Great spotted woodpecker

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Great spotted woodpecker
Grote bonte specht.JPG
Adult male Dendrocopos major pinetorum
Bird recorded in Devon, England
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Piciformes
Family: Picidae
Genus: Dendrocopos
Species: D. major
Binomial name
Dendrocopos major
(Linnaeus, 1758)
Dendrocopos major distribution map.png

The great spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos major) is a bird species of the woodpecker family (Picidae).

It is distributed throughout Europe and northern Asia, and usually resident year-round except in the colder parts of its range. It is not considered a threatened species by the IUCN, being widely distributed and quite common. A significant recent increase in the British population has resulted in the recolonisation of Ireland.


The woodpeckers are an ancient bird family consisting of three subfamilies, the wrynecks, the piculets and the true woodpeckers, Picinae. The Picinae are further divided into six tribes, the largest of which is the pied woodpeckers, Campetherini, which includes the great spotted woodpecker.[2] Within the large genus Dendrocopus the great spotted woodpecker's closest relatives are the Himalayan, Sind, Syrian and white-winged woodpeckers, and possibly the Darjeeling woodpecker.[3]

The great spotted woodpecker was described by Linnaeus in his Systema Naturae in 1758 as Picus major.[4] It was moved to its current genus by the German naturalist Carl Ludwig Koch in 1816.[5]

The genus name Dendrocopus is a combination of the Greek words dendron , meaning "tree" and kopos, "striking ". The specific major is from Latin maior, "greater".[6]


The number of subspecies of the great spotted woodpecker recognised by different authors varies widely from as few as 14 to nearly 30. This is largely because changes are clinal with many intermediate forms, the general pattern being that northern forms are larger, heavier-billed and whiter beneath. However, mitochondrial DNA data suggests that the Caspian Sea region's Dendrocopus major poelzami, Japanese D. m. japonicus and Chinese D. m. cabanisi may all merit full species status. Despite its distinctive appearance, D. m. canariensis from Tenerife in the Canary Islands appears to be closely related to the nominate subspecies D. m. major.[3][7] The paleosubspecies D. m. submajor lived during the Middle Pleistocene Riss glaciation (250,000 to 300,000 years ago); it was found in Europe south of the ice sheet. It is sometimes treated as a distinct species, but did not differ from the living great spotted woodpecker of Europe; the European subspecies of the present are probably its direct descendants.[8][9]


The great spotted woodpecker is 23–26 centimetres (9.1–10.2 in) long, with a 38–44 centimetres (15–17 in) wingspan. Weight: 70–98 g.[10] The upperparts are glossy black, with white on the sides of the face and neck. A black line zigzags from the shoulder halfway across the breast (in some subspecies nearly meeting in the centre), then back to the nape; a black stripe, extending from the bill, runs below the eye to meet this latter part of the zigzag line. On the shoulder is a large white patch and the flight feathers are barred with black and white. The three outer tail feathers are barred; these show when the short stiff tail is outspread, acting as a support in climbing. The underparts are dull white, the abdomen and undertail coverts crimson. The bill is slate black and the legs greenish grey.

Males have a crimson spot on the nape, which is absent in females and juvenile birds. In the latter, the top of the head is crimson between the bill and the centre of the crown instead.

Despite its contrasting plumage, the great spotted woodpecker is often an inconspicuous bird. The large white shoulder patch is the feature that most easily catches the eye.

Similar species[edit]

The male great spotted woodpecker is almost unmistakable. The only species that are quite similar are the Syrian woodpecker (D. syriacus) and the white-winged woodpecker (D. leucopterus). The former differs in the less well-developed zigzag stripe on the neck, which neither reaches as far towards the centre of the breast nor meets the black of the nape as it does in great spotted woodpeckers. The latter has a far more extensive white wing patch.

Females can be distinguished from female Syrian woodpeckers and white-winged woodpeckers in the same way as males; the female Sind woodpecker (D. assimilis) also looks similar but does not have the zigzag stripe reaching the nape. Great spotted woodpecker females can also be confused with a female white-backed woodpecker (D. leucotos). However, the latter species lacks the white shoulder patch, having an all-white lower back instead; it also has a less well-developed zigzag stripe on the neck, just like the Syrian woodpecker. The female Himalayan woodpecker (D. himalayensis) is also similar, but it can be distinguished by the same characteristics as the female Syrian woodpecker.

Immature birds resemble the middle spotted woodpecker (D. medius), the male white-backed woodpecker, the immature Syrian and white-winged woodpeckers, and male or immature lesser spotted woodpeckers (Picoides minor, formerly also in Dendrocopos). The first of these species has only an angular cheek spot instead of the zigzag stripe, while the white-backed and lesser spotted woodpeckers lack the white shoulder patch and have a less well-developed zigzag stripe, as described above. The lesser spotted woodpecker also has no red on the abdomen. White-backed woodpeckers are also larger, while lesser spotted woodpeckers are smaller than immature great spotted woodpeckers. Differences from Syrian and white-winged woodpeckers are the same as for adults.


When hidden by the foliage, its presence is often advertised by the mechanical drumming, a vibrating rattle, produced by the rapidly repeated blows of its strong bill upon a trunk or branch. The drumming of this species is shorter than that of the lesser spotted woodpecker, and fades away at the end. It is audible from a great distance, depending on the wind and the condition of the wood, a hollow bough naturally producing a louder note than living wood. The call is a sharp kik, kik.

As late as the early twentieth century is was thought that the drumming might be a vocalisation, and it was not until 1943 that it was proved to be purely mechanical.[11]

Distribution and habitat[edit]

The great spotted woodpecker occurs Eurasia from the British Isles to Japan, and in North Africa from Morocco to Tunisia, and is absent only from areas too cold or dry to have suitable woodland habitat.[7] This woodpecker became extinct in the seventeenth century,[12] but naturally recolonised from about 2007,[13] Despite their generally sedentary nature, they are slowly increasing in numbers and spreading, with breeding proven or suspected in at least 10 counties by 2013.[14] Genetic evidence shows the Irish birds to be of British origin.[15]

It is an inhabitant of woodlands and parks, depending for food and nesting sites upon old trees. Its actions are jerky, and it hops rather than climbs, leaping forward with one foot just in advance of the other. When a space is crossed the flight is easy and undulating.


Female foraging for grubs in England.
Female in Sweden.
Woodpecker feeding hole.


The nesting hole, neat and round, is bored in soft or decaying wood horizontally for a few inches, then perpendicularly down. At the bottom of a shaft, usually from six to twelve inches in depth, a small chamber is excavated and lined with wood chips. This woodpecker shows no marked preference for particular tree taxa, building its nest in gymnosperms and angiosperms alike.

In Japanese forests for example, nests were observed in Fagales (Grey Alder, Alnus hirsuta ssp. incana; Japanese White Birch, Betula platyphylla; Japanese Hop-hornbeam, Ostrya japonica), Lamiales (Japanese Tree Lilac, Syringa reticulata), Malvales (Japanese Lime, Tilia japonica), Malpighiales (willows, Salix sp.), Pinales (Japanese Larch, Larix kaempferi), Rosales (Sargent's Cherry, Prunus sargentii) and Sapindales (Usugumo Maple, Acer pictum subsp. mono– Painted Maple). Mongolian Oak (Quercus mongolica, Fagales) and Prickly Castor-oil Tree (Kalopanax pictus, Apiales) were rarely if ever used for nesting however.[16]

Nesting trees chosen by this woodpecker almost invariably have soft heartwood and tough sapwood, often due to parasites or diseases that weaken the heartwood only. It is unknown how D. major finds suitable trees, though it is entirely possible that they do so by drumming, making use of the different speed of sound in materials with differing elastic modulus and density. Tree species that are rarely or never used for nesting might simply not have wood with the required properties.[16]

Dendrocopos major

The creamy-white eggs, five to seven in number, are laid in the second half of May. The young cluster at the mouth of the hole and keep a continuous chatter when the parents are feeding them, but when alarmed slip back into the hole. The nest hole is rarely used again, but not infrequently other holes are bored in the same tree.


The food mainly consists of insects and grubs but also seeds, fruit, scraps, eggs, chicks and small rodents. The woodpecker usually alights on the trunk, working upwards, from side to side, but sometimes will perch in passerine style, when it sits well upright. During the ascent it taps the bark, breaking off fragments, but often extracts its prey from crevices with the tip of its sticky tongue. Beechmast, acorns, nuts and berries are eaten when animal food is scarce.

Woodpecker making hole in plaster

Predators and parasites[edit]

Great spotted woodpeckers are hunted by woodland birds of prey such as the Eurasian sparrowhawk and the northern goshawk.[17]

This woodpecker is a host of the blood-feeding fly Carnus hemapterus, and internal parasites may include the spiny-headed worm Prosthorhynchus transversus. Protozoans also occur,[18] including the potentially fatal Toxoplasma gondii, which causes toxoplasmosis.[19] The great spotted woodpecker is the favoured host of the tapeworm Anomotaenia brevis.[20]


The total population for the great spotted woodpecker is estimated at 73.7–110.3 million individuals, with 35% of the population in Europe. The breeding range is estimated as 57.8 million square kilometres (22.3 million sq mi), and the population is considered overall to be large and apparently stable or slightly increasing. For this reason the Siberian accentor is evaluated as a species of least concern by the IUCN.[1][3]

Breeding densities have been recorded as between 0.1–6.6 pairs/10 ha (0.04–2.7 pairs/10 acres), with the greatest densities in mature forest growing on alluvium. Numbers have increased in Europe due to forest plantation and more available dead wood, and this species has profited from its flexibility with regard to type of woodland and ability to thrive in proximity to humans. Harsh winters are a problem, and fragmentation of woodland can cause local difficulties. The Canary Islands populations of D. m. canariensis on Tenerife and D. m. thanneri on Gran Canaria face a potential threat from exploitation of the local pine forests.[3]


  1. ^ a b BirdLife International (2012). "Dendrocopos major". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.2. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved 26 November 2013. 
  2. ^ del Hoyo, Josep; Elliott, Andrew; Sargatal, Jordi; Christie, David A; de Juana, Eduardo, eds. (2013). "Family Picidae: Woodpeckers". Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Barcelona: Lynx Edicions. Retrieved 13 December 2016. (subscription required (help)). 
  3. ^ a b c d del Hoyo, Josep; Elliott, Andrew; Sargatal, Jordi; Christie, David A; de Juana, Eduardo, eds. (2013). "Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major)". Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Barcelona: Lynx Edicions. Retrieved 14 December 2016. (subscription required (help)). 
  4. ^ Linnaeus, Carl (1758). Systema naturae per regna tria naturae, secundum classes, ordines, genera, species, cum characteribus, differentiis, synonymis, locis. Tomus I. Editio decima, reformata (in Latin). Holmiae [Stockholm]: Laurentii Salvii. p. 114. 
  5. ^ Koch, Carl Ludwig (1816). System der baierischen Zoologie (in German). Volume 1. Nürnberg: Stein. p. 72. 
  6. ^ Jobling, James A (2010). The Helm Dictionary of Scientific Bird Names. London: Christopher Helm. pp. 133, 238. ISBN 978-1-4081-2501-4. 
  7. ^ a b Gorman, Gerard (2014). Woodpeckers of the World. Helm Photographic Guides. London: Christopher Helm. pp. 265–267. ISBN 978-1-4081-4715-3. 
  8. ^ Mlíkovský, Jirí (2002). Cenozoic Birds of the World (PDF). Part 1: Europe. Prague: Ninox. p. 150. ISBN 80-901105-3-8. 
  9. ^ Mourer-Chauviré, Cécile; Philippe, Michel; Quinif, Yves; Chaline, Jean; Debard, Evelyne; Guérin, Claude; Hugueney, Margarite (2003). "Position of the palaeontological site Aven I des Abîmes de La Fage, at Noailles (Corrèze, France), in the European Pleistocene chronology". Boreas. 32 (3): 521–531. doi:10.1111/j.1502-3885.2003.tb01232.x. 
  10. ^ "Great Spotted Woodpecker". Oiseaux-birds. 
  11. ^ Cocker, Mark; Mabey, Richard (2005). Birds Britannica. London: Chatto & Windus. pp. 306–307. ISBN 0-7011-6907-9. 
  12. ^ D'Arcy, Gordon (1999). Ireland's Lost Birds. Dublin: Four Courts Press. pp. 113–114. ISBN 978-1-85182-529-5. 
  13. ^ McComb, A M G; Kernohan, R; Mawhirt, P; Robinson, P; Wells, B (2010). "Great spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos major): proof of breeding in Tollymore Forest Park, Co. Down". Irish Natturalists' Journal. 31: 66–67. 
  14. ^ Fahy, K (on behalf of the Irish Rare Birds Committee) (2014). "Report of the Irish Rare Breeding Birds Panel 2013". Irish Birds. 10: 68–69. 
  15. ^ "Reintroducing the boar: a wild notion?". Irish Times. 14 January 2014. Retrieved 18 January 2017. 
  16. ^ a b Matsuoka, Shigeru (2008). "Wood hardness in nest trees of the Great Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos major". Ornithological Science. 7 (1): 59–66. doi:10.2326/1347-0558(2008)7[59:WHINTO]2.0.CO;2. 
  17. ^ Jedrzejewska, Bogumila; Jedrzejewski, Wlodzimierz (1998). Predation in Vertebrate Communities: The Bialowieza Primeval Forest as a Case Study. Berlin: Springer. pp. 252–254. ISBN 978-3-540-64138-4. 
  18. ^ Rothschild, Miriam; Clay, Theresa (1957). Fleas, Flukes and Cuckoos. A study of bird parasites. New York: Macmillan. pp. 163, 189,222. 
  19. ^ Jokelainen, Pikka; Vikøren, Turid (2014). "Acute Fatal Toxoplasmosis in a Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major)". Journal of Wildlife Diseases. 50 (1): 117–120. doi:10.7589/2013-03-057. PMID 24171576. 
  20. ^ Combes, Claude; Simberloff, Daniel (2008). The Art of Being a Parasite. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 68. ISBN 978-0-226-11429-3. 

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