Great Spotted Woodpecker

Dendrocopos major

Great Spotted Woodpecker
Photo © 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 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. Distinct and lovely, this woodpecker is a common bird to see in mature forests and parks within its range.

Common Name: Great Spotted Woodpecker, Greater Spotted Woodpecker
Scientific Name: Dedrocopos major
Scientific Family: Picidae


  • Bill: Thick, black, straight
  • Size: 8-10 inches long with 16-inch wingspan, upright posture, round head, stiff tail
  • Colors: Black, white, red, pink, buff, gray
  • Markings: Male and female birds look different. 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. 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. Juveniles are similar to adults but with a reddish crown, pale pink undertail coverts and more gray on the underparts and auriculars. The shoulder patches are also less defined on juvenile birds.

Foods: Insects, larvae, seeds, eggs, nuts, fruit (See: Omnivorous)

Habitat and Migration:

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 backyards.

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.

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.


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.


These woodpeckers are typically solitary or found in pairs. 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. Their flight is a slow undulation with fast wing beats interspersed with short glides.


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 lined with wood chips leftover from the excavation.

Great spotted woodpecker eggs are a 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 young stay in the nest for 20-24 days after hatching, and both parents will feed and brood them during that period.

Attracting Great Spotted Woodpeckers:

Great spotted woodpeckers will readily visit backyards 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.


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 backyard feeders, also encourage this bird's occupation of suburban areas.

Similar Birds:

  • Syrian Woodpecker (Dendrocopos syriacus)
  • Middle Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos medius)
  • White-Backed Woodpecker (Dendrocopos leucotos)
  • Lesser Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos minor)
  • White-Winged Woodpecker (Dendrocopos leucopterus)
  • Hairy Woodpecker (Picoides villosus)