Sitting at my table at home, I am frequently delighted to hear a sudden, sharp laughter coming from the garden. Looking out, I see a visitor, clad in green with a red hat looking back at me. A gnome? A fairy? Nope, it’s a resident Green Woodpecker who has taken to using the lawn as a food larder.
The European Green Woodpecker (Picus viridis) is a large bird, the largest of the three woodpecker species in Britain. Their laughing call, known as a “Yaffle” (the inspiration for Professor Yaffle from Bagpuss) is incredibly distinctive and once you’ve heard it once, you can’t mistake it for anything else.
The Green Woodpecker is a shy bird, and it’s taken a long time for the one in my garden to come down from the willow tree they usually nest in to the lawn, and then to come ever-closer to the house, so that now I can stand at the window and watch them without them flying away when they spot me.
Perhaps surprisingly for a woodpecker, the Green Woodpecker rarely pecks at trees, preferring instead to use the same “drumming” motion to stick their beak into moist soil, looking for tasty ants. Ants, of which there are many here, are the Green Woodpecker’s favourite food, and they use their long tongue to hoover them up much like an anteater does.
According to folklore, the Green Woodpecker is known as the “rain bird” because their appearance portends rain to come, but in my experience they arrive after rain more often than not, when the ground is softened up and easier to excavate for ants and grubs.
I can’t be sure if the one who visits/lives here is male or female, or if there are in fact two. Green Woodpeckers are monogamous, and I do hear call-and-response calls sometimes so I suspect there’s a breeding pair in the area. Males and females of the species are harder to tell apart than in many other birds, as there is very little sexual dimorphism. Both male and female Green Woodpeckers have yellow, green and red plumage and are around the same size. The only difference is that males have a slightly more pronounced redness in their cap and under the bill.
Now a near-daily visitor, the Green Woodpecker in the garden always brightens my spirits with their laughing call and bright, almost tropical, plumage. It just goes to show that if you make a space for nature, and build a relationship with the wild in your area, even a suburban semi can be a haven for life.