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Great Spotted Woodpecker Great Spotted Woodpecker Credits: Steve Waterhouse

As their names suggests, woodpeckers are famous for pecking wood!  This pecking is called 'drumming' and early spring is the best time of year to listen out for it.  But why do they drum?  And why don't they get a headache? 

Unlike most birds woodpeckers are not keen on singing.  Instead they have developed the technique of drumming their beaks against trees or other hard surfaces to make a noise and communicate with other woodpeckers.  This drumming sound can be very loud and heard from quite a long way away.  Woodpeckers drum to mark their territory and to attract a mate.  They also use their beaks to excavate nest holes in tree trunks.


Built-in shock absorbers

If you or I bashed our heads against something hard, it would hurt!  We might even knock ourselves out.  So how come a woodpecker can drum its beak against a tree over and over again without hurting itself?  The answer lies inside its head.  Unlike us, woodpeckers have a super thick skull and a special cushion inside their heads between their beak and their brain which stops them from damaging their brains when they drum.  Clever!


Super feet

Most birds have four 'toes' - three that face forwards and one that faces backwards to help them cling to branches, but woodpeckers like to do things a little differently.  Instead of the usual toe arrangement, woodpeckers have 'zygodactyl' feet instead.  This means they have two toes that face forward and two that face backward. 


This arrangement of toes, along with a short strong tail which they use as a prop, enables woodpeckers to climb up and hang onto vertical tree trunks with ease.


Green woodpecker tongue


Tongue twister

Woodpeckers have super long sticky tongues which they use to slurp up insects and grubs that they find in the crevices of tree trunks.  The green woodpecker's tongue is an amazing 10cm long!  So long that to fit it into the bird's head it has to be curled around the back of its skull. 


Image credits:  Green Woodpecker tongue (c) Margaret Holland




Where can I see one?

Woodpeckers are fairly common in most parts of the UK although they are less common in Scotland, and are extremely rare in Northern Ireland.  The great spotted woodpecker is the most common woodpecker and the lesser spotted woodpecker is the rarest. 

lesser spotted woodpecker


Woodpeckers usually live in woodland, but even with their brightly coloured feathers they can be hard to spot.  Instead listen for their drumming to try to work out where they are.  Great spotted woodpeckers are also frequent visitors to garden bird feeders, they especially like peanuts, so you might be lucky enough to spot one in your garden.



Image credits: Lesser Spotted Woodpecker (c) Stefan Johanssen