BTO’s Graham Appleton on the green woodpecker

Green woodpecker (Picture: BTO/John Flowerday)
Green woodpecker (Picture: BTO/John Flowerday)
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Gardening causes me a lot of angst; the mathematician in me would really like a weed-free, neatly-trimmed garden but the naturalist understands the need for biodiversity.

I still have rockeries and neat rows of vegetables but there are wilder areas too and I try not to use chemicals.

The lawn is a particular area of compromise; I accept that ants can nest in the back lawn but only allow nests to turn into ant-hills in the less well-kept front garden.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, it is at the front that I usually find the tell-tale signs of the activities of green woodpeckers – holes created by dagger-like beaks appear in the ant-hills as these shy birds seek access to their prey. Only rarely do I see the birds themselves.

Adult green woodpeckers are slightly bigger than blackbirds, with subtle, green plumage, a red cap on the back of the head and a flash of yellow on the rump when seen flying away. A male has an extra splash of red running like a moustache from the base of the bill and under the eye.

Green woodpeckers are perfectly at home chiselling for insect food in the rotting wood of trees or probing for food on the ground. A long tongue, coiled like the spring of a clock, unwinds to probe deep into recesses in search of insects.

In the spring, a nest cavity is created in the soft wood of a tree and that’s the main time to hear one of these birds hammering. It’s much more of a bang, bang, bang than the rapid drumming of a great spotted woodpecker. The other thing to listen out for is the laughing call, which has earned the green woodpecker the local name of yaffle and was made famous in the 1970s children’s cartoon Bagpuss.

Over the last 40 years, green woodpeckers have been taking advantage of milder winters to colonise new areas.

The 2007-11 Bird Atlas, which will be published by the BTO later this year, shows that the species has spread into new areas of eastern and northern Britain, as might have been predicted.

The disappearance of birds from large parts of Wales and the west is more unexpected – yet another thing for BTO volunteers and scientists to try to get to the bottom of.

There are more than twice as many green woodpeckers in East Anglia as there were 15 years ago but a cold winter, with a thick carpet of snow, can have a marked effect on numbers. In such conditions, you may well be able to help your local green woodpeckers by providing any apples that you have stored since the autumn. It’s a good opportunity to take a great picture, too.

Next time: The collared dove.