Friday, 17 November 2006

Woody's return

Back in June I wrote about the launch of a new survey, set up to establish the extent to which great spotted woodpeckers make use of gardens during the breeding season. The survey was a collaboration between the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and Radio 4’s “Shared Earth” programme (which is back on our airwaves for a second series today at 3pm).

The results of the survey have just been announced and they make very interesting reading. Reports were received from gardens across the country, including a number from here within Norfolk. Collectively, the contributions have enabled researchers at the BTO to build up a detailed picture of just how the woodpeckers change their use of gardens as the summer progresses. Early on in the season, from late June, adult woodpeckers begin to increase their use of garden feeding stations – arriving to tuck into peanuts and fats. The results suggest that males make greater use of this resource than females, something which almost certainly reflects the fact that females typically remain in the nest cavity during daylight hours, tending to their eggs or young chicks. During this period the male brings food to the female so she does not need to visit garden feeding stations. This pattern continues for several weeks and then, from early June, adults begin to arrive with youngsters in tow. These young great spotted woodpeckers can be separated from their parents by the red cap covering the top of their head and by the fact that the area of red under their tail is rather pale, seemingly appearing washed out. The adult male has a small patch of bright red at the back of his head and bright red underneath his tail. The female also has this patch of red under her tail but lacks the patch on the back of her head, all very useful features when it comes to working out just who is visiting your garden. Adults continued to arrive with their young over the following weeks but then left them to visit on their own. Having introduced their young to a suitable feeding opportunity their parenting was done.

Another aspect of the study looked at the extent to which these birds break into nestboxes containing broods of young tits. Many people do not realise thay the great spotted woodpecker is a predator of other birds’ nests but the study showed that many of those participants with a nestbox in their garden had experienced such predation. There are also reports of woodpeckers breaking into the mud nests of house martins to reach chicks.  It seems that the great spotted woodpecker is a resourceful bird, able to make the most of opportunities.

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