How to attract green woodpeckers into your garden

Watch out for green woodpeckers in search of ants on lawns and meadows.

Watch out for green woodpeckers in search of ants on lawns and meadows. - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

This emerald-coloured bird is like a feathered aardvark, says our wildlife writer James Chubb

With two children of primary school age, a wife who runs her own business, and a day job which continued with no furlough, I didn’t think the Covid-19 experience could be any more stressful. And then we moved house.

My word, there’s a process I don’t wish to live through again and – considering you could turn left out of our old house and walk along the same pavement unbroken for five minutes to arrive opposite our new Exeter property – it wasn’t a distance move either! The truth was that with two young girls rapidly approaching their teenage years, a single bathroom simply wasn’t going to cut the adolescent mustard.

However, our new position in Exeter is an absolute treasure trove of urban wildlife. Our new neighbour, Sue, has two species of newt in her pond. I simultaneously pointed her towards my previous column in Devon Life for an identification guide, and filed a mental note to put a very large wildlife pond creation job towards the top of my substantial to-do list.

But for me the heart-lifting elation of the new house comes from the riffling yaffle which rings out every hour or so through the gardens.

One of the huge veteran trees in the local area must have a characteristic 6cm hole chiselled into its trunk between two and five metres off the ground, in which breeds a pair of emerald-coloured green woodpeckers!

The call of the green woodpecker is characterised as a “yaffle” and, as very vocal birds, is normally the first indication of their presence in an area. I grew up with green woodpeckers around my childhood home in Cheddar, but have never had them as a frequent guest close to any of my adult homes.

As it is my intention to retain and protect this special bird here in north Exeter, there are a few gardening plans which will have to follow to ensure they have plenty to feed on as they are birds which don’t visit bird tables.

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Unlike their commoner cousins the great spotted woodpeckers, green woodpeckers are extremely specialised feeders. Their food is ground-based, and their feeding behaviour accounts for that fabulous verdant colouration.

Green woodpeckers specialise in feeding on ants. They are, if you will, a feathered aardvark. The green’s tongue is shorter than other similarly sized woodpeckers and blunt-ended, with none of the sharp spines which endow the tree-drilling woodpecker’s appendages. Adapted glands in the mouth secrete a sticky saliva onto this tongue and it licks ants from the soil by their thousand.

A small hole is excavated in an ant hill, with their absolute favourite being yellow meadow ants, and as the workers swarm to repair the damage, the insects are gleaned with that sticky tongue. Investing significant time and energy digging in the soil, to then be disturbed by a predator would be a difficult evolutionary end point to arrive at, so the green back of the green woodpecker is the perfectly adaptation, giving the bird camouflage while it sits low in the grass.

Both male and female woodpeckers are a similar pattern of black mask and moustache stripe, red crown, with a pale green belly, emerald back and bright yellow rump. Males and females can be identified, however, by the spot of crimson in the moustache stripe of the male birds. Young birds which will have fledged from the nesting tree a few weeks ago, will look like an adult which has been pebbledashed with grey flecks all over its body, a far scruffier specimen than the parents.

So, with a bird that won’t flock to feast on the peanuts I put out for nuthatches, tits and great spotted woodpeckers, how shall I attempt to provide provender for the greens?

Good lawn management, protecting and cherishing any ant nests within or along its edge, will be essential in maintaining their food supply.

A rocky, south-facing wall backfilled with warm sandy soil will be a good feature to put in, too, as ants often create huge colonies in such garden features. Most of all, the total banning of any garden chemical which might claim to aid the growth of flowers or vegetables will be the most simple step I can take to ensure the insects thrive and provide for these green goddesses (and gods)!

James Chubb is a naturalist, writer and broadcaster currently working as a Nature Reserves Manager for East Devon. You can follow him on Twitter .

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