Great Spotted Woodpecker

Irish Name: Mórchnagaire breac
Scientific name: Dendrocopus major
Bird Family: Woodpeckers
Conservation status


Colonist to broadleaf forests in eastern Ireland since 2005, now gradually expanding its range to other parts of the country.


About the same size as Mistle Thrush. A distinctive black and white bird when seen well. The face, throat and underparts are white, while the back, rump and tail are black. Also has a large white patch at the base of the wings, while the vent is pale red. In flight, the wings are mainly black, with obvious rows of spotting on the primaries and secondaries. Adult male Great Spotted Woodpeckers are identifiable by a small red patch on the back of the head. Adult females have a black nape and crown.


The most frequently heard call is a loud "kick", when agitated given in a continuous series. Does not sing, but has distinctive drumming display from early spring onwards. Drums last between 1 and 2 seconds.


Feeds on insects found in wood, as well as pine cones in autumn. During the breeding season, may also take eggs and chicks of other birds. Will visit garden bird tables in suburban areas.


A scarce but increasing breeder in Ireland, usually in oak woodlands with some coniferous woods nearby. A common species in Britain and Continental Europe and frequently visits bird feeders in gardens. Breeds in nesting cavities which it excavates in decaying wood.


Great Spotted Woodpeckers remain on their territory during the winter. Young birds move to new territories in autumn

Monitored by

Countryside Bird Survey, Great Spotted Woodpecker Survey and BirdTrack.

Blog posts about this bird

Avian Influenza

Large influx of Scandinavian finches to Irish gardens last winter. The Irish Garden Bird Survey has begun again!

BirdWatch Ireland’s Irish Garden Bird Survey returns next week, for the 34th consecutive winter. The survey is very simple and asks people to spend a short amount of time each week watching their garden birds and recording what they see.  It plays an important role in tracking the fortunes of some of Ireland’s best-loved wildlife.

On Their Way

BirdWatch Ireland has received lots of correspondence from concerned people all around the country whose garden birds are ‘missing’. This is simply a result of the abundance of natural food available to them in the countryside, but as the weeks go on and weather gets colder more and more birds will be retreating to gardens for food and shelter, just in time for the Irish Garden Bird Survey!

Rare Arrivals

Last winter there was a big increase in the number of Bramblings in Irish gardens. Bramblings are a close relative of our native Chaffinch that breed in northern Scandinavia and are quite rare in Ireland. Every few years however, we get a big influx, and last year 4% of gardens in 21 counties had at least one of these Scandinavian migrants hiding amongst their Chaffinches. “There was a noticeable spike in their numbers in mid-January, corresponding with the lowest recorded temperatures of the winter, highlighting just how important it is to put out food and water in advance of frost or snow!” said Brian Burke, who coordinates the survey for Birdwatch Ireland.
Other notable rarities include the invasive Ring-necked Parakeets in a select few Dublin gardens and a Rustic Bunting in a garden in County Down. Rustic Buntings nest in woodlands in eastern Scandinavia and Siberia and spend the winter in south-east Asia, and this was only the 23rd record of the species in Ireland. A Mediterranean Gull in a Dublin garden represents only the third record of the species in the Irish Garden Bird Survey, though they’re definitely increasing in coastal habitats.
“Taking part in the survey is really easy, and while it doesn’t require a huge commitment, it definitely provides people with extra motivation to keep an even closer eye on their garden birds, and that’s when you might spot something new,” said Brian. “It might be something rare at a national level, or something common but that you’ve never seen in your garden before. There’s excitement either way!”

Common Species, increases and decreases

Robins were seen in the highest proportion of gardens last winter (>99%), followed by Blackbird (>97%) and Blue Tit (>96%), with Magpie moving up to fourth place (90%). House Sparrows were the most numerous birds recorded (average count of 9-10 per garden), followed by Starling and Goldfinch (8-9 per garden).
Our native hibernicus subspecies of Coal Tit fell to its worst ranking in 20 years (11th place, <80% of gardens) after a series of poor years.  Another species showing significant decreases was Song Thrush (down 10%, from 13th to 17th), which may have suffered high nest losses because of the cold start to the summer the previous year. Pied Wagtail, also known by many as the ‘Willy Wagtail’, also declined by 10%.
Notable increases include the Jay, a colourful member of the crow family which also belongs to a unique Irish hibernicus subspecies. They were recorded in more than 10% of gardens for the first time ever, reflecting a widespread increase in the Irish population. More common members of the crow family, such as JackdawRook and Hooded Crow all increased last year, as did all three of our most common pigeon species: WoodpigeonCollared Dove and Feral PigeonGreat Spotted Woodpeckers, which first began their colonisation of Ireland around 2005, were recorded in 5% of Irish gardens, across 21 counties, and continue to increase across the country, favouring peanut feeders in the winter.



Avian Flu and Trichomonosis in Garden Birds

BirdWatch Ireland would like to stress that the risk of Avian Flu in garden birds is very low at present and that it is safe to continue to feed your garden birds. Avian Flu decimated some seabird species such as Gannet this summer, with hundreds of dead and unwell birds washing up on beaches, while in more recent months it has been swans, geese and ducks that have been infected. “Bird flu is currently circulating in our waterbird species, but these birds don’t tend to interact closely with garden birds. Swans and sparrows don’t hang out together, so it’s unlikely bird flu will be brought into gardens. It’s a situation we’ll continue to keep a close eye on, however,” said Brian.
The main risk to garden birds continues to be the trichomonas parasite, which has been infecting finches for over 15 years now. Greenfinches were present in fewer than half of gardens last winter, down from over 90% of gardens in the early 2000’s. Also, Chaffinches in urban areas are declining faster than those in rural parts of the country, apparently because there are more feeders in urban gardens where they pick up the infection. “If you’re putting out feeders, you also have a responsibility to clean them thoroughly at least once a week to ensure the costs don’t outweigh the benefits to the birds,” notes Brian.

Supporting the Survey

The Irish Garden Bird Survey is once again sponsored by Ballymaloe, whose support in recent years has helped ensure the survey has gone from strength to strength, improving monitoring at national level and allowing for greater focus on conservation issues facing individual species.
"Collectively Ballymaloe House, Ballymaloe Cookery School and Ballymaloe Foods are delighted to sponsor the Irish Garden Bird Survey annually in memory of our founder Ivan Allen.  Ivan, Myrtle Allen's husband, loved the birdlife in and around Ballymaloe House and farmed considerately ensuring their natural habitat was undisturbed.  His sustainable farming practices were undoubtedly ahead of their time.  Supporting this Irish Garden Bird Survey is Ballymaloe businesses way to continually celebrate Ivan's passion for birdlife, whilst supporting Irish birdlife conservation in his name." Laura Behan, General Manager of Ballymaloe House. 
To find out more about the survey and the different trends and patterns seen for different garden birds over the last 30 years, listen to the survey coordinator Brian Burke talk to Ricky Whelan and Niall Hatch for the 'In Your Nature' podcast, by clicking here.  

For full details about the survey, how to take part and looking after your garden birds, click here.

Garden Birds

'Last Christmas' - Birds in Irish Gardens last winter

There's still time to take part in the Irish Garden Bird Survey!! See here for more details. 

  If you’re a BirdWatch Ireland member you’ll have already read the results of last year’s survey in your winter edition of Wings magazine. If you’re not a member, please join and support our work! But you can catch up on last year’s Irish Garden Bird Survey results with the overview below. If this is your first year to take part in the survey, don’t worry about knowing every single species that might appear in your garden – just familiarise yourself with the most common ones to start off. If you’re a survey veteran, then see how your garden bird list compares to the national average!    

Over 90% of Irish Gardens

The species at the top of the list didn’t change much from previous years. Robin, as per usual, was on top, followed by Blackbird and Blue Tit. Great Tit and Magpie moved up a place each into 4th and 5th, thanks to a fall in the numbers of Chaffinch reported. Robins can still be territorial in the winter, so are pretty evenly spread across the country, while our Blackbird population is topped up by hundreds of thousands of migrants from Scandinavia in the winter, hence their high-ranking each year. Blue Tits and Great Tits are pretty ubiquitous too, and Magpies are very effective at exploiting both urban and rural habitats.  


80-90% of Irish Gardens

Chaffinch and Goldfinch fell two and three places to 6th and 10th respectively, since the previous winter, and those declines were greatest in urban and suburban gardens rather than rural ones. On the back of a great breeding season, Coal Tit moved up three places to 7th place. House Sparrows kept 8th position, and Starling made it into the top 10 garden birds for the first time in a decade!  


50-80% of Irish Gardens

Wren dropped two places to 11th, while species such as Dunnock (12th), Rook (16th), Collared Dove (17th) all stayed in the same position as the previous winter. When a winter is pretty mild (the occasional storm excluded) we tend to see this stability in the rankings across many species. There was some slight movement for Woodpigeon (14th), Jackdaw (15th) and Hooded Crow (19th), all of which fell one place. The mild weather tends to mean these species aren’t forced to retreat to gardens for food as much as in other winters. Song Thrush increased by around 2% and jumped to places in the rankings to 13th. Pied Wagtail rose up two places to 18th and occurred in >7% more gardens than they did on average over the preceding five year period. Despite being very common in towns, cities and shopping centre carparks, they’re actually seen in twice as many rural gardens as urban or suburban ones. Greenfinch continue to suffer the devastating effects of trichomoniasis (make sure to clean your feeders regularly!) and reached a new low for the species in the survey – 20th place.   Pied Wagtail


20-50% of Irish Gardens

While the above species occur in more than 50% of gardens, you’re in the minority if one of the below appears in your garden this winter: Siskin jumped up 7 places (8%) since the previous year. They usually start to appear in gardens from mid-January onwards, but they were making appearances from late November right through to March in most parts of the country last winter. No other species made such a big jump pup the table! One of the bigger losers was Goldcrest - down 5 places to 29th, a decrease of nearly 8%. It was a mild winter, and a good breeding season for most species in 2020, so the reason for this isn’t immediately obvious. Bullfinch dropped three places to 24th, but this might just be due to the mild winter and abundance of feeding options in the wider countryside, as they’re not a bird that visits feeders and so aren’t as associated with gardens as other finches. Other species in the 20-50% band include Blackcap, Long-tailed Tit, Sparrowhawk, Mistle Thrush and Feral Pigeon. Again, not species that tend to avail of bird feeders with any regularity, but species who know how to make a good living in a human-dominated landscape, be it rural, urban or suburban.  



Best of the rest

Despite being a non-native species, Pheasants tend to be seen in 15-20% of gardens each year, which is surprisingly high considering they don’t tend to breed well in the wild, so are reliant on being released by gun clubs every autumn. Buzzards moved two places up the rankings and are seen over 15% of gardens each winter. Herring Gulls were in 11% of gardens, Black-headed Gulls in 4%, and 1.3% of gardens had some sort of gull visiting but weren’t sure what species! Great Spotted Woodpeckers are one of the most recent additions to our bird community, and over 4% of gardens had one visiting their peanut feeders (it’s always peanut feeders!) last winter. They’re now breeding in almost every county in Ireland, so expect to see them charging up the rankings table in the coming years. Last year was a mast year for acorns, which meant Oak trees were providing a huge bounty for species such as Jays, and as a result they were seen in fewer gardens than usual (8%, down 1% from the average). This tends to happen every few years. Lastly, Redwing and Fieldfare, our two wintering thrush species, both dropped a bit, thanks again to the mild winter.   jay-drinking-from-hollow-tree-trunk     See below for the full Top 30 birds in Irish gardens last winter, and their various ups and downs since the previous year. Most gardens record between 10 and 25 species over the course of a winter. Whether you have more or less than that, we still need you do to the survey!  

We are hugely grateful to Ballymaloe  for their sponsorship and support of the Irish Garden Bird Survey.

For more details about the Irish Garden Bird Survey click here, or download the survey form below.