Great Spotted Woodpecker: Bird of the Week

The headbanger of the bird world, this woodpecker has cushioning air pockets in its skull to act as shock absorbers.

By Ness Amaral-Rogers
Published 2 Jan 2019, 09:15 GMT
A great spotted woodpecker, 'Dendrocopos major', adult perched on a Scots pine and looking for grubs.
A great spotted woodpecker, 'Dendrocopos major', adult perched on a Scots pine and looking for grubs.
Photograph by Louise Greenhorn

Only two species of black and white woodpecker can be found in the UK – the great spotted and the lesser spotted. The one most likely to be seen is the great spotted woodpecker, which is much bigger (about the size of a blackbird), and has a red undertail and a large patch of white on its shoulder. The male has a distinctive red patch on the back of its head and young birds have a red crown.

This great spotted woodpecker appears to be creating a hole for nesting.
Photograph by Tom Marshall

Great spotted woodpeckers can be seen in woodlands, especially with mature broad-leaved trees, although mature conifers will support them. They can also be found in parks and large gardens. It has a very distinctive bouncing flight and spends most of its time clinging to tree trunks and branches, often trying to hide on the side away from the observer although they will visit peanut feeders or bird tables in gardens.

There are around 25,000 to 30,000 pairs breeding in the UK and their presence is often announced by their loud call or distinctive drumming. Woodpeckers use their powerful neck muscles to hammer into large trees – doing so to reach the insect grubs inside, create holes for nesting and to warn others away from their territories.

Great spotted woodpeckers drum on trees and telegraph poles to warn other woodpeckers away from their territories.
Photograph by Ben Andrew

Woodpeckers have even been known to hammer on telegraph poles or metal surfaces. Luckily their skulls are adapted for constant drilling and are filled with cushioning air pockets which act as shock absorbers. They have another interesting adaptation which helps them reach the insect larvae hiding in the wood – their long tongue can extend 4cm from their beaks to spear the grubs. When not protruding, the tongue coils internally around the back of their skull.

Learn how to attract birds into your garden.

Now watch this woodpecker that mimics a snake when threatened.

Juvenile great spotted woodpeckers have a red crown.
Photograph by Louise Greenhorn
Read More

You might also like

Starling: Bird of the Week
Robin: Bird of the Week
Barn owl: Bird of the Week
Blackbird: Bird of the Week
Waxwing: Bird of the Week

Explore Nat Geo

  • Animals
  • Environment
  • History & Culture
  • Science
  • Travel
  • Photography
  • Space
  • Adventure
  • Video

About us


  • Magazines
  • Newsletter
  • Disney+

Follow us

Copyright © 1996-2015 National Geographic Society. Copyright © 2015-2021 National Geographic Partners, LLC. All rights reserved