Great Spotted Woodpecker
Dendrocopos major (Linnaeus, 1758)
Family: Piciformes > Picidae
With its striking black, white and red plumage, the Great Spotted Woodpecker’s characteristic drumming display can be heard in woodlands across all but the most northerly regions of Britain. The species has a small but expanding range in Ireland.
Favouring deciduous woodland, the Great Spotted Woodpecker's primary food source is insects hidden under the bark in dead wood, but its diet also includes tree seeds and the eggs and young of other birds.
Great Spotted Woodpecker numbers have been increasing since the mid-20th century, and the species' breeding range has extended northwards across Scotland. A number of factors have been suggested as reasons for the increasing trend, including reduced competition for nest sites, greater availability of supplementary food at garden feeders, and an increase in the abundance of standing dead wood.
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Great Spotted Woodpecker identification is often straightforward. The following article may help when identifying Great Spotted Woodpecker.
Are you unsure of the identity of a black and white woodpecker coming to your garden feeder? Great Spotted or Lesser Spotted? Let this workshop help you to confidently identify these two species.
Listen to example recordings of the main vocalisations of Great Spotted Woodpecker, provided by xeno-canto contributors.
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Status and Trends
Population size and trends and patterns of distribution based on BTO surveys and atlases with data collected by BTO volunteers.
This species can be found on the following statutory and conservation listings and schedules.
This species increased rapidly in the 1970s and again in the late 1990s and 2000s. The BBS map of change in relative density between 1994-96 and 2007-09 indicates that increase has been fairly uniform across the British range. A completely unexpected colonisation of Ireland, where there had previously been no resident woodpeckers, began in 2008, with genetic studies indicating Britain as the likely origin (Balmer et al. 2013). There has been an increase across Europe since 1980 (PECBMS: PECBMS 2020a>).
|UK breeding population||+403% increase (1967–2020)|
Bird Atlas 2007–11 coincided with the colonisation of Ireland by Great Spotted Woodpeckers: breeding was first proved in Northern Ireland in 2006 and the Republic of Ireland in 2009. This species is undergoing a substantial range expansion in Britain too, most notably towards the north and west, with gains in occupancy evident in Scotland and Wales. The Northern Isles, Outer Hebrides and most of the Inner Hebrides remain unoccupied.
Occupied 10-km squares in UK
|No. occupied in breeding season||2360|
|% occupied in breeding season||78|
|No. occupied in winter||2345|
|% occupied in winter||78|
European Distribution Map
Breeding Season Habitats
|Most frequent in||Deciduous Wood|
Relative frequency by habitat
The range expansion is in line with the rapid increase in population documented in the 1970s, with further increases from the early 1990s.
Change in occupied 10-km squares in the UK
|% change in range in breeding season (1968–72 to 2008–11)||+14.5%|
|% change in range in winter (1981–84 to 2007–11)||+33.3%|
Great Spotted Woodpeckers are widely recorded throughout the year.
Information about movement and migration based on online bird portals (e.g. BirdTrack), Ringing schemes and tracking studies.
Lifecycle and body size information about Great Spotted Woodpecker, including statistics on nesting, eggs and lifespan based on BTO ringing and nest recording data.
View number ringed each year in the Online Ringing Report
|Maximum Age from Ringing||11 years 10 months 21 days (set in 2017)|
|Wing Length||Adults||132.4±2.7 | Range 128–137mm, N=2663|
|Juveniles||131.3±3.5 | Range 126-136mm, N=2357|
|Males||132.5±2.6 | Range 128–137mm, N=1335|
|Females||132.2±2.7 | Range 128–137mm, N=1319|
|Body Weight||Adults||78.7±5.31 | Range 71.0–87.0g, N=2113|
|Juveniles||76.9±5.6788 | Range 69.3–85.0g, N=1878|
|Males||79.8±5.32 | Range 72.0–88.0g, N=1046|
|Females||77.7±5.08 | Range 70.0–86.0g, N=1061|
Feather measurements and photos on featherbase
|Field Codes||2-letter: GS | 5-letter code: GRSWO | Euring: 8760|
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Interpretation and scientific publications about Great Spotted Woodpecker from BTO scientists.
Causes of change
There is good evidence that nest survival has increased, most likely due to decreased competition with Starlings. This is based on one local study but supported by more extensive analysis of nest record cards. Use of garden feeders may be another of many factors contributing to the population increase.
Further information on causes of change
The initial increase in Great Spotted Woodpeckers during the 1970s has been attributed to Dutch elm disease, which greatly increased the amount of standing dead timber, thereby increasing associated insects and so improving food supplies and providing nest sites (Marchant et al. 1990). However, studies giving demographic evidence supporting the effects of this are sparse. There has been speculation that the storms of 1987 and 1990 also benefited Great Spotted Woodpeckers by increasing the availability of dead wood, although a detailed study by Smith (1997), in two study woodlands, reported no specific link between woodpecker increase and the storms, despite the increase in dead wood.
A long-term study of the breeding success of an increasing population of Great Spotted Woodpeckers in southern England provides good evidence that nest survival has increased dramatically over the last 20 years (Smith 2005, 2006). Nest-site interference by Starlings was frequent during the 1980s and was described as the main cause of low nest survival and delayed nesting. Smith found that Starling numbers declined to such an extent later in the study that they ceased to nest in the study woods and nest-site interference was no longer a factor. Thus, the reduction in nest-site competition from Starlings is likely to be one of the factors contributing to the increase in Great Spotted Woodpeckers. Smith (2005) analysed national nest record cards and found similar trends in nest survival, supporting the hypothesis that reduced competition with Starlings has led to the increase in woodpecker population. The decline in Starling numbers in recent decades may also have allowed Great Spotted Woodpeckers to expand their breeding distribution into less-wooded habitats (Smith 2005). Great Spotted Woodpeckers appear limited in their ability to advance their breeding period to maintain synchrony with their natural prey and thus their ready use of garden feeders has the potential to increase breeding success (Smith & Smith 2013).
It is possible that recent increases of Great Spotted Woodpeckers, are also, at least in part, driven by changing climate (Fuller et al. 2005). In Scandinavia (Nilsson et al. 1992) and Bialowieza Forest, Poland (Wesolowski & Tomialojc 1986), breeding numbers were found to be related to the severity of the preceding winter and the availability of conifer seeds on which the birds then feed. No similar relationship has been found in Britain (Marchant et al. 1990), which is probably not surprising given our relatively mild winters (Smith 1997). Smith (2006) found no evidence that increasing spring temperatures impacted on clutch size, nesting success or number of young fledged. Smith & Smith (2019) found that caterpillar abundance influenced breeding productivity; however, although caterpillar abundance trends may be linked to temperature, they are apparently also cyclic and hence there is no evidence linking UK population trends to caterpillar numbers.
Information about conservation actions
This species is increasing in the UK and hence it is not a species of conservation concern and conservation actions are not currently required.
Woodland management, provided deadwood features are maintained, is likely to continue to provide foraging and nesting habitat for this species. This species has significantly increased its use of garden feeders (Plummer et al. 2019) and, in addition to improving survival, this could also benefit this species by increasing breeding success (Smith & Smith 2013).
Some concerns have been raised about the possible impact of increasing populations of Great Spotted Woodpeckers on other species through predation; however studies of Willow Tit suggest that predation by Great Spotted Woodpeckers has made little or no contribution to the decline of that species (Siriwardena 2004; Lewis et al. 2007). Where concerns occur, measures such as covering boxes in wire mesh (Mainwaring & Hartly 2008 Mainwaring & Hartly 2008) or changing nest box design (Kalinski et al. 2009) can reduce predation of nest boxes.
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