Just how do woodpeckers on the Heath avoid headaches?

PUBLISHED: 14:57 05 September 2018 | UPDATED: 19:14 05 September 2018

A greater spotted woodpecker in Highgate Wood. Picture: City of London Corporation

A greater spotted woodpecker in Highgate Wood. Picture: City of London Corporation


Hitchcock’s horror classic The Birds features householders boarding up their windows to protect themselves from birds. Of course, they’re forgetting about woodpeckers, a mistake you should never make.

A greater spotted woodpecker in Highgate Wood. Picture: City of London CorporationA greater spotted woodpecker in Highgate Wood. Picture: City of London Corporation

Three species of woodpecker reside all year round in the UK – the green woodpecker, the great spotted woodpecker and the lesser spotted woodpecker.

On the Heath one can be surprised by a loud and repetitive “kleu-kleu-kleu” call while a fast-moving green bird swoops rapidly towards the ground before retiring safely to a tree. It is the familiar alarm call of a green woodpecker.

This ground-dwelling bird is often disturbed by humans or dogs when feeding upon ants’ nests in open grassland. The evidence of its endeavours are unusual holes in the side of an unlucky colony’s formicary, something the conservation team is often questioned about.

This avian anteater is comprehensively equipped for this task. It possesses a 10cm tongue coated in sticky mucilage – so long that, when retracted, it coils under then over the back of the bird’s skull.

A greater spotted woodpecker in Highgate Wood. Picture: City of London CorporationA greater spotted woodpecker in Highgate Wood. Picture: City of London Corporation

Having a softer bill than our other two resident pied woodpeckers, it rarely hammers out a mating call, but it does excavate its own nest.

The greater spotted woodpecker’s stand-out feature is its percussion ability. During the spring, males can be heard establishing territories by rapidly drumming against dead timber. This species will survey branches to find a suitable home before hammering at a rate of 20 beats per second, a speed that would be envied by even the best snare drummer.

So, why don’t woodpeckers get headaches? It’s simple – a strengthened skull, a cushioned brain that fits tightly within the skull, muscles at the base of the bill that act as shock absorbers and a spongy bone at the front of the skull all helping protect it.

The lesser spotted woodpecker is the smallest of the European woodpeckers and has less striking plumage. A shy bird, its range is restricted to the south of Britain and it is easily overlooked due to its small stature, habits and plumage. Sadly, this species appears to be declining nationally, although Epping Forest, also managed by the City of London Corporation, still maintains a resident population.

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