Tuesday, May 11

The tappings of the woodpecker


The patches of scarlet on the great spotted woodpecker’s upper neck and underbelly distinguish it from other birds.

RECENTLY, I took the advice of the 94-year-old naturalist and wildlife filmmaker Sir David Attenborough. He has said, “Sit down. Don’t move, keep quiet. You’ll be very surprised if something pretty interesting didn’t happen within 10 minutes. Doing just that in a woodland, if you haven’t done it is extraordinary. Don’t get too impatient either.”

This advice, I reverently took to heart and in a walk with my Vizhla dog though a small woodland in a long disused quarry near to my home, I sat down with Holly and was amazed by what I saw. Stealthily a herd of five roe deer emerged from a nearby farmer’s meadowland where they had been grazing and nibbled at the mosses and lichen growing on the old trees. Holly strained at the lead for she instinctively wanted to chase them but suddenly she was distracted by a tap, tap, tapping sound in the dead tree above our very heads.

The sound was emitted by a great spotted woodpecker. It stopped pecking at the tree for a minute or two and then began tapping away at about 10 to 40 times per second.


Great spotted woodpecker

Often seen in gardens and parks and especially in coniferous and deciduous woodlands, Dendrocopos major exists throughout most of Eurasia. One frequently flies into my garden to garner nuts from a hanging bird feeder and, if slightly disturbed, wings its way back to its nest in a very old and decaying pine tree. Its name, Dendrocopos, is derived from the Greek words dendron meaning tree and kopos – striking.

A distinctive bird by its colourations with its upper parts of a glossy blue black with eminent patches of white on its face and on the back of its neck and shoulders, it is the patches of scarlet on its upper neck and underbelly that most distinguish it from other birds. Usually averaging 22cm in length, with a 36cm wingspan, it weighs in at about 88 grams.

Behavioural patterns

Spending much of its time climbing trees, it is well equipped for such with two toes facing forwards and two backwards and a strong tail muscles to secure its tail firmly against a tree. Its slate-grey beak literally takes a hammering when it is mechanically drumming but is reinforced with a particular muscle or shock absorber between the upper and lower mandibles thus preventing brain damage. It uses its beak to create nesting holes and in its search for insects with its very long tongue used for scooping out bugs.

Strongly territorial in habits, they occupy an area of roughly 5ha and nest in trees with soft heartwood and tough sapwood and sometimes in wooden telegraph and electricity poles. The nesting cavity is about 30cm deep, which is reached via an entrance hole 5.3cm wide. The excavation of the nest is done by both male and female birds.


Breeding and feeding

These woodpeckers mate in December and between four and six eggs are laid in May with an incubation period of 16 days, during which both male and female take turns to sit on the eggs but it is the male who takes the night shift. The chicks fledge within three weeks of hatching and are fed by both birds. There is only one brood a year.

Omnivorous birds, they feed on beetle larvae, beetles, ants, and spiders, which they peck from the trees, and also crustaceans and carrion, as well as garden birdfeeders for nuts and suet. They raid blue tits nests for eggs and chicks, but have a particular penchant for conifer seeds found in larch, pine, and spruce cones. During the breeding season, pairs are monogamous but frequently change partners before the next breeding season. The population of this species has increased over the last 50 years mainly because of the amount of dead elm wood available after the Dutch elm disease swept throughout Britain in the 1970s.


Borneo’s woodpeckers

The island of Borneo lies to the west of the ‘Wallace Line’ relating to species that have evolved on the Eurasian continent which are quite distinct from the species to the east of this line in the Australia Oceanic region. AR Wallace noted this in his book ‘The Malay Archipelago’ of 1869 and wrote, “The great contrast between the two divisions of the Archipelago is nowhere so abruptly exhibited as on passing from the Island of Bali to that of Lombock, where the two regions are in close proximity. In Bali we have barbets, fruit-thrushes and woodpeckers; on passing over to Lombock they are seen no more …” There are not any woodpeckers in Australia or New Zealand!

There are 13 or 14 different species of woodpecker in Borneo and I shall only draw the reader’s attention to one – the orange-backed woodpecker, which may also be found in Peninsula Malaysia, Sumatra, and the most western region of Java. It is not only selective of the areas it inhabits but is also a very shy bird.

The orange-backed woodpecker’s feet are zygodactylous – two toes facing forwards and two backwards. – Photo by Amar-Singh HSS

Orange-backed woodpecker

Reinwardtipicus validus is named in honour of Caspar Georg Carl Reinwardt (1773 to 1854), a chemist and botanist who became professor of Natural History at Amsterdam University. He founded and became the first director of the Bogor Botanical Gardens in Java.

In 1822, this bird was first described, by a fellow Dutchman, Coenrad Jacob Tremminck, who was the first director of the National Museum of Natural History in Leiden. This scientist inherited a vast collection of specimens from his father, who was the treasurer of the Dutch East India Company. Tremminck may never have seen this bird in the wild but he was great admirer of Reinwardt, hence he named the bird after its patron.



Fairly large in size, the Orange-backed woodpecker reaches 30cm in length with a small tail. Like the Eurasian Great-spotted woodpecker, its feet are zygodactylous meaning two toes facing forwards and two backwards. Males have orange and brown plumage hues; orange crests, necks, and stomachs with bright orange stripes on their wings. Females’ crests, necks, and stomachs are brown with dullish orange wing stripes. In both male and female species most of their wing plumage is dark brown as their tails. A white patch on the males back between his wings distinguishes them.


Habitat and feeding

Mostly living in evergreen rainforests and coastal vegetation, they are essentially lowland dwellers, foraging for insects on the lower and middle sections of trees. Like most woodpeckers, they hammer loudly with their beaks against the wood to select ants, beetle larvae, caterpillars, and termites, using their long tongues to extract their prey. During their short, sharp bursts of excavation they utter loud noises. Usually they find their prey in rotting logs, dead tree stumps, and soft tree trunks.



They excavate nest holes high up in dead trees and lay one or two eggs with both parents taking it in turn to feed the chicks directly with what creatures they have acquired without regurgitation. Their breeding season is from January to September. As with all Bornean woodpeckers, few studies have been made at length on woodpeckers. Here lies a challenge to local ornithologists!

I finish with a little poem composed by Elizabeth Madox Roberts (1881-1941), a novelist and poet from Kentucky, USA. It is applicable to both Borneo and the UK weather-wise!

“The woodpecker pecked out a little round hole

And made him a house in a telegraph pole.

One day when I watched he poked out his head

And he had on a hood and a collar of red.

When the streams of rain pour out of the sky

And the sparkles of lightning go flashing by

And the big, big wheels of thunder roll,

He can snuggle back in the telegraph pole.”