Great Spotted Woodpecker

Dendrocopos major

Great Spotted Woodpecker

ianpreston / Flickr / CC by 2.0

The most widespread pied woodpecker in Europe and Asia, the great spotted woodpecker is also one of the rarest members of the Picidae family to be seen in North America. Only one verified sighting in the western Aleutian Islands has been recorded (despite the bird's cameo appearance in the 2011 movie The Big Year), but birders are always hopeful for more vagrant sightings of this woodpecker. Distinct and lovely, the great spotted woodpecker is a common bird to see in mature forests and parks within its range. Discover more about these woodpeckers with this informative fact sheet!

Fast Facts

  • Scientific Name: Dedrocopos major
  • Common Name: Great Spotted Woodpecker, Greater Spotted Woodpecker
  • Lifespan: 5-7 years
  • Size: 8-10 inches
  • Weight: 2.5-2.7 ounces
  • Wingspan: 16 inches
  • Conservation Status: Least concern

Great Spotted Woodpecker Identification

Like all woodpeckers, the great spotted woodpecker has upright posture and a stiff tail that helps it balance against tree trunks. Its bill is thick, black, and straight, perfect for drilling and drumming. Males have a white throat, cheeks, and forehead all outlined in black, a black crown, and a bright red nape. A black spur of color extends onto the white breast, and the back is black. The wings and tail are black with white spotty bars, and a large white oval-shaped patch is prominent on the shoulders both when perched and in flight. The underparts are white to buff and the undertail coverts are rich red.

Females are similar to males but have a black nape rather than a red one, though otherwise their markings look the same. Juveniles are similar to adults but with a reddish crown, pale pink undertail coverts, and more gray on the underparts and cheeks. The shoulder patches are also less defined on juvenile birds and may be difficult to see.

The loud, high-pitched "chik" call is commonly heard and may be repeated at regular, rapid intervals, though not strung so closely together to be considered a song. Territorial drumming is fast and ranges from 8-20 beats per second in short, abrupt bursts. Drumming is most common in spring and early summer.

Female Great Spotted Woodpecker
Ed Dunens / Flickr / CC by 2.0
Male Great Spotted Woodpecker
Airwolfhound / Flickr / CC by-SA 2.0
Great Spotted Woodpecker on Peanut Feeder
Craig Nash / Flickr / Used With Permission

Great Spotted Woodpecker Habitat and Distribution

These woodpeckers are widespread throughout deciduous or mixed deciduous and coniferous forests, particularly where there are generous stands of mature oak, pine, and spruce trees. They can also regularly be found in parks, gardens, and yards where mature trees are present.

The year-round range for the great spotted woodpecker covers much of northern and central Europe and Asia, extending from the United Kingdom through Siberia to Japan and China. The species is less widespread in Turkey and is also found in Spain, Portugal, and northern Africa, especially Morocco, though populations are limited further south.

Migration Pattern

Though these birds do not typically migrate, they can be nomadic and may wander with regards to the best food sources throughout the year. Southward autumn irruptions are possible in years when northern cone crops are poor, but the dispersion of the birds is unpredictable and uncertain.

Behavior

These woodpeckers are typically solitary or found in pairs. Their flight is a slow undulation with fast wing beats interspersed with short glides as they venture from tree to tree while feeding.

Diet and Feeding

Great spotted woodpeckers are omnivorous and will eat a wide variety of foods throughout the year, changing their diet as seasonal availability changes. Insects, larvae, seeds, eggs, nuts, and fruit all make up different parts of their diet depending on the season. When foraging, they hitch upward along tree trunks or large branches, probing into cracks and crevices for insects. They will also store pine seeds in tree cavities to revisit later when food supplies may be low. These woodpeckers may also try peanuts, suet, jelly, or even nectar at backyard or garden feeders.

Nesting

These are monogamous birds, and a brief courtship includes minor drumming displays. Both male and female birds will work to excavate a nest cavity in a suitable tree, often a softwood species or a dead tree, placing the cavity 5-60 feet above the ground. No extensive nest is built, though the cavity may be sparsely lined with wood chips leftover from the excavation.

Eggs and Young

Great spotted woodpecker eggs are a plain, creamy-white, with 4-7 eggs in a typical brood. Only one brood is laid per year, and both parents work to incubate the eggs for 15-16 days. The altricial chicks stay in the nest for 20-24 days after hatching, and both parents will feed and protect them during that period.

Great Spotted Woodpecker Conservation

These woodpeckers are not threatened or endangered, and in fact the spread of Dutch Elm Disease that leaves behind dead, rotting trees is helping great spotted woodpeckers extend their range in many places. Bird populations in urban areas can fluctuate more widely depending on the availability of suitable nesting sites, which are often reduced when dead trees are removed for safety or aesthetic reasons. Appropriate food sources, including garden feeders, also encourage this bird's occupation of suburban areas.

Tips for Backyard Birders

Great spotted woodpeckers will readily visit yards and gardens where sunflower seeds, suet, peanut butter, and peanuts are made available and where mature trees provide opportunities for foraging. Leaving old trees intact can also attract these woodpeckers for nesting in appropriate areas, and minimizing insecticide treatments on trees will ensure an ongoing, protein-rich food source.

How to Find This Bird

Because these woodpeckers do tend to be somewhat solitary, it can be a challenge to find them at times. Visiting relatively undisturbed tracts of forest with rich cone crops is the best option, and the birds may be easier to find in spring and early summer when they are more frequently drumming and birding by ear can help locate them. Looking for great spotted woodpeckers in late summer and early fall can also be easier when more juvenile birds are in the area.

Explore More Birds in This Family

The Picidae bird family includes more than 250 bird species, including woodpeckers, piculets, flamebacks, and flickers. Birders who want to discover more about these intriguing birds should be sure to check out:

Don't miss our other wild bird fact sheets for information on all your favorite bird species!