Syrian Woodpecker

Syrian Woodpecker Dendrocopos syriacus.


Genus: Dendrocopos, Koch 1826. First described as Picus syriacus by Hemprich & Ehrenberg, 1833.



Above: Adult male, Austria, July 2004 (Göran Ekström). Note on thos bird that the venral area is red rather than pink. Most Syrians show pink here but variation in colour tone is not uncommon and some birds show almost as deep a red as Great Spotted Woodpeckers.


Distribution/Range: The world range of Syrian Woodpecker is confined to the Palearctic from central Europe, the Balkans and Turkey, southwards into parts of the Near and Middle East as far as northern Egypt, and eastwards from northern Iraq to Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and parts of Iran. However they are not desert dwellers. Unlike the Gila Woodpecker which you can find in the deserts of the South Western USA and casino heartland – Nevada. The Syrian woodpecker prefers temperate woodland. In fact the bulk of the population lies within the western Palearctic with the only inhabited area outside this (albeit arbitrary) region being in Iran. The species is typically found in continental and Mediterranean-type, drier, temperate zones and is essentially a lowland bird occurring from sea level to medium altitudes. In the Carpathian Basin Syrian Woodpeckers are usually found below 350m, in Greece and Bulgaria up to 1000m, but in Turkey and Iran they also occur over 2000m. Though none of the larger Mediterranean islands are populated there may be birds on the Greek islands of Samothraki, Thasos and Lesbos. The most north western known breeding record for Europe is from the Ceské Stredohori hills in the Louny district of the Czech Republic). This is outside the current core breeding range of the species, being some 60km northwest of Prague, and around 20 km from the German border. The most westerly breeding population is around Linz, Upper Austria, and the most northerly regular breeding area in Europe is probably around at Bialystok in NE Poland.


Measurements: Length 22-23 cm. Wingspan 34-39 cm. Seems slimmer but not shorter in length, than Great Spotted. From the rear the head and neck seem slimmer and longer due to the single vertical black stripe which runs downwards from the crown to the mantle.   General: Syrian Woodpecker is a typical Dendrocopos woodpecker with mostly black upper-parts, mostly pale under-parts, a black and white head, black wings barred with white, large white oval scapular patches and a pink vent and under-tail coverts. Until recently the widely-used field guides tended to emphasize the lack of a black line (post-auricular stripe) across the ear-coverts as being the main feature separating Syrian from Great Spotted Woodpecker. This despite the fact that many papers on the species, some published decades ago, have emphasized the importance of other features, particularly tail pattern. The face pattern of Syrian Woodpecker is important, but it should not be regarded as the main difference (see below).  Overall the black plumage (particularly crown, mantle and back) is matt rather than glossy. The under-side, and upper-side, of the outer rectrices are black with light white bars, unlike Great Spotted where the dark under-tail is always boldly barred white. This is a good feature to look for on flying birds, as this lack of white can be remarkably easy to see, certainly often easier than the face pattern. When seen from behind (e.g. when birds are climbing at a hole entrance) Syrian shows only a vertical black stripe which runs from the crown down the hind-neck to the mantle (in males this line runs from the red nape patch). It does not show the “black-cross” that Great Spotted has at the back of the head which is created by the two post-auricular stripes (one on each side of the face) touching the hind-crown, and thus the sides of the face appear very white. In atypical birds (where there is a hint of an extension from the malar stripe) or in birds moving or holding their heads askew (e.g. when foraging) it may sometimes seem that the nape is reached. The vent and under-tail coverts are pink. Though variable in shade from bird to bird, on some being almost red, this area is never scarlet as in a typical Great Spotted. The pink area also often reaches up onto the lower belly. “Syrians” which show scarlet here should be scrutinized for other plumage features as they may prove to be hybrids, but beware of individual variation. A black malar stripe leads from the lower mandible and meets the lateral neck stripe below the ear-coverts. Though in some birds it may curl up towards the ear-coverts, where it meets the lateral neck stripe, it never crosses the ear-coverts to form a post-auricular stripe. A lateral neck stripe extends from the malar stripe (which it joins below the ear-coverts) across the neck sides to the shoulder and upper breast. It rarely reaches the scapulars, whereas in adult Great Spotted it almost always does via a short connecting bar. Together with the malar stripe it forms a black crescent around the throat, recalling Middle Spotted Woodpecker. These facial features combine to create a more open, whiter appearance than Great Spotted. The white of the face extends in an unbroken sweep from the lores, around the eye (there is also usually more white above the eye than in Great Spotted) across the ear coverts, to the sides and rear of the neck and down to the breast. White spots on the black flight feathers are larger, but fewer in number than in Great Spotted, and form three wing-bars. The outer primaries are black and usually, but not always, with white tips. Though virtually impossible to see in the field (but visible on skins) white barring on the flight feathers usually reach closer to the feather shafts in Syrian. Under-parts are white or buff and lightly streaked with grey. Unlike Great Spotted there is no clear border between the pink under-tail coverts and the white belly, which merge into each other. The flanks are often lightly streaked with grey. But there is much individual variation with some birds being “clean” and others even showing faint barring. Syrian is never as heavily streaked as Middle Spotted and adult Great Spotted shows clean flanks. The forehead is white and this area is slightly larger and cleaner and extends further up onto the fore-crown than on Great Spotted. The lores usually appear whiter and cleaner, too. Nasal bristles are difficult to see in the field but are white or pale, whereas on Great Spotted they are black.




Above: Adult male. Valtice, Czech Republic (Petr Machacek). Note red nape patch. White cheek, pink undertail and lack of white in the tail are all clearly visible.



Above: Adult female, Evros Delta, Greece (Bill Baston). Note lack of red on nape. White cheek, pink undertail and lack of white in the tail are all clearly visible.


Adult male: Has an all red nape patch that is the only plumage feature that reliably separates males from females. Though difficult to judge in the field this patch is also slightly larger than that of male Great Spotted as it extends further up the hind-crown and downwards towards the hind-neck. The front of the red patch is also closer to the eye than in Great Spotted. The red of the nape patch contrasts with the pink of the vent and under-tail coverts. Adult female: The nape is black not red.



Above: Adult female, Budapest, Hungary, 2005 (Szabolcs Kókay). The lack of red on the nape indicates a female. Note the pink undertail, the white face lacking a black post-auricular stripe and also lack of white on the tail, all features separating Syrian from Great Spotted Woodpecker.


Juveniles: Juveniles of both sexes can be easily separated from adults because they have an all red crown. Most also have a reddish breast band or gorget, or at least a hint of such a band, across the breast. This recalls races of Great Spotted from North Africa and some birds in Iberia. Eyes browner, not as deep red as adults. Juvenile Syrians are best separated from juvenile Great Spotted using some of the features mentioned above for adults, in particular more white on head and less on tail than in Great Spotted. Some juvenile Great Spotteds may have a little red or pink on the breast but this never forms a real band as in most Syrians. Juvenile Syrians typically show dark streaking on the flanks (recalling Middle Spotted rather than Great Spotted). Some may lack streaking. As with adult birds, the post-auricular stripe does not reach the nape in juveniles but beware juvenile Great Spotted here as some may also lack this stripe or at least part of it. Given the variability in face patterns the outer tail is perhaps the most reliable feature in safely separating juveniles of the two species.



Above: Tail of a dead juvenile (though age cannot be determined by this photo) found in Csepel, Budapest, Hungary, 2005 (Szabolcs Kókay). Note that there are white markings only on the two outer-most feathers. Minimal white in the tail is an important feature that separates Syrian from Great Spotted Woodpecker (all ages and both sexes).


Juvenile male: Both sexes have a black-bordered red crown but the red is larger on males covering most of the crown.



Above: Juvenile female, Austria, July 2004 (Göran Ekström)


Juvenile female: As juvenile male except red crown patch is slightly smaller.


Above: Juvenile female, Csepel, Hungary, 2005 (Szabolcs Kókay). Note the small red patch of the crown which indicates a female. The dusky smudge around the eye is typical of all juveniles. The lack of a post-auricular stripe and minimal white in the tail are features which separate from Great Spotted, as they also do in adults.


Above: Female Syrian nestling, Csepel, Budapest, Hungary, June 2006 (Szabolcs Kókay). Note the small red patch on the forecrown. Also the red smudge on the breast.



Above: Male Great Spotted x Syrian hybrid, Bobrovnik, Slovakia, March 2006.


Fero Bednar – Wildlife and Nature Photography


This bird shows a combination of features. Note that the post-auricular stripe is clearly imcomplete, as typical for Syrian. But the ventral area is deep red, not pink. The outer tail feathers show too much white for a typical Syrian, though many Great Spotteds will show even more white than is visible here. The bill is rather stout as in Great Spotted. Syrian bills are generally finer at the tip and though this is often hard to discern in the field this structural difference between the two species is often visible on good photographs like this one

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