by Sam Dawson
Woodpeckers are uniquely fascinating creatures. You are most likely to spot (or hear) the three species of woodpecker that we have here in the UK in mature, broad-leaved woodlands. The Green woodpecker also frequents open grassland. Their beak is their most powerful tool, well-suited for making holes in bark or probing the ground for insects which are then lapped up by their lengthy, slithering tongues.
Great and lesser-spotted woodpecker
Great-spotted woodpeckers are among the most commonly heard birds in the woodpecker family and you can identify these species by the distinctive drumming. When watching or listening to these woodpeckers doing their drumming, it’s a marvel that they don’t damage their skulls! Woodpeckers are perfectly adapted to the drumming, as they have shock-absorbent tissue between the base of the bill and skull which protects against the drumming’s impact.
Great-spotted woodpeckers (pictured above) also have an exceptionally long tongue that wraps around the inside of its when it is not using the tongue to consume insects. This mechanism is one way the woodpecker protects the brain from shaking around the woodpecker’s head whilst drumming.
Lesser spotted are the rarest of the woodpecker family and much smaller in size than the great-spotted. Lesser-spotted woodpeckers have distinctive, characteristic toes, two forwards and two backwards, not seen in most birds. This enables them to stand vertically on tree trunks. Lesser-spotted are also often seen higher up in the trees than the great-spotted typically is, another way to distinguish them from the larger variety, aside from size.
The biggest of the UK woodpeckers, the Green woodpecker primarily spends its time on the ground. Unique among our woodpeckers in this country, it will feed on ants, using it’s perfectly adapted beak to probe the ground and suck any up with it’s lengthy, sticky tongue. Like that of the Greater-spotted, the tongue of the Green woodpecker is so long that it coils behind its skull to fit inside the head. The only time this species uses its beak for the characteristic drumming associated with woodpeckers is when preparing holes in trees to use as a nesting site.
Green Woodpeckers are famously shy birds but recently I recorded our first sighting ever of this species at Wolf Fields, A Rocha UK’s urban nature reserve, while I was accompanying a couple of socially distanced colleagues who were filming down there. It nearly flew into the CEO while he was preparing his lines! We assume that the woodpecker had taken up visiting Wolf Fields during lockdown when there were no people around; we pray it continues to do so! West country residents commonly know the Green woodpecker as the “yaffle” or as “laughing Betsy” and “yaffingale” because of its distinctive, laughing call.
What can you do to help woodpeckers?
The primary threat that woodpeckers in the UK face is the loss of habitat. Typically woodpeckers prefer broad-leaved deciduous woodland, as well as deadwood habitat. Something you can do if you have a woodland nearby is provide food for these woodpeckers, particularly the Great-spotted which likes to consume nuts from bird feeders.
Green woodpeckers are dependent upon agricultural practices, typically preferring open woodland or forests with a river or stream where ant populations are higher as opposed to closed wood. They especially prefer areas with short turf often made by grazing livestock.
For green woodpeckers, why not leave spaces that will attract ants, for example, a section of your garden or churchyard for all your fallen leaves in the autumn that will provide a habitat for the ants and in turn provide a food source for green woodpeckers. Change your mowing regime in your garden or churchyard to create areas of shorter and longer grass that can provide woodpeckers places to find cover and to hunt.
Woodpeckers love deadwood habitats, mature trees and woodland habitats. If you have deadwood habitat in your garden or churchyard and it isn’t posing a health and safety risk, leave it for nature, particularly woodpeckers who will use it to nest in and feed on burrowing insects.
The Lesser-spotted woodpecker numbers in the UK have crashed by 83% since 1970 and The Woodland Trust estimates that there are only 2,000 pairs left in the UK. The cause is thought to be the decreasing amount of ancient woodland and deadwood habitat.
Consider what you can do to help protect ancient woodlands and provide food and habitat for woodpeckers.
About the author – Sam Dawson is A Rocha UK’s Community and Conservation intern at A Rocha UK, working with A Rocha UK for a year as part of his university degree in Countryside Management.
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