FAMILY: PICIDAE (Woodpeckers, piculets, and wrynecks)

The smallest of the woodpeckers, the lesser spotted woodpecker, is roughly the same size as a sparrow. Increasingly rare, they can be found in open woods, copses, gardens, and orchards at the very tops of the trees where they feed and nest. The majority of its population is within the South of England, and can be located by its drumming sound, making it a real treat when you witness one.

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Alert Status:

Red 91% decline

Estimated number of breeding pairs: 800

Listen to Lesser spotted woodpeckers song:


Most similar in appearance to the great spotted woodpecker, these pied woodpeckers differ by their tiny size and distinctive red cap and blurred barring on the wings. Unlike the great spotted with its large white shoulder patches, this woodpecker has diffused white bars across the whole of its back and misses the distinctive red rump of its larger cousin.

The red cap of the lesser spotted woodpecker is most pronounced in male adults, with juveniles showing only a tiny red patch on the crown. They have black napes, white foreheads, cheeks, and throats. Females have a distinctly black cap. Both sexes have black wings with white bars and a white underside, with short powerful black bills to allow them to extract insects from bark with ease.

Average Length: 14-15 cm

Average Lifespan: 5-10 Years

Average Wingspan: 25-27cm

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Lesser spotted woodpecker diet

The lesser spotted woodpecker spends much of its time near the tops of trees, creeping along slender branches hunting for foods. They specialise on invertebrates and larvae that they extract from under old and rotting wood by drilling or ripping off the pieces of bark. They will be occasionally seen closer to the ground taking insects from woody plants or on bird tables if you are lucky. To support their young, they switch to foraging more for flying insects, caterpillars and easier to access invertebrates on the surface of branches and leaves.

How to feed: Bird tables and feeders
What to feed: Lesser spotted woodpeckers are not common garden birds, preferring woodlands, and river valleys instead, but they have been seen at bird tables, feeding on sunflower seeds and suet

Lesser spotted woodpecker breeding and nesting information

Each year they excavate a new nesting cavity by using their bill to drill a hole in softer substrates, like dead wood trees or dead branches on living trees. Occasionally these cavities get taken over by great spotted woodpecker, who then make the cavity larger for their own use. They breed late on in the year, around May-June, likely due to the effort and time it takes to drill a nesting hole, and only produce 1 brood.

Approximately 4-6 eggs are laid, which are then incubated for 2 weeks by both the male and female.  This is a relatively low number of eggs for a single brooded bird, and have frequent breeding failures, with many young dying due to starvation, predation, or poor weather.

Both males and females provision for the chicks until fledging, with males providing more food during the later stages. Fledging normally takes place around 3 weeks after hatching.

Threats to lesser spotted woodpeckers

The sharp decline in these beautiful creatures is believed to be down, in part, to removal of their native woodlands by forestry services, loss of elm trees to disease and hedgerow loss. Research has shown that they have low breeding success due to starvation, predation, and poor weather, and this is also likely to be facilitating the rapid decline. More research is needed to see how we can best help these beautiful little birds.

How you can help

Fill your bird feeders with sunflower seeds (a firm favourite) placed near to hedges

Support the woodpecker network and keep up to date on the great work that they do so raise awareness over the decline of the lesser spotted woodpecker

If you think you find a nest or have lesser spotted woodpeckers near to you, contact the woodpecker network if you want to take part in nest inspection work to find out more about their breeding.

Fascinating Fact

If you want to catch a glimpse of one of these beautiful birds, and you aren’t lucky enough to have one nesting near you, the New Forest is one of the best places to go to be in with a chance. Listen hard for their drumming and make sure to take your binoculars!
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BirdLife International (2022) Species factsheet: Dryobates minor. Downloaded from http://www.birdlife.org on 20/06/2022.

Charman, E.C., Smith, K.W., Dillon, I.A., Dodd, S., Gruar, D.J., Cristinacce, A., Grice, P.V, Gregory, R.D. (2012) Drivers of low breeding success in the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos minor in England: testing hypotheses for the decline. Bird Study. 59: 255–265.

Robinson, R.A. (2005) BirdFacts: profiles of birds occurring in Britain & Ireland. BTO, Thetford (http://www.bto.org/birdfacts, accessed on 28 March 2022)

Rossmanith, E., Höntsch, K., Blaum, N., Jeltsch, F. (2007) Reproductive success and nestling diet in the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker (Picoides minor): the early bird gets the caterpillar. Journal of Ornithology. 148:323-332.

Smith, K.W., Charman, E.C. (2012) The ecology and conservation of the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. British Birds. 105L294-307.

Smith, K.W., Smith, L. (2020) Long-term trends in the nest survival and productivity of the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker Dryobates minor in Britain. Bird Study. 67: 109–118. doi: 10.1080/00063657.2020.1780195

Stanbury, A.J., Eaton, M.A., Aebischer, N.J., Balmer, D., Brown, A.F., Douse, A., Lindley, P., McCulloch, N., Noble, D.G., Win, I. (2021) The status of our bird populations: the fifth Birds of Conservation Concern in the United Kingdom, Channel Islands and Isle of Man and second IUCN Red List assessment of extinction risk for Great Britain. British Birds. 114

Woodward, I., Aebischer, N., Burnell,D., Eaton, M., Frost, T., Hall, C., Stroud, D. & Noble, D. (2020) Population estimates of birds in Great Britain and the United Kingdom. British Birds. 113: 69–104.

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