Species in the spotlight - The Green Woodpecker

Photo: Andrew Mason

The Green Woodpecker (Picus viridis) is the largest of the three woodpeckers found in the UK.

Unlike other woodpecker species they rarely drum on trees, instead preferring to use loud vocalisations to attract mates and defend their territories; start listening out for their distinctive ‘yaffle’ calls you can hear at this time of the year. Inspired by their laughing call, an old country name for the Green Woodpecker is actually the ‘Yaffle’.

Feeding habits

Green Woodpeckers feed on the ground out in the open, favouring areas of unimproved grassland, sheep-grazed pasture, orchards and gardens, hopping around in search of their favourite food; ants. They are well camouflaged in the grass, only becoming noticeable when they call or fly away if you get too close. Out of the three woodpeckers found here in Essex, the Green Woodpecker is the most specialised when it comes to diet. They have specially adapted tongues which are coated in a sticky secretion produced by their salivary glands. They use this to extract ants and their larvae from the ground. Dissimilar to the other two woodpecker species, the Green Woodpecker is a rare bird feeder visitor, but you may see them in your garden feeding on ants or windfallen apples.

Green Woodpecker

Photo: Margaret Holland

How to identify

Green Woodpeckers have yellow and green plumage, a dominant red crown, a short sturdy tail, black colouring around the eyes and a black moustachial strip. It is the colouration of the moustache that helps to determine the sex of the bird, if it has a red splash in the middle it is a male, females are wholly black. You can also distinguish Green Woodpeckers by their distinctive undulating flight, with 3-4 wingbeats followed by a short, dipped glide where the wings are held close to the body. Woodpeckers also have zygodactylous feet, meaning unlike many other bird species, two toes face forward and two face backward on each foot. This toe arrangement coupled with their stiffened tail feathers allow woodpeckers to climb trees and maintain a good grip whilst drumming and excavating holes in trees. All woodpeckers nest in excavated holes in trees.

Green Woodpecker

Photo: Russell Savory 

Conservation status

Previously classified as Amber, the Green Woodpecker is now classified in the UK as Green under the Birds of Conservation Concern 4: The Red List for Birds (2015) having recovered from previous population decline. They are protected by The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.

Where to see

The Green Woodpecker is a resident breeder so can be seen all year round here in Essex. But now is the time where you can hear them. Here are a few of Essex Wildlife Trust’s Visitor Centres and nature reserves you may be able to spot and hear Green Woodpeckers: