Wildlife In Focus | Woodpeckers Of The British Isles

David Coultham

Updated on:

There are 240 different species of woodpecker in the world1, and you might be lucky enough to spot 4 species of woodpeckers in the British Isles. This handy guide will help you identify which woodpecker you have seen or maybe just heard!

The following illustration shows the respective sizes of each woodpecker in this article:

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Video | Woodpeckers In The Woods


The Green Woodpecker (Picus viridis) is the largest of the woodpeckers in the U.K. with a wing length2 up to 169mm and a weight3 up to 206g and a height4 up to 170mm. They have dark green wings with a yellow rump and a pale chest. They sport black face cheeks, with the males having an additional red streak in their moustache. Both sexes have a bright red cap.

Image Credit: CreativeNature_nl

The Green Woodpeckers claim to fame is its call, which sounds almost like a laugh, and is colloquially known as a Yaffle.

Green Woodpecker Call:

Mark Plummer, xeno-canto.org

Did You Know? The children’s BBC TV program Bagpuss immortalized the Green Woodpecker with the woodpecker character named Professor Yaffle.


The male and female Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major) are virtually identical, except that the male has a bright red flash of color on the back of his head. Other than this, they are predominantly black and white with a flash of red on their tummy. They are by far the most widespread and common woodpeckers in the British Isles. They are also the noisiest, as the males can be heard in the Spring drumming their beaks against tree trunks and branches to mark their territories.

Adults are up to 240 mm in length4 with an impressive wingspan2 of up to 270 mm. They weigh3 up to 90 g. It is estimated that there are up to 280,000 Great Spotted Woodpeckers in the British Isles alone!

Great Spotted Woodpecker

Ulf Elman, xeno-canto.org

Did You Know? They can drum their beaks at a rate of between 10 and 40 strikes per second. Thats equivalent to a drummer in a band keeping a beat of 2,400 beats per minute…!

Great Spotted Woodpecker Drumming On Wood:

Lennart Jeppsson, xeno-canto.org


The Wryneck (Jynx torquilla) was once a common sight across the U.K., sadly though they are now extinct as a breeding bird. It is thought that this was due to habitat loss, deforestation, climate change and the over use of insecticides during the 19th century5. However, they do still migrate through the U.K en-route to and from their summer breeding grounds in Europe to over-winter in Africa6.

Image Credit: tomek61

The Wryneck is a master of disguise! They are mottled brown and grey with slightly lighter chest and tummy. They sport a dark line across the eye and down their backs. Their patterning makes them blend in perfectly as when completely still they almost look like the broken branch of a tree. Blending in is not their only party trick though:

Did You Know? When under distress the Wryneck twists and turns its head and body to make itself look like a snake.

There are multiple examples of this on the internet, however, we chose not to show any of these, as they all appear to involve people purposely distressing the birds!

Eurasian Wryneck Call:

Giuseppe Platania, xeno-canto.org

Adults weigh3 up to 44 g with a wing-length2 of up to 94 mm and a length4 up to 170 mm. They are also quite unique amongst the woodpecker species, as they don’t have the ability to carve out holes in wood, and they don’t even drum against the wood. Instead, they make their nests in existing sites hollowed out of the wood by other animals.


The Lesser Spotted Woodpecker (Dryobates minor) is the smallest of the woodpeckers in this line-up, and is only just larger than a sparrow. It also sadly appears to be going the same way as the Wryneck, as there were only something like 600 breeding pairs3 as of 2015 with populations estimated to be declining.

Lesser Spotted
Woodpecker Call:

Baltasar Pinheiro, xeno-canto.org

They are predominantly black and white with a distinctive ladder pattern down their backs. The male can be distinguished from the female as he has a bright red cap.

Image Credit: wirestock

Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers are up to 150 mm in height4 with a wing length2 of up to 91 mm and weigh up to 22.5g.

Did You Know? The best place to see the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker in the U.K. is the New Forest.


  1. International Ornithological Committee Woodpecker List
  2. Featherbase
  3. British Trust for Ornithology
  4. Royal Society for Protection of Birds
  5. Balmer et al. 2013
  6. Eurobirdportal
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