It was early February and we'd stopped for a breather in our circuit of Tittesworth reservoir. Then in the quiet dank grey conditions, our mood was suddenly lifted by the unmistakeable reverberating notes of a woodpecker drumming. The effect is achieved by the bird striking its bill for short bursts of time against the end of a resonant hollow, dead branch. Our bird had chosen well, and the sound rang out clearly in the late afternoon.
Woodpeckers use drumming as other birds use song to advertise territory and attract partners. A woodpecker may even drum against corrugated iron roofs or metal posts to enhance the effect. Of Britain's three woodpecker species, it is the lesser spotted and the great spotted that drum the most. Our bird soon showed itself to be the latter!
Our great spotted woodpecker has several features to help it drum:
- Feet with two toes that point forwards, one that points backward and a fourth that can be bent sideways
- Tail feathers with extra strengthened shafts
- A cushioned brain
The feet help the bird to easily grip a tree's branches or trunk. The bird can then wedge its tail against a trunk, and then lean away from the tree – in that characteristic woodpecker pose, in order to drum, peck, or simply rest. The bird's brain is cushioned to provide protection when the bird is hammering away at the wood.
Our bird was not alone, so it had either succeeded in attracting a potential mate, or a rival. We'd just emerged from a conifer plantation when we saw two of them on a nearby stag headed oak, before one flew off. They breed anywhere there are suitably sized trees to allow nest construction. Mixed deciduous / coniferous woodland, especially that with spruce and pines is particularly attractive to them. Therefore the conifer plantation may have represented a key feature of our bird's territory an important source of winter food (pine cone seeds).
Other food includes nuts, insects, and at the right time of year, eggs and sometimes nestlings. Woodpeckers are generally very loyal to one territory and one great spotted woodpecker remained in or close to its territory of 25 hectares (62 acres) for 6 years. The oldest recorded bird lived for 12 years.
If successful in attracting and keeping a mate our great spotted woodpecker will start nesting in April!