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European green woodpecker: the bird profiles

Here is how to recognise green woodpeckers by sight and sound, and distinguish the males from the females!

Green woodpecker on the ground
The green woodpecker, also called the ground woodpecker or grass woodpecker, is often seen on the ground [Photo: Marcin Perkowski/ Shutterstock.com]

The European green woodpecker (Picus viridis) is the largest of the UK’s three woodpecker species – though you will probably hear its loud, laughing call before you see it. Often referred to as the ground or grass woodpecker, green woodpeckers tend to be found on land, looking for ants in parks and gardens, rather than in trees. Read on to find out more about this curious, green bird!

European green woodpecker: key facts

Size31-33cm

Weight180 g

Breeding season
April-June

Life span
Up to 10 Years

HabitatWoods, orchard meadows, parks or garden

Food PreferenceAnts and their larvae
ThreatsDecrease in food and natural habitat

How to identify green woodpeckers

As you might expect, a green woodpecker’s back, wings and tail feathers are green. At over 30 centimetres long, they are also large birds, distinguished by long, pointed bills, black face masks and bright red crests. In flight, the birds perform unique undulating movements, and display their bright yellow lower rump, and black-tipped, white-spotted wings.

Green woodpecker on a tree
The green woodpecker is easily recognised by its green plumage and red crest

The European green woodpecker is easy to confuse with the grey headed woodpecker. Both have similar foliage, but grey headed woodpeckers have a smaller body, a grey head and no facial colouring.

Grey woodpecker on tree
The grey woodpecker is very similar to the green woodpecker [Photo: Mihai Baciu/ Shutterstock.com]

What does a European green woodpeckers call sound like?

Unlike other woodpecker species, whose bills are stronger, the green woodpecker rarely drums on trees. Instead, it performs a loud, laughing call, sometimes referred to as yaffling.

Green woodpecker sitting on tree
The European green woodpecker drums less frequently than the great spotted woodpecker because its beak is not as powerful

How to recognise young green woodpeckers?

Young green woodpeckers look just like their parents – just smaller. Unlike their parents, however, young green woodpeckers have grey-spotted plumage on their faces and bellies. Their adult facial colouring develops with age.

Young green woodpecker in meadow
Young green woodpeckers already look a lot like their parents [Photo: Martin Mecnarowski/ Shutterstock.com]

What do the eggs look like?

European green woodpecker eggs are about 3 x 2cm. The birds lay between five and eight bright white eggs per clutch.

How to distinguish between female and male green woodpeckers?

Although they look similar, there is a subtle difference between male and female green woodpeckers. Female European green woodpeckers have a solid black beard stripe that runs from the rear edge of their beaks to the nape of the neck. While male green woodpeckers have a bright red stripe instead.

Green woodpecker male on branch
The males of the green woodpecker have a red beard stripe [Photo: Steve Midgley/ Shutterstock.com]

Where do ground woodpeckers live?

The natural habitat of green woodpeckers can vary. However, they tend to prefer open land; orchards, parks and large gardens are all ideal locations for European green woodpeckers. The birds also feel at home in the edges or clearings of deciduous and mixed forests.

How and where do green woodpeckers build their nests?

Green woodpecker beaks are best suited to foraging in soft wood and soil, and not to powerful hammering. As such, the birds prefer to nest in existing cavities where possible. If no such cavity is available, however, the male European green woodpecker is able to make its own, usually in soft wood or diseased trees. 

A green woodpecker’s nest cavity is usually about 50cm deep and has an ovular entrance hole. It takes roughly three weeks for the woodpecker to finish its nest.

When do European green woodpeckers breed?

Green woodpeckers start to breed in April and incubate their eggs for about two weeks. In their first three weeks, the chicks are fed in the nest, but continue to rely on their parents’ guidance for a further three to four weeks as they search for food. 

Green woodpeckers tend only to have one brood per year. However, if their first clutch does not survive, they may breed a second time.

Green woodpecker chick being fed
Green woodpeckers take care of their young for several weeks [Photo: PJR-Photography/ Shutterstock.com]

Where does the ground woodpecker hibernate?

Green woodpeckers do not migrate south in winter. Instead, they stay close to home, roaming the cold landscape alone, in search of their favourite food – ants.

Help the European green woodpecker!

European green woodpeckers are becoming ever more reliant on parks and gardens because their primary habitats – meadow orchards and sparse, mixed forests – are dwindling. Read on to find out how you can support green woodpeckers in your garden.

What do green woodpeckers eat?

Green woodpeckers love ants and their larvae and will dig holes in an anthill with their beaks to pick out the little insects with their long, sticky tongues. Once they have located an ant hill, they are unlikely to forget it; the birds are adept at locating their favourite anthills, even when they are covered in a layer of snow. If ants are in short supply, green woodpeckers will eat other insects instead.

Green woodpecker foraging in winter
The green woodpecker can also finds ants under snow cover [Photo: aabeele/ Shutterstock.com]

Are birdhouses suitable for European green woodpeckers?

Green woodpeckers are unlikely to use a garden birdhouse, as they prefer to nest in existing tree cavities or make one themselves. As such, it is best to tailor your birdhouse to birds who will actually use it: like the blue tit, starling and wren.

What can you do to support European green woodpeckers?

While they may not use a nesting box, green woodpeckers do use natural nesting sites if they see one. As such, if you have a diseased or rotten tree in your garden, consider leaving it – the tree may become a breeding site for a green woodpecker!

While many try to remove ants from their garden, there are a few reasons to support your local ants. First, the little insects are green woodpeckers’ favourite food. What is more, they loosen soil, which helps preserve a smooth material cycle. By turning your garden into an insect and ant haven, you are not only helping woodpeckers – you are also supporting your garden’s natural ecosystem.

Caution: Always think twice before using chemicals to remove ants and other pests from your garden. Harsh chemicals can harm many animals – not just the pests!

Read our article on the more common great spotted woodpecker to discover more about Great Britain’s native woodpeckers.

Hannah

I am particularly interested in garden wildlife which is why I did my Master's degree with a focus on "animal ecology". I am convinced that beneficial insects and wildlife are a sustainable and effective alternative to many of the products we use on our plants. I am also a passionate birdwatcher and rarely go for a walk without my binoculars.
Favourite fruit: kiwi, apple and redcurrant
Favourite vegetables: tomatoes and green beans