Black woodpecker (Dryocopus martius)

Black woodpecker in flight
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Black woodpecker fact file

Black woodpecker description

GenusDryocopus (1)

The largest woodpecker in most of its range, the black woodpecker (Dryocopus martius) is distinguished by its distinctively black plumage, which is glossy black throughout, with the exception of a crimson-red crown. The male and female woodpecker are hard to distinguish from each other, although the entire crown of the male is crimson red and slightly raised, forming a crest, while the female has a black forehead and a red rear crown (2) (3) (4) (5) (6).

The juvenile black woodpecker is similar in appearance to the adult, but is less glossy, with a duller red crown and a paler grey throat and bill (2) (3).

The black woodpecker has a very large, pale, ivory-coloured, chisel-like bill which, along with its stocky legs, long claws and stiff tail feathers, makes it an expert excavator. It can be heard vigorously drumming on wood in long, loud bursts while trying to find a suitable site for excavation, producing a very loud and powerful sound reminiscent of machine gun fire (2) (3) (4) (5).

The piercing yellow eyes and manic, high-pitched calls of the black woodpecker have made it the villain of fairy tales throughout its range. It calls high from trees, producing a loud, whistling ‘kree-kree-kree(5) (6).

The flight of the black woodpecker is slow, unsteady and clumsy, and it flies with its head raised (2) (3).

Length: 45 - 55 cm (2) (3)
Wingspan: 67 - 73 cm (2)
250 - 370 g (2)

Black woodpecker biology

The black woodpecker feeds entirely on insects and their larvae, which it finds at low levels in large trees. It will often feed on wood-boring insects, deep inside timber (2) (3) (5).

The characteristic deep excavations of the black woodpecker are used both for roosting and nesting purposes. The black woodpecker has a specially adapted neck containing very strong muscles, which allow it to endlessly hack away at tree bark. In order to position itself correctly, it has short, stumpy legs, as well as long, sharp claws and very stiff tail feathers (4).

The black woodpecker will work on these excavations for up to four weeks, depending on the tree. The woodpecker will more than likely choose a tree with a fungal disease, such as heart rot, although some will utilise a living, healthy tree. Once a hole has been made, the black woodpecker chips downwards through the trunk of the tree, creating a nesting chamber, the only lining being the woodchips created throughout the process. When the nest is ready, the female lays a single clutch of two to eight eggs. The breeding pair take it in turns to incubate the eggs, also sharing duties of feeding and brooding the chicks once they have hatched. The nestlings may fight their way to the entrance of the nest in order to be fed first. After 18 to 35 days the young black woodpecker will leave the nest, staying with the adults for another week (2) (4) (5) (9).

The black woodpecker’s excavations provide homes for many other species of bird and mammal, and is therefore considered to be a ‘keystone’ species in many of its habitats throughout its range. It not only provides habitats for other species, but also controls populations of wood-boring insects, helping to protect the trees (4) (9).


Black woodpecker range

The range of the black woodpecker spreads east from France across the whole of Europe, excluding the United Kingdom and northern Scandinavia. It is also native to parts of Asia, including Korea, Japan and China, and to the Middle East, including Iran and Kazakhstan. The southern limits of the black woodpeckers range are Spain and Italy, and it has also been recorded as a vagrant in Portugal (6) (7).

The black woodpecker is locally common in the western parts of its range, but it is rarer in the east (3).


Black woodpecker habitat

Mainly found in forest regions between elevations of 100 to 2,400 metres, the black woodpecker inhabits extensive, mature woodland, including coniferous, tropical, subtropical and boreal forests. It is very widespread throughout mountainous and lowland forests, moving to marginal woods during the non-breeding season (2) (5) (6) (7) (8).


Black woodpecker status

The black woodpecker is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

IUCN Red List species status – Least Concern


Black woodpecker threats

The black woodpecker is a widespread and abundant species, and is not currently considered to be at risk of extinction (7). However, it may face local threats, such as habitat loss due to logging (10).


Black woodpecker conservation

There are currently no known specific conservation methods in place for the black woodpecker. However, some areas in which it lives, such as the Shirakami Mountains in Japan, are protected from logging (11).


Find out more

Find out more about the black woodpecker:



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Boreal forest
The sub-Arctic forest of the high northern latitudes that surrounds the North Pole and is mainly composed of coniferous trees.
To keep eggs warm so that development is possible.
Immature stage in an animal’s lifecycle, after it hatches from an egg and before it changes into the adult form. Larvae are typically very different in appearance to adults; they are able to feed and move around but are usually unable to reproduce.
An individual found outside the normal range of the species.


  1. IUCN Red List (October, 2011)
  2. Brazil, M. (2009) Field Guide to the Birds of East Asia: Eastern China, Taiwan, Korea, Japan and Eastern Russia. A&C Black, London.
  3. Winkler, H. and Christie, D.A. (2010) Woodpeckers. A&C Black, London.
  4. Gorman, G. (2008) Central and Eastern European Wildlife. Bradt Travel Guides, Buckshire.
  5. Perrins, C.M., Attenborough, D. and Arlott, N. (1987) New Generation Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe. University of Texas Press, Texas.
  6. Peterson, R.T., Mountfort, G. and Hollom, P.A.D. (1993) Collins Field Guide: Birds of Britain and Europe. HarperCollins Publishers, London.
  7. BirdLife International (October, 2011)
  8. Roberts, J. (2005) The Mountains of Romania. Cicerone Press Limited, Cumbria.
  9. Mobley, J.A. (2008) Birds of the World. Marshall Cavendish, New York.
  10. Zhelezov, G. (2010) Sustainable Development in Mountain Regions: Southeastern Europe. Springer, New York.
  11. DellaSala, D. (2010) Temperate and Boreal Rainforests of the World: Ecology and Conservation. Island Press, Washington, D.C.

Image credit

Black woodpecker in flight  
Black woodpecker in flight

© Markus Varesvuo /

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