This is an expanded version of an article that was first published in London Wildlife Trust’s Wild London magazine
It’s a sound that stops many in their tracks, the rattling in the canopy of woods, parks and gardens. It’s a sound that brings in the new year, signs of spring breaking through as our own seasonal celebrations draw to an end. While we are still deep in recognising our need to rest in the midwinter, our wildlife is busy setting out its quest for new life. Britain has three species of woodpecker and in January we begin to hear the hammering, or drumming, of the great spotted, the sound of male birds marking new territories. It’s a bird that is becoming more and more familiar to us in London as its numbers increase.
Its favoured habitat is oak woodland with plenty of rotting branches, trunks and limbs in which to create a new hole each year, ample habitat for the biggest of our two Dendrocopos woodpeckers, the great spotted. Dendrocopos translates from Greek as ‘wood-striker’.
One thing I have noticed in suburban locations is the woodpecker drumming on TV aerials and receivers. One great spot I’ve seen has found the plastic box now employed to improve TV signals makes decent percussion. It’s a wonder that this hammering on hard surfaces doesn’t cause the birds injury, but evolution has equipped them with shock absorbers in the back of their skulls that cushion the blow. It’s not the same as banging your head against the wall.
There are four members of the woodpecker family deemed native to Britain, with one now classified as extinct as a breeding bird. That is the wryneck (Jynx torquilla), a bird that migrates from Africa each spring in small numbers still. In 1904 a wryneck nested on south-east London, what was thought by the observer to be one of the last nests in his time, in south-east London historically.
Another of our four species has declined at a rate that has baffled ornithologists. The lesser spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos minor) was noted in south London’s woods up until 2008. The odd autumnal record does crop up as the lesser spots are migratory, with one seen in 2015 in Brockwell Park in Lambeth.
One possible theory for the decline of lesser spotted woodpeckers (above) relates to the rise of the great spot and the disappearance of starlings from London’s woods as a breeding bird. When starling numbers were higher in woods they provided more competition for great spots.
This gave more space for the lesser spots, being much smaller, about the size of a sparrow or starling. As starlings and their ruckus have left the woods, the great spots have increased in number as they have experienced less competition and adapted to the boom in garden bird food. Lesser spots require a smaller hole in a tree to nest and if a great spot chooses the nest they can make the hole bigger and the lesser spots are pushed out.
Lesser spotted woodpeckers, however, are not extinct like the wryneck as a breeding bird and they still have strongholds in the UK. The most important place for them is the New Forest, one of the mythical heartlands of ancient English woods. There the management of the woods has remained the same for centuries, pointing to another reason for the species’ decline elsewhere. British wildlife is under increasing pressure from development and the loss of available food due to wider intensified management of the countryside.
So the two factors which are most harming lesser spots, and starlings, too, are a lack of habitat and food. The loss of food is a loss of invertebrate life being driven by agricultural intensification and a tidying up of green spaces, loss of gardens and general overuse of harmful, residual pesticides. Another key change is the loss of old orchards, another traditional habitat disappearing in Britain, one of the lesser spot’s favoured habitats.
The other member of the British quintet, if including wryneck, is the green woodpecker (Picus viridis). Green woodpeckers are different to the spotted woodpeckers because they don’t hammer to mark their territories but instead call, what was known for centuries as ‘yaffling’. An old name for a green woodpecker is ‘yaffler’. It’s a call that can be heard most clearly in woods and parks with mature trees, where green woodpeckers also nest.
The call has a prehistoric feel about it, echoing deep into woodland, as the reverberation recedes. Greens differ again from the spotted woodpeckers because of their feeding habits, spending their time searching for ant colonies in woods and lawns. Naturally grassy sports pitches with a surrounding area of mature trees are a good place to find the birds. They lie low, shooting their long tongues down into nests to find food. It’s something you are very unlikely ever to see a great spotted woodpecker do.
For those curious and unsatisfied by the array of woodpeckers in London, remember that you will have to travel to continental Europe to find a greater diversity. Arriving in France you could meet with the biggest of all the European woodpeckers, the black woodpecker and heading as far as the great ancient woods of the Czech Republic, Poland or Romania, you can find as many as seven species. In British terms, the health of London’s woodpeckers reflect the state of the nation’s.