Great spotted woodpecker: the bird profiles


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.

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The UK has several native woodpecker species. All are beautiful; only one is great! Here’s everything you should know about the great spotted woodpecker.

A great spotted woodpecker
The great spotted woodpecker is loud in every sense of the word

Of the 200 species of woodpecker worldwide, the UK has just 3. The one you are most likely to see in your garden is the great spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos major). With black and white plumage and stark red highlights, these woodpeckers are difficult to miss, even without their loud drumming, which sounds early in the year. Although frequently seen in gardens, great spotted woodpeckers prefer forests, rich with young and old trees, and full of insects. Unfortunately, this habitat is highly endangered; such forests are hard to come by, as homogenous woodland is increasingly grown and expanded. Read on to find out how to identify the great spotted woodpecker and enjoy its unique traits.

Great spotted woodpecker: key facts

SizeAbout 20-24cm
WeightAbout 80-100g
Breeding seasonApril-May
LifespanApproximately 10 years
HabitatForests, parks and gardens
Food preferencesInsects, larvae, tree seeds, eggs and chicks
ThreatsDecline in natural habitat

How to recognise the great spotted woodpecker

You can distinguish a great spotted woodpecker by its plumage. Its back and crown are black, and contrast to its lighter chest and cheeks. Its shoulders are pure white; its black wings are banded white; and its abdomen, reaching under the tail and to the back of the legs, is bright red. The great spotted woodpecker’s long, pointed beak and the black stripe across its face are also distinctive features. Like all woodpeckers, you should also be able to identify the great spotted woodpecker in flight by its undulating aerobatics.

The lesser spotted woodpecker, also found in the UK, looks similar to the great spotted. Despite these similarities, however, lesser spotted woodpeckers lack their cousin’s red belly; sporting a monochrome, light-coloured abdomen, which is marked with dark spots. (You shouldn’t have any trouble mistaking the great spotted for the green woodpecker!)

How to tell the difference between male and female great spotted woodpeckers

Male and female great spotted woodpeckers are mostly the same colour. The only notable feature that distinguishes the two is the male’s neck, which has a red patch on it.

A male great spotted woodpecker
The male great spotted woodpecker has red mark on his neck

How to recognise a young great spotted woodpecker

Young great spotted woodpeckers display the typical black and white plumage. In contrast to their parents, however, a chick’s crown is red, and its abdomen is dull. As such, juvenile great spotted woodpeckers look similar to other woodpecker species, like the middle spotted and lesser spotted woodpecker. Middle spotted woodpeckers aren’t found in the UK, and again, the great spotted woodpecker’s unmarked abdomen distinguishes it from the lesser spotted woodpecker.

A young woodpecker perched on a branch
Great spotted woodpecker chicks have red crowns

How to recognise a great spotted woodpecker egg

Great spotted woodpecker eggs are about 2.7 x 2 centimetres in size and pure white. A female lays between 4 and 7 eggs per clutch, and incubates them alternately with her partner. Apart from some wood chippings that accumulate during nest construction, woodpeckers don’t require any nesting material.

What is the perfect habitat for great spotted woodpeckers?

Naturally, great spotted woodpeckers inhabit rich deciduous and coniferous forests that contain lots of old and dead wood. This habitat is declining however, so woodpeckers are spreading to more urban environments, such as parks and gardens, where they have been quite successful.

Where do great spotted woodpeckers build their nests?

Great spotted woodpeckers use old, unhealthy trees to build their nests. They form a cavity in the tree with an oval entrance about 5 to 6 centimetres in diameter by constantly tapping on the tree’s trunk with their pointed beaks. Normally, the nest is between two and ten metres from the ground and carefully positioned.

In fact, the woodpecker is known to start building several nests before finally selecting one and completing it. Old nests are rarely reused, but other bird species do sometimes occupy them once the woodpecker has left.

Note: A great spotted woodpecker’s brain is cushioned with built-in “shock absorbers” and plenty of brain fluid to prevent damage when it taps a trees.

A woodpecker by their nest in a tree hollow
Great spotted woodpeckers breed in tree cavities

When is breeding season for great spotted woodpeckers?

Great spotted woodpecker eggs incubate for around 11 to 13 days between April and May. Once hatched, the chicks are fed in the nest for 3 to 4 weeks. During this time, the young woodpeckers beg loudly: “wi-wi-wi-wi-wi”. You may be lucky enough to spot a woodpecker nest in your local park or garden. If so, take some time to watch the parents feed their young.

Where do great spotted woodpeckers spend winter?

The great spotted woodpecker is resident in the UK year round. In winter, the woodpecker feeds predominantly on leftover berries and tree seeds, including pine and spruce cones. Males and females live separately in the colder months. Only in spring do partners reunite, with couples remaining loyal for up to three years.

What does a great spotted woodpecker’s song sound like?

The great spotted woodpecker doesn’t sing. Instead, it uses a short, fast drum-roll to mark territory and attract a partner. Woodpeckers drum on melodious, dead branches, which are sought especially for this purpose. Besides drumming, the great spotted woodpecker has a distinctive call: a metallic “kix”.

A woodpecker on a tree trunk
Instead of singing, the great spotted woodpecker drums on dead wood

Help the great spotted woodpecker!

Here are some tips on how to offer the great spotted woodpecker a home in your garden, including what to feed them, what birdhouses they would like, and how you can help protect this amazing species.

What do great spotted woodpeckers eat?

Great spotted woodpeckers feed predominantly on insects and their larvae, which they either collect with their sticky tongues or impale with their pointed beaks. They are also known to wedge pine or spruce cones into bark crevices and pick the seeds out. During breeding season, great spotted woodpeckers become nest-robbers, stealing eggs or chicks from other birds’ nests. In winter, however, they are happy to use bird feeders, particularly those serving fatty mixtures and nuts, including hazelnuts and peanuts.

Tip: Want to build your own bird feeder? We’ve logged some tips and tricks to make it simple and easy. With a bird feeder, you not only support hungry birds, but introduce yourself to the art of bird watching!

Which birdhouses are suitable for great spotted woodpeckers?

Great spotted woodpeckers very rarely nest in birdhouses, preferring to build their own. If you want to try your luck, erect an enclosed birdhouse with a small entrance hole, around 6 centimetres in diameter (the woodpecker will likely hammer in its own smaller holes). In any case, woodpeckers do occasionally use birdboxes as overnight accommodation.

How can I support great spotted woodpeckers even more?

It is difficult to create the ideal habitat for a great spotted woodpecker in your garden. That would involve introducing numerous old and rotten trees. You can, however, support the woodpecker throughout the year by providing it with food: energy-rich nutrition during winter and a diverse, natural food supply in summer. 

As well as a feeding station, try growing a flower meadow. Meadows attract innumerable insects, and with them, hungry birds to your garden.

On hot days, great spotted woodpeckers love a birdbath. Set out a simple bowl of water and it will be appreciated by all your garden birds, including the wren and goldfinch.