By Hampshire and IW Wildlife Trust.

Wander through a woodland in late winter or early spring and you’re likely to hear bursts of rapid, resonant tapping echoing through the trees.

This staccato sound is the work of a woodpecker on a mission. Each rattle sends a message to all the other woodpeckers that can hear it – this part of the forest belongs to me.


While some birds sing to attract a mate and intimidate their neighbours, woodpeckers take a different tack. They hammer their beak against a tree trunk at incredibly high speeds of up to 40 strikes per second. 

Picky peckers

Any musician knows the quality of your instrument can impact your performance. The same is true for woodpeckers, so it’s important they find the right ‘drum’. They’re looking for something resonant, and often choose hard dead branches. 

However, it’s not just trees that attract them – they’ll sometimes use man-made structures, including metal poles. For most UK birds, it’s only the males that sing. However, drumming in woodpeckers is often a unisex activity done to defend their territory. 

It’s all in the rhythm

Woodpeckers across the world aren’t all drumming to the same tune. The rhythm can differ from species to species – a combination of the duration of the roll, the number of strikes, and the strikes per second. 

Scientists have speculated the drumming pattern could even allow individual woodpeckers to be identified. A recent study of middle-spotted woodpeckers (a species found in continental Europe) showed the birds can distinguish between the call of their partner and a stranger. A useful skill when you have a territory to defend!

British birds

There are three species of woodpecker that nest in Britain, but the only one you’re likely to hear drumming is the great spotted woodpecker. It’s our most common species, found in woodlands and parks. Their drumming is a short, explosive burst of strikes that usually last less than a second. The strikes speed up towards the end of the roll, but also get fainter and so seemingly trail off.

Lesser spotted woodpeckers are smaller and, sadly, much scarcer. They’ve declined so dramatically that they’ve been lost from most of Britain. Their drumming is slightly slower than a great spotted, and typically last for longer – well over a second – at a steady pace.

Our final woodpecker, the green woodpecker, is a chunky bird with a moss green back and a bright red cap. They often forage on the floor, probing for ants with their long, sticky tongue. They rarely drum and prefer to display with their loud, laughing calls. 

 Discover our best sites for hearing drumming woodpeckers for yourself at