Today sees the launch of a new national survey of great spotted woodpeckers. A collaboration between the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and BBC Radio 4’s new nature series ‘Shared Earth’, the survey aims to find out how great spotted woodpeckers use gardens during the summer months. Results from the BTO’s year-round Garden BirdWatch scheme have revealed that great spotted woodpeckers increase their use of gardens from the end of June through into early August. This ties in with a period during which newly fledged woodpeckers are seen to visit garden bird feeding stations alongside their parents. The team running the project want to establish which types of food are used and the extent to which visits to gardens are driven by the nature of surrounding habitat. As a woodland species, the great spotted woodpecker is most likely to use gardens close to woodland but the team want to find out how far the birds will go to make use of the food provided by garden birdwatchers.
The survey also aims to find out more about one of the less pleasant aspects of great spotted woodpecker behaviour, that of nest predation. These woodpeckers are known to drill their way into wooden nestboxes to predate young tits but it is not known how widespread this behaviour is. When you think of nest predation you tend to think of cats, magpies and rats, rather than woodpeckers, so it may come as something of a surprise to some readers to discover that these striking birds don’t just feed on insects taken from dead wood. In fact, they also eat a lot of seeds (particularly of pine and spruce).
Adult male and female great spotted woodpeckers are readily distinguishable. The male has a small patch of bright red at the back of his head and a larger area of red underneath his tail. The female also has this patch of red under her tail but lacks the patch on the back of her head. Young birds can be separated from adults by the red cap covering the top of the head and by the fact that the area of red under the tail is rather pale, almost washed out.
If you have woodpeckers breeding close by then you may find them putting in an appearance in your garden over the coming weeks, providing you with an opportunity to contribute to the project. The survey itself is web-based and will be accessible from today through until August and can be accessed from www.bto.org/gbw. The Radio 4 ‘Shared Earth’ programme is being broadcast at 3pm today and has more information on this project and on other projects that should help get you out and about in the countryside.