Though perhaps not the most fashionable family amongst identification connoisseurs Europe’s woodpeckers, in particular the Dendrocopos genus, the so-called pied woodpeckers, can present the odd identification problem. I wouldn’t go as far as to suggest that Europe’s woodpeckers are as tricky to identify as, say, some waders or gulls, and they certainly do not exhibit comparable ranges in plumage due to season or age. But then again most woodpeckers don’t lounge around in large flocks on open mudflats or sit preening in photogenic groups on rubbish dumps where they can be studied for hours on end through one’s telescope. Then again Great Spotted Woodpeckers are garden birds in some areas and, as in the photograph below by Bill Baston, can be easily watched and studied when they visit feeders.
Most of the world’s woodpeckers are visually sexually dimorphic and this is true, though to varying extents, for most European woodpeckers. But this dimorphism is often rather subtle so careful attention needs to be paid to sexual and age badges in plumage. All European woodpeckers are sexually dichromatic except Wryneck and Middle Spotted Woodpecker. Separating adult and juvenile males from females usually involves observing brightly coloured patches on the head, undertail or in the malar or moustachial stripes. Males show the largest sexual badges in plumage. This usually means some red (yellow in the case of Three-toed) on the crown or nape. Sometimes young birds show more red on the head than adults, as is the case with Syrian and Great Spotted. This is not clearly understood as with most other birds an increase in bright colouration usually develops with maturity. Males and females also usually differ in structure and size, but these differences are usually not noticeable in the field. Overall body size, wing length and bill length are invariably larger for males.
I have watched woodpeckers in most European countries, however most of my woodpecker studies have been in Hungary, a country where nine (9) species of woodpecker can be seen. Grey-headed, Green, Black, Great Spotted, Syrian, Middle Spotted, White-backed Woodpecker and Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers are resident and Wryneck occurs from April to August. Three-toed Woodpecker does not occur in Hungary but is resident in all neighbouring countries.
Above: Adult male Black Woodpecker (Jari Peltomaki)