Tetrapod Zoology

She was a very strange woodpecker

Here’s a sadly deceased female Great spotted woodpecker Picoides major I recently photographed in a private collection. She was a very unusual woodpecker. Any ideas why?

i-dd457aa5afa22d55a547171c0f669ad3-GS woodpecker 11-8-2008 cropped resized.jpg

The Great spotted woodpecker has an immense range, extending from western Europe (though Ireland lucks out) all the way to Japan and the Kamchatka Peninsula. It also occurs on the Canary Islands, in north-west Africa, in Turkey and the Causasus, and in eastern China down to Burma and north-east India (Winkler et al. 1995). Great spotted woodpeckers across this range vary in overall size, bill length and robustness, and in the extent of whiteness they possess, and 14 subspecies have been recognised. However, much of this variation is clinal and Zink et al. (2002) found no phylogeographical divisions among these populations except for one that divides the main Palaearctic population from that of Hokkaido, Sakhalin and Primor’e. That ‘far eastern’ population has generally been regarded as the subspecies P. m. japonicus and it might warrant recognition as a separate species. Garcia-del-Rey et al. (2007) have since found that the Canary Islands populations are also obviously distinct [here’s the other side of the individual shown above].

i-1bf29e0e1e697a03fcdfdc3b06ad2018-GS woodpecker 11-8-2008 other side cropped resized.jpg

As a European person, I think of the Great spotted woodpecker as a bird of broadleaf forests, parks and gardens, but it’s just at home in high-altitude conifer woodland, tropical rhododendron forest and Mediterranean olive groves. Mostly a canopy bird, it drills for sap and is well known for its habit of using favoured anvils as places where it breaks up arthropods, fruits, nuts, seeds and cones, and it’s a generalist, eating assorted plant material as well as arthropods including plant lice, caterpillars, spiders and ants. It is a notorious predator of bird eggs and nestlings and is apparently a key predator of some passerines (like the Penduline tit Remiz pendulinus), even breaking into nest-boxes to get at the nestlings.

Some readers might know the Great spotted woodpecker as Dendrocopos major. Because Dendrocopos (the ladder-backed or pied woodpeckers) is apparently paraphyletic with respect to Picoides (the three-toed woodpeckers) (Weibel & Moore 2002, Rutkowsi et al. 2007), some authors have argued that the two genera should be merged. Picoides Lacépède, 1799 – arguably the less familiar of these two names – is older, and thus has priority over Dendrocopos Koch, 1816. This has been reflected in some general texts on woodpeckers (like Winkler et al.’s Woodpeckers of the World) but not in others (like Del Hoyo et al.’s Handbook of the Birds of the World) and remains the source of debate [male Great spotted woodpecker shown below, from wikipedia].

i-52dec8e93c079869d71d280d616d7012-GS woodpecker wikipedia 11-8-2008.jpg

Veniliornis (the Neotropical bar-bellied woodpeckers), the Okinawa woodpecker Sapheopipo noguchii and Dendropicos (the African grey-green woodpeckers) have also been suggested to be part of the pied woodpecker clade, but some studies find the affinities of these taxa to be elsewhere. It’s widely agreed that the phylogenetic history of pied woodpeckers is more complex than used to be thought (see, e.g., Moore et al. 2006), but a taxonomy that accurately reflects the new data has yet to emerge.

Dammit, have written too much again. Was intending just to post those photos. Why was she a very strange woodpecker?

Refs – –

Garcia-del-Rey, E., Delgado, G., Gonzalez, J. & Wink, M. 2007. Canary Island great spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopus major) has distinct mtDNA. Journal of Ornithology 148, 531-536.

Moore, W. S., Weibel, A. C. & Agius, A. 2006. Mitochondrial DNA phylogeny of the woodpecker genus Veniliornis (Picidae, Picinae) and related genera implies convergent evolution of plumage patterns. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 87, 611-624.

Rutkowski, R., Jagolkowska, P., Mazgajski, T. D. & Reht, L. 2007. A mitochondrial DNA control region phylogeny of the European woodpeckers Picidae. Genus Supplement 14, 173-176.

Weibel, A. & Moore, W. S. 2002. Molecular phylogeny of a cosmopolitan group of woodpeckers (genus Picoides) based on COI and cyt b mitochondrial gene sequences. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 22, 65-75.

Winkler, H., Christie, D. A. & Nurney, D. 1995. Woodpeckers. Pica Press, Mountfield.

Zink, R. M., Drovetski, S. V. & Rohwer, S. 2002. Phylogeographic patterns in the
great spotted woodpecker Dendrocopos major across Eurasia. Journal of Avian Biology 33, 175-178.


  1. #1 Oruga
    August 11, 2008

    Let me guess, three toes?

  2. #2 Nuytsia
    August 11, 2008

    Well unless the camera lens is distorting the image, one foot looks massive in comparison to the other.

  3. #3 Jennie
    August 11, 2008

    PSA: You’ve been nominated by another blogger for an award. The actual voting will begin soon, but until that point, if you’d like to check out what you have been nominated for, and maybe even snag a banner to tell everybody, click the links!

    If you’re not interested in awards then just ignore it, or if you’re utterly against them, let me know and I’ll remove you from the longlist.


  4. #4 Neil
    August 11, 2008

    is the bill longer that usual? Seems to be long, and more so when I compare it to my photos of this species. And I seem to rememeber a story earlier this year about a long billed woodpecker

  5. #5 staifkop
    August 11, 2008

    uhhh, she died of braindamage, as a consequence of repeatedly hitting her head to a tree?

  6. #6 Dave Godfrey
    August 11, 2008

    Is it a member of the Japanese subspecies, rather than the European variant?

  7. #7 Aranae
    August 11, 2008

    I’m with Oruga. Three toes. She should be zygodactyl, right? Only the “formerly known as Picoides” woodpeckers should have three toes.

  8. #8 Brian
    August 11, 2008

    Not to be a pedantic person but the penduline tit is called Remiz pendulinus and not Remix pendulines.

    As for the strangeness, isn’t the lower back supposed to be red instead of black? Probably, I’m very wrong here.

  9. #9 ethan
    August 11, 2008

    A distinct lack of animated hijinx.

  10. #10 Darren Naish
    August 11, 2008

    Not to be a pedantic person but the penduline tit is called Remiz pendulinus and not Remix pendulines.

    Bloody auto-correct (pretty funny though).

  11. #11 James Harding-Morris
    August 11, 2008

    She should have two toes pointing forward and two pointing back. Zygodactyl as someone mentioned earlier.

  12. #12 Sordes
    August 11, 2008

    I didn ´t see the comments of Oruga and Aranae at first, but I came to the same conclusion. So what was it, a simple mutation or a (lesser probable) hybrid with a Picoides tridactylus -part?

  13. #13 Dr. Nick
    August 11, 2008

    Hmh. Dendrocopos might be more familiar to you European types, but good old Picoides is plenty familiar to us North Americans!

  14. #14 Alan Kellogg
    August 11, 2008

    She died on vacation at Disneyworld in Florida.

  15. #15 Aranae
    August 12, 2008

    On second viewing, her right foot looks to be three-toed and larger, whereas her left foot is 4-toed, zygodactyl, and as it should be.

  16. #16 Dave Godfrey
    August 12, 2008

    Your correct, the right foot is larger and only 3-toed isn’t it. I wasn’t sure if there were three or four toes (you can only see two on the right foot, so the others must be hidden).

    How very peculiar.

  17. #17 John Conway
    August 12, 2008

    This “woodpecker” is strange because not a woodpecker at all. It’s a ropen!

    (Bet you didn’t see that coming…)

  18. #18 DDeden
    August 15, 2008

    I just read that woodpeckers have relatively large brains for their size. I didn’t expect that to be the case.

New comments have been disabled.