The Gregarious Green Woodpecker


Much as I enjoy a sunny British summer, after weeks without rain my garden is looking rather sorry for itself. The lawn is parched, the borders are wilting and even the stinging nettles are drooping. The water butts are drained and, if the weather forecast is to be trusted, the dry spell is set to continue. Of course, there are alternative ways of predicting rain – seaweed, pine cones, cows lying down – and woodpeckers. The green woodpecker is also known as the ‘Rain Bird’ because some claim that it becomes louder and more insistent when rain is imminent. The Druids believed these birds had dowsing skills and used them as water diviners. History makes no mention of their success rate!

The green woodpecker is certainly noisy, with a raucous ‘ha-ha-ha’ call that sounds like the maniacal laughter of a pantomime villain, although ‘Laughing Betsy’ is another nickname. It won’t win any competitions for birdsong, but the woodpecker uses this cackle to keep in touch with its mate or other family members and to defend its territory. If you see one, there’s likely to be another nearby, so you may hear a dialogue of bossy ‘yaffling’ going on. Loud it may be, but the green woodpecker is far less likely to drum incessantly on tree trunks than its great spotted cousin, although it will excavate holes in broadleaved trees to make a nest site.

If you sit quietly in a garden, nature inevitably comes to you, although in the case of wasps, I’d rather they left me alone. On a Sunday afternoon, I’m lazing with a book in a deck-chair, when a green woodpecker lands just metres from my feet. This one’s a juvenile, with streakier plumage than that of the adult, and appears to have not yet learned to be nervous of humans. It’s soon joined by an adult bird, who lands further away and calls sharply to the youngster. Junior shrieks a reply and takes steady hops, dragging its tail across the lawn to greet the waiting parent. I’ve seen it in airborne, but right now it seems to prefer hopping to flying.

The adult is olive green with paler underparts, but the camouflage effect is broken by a yellow rump, scarlet skull cap and black ‘mask’ which gives the face a sinister look. Both male and female have a black ‘moustache’, but the male has blood-red feathers in his, as if he’s gashed his face. With its stocky build, stiff tail and dagger-like bill, this is the largest of the British woodpeckers, and is widespread across the country, spotted in woods and farms
as well as urban and suburban
grassy areas.

This year they’ve been regular
visitors to the garden, spiking the
lawn in their constant search for ants. They are expert at seeking them out, not just on the grass, but poking into the cracks between paving stones, around the base of bird-baths and planters, investigating any places where a dribble of water may have drawn thirsty insects. Ant eggs make an equally good feast, and the green woodpecker cleans them up with its long, sticky tongue. They are particularly keen on a newly mown lawn, finding and re-visiting ant-hills among the moss and the daisies.

There must have been lean times during the winter, especially when the Beast from the East arrived, but they are adaptable and have been seen taking berries, and chipping away at tree bark to gather insects. The green woodpecker is a welcome guest, with its colourful plumage and unmistakeable laughter, and, of course, its endless appetite for ants.