Great Spotted Woodpecker

Great Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos major.


Genus: Dendrocopos, Koch 1816. First described as Picus major by Linnaeus in 1758.



Above: Adult male, Hungary (László Nehézy)


Distribution/Range: Europe’s most common woodpecker is widespread in many types of woodland from the British Isles eastwards through mainland Europe into Asia as far as Indo-China. In the north it ranges as far as the edge of the tundra and in the south it occupies woodlands throughout the Mediterranean basin and beyond into North Africa. It is absent from Iceland, Ireland (though probably occurred there in the past) and smaller islands such as Malta, the Balearics and Crete. Interestingly it does occur on Sicily, Corsica, Sardinia, Tenerife and Gran Canaria, islands which most other woodpeckers have failed to reach. Across its European range it occurs from sea level up to around 2000m in the Alps and Carpathians. In many countries Great Spotted Woodpeckers occupy suburban and even urban woodland habitats. Indeed, in some areas of Europe breeding densities are already higher in suburban habitats than in adjacent forests. The key factor that attracts Great Spotted Woodpeckers into areas of human inhabitation seems to be food. The provision of food, particularly in winter, by gardeners and bird-lovers, has probably been the ultimate factor. In those countries were bird feeding is a tradition, further increases in range can be expected. Such range expansions should benefit non-cavity making bird species, such as flycatchers Ficedula and tits Parus, as more woodpecker-made holes become available in heavily human-influenced landscapes where trees with “natural” cavities are scarce.




Above: adult male, England (Bill Baston).



Above: adult female, England (Bill Baston)




Measurements: Length 21-23 cm. Wingspan 34-39 cm. Taking all European species into account Great Spotted is a medium sized woodpecker, It is the same size, shape and structure as Syrian Woodpecker and thus between the larger White-backed and smaller Middle Spotted.


General (nominate race major described): This is the woodpecker with which most Europeans are familiar. It is a typical Dendrocopos species, essentially black and white, one of the so-called “pied”? woodpeckers. The upper-parts from mantle to rump are essentially glossy black and marked with white. The iner scapulars are black, outer scapulars and inner greater and median coverts white and combine to produce large white ovals on the “shoulders”?. These white oval patches show particularly well in flight. The chin and throat are white or cream. The breast, belly and flanks are also white, sometimes slightly buff, and generally lack streaking. In Europe any grey or rusty tones are usually a result of contact with trees. The under-tail coverts and ventral area are scarlet and there is often a sharp demarcation between this area and the white lower belly:  the red does not gradually fade or merge with the white it does on some other species. A long, black malar stripe runs from the bill across the cheek to the side of the neck, where it joins the post-auricular stripe and a lateral stripe running from the upper breast sides and a short joining stripe from the mantle and shoulder. These black lines meet below the ear-coverts. The post-auricular stripe continues across the face below the ear-coverts and reaches the nape. Thus, an enclosed white area is formed on the side of the face. No other European Dendrocopos woodpecker has this enclosed white face patch feature, as the post-auricular stripes on other species do not reach the nape. The forehead and lores are white and the nasal tufts black. The crown is glossy black. A black linking line runs from the nape down the hind-neck to the mantle. This stripe is joined at on each side by black post-auricular stripe thus birds seen from rear show a black “cross” on hind-neck. The upper-tail is matt black and under-tail a dull black-brown. The outer-most rectrix (T6) is black but hidden under the tail-covets. The adjacent two rectrices are white and maybe barred with black (in Syrian it is the reverse, the rectrices are mainly black and dotted with white). There is often some white on the third rectrix but all other tail feathers are plain black. The upper-wing is matt black and the wing-coverts glossy black. The under-wing coverts are smoky white with some black spots, wing feathers grey-black and heavily barred with white-buff. The flight feathers are black and dotted with rows of 5 or 6 white spots that almost form bars. The stocky, dagger-shaped bill is broad at the base and can comprise 60% of the skull length. It is grey to charcoal in colour with the base of the lower mandible paler. The eyes are dark red and the legs grey-olive.


Adult male: Main distinction from female is presence of a bright red nape patch. The black crown often has a bluish shine. As with most woodpeckers the male’s bill is heavier but this is not really noticeable in the field.



Above: Adult female, Hungary (László Nehézy). Note lack of red on the nape.


Adult female: The nape is black not red as in males. Black areas are overall less glossy and white areas often duskier and not as “clean” as on males.


Below: Adult female, Hungary (Szabolcs Kokay). Even on this unusual view the lack of red on the nape denotes a female.






Above: Adult female, Bobrovnik, Slovakia, March 2006 (Fero Bednar). Note that the black post-auricular stripe on this bird is rather weak and broken and hardly touches the nape and might suggest Syrian Woodpecker. However all other ID features are clearly those of Great Spotted.


Juveniles: Both juveniles have complete red crowns with thin black borders at the sides. This immediately separates juveniles from adults. Black areas matt, not glossy, and often rather brown. There may be some dark barring on the white scapular ovals. Juveniles have a weaker black malar stripe than adults. The post-auricular stripe is narrower and often dores not quite reach the nape. Overalll, white areas, particularly the cheeks, are greyer than on adult birds. Some grey streaks, occasionally light bars, cover the sides of the breast and flanks. The ventral area is pinkish, not as strong red as on adults. Some juveniles show a faint dark band across the chest and, more rarely, a flush of pink. The iris is brown, not as red as in adults.


Juvenile male: Has a larger, brighter red crown than juvenile female. The black border to the red crown is also less extensive than on females. Juvenile males show the first signs of the sexually diagnostic red nape patch after the first moult at the end of summer into autumn.


Juvenile female: Unlike adult female juvenile female has red crown patch, but the area of red is smaller than on juvenile male and thus the black border is broader. The under-tail coverts are pink and less extensive than on juvenile male.



Above: Juvenile female, Germany (Thomas Kraft). Note the thick black border to the small red crown patch and the rather dull pink undertail.


Races: There are strong clinal variations in plumage, especially as regards the colour of under-parts and in overall size. Northern birds are generally larger with stubbier bills and whiter under-parts and foreheads, whilst southern European birds are smaller with slighter bills and often greyish under-parts. Great Spotteds in the British Isles (sometimes claimed as separate race “anglicus”?) have a slighter, more slender bill and are overall less stocky than the nominate major and continental pinetorum race. They are also matt black, and sometimes rather brownish, on the upper-parts and white areas maybe more creamy or buff. Adult pinetorum from most of mainland Europe is smaller than major, has white under-parts more grey or buff and a longer, thinner bill. Adult hispanus from Iberia is overall darker than most races. White parts are cream, less white on flight feathers and there is sometimes a faint pink flush or a few red blotches on the chest. The under-tail coverts are pinkish, not as bright red as on major. Adult hartertifound on Sardinia and Corsica is a large race with reduced white spots on the wings, very grey under-parts and with a deep red ventral area. Adult canariensis on Tenerife is also a large, dark race and with rather orange-red under-tail coverts and ventral area. Adult thanneri on Gran Canaria is similar to birds on Tenerife but rather pale brown below.



Above: Male Great Spotted x Syrian hybrid, Bobrovnik, Slovakia, March 2006 (Fero Bednar). Note that the post-auricular stripe is clearly incomplete as in Syrian. The large and buffish forehead patch is also more typical for Syrian. However, the ventral area colour is deep red and there is far too much white in the tail for a Syrian. In addition the bill is rather stout as in Great Spotted. Syrian bills are more slender and finer at the tip. Bill shape and structure is often difficult to judge in the field but often visible on photographs such as this.

One thought on “Great Spotted Woodpecker

  1. BRANDON says:

    The range of the lesser spotted woodpecker is the Palearctic region, but several subspecies are recognised.

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