other uses. From January onwards it is hammered very rapidly into a sonorous piece of wood to make a pleasing 'drumming' sound, the equivalent of a song. And it is also used throughout the year as a heavy tool for excavating holes. This is the woodpecker's great talent: it makes holes in the trees from scratch, making new homes, where before there were none. It makes them for a nest cavity, and for a roosting hideaway, adding new models again and again.

The woodpecker often chooses to work on wood that is slightly rotten. It will hack away steadily, like a labourer might use a pickaxe. It's heavy work. After a week or two of intermittent effort the woodpecker will have made a substantial cavity, and so it starts working from the inside rather than the outside. By the end of the excavation the wood chips are gathered in the bill and tossed dismissively out of the new home.

It takes a very special bill to wreak this kind of destruction upon rotten, or sometimes even upon live wood. That bill is also used for chipping wood-boring insects into view, or for ripping off bark, whatever it takes to provide a diet of arboreal invertebrates. A woodpecker would hardly be a woodpecker without it.

And, if you think about it, a wood would hardly be a wood without a woodpecker either, at least in ornithological terms. Where, for example, would the tits breed, and the flycatchers? Many other birds besides woodpeckers rely on tree holes for their nesting sites, and the rest cannot excavate them for themselves. They depend on the woodpeckers to do it for them. If it were not for the activities of the carpenters of the bird world, all these species would be hard pressed to find breeding sites at all.

Nature's Excavators

From Hero To Villain

On The Hunt

This female is foraging for grubs on a tree trunk. Its this kind of opportunistic feeding behaviour that can lead a woodpecker straight to a helpless clutch of nestlings.
This female is foraging for grubs on a tree trunk. Its this kind of opportunistic feeding behaviour that can lead a woodpecker straight to a helpless clutch of nestlings. | Source

Blue Tits Under Attack

The Villain

In view of this, one might think that woodpeckers would be among the most welcome of all birds around the woodland or garden scene. And yet, when birds such as tits come across great spotted woodpeckers in the breeding season, they repeatedly mob them aggressively. They fly towards the woodpecker, call loudly and try to drive the unwanted visitor away- perhaps away from a hole that, ironically, the source of their rage initially created itself.

One wouldn't expect a bird such as a tit to be clever enough to recognise the woodpecker and thank it politely for constructing its nest site, but such a reaction does seem puzzling. Until, that is, you realise that the great spotted woodpecker, despite its positive effect on bird populations, also has a dark side.

It's too easy, you see: a bill adapted for ramming through wood to find invertebrates can very easily be put to a different investigative use. Should a woodpecker develop a taste for bird meat, it would have no trouble at all in finding some. In the average wood or garden there are plenty of occupied holes with nestlings in them in spring, just waiting there ready to be eaten, uniquely accessible to a hunter with a pickaxe. And this is exactly what happens.

A great spotted woodpecker is an adaptable bird, and may be seen to hunt nestlings in several ways. The commonest technique is the logical progression from its usual feeding routine. It detects nestlings by ear as they call from their chamber at the bottom of the hole, and then it simply drills straight through to them. Within minutes the small bodies can be dragged through the newly created gap, one by one. In the second technique, a woodpecker lands close to the nest hole and the nestlings. The nestlings then, upon hearing the arrival of a bird outside, eagerly jump to the entrance as they always do, hoping to be the first to reach the expected parental food delivery. But they are met at the entrance by the woodpecker, and ironically become a food delivery themselves.

In many areas, including gardens, great spotted woodpeckers have also quickly recognised that nest boxes are also excellent and reliable sources of nestling meat. They are easier to get into than tree holes too, with thin sides and a vulnerable entrance holes that can be quickly enlarged for forced entry. Predation by woodpeckers appears to have increased in Britain as more and more of these intelligent birds have cottoned on. You could almost say that great spotted woodpeckers are the new magpies, with disturbingly similar plumages and tastes.

Vulnerable To Attack

The nestbox on the left with its open front is usually favoured by birds like robins and flycatchers and robins, while the right one with its tiny hole is favoured by tits. Both of these are vulnerable to the heavy duty bill of the woodpecker.
The nestbox on the left with its open front is usually favoured by birds like robins and flycatchers and robins, while the right one with its tiny hole is favoured by tits. Both of these are vulnerable to the heavy duty bill of the woodpecker. | Source

The Solution?

This nest box (actually a bat box) is made out of woodcrete (a mixture of sawdust and concrete) its strong enough to repel attack from woodpeckers and rodents such as squirrels, who also predate young birds/bats from time to time.
This nest box (actually a bat box) is made out of woodcrete (a mixture of sawdust and concrete) its strong enough to repel attack from woodpeckers and rodents such as squirrels, who also predate young birds/bats from time to time. | Source

A Potential Solution

There are, however, more concrete solutions to this problem than offered by the magpie controversy. Well, not quite concrete I suppose in a literal sense, but instead 'woodcrete'. This tough substance, a mix of wood chippings and concrete, is the basic constituent of many new (and inevitably expensive) nesting boxes and provides a safe haven for younger chicks. An older method, that of placing a metal plate around the nest entrance, was effective for deterring the woodpeckers from forcing their way in from the entrance, but never prevented their more determined operations to drill through the side. Now, perhaps, nest boxes made of less penetrable material will eventually cause the box raiding habit to decline.

And if it does, great spotted woodpeckers will be raised to home grown hero status again, at least in the garden environment.

© 2014 James Kenny

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    • Suhail and my dog profile image

      Suhail Zubaid aka Clark Kent 2 years ago from Mississauga, ON

      What a beautiful and informative article to read to begin my morning with!

      I have never seen this woodpecker in my neighbourhood and have also not heard the 'wood pecking song'. Downy and hairy woodpeckers dominate our sub-urban woods here. So the information was very welcome.

      The gory side of the woodpecker is slightly disturbing. I had no idea that these beautiful bird could become meat eaters.

      Voted up and shared!

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 2 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hi Suhail, no, you wouldn't have a great spotted woodpecker in your neck of the woods (no pun intended). As far as I know, its solely a European bird, but I am sure that there are American woodpeckers that engage in the same behaviour.

      Anyway, thanks for popping by.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 2 years ago from USA

      Oh no! I didn't know about their dark side. Thank you for the education. I still like them.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 2 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Oh I still like them too. I guess they're just taking advantage of what is really, a fairly easy food source to obtain. Remember that songbirds have large clutches, so if they all survived, then there'd be far too many songbirds in relation to their food.

    • bac2basics profile image

      Anne 2 years ago from Spain

      I had one in the area this spring, he or she was having a field day as so many trees had been weakened by the wildfire two years ago and had become infested with wood eating insects. After quite a while the woodpecker left and I haven´t heard one since. Is this normal behavior? Would it have gone elsewhere looking for bounty?

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 2 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Probably yes, if the trees were fire damaged then obviously they were unsuitable for nesting. So it probably took advantage of the insect bounty, then flew off elsewhere to seek out more healthy and mature trees for nesting.

    • Ann1Az2 profile image

      Ann1Az2 2 years ago from Orange, Texas

      I had no idea that woodpeckers could be so aggressive. Thanks for raising awareness! I will certainly keep this in mind if I decide to put up a birdhouse. I had a spotted woodpecker visit my tree the other day where my feeder was and I noticed the little birds flew away. I just thought it was because he was so loud and bigger than they were. Now, I know better! They probably flew away to go protect their nests.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 2 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Yes, although I wouldn't call it aggressive myself, more opportunistic. I don't think they're as prolific as say magpies, but yes they're certainly another factor to bear in mind before buying a nestbox.

      Thanks for popping by and commenting.

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 2 years ago from SW England

      I love woodpeckers; they're so colourful and a little elusive. However, I've always preferred the green variety - I hope they're not so predatory on nestlings!

      Great hub, as usual, with your high standard of photos. I thoroughly enjoyed the read.

      Ann

    • bravewarrior profile image

      Shauna L Bowling 2 years ago from Central Florida

      Interesting. I have red-headed woodpeckers that live on my property. They look like Woody the Woodpecker from cartoon days. I don't know if you're old enough to relate, but I think they're pretty cool. Some of them are quite large. I'd say some of the ones I've seen are 12" in height. I've never seen them go after birds. They peck away at the oak trees. They seem to prefer them to the other types of trees on my property and surrounding areas.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 2 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thank you very much Ann.

    • StellaSee profile image

      StellaSee 2 years ago from California

      I had no idea woodpeckers would attack baby chicks, that's sad! I also learned today that 'tits' could also be a type of bird (sorry I thought it was a typo) Thanks for the information :D

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 2 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Oh yes, and over in Britain we have several kinds of tits, including great tits, yes they are actually called that. We also have bearded tits too ;)

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