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.

Latest Hampstead & Highgate News Stories


The killers of Camden model Harry Uzoka have been jailed for a combined total of more than 60 years.


High Court judge Sir Ross Cranston, who last week blocked Transport for London’s (TfL) plans to begin building the CS11 cycle superhighway in Swiss Cottage, has denied TfL permission to appeal his judicial review ruling.


Seven months to the day after a single winter night saw two young men stabbed to death, Camden’s youth safety task force – led by Holborn and St Pancras MP Keir Starmer and Cllr Abdul Hai – last night recommended a series of measures to arrest the alarming upwards trend in youth violence in the borough.

Yesterday, 17:30

Letters, contributions and comments sent in from Ham&High readers this week.

There are more than 3,000 homeless families housed by Haringey Council in temporary accommodation in the borough and more than another 1,000 housed outside the borough according to Trust for London.

Yesterday, 15:23

A woman from Temple Fortune turned have-a-go-hero and chased a pair of criminals – causing them to drop a wad of stolen cash – after an elderly woman was robbed at a nearby cashpoint.

Yesterday, 13:15

Haringey Police are appealing for infomration after a 40 year old woman was sexually assaulted on a Muswell Hill Bus.

Yesterday, 12:53

Two rogue swans rapidly regretted the decision to land on the Hampstead Heath ponds when the resident swan family chased them off the water and left them “a bit battered” on a grass verge.


Looking to get your child interested in a sport? Allianz Park, home to rugby union team Saracens, welcomes people of all ages to join their family of supporters and discover how their core values Honesty, Discipline, Humility and Work Rate underpin everything they do off and on the pitch.

As part of a major refurb, the London Marriott Hotel Maida Vale has renamed its three new-look function rooms to reflect the geography and rich history of the area. The largest, perfect for weddings and large meetings, is named after a Hampstead subterranean river, The Westbourne.

Londoners seeking high quality houses for sale within easy commuting distance of the capital are being advised to look north to St Albans’ prestigious Gabriel Square development.

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up to the following newsletters:

Sign up to receive our regular email newsletter

Our Privacy Policy

Most read Hampstead & Highgate news

Show Job Lists

Digital Edition


Enjoy the
Hampstead & Highgate Express
e-edition today


Education and Training


Read the
Education and Training
e-edition today

Read Now