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?
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].
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].
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.