10 Interesting Facts About The Great Spotted Woodpecker


The great spotted woodpecker is the jackhammer of woodlands and parks. This black and white bird has a durable beak that is ideal for hammering away at trees as it searches for food, drills a new home, or announces its territory.

Although the great spotted woodpecker is the most common woodpecker in Europe, it is rare in North America. It may be shy and elusive, but the great spotted woodpecker is a fascinating bird with several unique quirks. Here are 10 fun facts about the great spotted woodpecker.

1. The Great Spotted Woodpecker Is Not That Great

Nothing against the bird’s personality or accomplishments, but the great spotted woodpecker is not really that great. 

It was so named because this species is slightly larger than its similar-looking cousin, the lesser spotted woodpecker. But the size difference is not significant.

The great spotted woodpecker averages between 8 and 10 inches in length, whereas the lesser spotted woodpecker is between 5.5 and 7 inches long. 

But, hey, we think both birds are great.

2. It Is A North American Interloper

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Across Europe and Asia, the great spotted woodpecker is the most abundant woodpecker species, but that’s not the case in North America. In fact, this bird is relatively rare on the North American continent.

The great spotted woodpecker is not a migratory bird, but some members of its species have been known to wander. 

Biologists describe the great spotted woodpeckers’ appearances in North America as an example of vagrancy, in which individual birds travel far beyond their natural habitat to establish a new home, or colony. 

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In many ways, the great spotted woodpecker is repeating the history of the United States.

3. The Great Spotted Woodpecker Has Been Aided By Dutch Elm Disease

When Dutch elm disease spreads through a grove and kills off a stand of trees, the rotting trunks, still standing upright, make an ideal habitat for the great spotted woodpecker. 

The dead trees provide them with nesting sites, as well as an abundant food supply from the insects living in the decaying wood.

4. A Splash Of Red

The great spotted woodpeckers have black wings and backs, white bellies, white faces, and black heads. As the name suggests, the bird’s black wings are spotted with white.

Male great spotted woodpeckers sport a splash of showy red on their capes that the females do not have. 

This has led some people to misidentify the great spotted woodpecker as a red-headed woodpecker. Not only is there a noticeable size difference between the two species, but the placement of the red coloring is different.

5. A Drummer Extraordinaire

Like all woodpeckers, the great spotted woodpecker is a skilled drummer with a thick, strong beak. It engages in what biologists call ‘territorial drumming’ to announce its claim on a territory. 

The woodpeckers hammer out up to 20 beats per second, delivered in a staccato rhythm.

The great spotted woodpecker pecks at the wood for two other reasons in addition to territorial drumming. 

It uses its sharp beat and pounding ability to drill holes in tree trunks for its nests and to search for insects, like ants and termites, that live behind the bark.

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6. It Is Equipped With Shock Absorbers

You would think that all that hammering with its beak would give the great spotted woodpecker an awful headache, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. That is because the great spotted woodpecker is equipped with its own shock absorber built into its skull.

The woodpecker’s skull is hinged in the front and attached to its upper jaw with a band of muscle. The hinge and muscle cushion the impact from the hammering action and protects the bird’s brain from concussions and other damage.

7. The Great Spotted Woodpecker Typically Dines On Insects

Bugs are the number one food choice for great spotted woodpeckers. 

When they drill holes in tree trunks with their hammering action, they are looking for spiders, grubs, insect larvae, beetles, worms, and caterpillars. 

The woodpeckers have long, sticky, maneuverable tongues that are ideal for extracting insects from the holes they drill in tree bark.

Great spotted woodpeckers are not strictly insectivores. During the winter months, when bugs are hard to come by, the great spotted woodpecker will dine on nuts and seeds to sustain itself.

8. Great Spotted Woodpeckers Are Monogamous

Great spotted woodpeckers engage in courtship rituals and, afterward, a male and female will bond together to form a monogamous relationship. Both sexes work together to excavate a hole in a tree in which to hatch their eggs.  

In the spring, the female great spotted woodpecker will lay between four and six eggs which will hatch a few weeks later. The chicks will remain in the nest for the next three weeks or so before they are ready to strike out on their own. 

A monogamous pair will have one brood of chicks per year.

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9. Great Spotted Woodpeckers And Parasites

The great spotted woodpecker is a common host for several kinds of parasites. One of them is the spiny-headed worm which is introduced by a fly that feeds on the bird’s blood. 

The woodpecker is also susceptible to tapeworm and a deadly protozoan. All of these can cause death.

The great spotted woodpecker can also fall prey to external predators. The goshawk and the sparrowhawk are two birds of prey that target the great spotted woodpecker.

10. Great Spotted Woodpeckers Communicate Via Drumming And Calling

The territorial drumming that the great spotted woodpecker engages in is a form of communication because the bird is alerting other birds about its territorial claim. 

But that’s not the only way the woodpecker communicates. It produces a sharp, high-pitched call that sounds a bit like it is saying “kik” or “chik”.

The great spotted woodpecker uses its piercing call during its courtship ritual and to warn other birds of potential dangers. Unlike songbirds, however, the great spotted woodpecker doesn’t sing.

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James Goodman

James is a native Texan with a love for birding and outdoor adventures. When he's not birdwatching, you can find him hiking, camping or playing the piano.

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