Black woodpecker

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Black woodpecker
Желна (Dryocopus martius, fem), «Городская шумашешая».jpg
Adult female
Scientific classification edit
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Piciformes
Family: Picidae
Genus: Dryocopus
D. martius
Binomial name
Dryocopus martius
Dryocopus martius distr.PNG
Black woodpecker range

Picus martius Linnaeus, 1758

Black woodpecker drumming
Black woodpecker calls

The black woodpecker (Dryocopus martius) is a large woodpecker that lives in mature forests across the northern Palearctic. It is the sole representative of its genus in that region. Its range is expanding. The black woodpecker is easily the largest woodpecker species in Europe as well as in the portion of Asia where it lives and is one of the largest species worldwide. This non-migratory species tends to make its home in old-growth forest or large forest stands and excavates a large tree hole to reside in. In turn, several species rely on black woodpeckers to secondarily reside in the holes made in trees by them. This woodpeckers diet consists mostly of carpenter ants. This species is closely related to, and fills the same ecological niche in Europe as, the pileated woodpecker of North America and the lineated woodpecker of South America, also being similar to the white-bellied woodpecker which is distributed to the south somewhat of the black woodpecker in Asia.


The black woodpecker was formally described by the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus in 1758 in the tenth edition of his Systema Naturae under the binomial name Picus martius.[2] Linnaeus gave the locality as Europe, but this is now taken to be Sweden.[3] The black woodpecker is now placed in the genus Dryocopus that was introduced by the German naturalist Friedrich Boie in 1826.[4][5]

Two subspecies are recognised:[5]

  • D. m. martius (Linnaeus, 1758) – western Europe to the Kamchatka Peninsula and Japan
  • D. m. khamensis (Buturlin, 1908 – Tibet and southwestern China


Skull of a black woodpecker

The black woodpecker measures 45 to 55 cm (18 to 22 in) long with a 64 to 84 cm (25 to 33 in) wingspan.[6][7] Body weight is approximately 250 to 400 g (8.8 to 14.1 oz) on average.[7][8][9] Among standard measurements, the wing chord is 22.7 to 26 cm (8.9 to 10.2 in), the tail is 15.9 to 17.3 cm (6.3 to 6.8 in), the very long bill is 5 to 6.7 cm (2.0 to 2.6 in) and the tarsus is 3.6 to 4 cm (1.4 to 1.6 in).[7] It is easily the largest woodpecker in its range and is second in size only to the great slaty woodpecker amongst the woodpecker species certain to exist (with the likely extinction of the largest and second largest woodpeckers), although its average mass is similar to that of the Magellanic woodpecker of South America. The closely related pileated and white-bellied woodpeckers also broadly overlap in size with the black woodpecker, but both are somewhat smaller in average and maximal size and mass.[7] The plumage of this crow-sized woodpecker is entirely black apart from a red crown. In males, the entire crown is red, but in females only the top hindcrown is red, with the rest of the body all black.[6] The juvenile black woodpecker is similar but is less glossy, with a duller red crown and a paler grey throat and bill .[10] The piercing yellow eyes and manic, high-pitched calls of the black woodpecker have made it the villain of fairy tales throughout its range. Their voice is remarkable in that it has two different calls. One is a short single high-pitched note, a loud, whistling kree-kree-kree, done only twice in a row. The other is a screech-like shrill while in flight. Unlike other woodpecker species, the black woodpecker does not have a dipping, bounding flight, but instead flies with slow, unsteady-seeming wing beats with its head raised.[7][10]

Distribution and habitat[edit]

A black woodpecker taking anting bath in Hungary

The range of the black woodpecker spreads east from Spain across the whole of Europe, excluding Great Britain, Ireland, and northern Scandinavia. It is also native to parts of Asia, including Korea, Japan and China, and to the Middle East, including Iran and Kazakhstan. The southern limits of this woodpecker's range are in Spain and Italy, and it has also been recorded as a vagrant in Portugal. The species is generally more uncommon and more discontinuous in distribution in the Asian part of its range.[11]

The black woodpecker is mainly found in forested regions, with a preference for extensive, mature woodland, including coniferous, tropical, subtropical and boreal forests. It is very widespread throughout mountainous and lowland forests. It is more likely to occur in marginal woods near human habitations during the non-breeding season. This species has been observed at elevations between 100 and 2,400 m (330 and 7,870 ft).[11][7][10]

The black woodpecker is noticeably absent from the British Isles. Approximately 80 sightings of the species in the UK have been reported, but some of these are disputed, though the proximity of the British Isles to the species' range in Western Europe means that the species may cross over on a regular basis.[12]

Behaviour and ecology[edit]

Tree work by black woodpecker
Egg, Collection Museum Wiesbaden

The woodpecker feeds by using its bill to hammer on dead trees to dig out carpenter ants and wood-boring beetle grubs.[8] The selection of foods is relatively predictable, narrow and consistent in this species.[13] Like all woodpeckers, this species has a specially adapted neck containing very strong muscles, which allow it to endlessly hack away at tree bark. Due to the size of its bill and large size and great physical power of this bird, it can access prey fairly deep within a tree. In order to position itself correctly, it has short, stumpy legs, as well as long, sharp claws and very stiff tail feathers. The woodpecker will more than likely choose for its nest a tree with a fungal disease, such as heart rot, although some will utilise a living, healthy tree. Once a hole has been made, the black woodpecker chips downwards through the trunk of the tree, creating a nesting chamber, the only lining being the woodchips created throughout the process. The black woodpecker's excavations provide homes for many other species of bird and mammal, and is therefore considered to be a "keystone" species in many of its habitats throughout its range. It not only provides habitats for other species, but also controls populations of wood-boring insects, helping to protect the trees.[10][14]

When the nest is ready, the female lays a single clutch of two to eight eggs, the average being four to six. The nest hole is usually dug in a live poplar or pine tree.[8] The breeding pair take it in turns to incubate the eggs, also sharing duties of feeding and brooding the chicks once they have hatched. The nestlings may fight their way to the entrance of the nest in order to be fed first. After 18 to 35 days, the young black woodpeckers will leave the nest, staying with the adults for another week.[7][10]


The black woodpecker is a fairly widely distributed woodland species and can successfully breed in most areas where extensive woodland is left. At one point, when much of Europe and Asia was deforested, this species declined and in some areas is still struggling today, including in the Pyrenees. They normally require mature trees and ample stands of dead trees to sustain a viable breeding population.[15] However, with the restoration of some forested areas, black woodpeckers have increased in some parts of Europe.[13] They are occasionally considered a nuisance species due to their damage to power lines, communication poles and houses, occasionally resulting in woodpecker mortality due to electrocution or being culled by humans.[16] The main cause of nesting failures appears to be predation.[17] Their main natural predator is the pine marten (Martes martes), which feeds on eggs, nestlings and brooding females and then often takes over the nest hole of the woodpeckers for its own.[18] Other than the marten, there are notably few known natural predators of black woodpeckers.[19] Western jackdaws (Corvus monedula) are notably regular usurpers of this species' nest holes and a potential predator of eggs and small nestlings.[20] A few of the larger birds of prey that can hunt in woodlands may prey on black woodpeckers. Among those recorded are Ural owls (Strix uralensis),[21] Eurasian eagle-owls (Bubo bubo),[22] northern goshawks (Accipiter gentilis),[23] common buzzards (Buteo buteo)[24] and golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos).

Cultural significance[edit]

The black woodpecker in the coat of arms of Pielisjärvi

The municipality of Nurmijärvi in Uusimaa, Finland has adopted the black woodpecker as the title bird of the municipality, because in addition to being the most common bird in the locality, it also appears in the literature of Aleksis Kivi, a Finnish national author, originally from the Nurmijärvi.[25] Nurmijärvi's local football club NJS has also adopted the black woodpecker as the club's logo.[26]

Dryocopus martius martius is thought to be the woodpecker referred to in the augural instructions on the early Italic Iguvine Tablets by the Umbrian word peiqu, a bird "very prominent in early Italic religion and mythology."[27]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ BirdLife International. (2016). Dryocopus martius. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. doi:10.2305/IUCN.UK.2016-3.RLTS.T22681382A87301348.en
  2. ^ Linnaeus, Carl (1758). Systema Naturae per regna tria naturae, secundum classes, ordines, genera, species, cum characteribus, differentiis, synonymis, locis (in Latin). Vol. 1 (10th ed.). Holmiae (Stockholm): Laurentii Salvii. p. 112.
  3. ^ Peters, James Lee, ed. (1948). Check-List of Birds of the World. Vol. 6. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. p. 151.
  4. ^ Boie, Friedrich (1826). "Generalübersicht". Isis von Oken (in German). 19. Col 977.
  5. ^ a b Gill, Frank; Donsker, David; Rasmussen, Pamela, eds. (2020). "Woodpeckers". IOC World Bird List Version 10.1. International Ornithologists' Union. Retrieved 26 May 2020.
  6. ^ a b The Birds of the Western Palearctic [Abridged]. OUP. 1997. ISBN 0-19-854099-X.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g Woodpeckers: An Identification Guide to the Woodpeckers of the World by Hans Winkler, David A. Christie & David Nurney. Houghton Mifflin (1995), ISBN 978-0395720431
  8. ^ a b c Rolstad, Jorund; Rolstad, Erlend; Sæteren, Øyvind (2000). "Black woodpecker nest sites: characteristics, selection, and reproductive success". Journal of Wildlife Management. 64 (4): 1053–1066. doi:10.2307/3803216. JSTOR 3803216.
  9. ^ Brazil, M. (2009) Field Guide to the Birds of East Asia: Eastern China, Taiwan, Korea, Japan and Eastern Russia. A&C Black, London.
  10. ^ a b c d e Perrins, C.M., Attenborough, D. and Arlott, N. (1987). New Generation Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe. University of Texas Press, Texas.
  11. ^ a b Peterson, R.T., Mountfort, G. and Hollom, P.A.D. (1993) Collins Field Guide: Birds of Britain and Europe. HarperCollins Publishers, London.
  12. ^ "Range-expansion of the Black Woodpecker in Western Europe" (PDF). British Birds. 78: 4. April 1985.
  13. ^ a b Mikusiński, Grzegorz (1995). "Population trends in black woodpecker in relation to changes and characteristics of European forests". Ecography. 18 (4): 363–369. doi:10.1111/j.1600-0587.1995.tb00139.x.
  14. ^ Gorman, G. (2008) Central and Eastern European Wildlife. Bradt Travel Guides, Buckshire.
  15. ^ Garmendia, Alfonso; Cárcamo, Susana; Schwendtner, Oscar (2006). "Forest management considerations for conservation of black woodpecker Dryocopus martius and white-backed woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos populations in Quinto Real (Spanish Western Pyrenees)". Biodiversity and Conservation. 15 (4): 1399–1415. doi:10.1007/s10531-005-5410-0. S2CID 8616002.
  16. ^ Turcek, F. J. (1960). "On the damage by birds to power and communication lines". Bird Study. 7 (4): 231–236. doi:10.1080/00063656009475975.
  17. ^ Martin, Thomas E. (1993). "Evolutionary determinants of clutch size in cavity-nesting birds: nest predation or limited breeding opportunities?". American Naturalist. 142 (6): 937–946. doi:10.1086/285582. JSTOR 2462692. PMID 19425942. S2CID 5299388.
  18. ^ Nilsson, S.G.; Johnsson, K.; Tjernberg, M. (1991). "Is avoidance by black woodpeckers of old nest holes due to predators?". Animal Behaviour. 41 (3): 439–441. doi:10.1016/S0003-3472(05)80845-0. S2CID 53147765.
  19. ^ Paclík, Martin; Misík, Jan; Weidinger, Karel (2009). "Nest Predation and Nest Defence in European and North American Woodpeckers: A Review". Annales Zoologici Fennici. 46 (5): 361–379. doi:10.5735/086.046.0503. S2CID 86330780.
  20. ^ Johnsson, Kristina (1994). "Colonial breeding and nest predation in the Jackdaw Corvus monedula using old Black Woodpecker Dryocopus martius holes". Ibis. 136 (3): 313–317. doi:10.1111/j.1474-919X.1994.tb01100.x.
  21. ^ Lundberg, Arne (1981). "Population ecology of the Ural owl Strix uralensis in central Sweden". Ornis Scandinavica. 12 (2): 111–119. doi:10.2307/3676035. JSTOR 3676035.
  22. ^ Wassink, G. (2010). "Het dieet van de Oehoe in Nederland en enkele aangrenzende gebieden in Duitsland". Limosa. 83: 97–108.
  23. ^ Opdam, P.; Thissen, J.; Verschuren, P.; Müskens, G. (1977). "Feeding ecology of a population of Goshawk Accipiter gentilis". Journal für Ornithologie. 118 (1): 35–51. doi:10.1007/BF01647356. S2CID 44631480.
  24. ^ Obuch, Ján; Šotnár, Karol (2009). "Feeding ecology of a nesting population of the Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo) in the Upper Nitra Region, Central Slovakia". Slovak Raptor Journal. 3: 13–20. doi:10.2478/v10262-012-0028-0. S2CID 84497619.
  25. ^ Vaakuna ja tunnukset – Nurmijärvi (in Finnish)
  26. ^ Nurmijärven Jalkapalloseura tähtää suomalaisen futiksen huipulle – Nurmijärven Uutiset (in Finnish)
  27. ^ Poultney, J.W. "Bronze Tables of Iguvium" 1959 p. 1


  • Gorman, Gerard (2004): Woodpeckers of Europe: A Study of the European Picidae. Bruce Coleman, UK. ISBN 1-872842-05-4.
  • Gorman, Gerard (2011): The Black Woodpecker: A monograph on Dryocopus martius . Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. ISBN 978-84-96553-79-8.