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 adult male great spotted woodpecker is 20–24 cm (7.9–9.4 in) long, with a 34–39 cm (13–15 in) wingspan and weighs 70–98 g (2.5–3.5 oz).[3][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.

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] It is found in a wide variety of woodlands, broadleaf, coniferous or mixed, and including modified habitats like parks, gardens and olive groves. It occurs from sea-level to the tree line, up to 2,000 m (6,600 ft) in Europe, 2,200 m (7,200 ft) in Morocco and 2,500 m (8,200 ft) in Central Asia.[3]

The great spotted woodpecker is mainly sedentary, but sizeable movements can occur when there are shortages of pine and spruce cones in the north of the range,[12] and highland population descend to the lowlands in winter. Juveniles also have a tendency to wander, often as far as 100–600 km (60–400 mi), sometimes up to 3,000 km (1,900 mi).[3] Vagrants have reached the Faroe Islands, Gibraltar, Hong Kong and Iceland,[1] and there are several records from North America in the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands and Alaska.[3]

The great spotted woodpecker became extinct in the island of Ireland in the seventeenth century,[13] but naturally recolonised from 2007,[14] with breeding proven or suspected in at least 10 counties by 2013.[15] Genetic evidence shows the birds to be of British ancestry, with the populations in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic having separate origins.[16]


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


The great spotted woodpecker is sexually mature aged one year and starts courtship behaviour in December. There is a fluttering flight display in which the male flies with shallow wingbeats and his tail spread. He calls in flight and may land at a prospective nest-site. The monogamous pair excavate a new hole at least 0.3 m (1 ft 0 in) above the ground and usually lower than 8 m (26 ft), although sometimes much higher. The chosen site is normally a tree, alive or dead, sometimes a utility pole or nestbox. Old holes are only rarely used. The nest cavity is 25–35 cm (9.8–13.8 in) deep with a 5–6 cm (2.0–2.4 in) wide entrance hole. It is excavated by both sexes, although mainly the male.[3] As with other woodpeckers, the hole is unlined, although wood chips from the excavation may cover the base of the cavity.[17]

Trees chosen for nest holes have soft heartwood and tough sapwood, often due to parasites or diseases that weaken the tree's core. It is not certain how suitable trees are selected, although it may be by drumming, since woods with differing elastic modulus and density may transmit sound at different speeds. A Japanese study found nests in trees from several families; these included grey alder, Japanese white birch, Japanese hop-hornbeam, Japanese tree lilac, willows, Japanese larch and Sargent's cherry. The Mongolian oak and prickly castor-oil tree were rarely if ever used.[18]

Dendrocopos major

The typical clutch is four to six glossy white eggs that measure 27 mm × 20 mm (1.06 in × 0.79 in); and weigh about 5.7 g (0.20 oz), of which 7% is shell.[19][20] laid from mid-April to June, the dates being later in the north of the range or at altitude.[3] Incubation of the altricial naked chicks is by both sexes, but mainly the female,[19] for 10–12 days to hatching. Both birds also feed the chicks and keep the nest clean. The young fledge in 20–23 days. Each parent then takes responsibility for feeding part of the brood for ten days, during which time the family normally remain close to the nest tree.[3]

The survival rates for adults and young are unknown, as is the average lifespan, but the maximum known age is just over 11 years.[19]


The great spotted woodpeckers is omnivorous. It digs beetle larvae from trees and also takes many other insects including adult beetles, ants and spiders. Crustacean]]s, molluscs and carrion may be eaten, and feeders are visited for suet and domestic scraps.[3] The nests of other hole-nesting birds, such as tits, may be raided for their eggs and chicks.[20] Fat-rich plant foods such as nuts and conifer seeds are particularly important as winter food in the north of the range, and can then supply more than 30% of the bird's energy requirements. Other plant food consumed includes buds, berries and tree sap,[3] the latter obtained by drilling rings of holes around the tree trunk.[20]

Woodpeckers feed at all levels of a tree, usually alone, but sometimes as a pair. Easily accessible items are picked off the tree or from fissures in the bark, but larvae are extracted by chiselling holes up to 10 cm (3.9 in) deep and impaling the soft insect with the tongue tip. The tongue can extend to 40 cm (16 in), and is covered with bristles and sticky saliva to trap harder-bodied prey.[20] The woodpecker will use an "anvil" on which to hammer hard items, particularly pine, spruce and larch cones, but also fruit, nuts and hard-bodied insects.[3]

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.[21]

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,[22] including the potentially fatal Toxoplasma gondii, which causes toxoplasmosis.[23] The great spotted woodpecker is the favoured host of the tapeworm Anomotaenia brevis.[24]


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 c 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 e f g h i j k l m n 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 (2024) pp. 265–267.
  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. ^ Cite error: The named reference Johnsson was invoked but never defined (see the help page).
  11. ^ Cocker, Mark; Mabey, Richard (2005). Birds Britannica. London: Chatto & Windus. pp. 306–307. ISBN 0-7011-6907-9. 
  12. ^ Johnsson, Lars (1992). Birds of Europe with North Africa and the Middle East. London: A&C Black. p. 346. ISBN 0-7136-8096-2. 
  13. ^ D'Arcy, Gordon (1999). Ireland's Lost Birds. Dublin: Four Courts Press. pp. 113–114. ISBN 978-1-85182-529-5. 
  14. ^ 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. 
  15. ^ 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. 
  16. ^ Mcdevitt, Allan D; Kajtoch, Łukasz; Mazgajski, Tomasz D; Carden, Ruth F; Coscia, Ilaria; Osthoff, Christian; Coombes, Richard H; Wilson, Faith (2011). "The origins of Great Spotted Woodpeckers Dendrocopos major colonizing Ireland revealed by mitochondrial DNA". Bird Study. 58 (3): 361–364. doi:10.1080/00063657.2011.582619. 
  17. ^ Gorman (2014) pp. 20–22.
  18. ^ 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. 
  19. ^ a b c "Great Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos major ' [Linnaeus, 1758]". BTOWeb BirdFacts. British Trust for Ornithology. Retrieved 19 January 2016. 
  20. ^ a b c d Snow, David; Perrins, Christopher M, eds. (1998). The Birds of the Western Palearctic concise edition (2 volumes). Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 993–996. ISBN 0-19-854099-X. 
  21. ^ 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. 
  22. ^ Rothschild, Miriam; Clay, Theresa (1957). Fleas, Flukes and Cuckoos. A study of bird parasites. New York: Macmillan. pp. 163, 189, 222. 
  23. ^ 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. 
  24. ^ Combes, Claude; Simberloff, Daniel (2008). The Art of Being a Parasite. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 68. ISBN 978-0-226-11429-3. 

Cited texts[edit]

  • Gorman, Gerard (2014). Woodpeckers of the World. Helm Photographic Guides. London: Christopher Helm. ISBN 978-1-4081-4715-3. 

External links[edit]