WOODPECKER, a bird that pecks or picks holes in wood, and from this habit is commonly reputed to have its name; but it is in some parts of England also known as “Woodspeight” (erroneously written “Woodspite”)—the latter syllable being cognate with Ger. Specht and Fr. Épeiche, possibly with Lat. Picus.[1] More than 300 species have been described, and they have been very variously grouped by systematists; but all admit that they form a very natural family Picidae of Coraciiform birds, their nearest allies being the toucans. They are generally of bright particoloured plumage, in which black, white, brown, olive, green, yellow, orange or scarlet—the last commonly visible on some part of the head—mingled in varying proportions, and most often strongly contrasted with one another, appear; while the less conspicuous markings take the form of bars, spangles, tear-drops, arrow-heads or scales. Woodpeckers inhabit most parts of the world, with the exception of Madagascar and the Australian Region, save Celebes and Flores; but it may be worth stating that no member of the group is known to have occurred in Egypt.

Of the three British species, the green woodpecker, Gecinus or Picus viridis, though almost unknown in Scotland or Ireland, IS the commonest, frequenting wooded districts, and more often heard than seen, its laughing cry (whence the name “Yaffil” or “Yaffle,” by which it is in many parts known), and undulating flight afford equally good means of recognition, even when it is not near enough for its colours to be discerned. About the size of a jay, its scarlet crown and bright yellow rump, added to its prevailing grass-green plumage, make it a sightly bird, and hence it often suffers at the hands of those who wish to keep its stuffed skin as an ornament. Besides the scarlet crown, the cock bird has a patch of the same colour running backward from the base of the lower mandible, a patch that in the hen is black.[2] Woodpeckers in general are very shy birds, and to observe the habits of the species is not easy. Its ways, however, are well worth watching, since the ease with which it mounts, almost always spirally, the vertical trunks and oblique arms of trees as it searches the interstices of the bark fur its food, flying off when it reaches the smaller or upper branches—either to return to the base of the same tree and renew its course on a fresh fine, or to begin upon another tree near by—and the care it shows in its close examination, will repay a patient observer. The nest almost always consists of a hole chiselled by the bird's strong beak, impelled by very powerful muscles, in the upright trunk or arm of a tree, the opening being quite circular, and continued as a horizontal passage that reaches to the core, whence it is pierced downward for nearly a foot. There a chamber is hollowed out in which the eggs, often to the number of six, white, translucent and glossy, are laid with no bedding but a few chips that may have not been thrown out.[3] The young are not only hatched entirely naked, but seem to become fledged without any of the downy growth common to most birds. Their first plumage is dull in colour, and much marked beneath with bars, crescents and arrowheads.

Of generally similar habits are the two other woodpeckers which inhabit Britain—the pied or greater spotted and the barred or lesser spotted woodpecker—Dendrocopus major and D. minor—each of great beauty, from the contrasted white, blue-black and scarlet that enter into its plumage. Both of these birds have an extraordinary habit of causing by quickly-repeated blows of their beak on a branch, or even on a small bough, a vibrating noise, louder than that of a watchman's rattle, and enough to excite the attention of the most incurious. Though the pied woodpecker is a resident in Britain, its numbers receive a considerable accession nearly every autumn.

From Cambridge Natural History, vol. iv., “Birds,” by permission of Macmillan & Co., Ltd.
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker.

The three species just mentioned are the only woodpeckers that inhabit Britain, though several others are mistakenly recorded as occurring in the country—and especially the great black woodpecker, the Picus martius of Linnaeus, which must be regarded as the type of that genus.[4] This fine species considerably exceeds the green woodpecker in size, and except for its red cap is wholly black. It is chiefly an inhabitant of the fir forests of the Old World, from Lapland to Galicia and across Siberia to Japan. In North America this species is replaced by Picus pileatus, there generally known as the logcock, an equally fine species, but variegated with white; and farther to the southward occur two that are finer still, P. principalis, the ivory-billed woodpecker and P. imperialis. The Picinae indeed flourish in the New World, nearly one-half of the described species being American, but of the large number that inhabit Canada and the United States we can mention only a few.

First of these is the Californian woodpecker, Melanerpes formicivorus, which has been said to display an amount of providence beyond almost any other bird in the number of acorns it fixes tightly in holes which it makes in the bark of trees, and thus “a large pine forty or fifty feet high will present the appearance of being closely studded with brass nails, the heads only being visible.” This is not done to furnish food in winter, for the species migrates, and only returns in spring to the forests where its supplies are laid up. It has been asserted that the acorns thus stored are always those which contain a maggot, and, being fitted into the sockets prepared for them cup-end foremost, the enclosed insects are unable to escape, as they otherwise would, and are thus ready for consumption by the birds on their return from the south. But this statement has again been contradicted, and, moreover, it is alleged that these woodpeckers follow their instinct so blindly that “they do not distinguish between an acorn and a pebble,” so that they “fill up the holes they have drilled with so much labor, not only with acorns but occasionally with stones” (cf. Baird, Brewer and Ridgway, North American Birds, ii. pp. 569-571).

The next North-American form deserving notice is the genus Colaptes, represented in the north and east by C. auratus, the golden-winged woodpecker or flicker, in most parts of the country a familiar bird, but in the south and west replaced by the allied C. mexicanus, easily distinguishable among other characteristics by having the shafts of its quills red instead of yellow. It is curious, however, that, in the valleys of the upper Missouri and Yellowstone rivers, where the range of the two kinds overlaps, birds are found presenting an extraordinary mixture of the otherwise distinctive features of each.

Other North American forms are the downy and hairy woodpeckers, small birds with spotted black and white plumage, which are very valuable as destroyers of harmful grubs and borers; the redheaded woodpecker, a very handsome form with strongly contrasted red, black and white plumage, common west of the Alleghany Mountains; and the yellow-bellied woodpecker (“sapsucker”).

Some other woodpeckers deserve especial notice—the Colaptes or Soroplex campestris, which inhabits the treeless plains of Paraguay and La Plata; also the South-African woodpecker Geocolaptes olivaceus, which lives almost entirely on the ground or rocks, and picks a hole for its nest in the bank of a stream (Zoologist, 1882, p. 208).

The woodpeckers, together with the wrynecks (q.v.), form a very natural division of scansorial birds with zygodactylous feet, and were regarded by T. H. Huxley as forming a distinct division of birds to which he gave the name Celeomorphae, whilst W. K. Parker separated them from all other birds as Saurognathae.  (A. N.) 

  1. The number of English names, ancient and modern, by which these birds are known is very great, and even a bare list of them could not be here given. The Anglo-Saxon was higora or higere, and to this may plausibly be traced “hickwall,” nowadays used in some parts of the country, and the older “hickway,” corrupted first into “highhaw,” and, after its original meaning was lost, into “hewhole,” which in North America has been still further corrupted into “high-hole” and more recently into “high-holder.” Another set of names includes “whetile” and “woodwale,” which, different as they look, have a common derivation perceptible in the intermediate form “witwale.” The Mid. Eng. wodehake ( = woodhack) is another name apparently identical in meaning with that commonly applied to woodpecker.
  2. A patch of conspicuous colour, generally red, on this part is characteristic of very many woodpeckers, and careless writers often call it “mystacial,” or some more barbarously “moustachial.” Considering that moustaches spring from above the mouth, and have nothing to do with the mandible or lower jaw, no term could be more misleading.
  3. It often happens that, just as the woodpecker's labours are over, a pair of starlings will take possession of the newly-bored hole, and, by conveying into it some nesting furniture, render it unfit for the rightful tenants, who thereby suffer ejectment, and have to begin all their trouble again. It has been stated of this and other woodpeckers that the chips made in cutting the hole are carefully removed by the birds to guard against their leading to the discovery of the nest. The present writer, however, had ample opportunity of observing the contrary as regards this species and, to some extent, the pied woodpecker next to be mentioned. Indeed there is no surer way of finding the nest of the green woodpecker than by scanning the ground in the presumed locality, for the tree which holds the nest is always recognizable by the chips scattered at its foot.
  4. The expression Picus martius was by old writers used in a very general sense for all birds that climbed trees, not only woodpeckers, but for the nuthatch and tree-creeper (qq.v.) as well. The adjective martius loses all its significance if it be removed from Picus as some even respectable authorities have separated it.