Bird of the Year: Great Spotted Woodpecker

[personal translation from BirdLife Switzerland]

The Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopus major), designated bird of the year by BirdLife Switzerland, lives in forests, gardens, and wooded farmland. It feeds mainly on insects and larvae, but also fruits and seeds during the harsher months. As a cavity builder, the Great Spotted Woodpecker is dependent upon large and old trees, and therefore it’s important to preserve and maintain large trees in residential, agricultural, and forested areas.


A young Great Spotted Woodpecker (note red cap) being fed by an adult male (note red on the back of the head). Photo by Rolf Kunz


Popular and well-known

The Great Spotted Woodpecker is the most common and best-known woodpecker in Switzerland. It occurs everywhere there are large trees, both in residential areas and in forested and cultivated areas. The blackbird-sized woodpecker is mostly black and white in color with bright red feathers on the vent. Males have a red patch on the back of the head, while juveniles have red on the forehead and top of the head.

Clever and versatile

The Great Spotted Woodpecker shreds rotten wood with its powerful bill and uses its barbed, harpoon-like tongue to extract insect larvae. Fruit and seeds are also on the menu in fall and winter. Pine cones or hazelnuts may be wedged in a fork or a notch in a tree and then opened with its beak to extract the seeds. Such wily techniques are regularly used. In the spring, this woodpecker occasionally drills holes in the bark of trees to drink the sap.

Watch a video of the Great Spotted Woodpecker in action here.

Perfectly adapted / No headache

Beginning as early as February, the Great Spotted Woodpecker starts courtship. Both males and females drum on rotten branches. The drumming is heard at long distances. Their bills and heads are subjected to strong forces while drumming, but thanks to compressible cartilage, a well protected brain, and the lower mandible shunting the force of the blows to the body, they do not get headaches. Thanks to its stiff tail feathers that can be used to support its body weight, and to a backward pointing toe, the Great Spotted Woodpecker can cling perfectly on trees. After mating, the female lays approximately 6 white eggs in the newly excavated tree cavity, where the young grow up well protected. Just before fledging, the young birds can be heard calling intensively from their nesting cavity.

Important role in the ecosystem

Since Great Spotted Woodpeckers use their cavity mostly for breeding, cavities are often left empty. Many other species take over as tenants of these cavities, including tits, nuthatches, the Pied Flycatcher, bats, dormice, and some insect species, especially deadwood-associated beetles. Thus, it is important to leave large, dead trees standing.

Ambassador for big trees and hedges in residential areas …

Large, native trees are declining as building projects intensify, and new construction projects should make special considerations for maintaining such trees. They not only provide habitat for the Great Spotted Woodpecker and company, but provide character to an area, have a cooling effect in summer, and filter dust from the air. Hedges composed on native shrub species bloom in spring and their fruits provide colorful accents in the fall, which are sought after by many animals.

… And in the arable land

In agricultural areas, the Great Spotted Woodpecker only occurs when enough shrubs, fruit trees, hedges, and large trees are available. Many other species also benefit from such structural habitat in the landscape.

Biotope trees in the forest

Old and large trees, so-called biotope trees, are important elements in the forest. Often, they are home to a huge biodiversity: cavities, coarse bark, and large crowns offer hiding places, breeding sites, and feeding areas for insects, bats, and birds.