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Meet our colourful garden ant-eater

Green Woodpecker - Picus viridis. Picture: Edmund Fellowes/BTO
Green Woodpecker - Picus viridis. Picture: Edmund Fellowes/BTO

Suffolk’s lighter soils, notably those of the Brecks and the Sandlings, are good for ants; in turn this makes these areas good for the green woodpecker, a species as likely to be seen on the ground as on the trunk of a tree.

The woodpecker feeds on both adult and larval ants, additionally taking their eggs from ant nests located under the short turf of forest rides, garden lawns and other sites. With its chisel-like bill and extremely long tongue (which can be extended to just over 10cm), the green woodpecker is well equipped to break into the nests and to probe for its prey. The tip of the tongue, which is wide, flat and very mobile, is covered with sticky saliva, allowing the bird to retrieve the ants from their tunnel system.

During the warm summer months green woodpeckers tend to concentrate on the smaller ants, taking larger and more obvious species later in the year. During the winter months, when ant activity declines and nests become difficult to reach because of frost or snow, green woodpeckers can struggle to find food. A few individuals may turn to food put out at garden feeding stations, such as suet products and mealworms, but these tend to be the exception rather than the rule.

The habit of feeding on ants, rather than invertebrates living within wood, may explain why green woodpeckers rarely advertise their presence by drumming on tree trunks. The green woodpecker’s bill is weaker than that of its relatives, so drumming may be damaging to the bird, though it is able to chisel out a nest cavity from dead wood. Instead, the bird advertises its presence with a loud, laughing call, often referred to as a ‘yaffle’ and the source of one of its local country names.

Green woodpeckers pair for life but are rather antisocial, spending much of the year apart and only coming together for the breeding season, which runs from April through into July. The resulting young, which are easily recognised by their heavily speckled plumage, may be seen in the company of their parents from late summer. If you get a good view of an adult green woodpecker then it should be possible to work out its sex. Both sexes have a ‘moustachial’ stripe running back and down from beneath the eye. This is black in the female but red in the male, with a narrow black border.

National data, collected through Bird Atlas 2007-11 and published by the British Trust for Ornithology, show an increasing population and spread in distribution within the southeast of England, but a range contraction in parts of western Britain. The reasons for this pattern are unknown, but may well be linked to changes in the availability of their ant prey and a changing climate. More research will be needed if we are to find out.


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