The black woodpecker is among the most surprising animals of the forest. Its skills in building nests are unmatched, once abandoned, they became quickly reoccupied by other species of animals, and it’s able to vibrate against the trunk up to 35 pecks every two seconds without suffering brain damage!
Everything you need to know about the black woodpecker:
Its body structure places it on the highest podium of the European woodpeckers, being the largest (its dimensions are reminiscent of a crow) and also among the strongest: its beak is long and very robust, a real chisel, thanks to which, with the help of a very rigid tail, it manages to peck with an incredible average of frequencies, varying between 15 and 20 beats per second, all without suffering brain damage due to its special skull. They in fact have a complex bone and muscular system to reduce vibrations that would otherwise be lethal to the brain inside the skull.
Drumming is one of the most important activities for the black woodpecker, both to “mark” its territory, and to dig the nest in the trunk of old trees (recognisable by the oval shape of the entrance hole, with a diameter of even 12 cm) but also for the search for insects that live between the folds of the trunk of the trees: its diet is in fact made up of ants and xylophagous insects.
He manages to identify these insects thanks to a very fine hearing, managing to perceive every small movement between the folds and inside the tree trunk, as if it had a real built-in radar.
The black woodpecker is very dedicated to parental care. The chicks have a shorter beak, but are already recognisable by the red cap. Despite the large size, it is difficult to spot in the trees, being elusive, but an indication of its presence is the characteristic song, a prolonged and ringing “kuii, kuii, kuii”.
- Scientific name: Dryocopus martius.
- Weight: 250 – 400 g.
- Wingspan: 64 – 84 cm.
- Age: Up to 14 years.
- Diet: Ants and larvae that feed on wood, it also eats berries and dried fruits.
- Habitat: Tall trees forests, especially broadleaf trees mixed with conifers, between 1000 and 1700 meters.
- Threats: Least concern, they occasionally die due to electrocution as sometimes they’ve been observed damaging power lines and poles. While the main cause of nesting failures is the predation from their main natural predator, the Pine Marten.
Measuring 45 to 55 cm in length, sometimes the Black Woodpecker can be mistaken with the Carrion Crow because of its dimension, but its wings are more rounded and its tail more sharp. Its flight is similar to the Spotted Nutcracker’s one, still distinguishable even from distance because it has a short and partly white tail.
Like other woodpeckers it has two fingers facing forward and two facing backwards and a stiff tail, this characteristics allow the Black Woodpecker to nimbly climb on vertical trunks. Its black color, the thin neck, the slender forms and the long sharp tail make it unmistakable whether it’s flying or not. The male’s upper part of the head is red, on the female this color is present only on the back of the neck. It has distinctive, piercing yellow eyes and an ivory grey beak that may appear white at a distance.
The juvenile Black Woodpecker is similar but less shiny, with a more faded red crown and pale grey throat.
From Europe to Siberia, the Black Woodpecker has a particularly large distribution area. In the “old continent” it is quite widespread, from northern Spain to the north east, up to Russia. A particular subspecies, the khamensis, is present in southwestern China.
Lover of continental climates, in lower latitudes the Black Woodpecker is present only on mountain ranges. Usually sedentary, it can move in winter towards the valley floor, looking for food.
With its strong beak it digs the wood of both living trees and dry or rotting trunks in search of insects. Even the big anthills are torn apart with its beak, with the subsequent capture of small prey facilitated by the long tongue, made sticky by the secretion of the salivary glands of the Black Woodpecker.
Solitary and silent for most of the year— it lives in pairs during the breeding season, when he digs the classic nest in large trees, preferably very old or sick plants. Particularly jealous of its territory, the Black Woodpecker makes agile flights near the tree that houses the nest, emitting a call very similar to that “drumming” that distinguishes the stages of building the nest.
The courtships begins at the end of winter; in April couples are formed and can remain together for life. The nest is often made inside of beech trees trunks, making oval holes about 12 cm wide; 4-5 eggs are laid there, hatched by both the male and the female; hatching occurs in June.
Is the father who takes care of nourishing the youngsters with whom he remains throughout the summer, even after they leave the nest, about a month after birth.
The Black Woodpecker is widely distributed and is able to successfully breed in most areas where extensive woodland is still present. When large parts of Europe and Asia were deforested its population declined and it’s still struggling in some areas such as the Pyrenees, but with the restoration of wide forested areas the number of Black Woodpecker have increased in many part of Europe.
Other than the Pine Marten, which feed on their eggs and chicks (and sometimes even steals the Black Woodpecker’s nest); there’s just a few other natural predators such as the Western Jackdaws, which is attracted as well by the woodpecker’s nest and often occupies it, sometimes larger bird of prey that can hunt forested areas may prey on Black Woodpeckers, such as the Ural Owls, the Eurasian eagle-owls, Northern Goshawks and Golden Eagles.
Federico Fiorillo is an Italian nature guide and content writer based in the magnificent Val de Bagnes, Switzerland. He’s an avid hiker and snowboarder and he travels to the great wilderness areas of the world to see the wildlife and birds he’s passionate about.
In 2008 and 2011 he joined two Brazilian wildlife field trips in Bahia and decided that observing birds in their habitat was going to be one of his driving passions. He completed a birdwatching course with EBN Italia in 2013, and then in 2014 and 2015 he travelled to South East Asia, Australia and the United States where he joined a photographic workshop at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge in Utah.
From 2016 to 2018 he lives in New Zealand, where he collaborates in environmental projects at the Otorohanga Kiwi House, which since 1971 protects kiwi and other New Zealand native birds, among the projects he worked hands on the most rewarding was the one aiming to release Brown Kiwis into the wild.
In 2017, he completes a backcountry survival course obtaining the skillsets needed to thrive in-stead of just survive in the face of adversity in the wilderness. In 2017 he also joins a NZ Bird Photography Tour in Ulva Island and at the Royal Albatross Center of the Otago Peninsula, home to the world’s only mainland Royal Albatross breeding colony.
After his travels across the South Pacific, following his experiences in 2018 he moves in the Swiss Alps where he’s now a nature guide leading tours in the alpine region between Switzerland, Italy and France. Leading nature walks and overnight hiking trips, teaching tourists and locals the secrets of the plants and animals living in this alpine region.
Inspired by an alternative lifestyle he believes in the importance of being in connection with the natural environment and feels the responsibility of interpreting the natural wealth of a site, educating and informing other of the different aspects of that particular area.