It’s a sultry summer afternoon with a hint of thunder in the air and, as you’re walking through a meadow or perhaps along a disused railway line, you hear it first; a high ringing laugh falling away. There it is again, a wild echoing ‘kew kew kew’, clearly not human but with something slightly insane about it. And now, if you’re lucky, you might glimpse a largish bright yellow and green bird swooping extravagantly as it dives into a copse.
Most birds go quiet in the middle of the day in summer because they’re too busy feeding themselves and their families, but its then that Green Woodpeckers seem to be most vocal. They were known by the old countrymen as Yaffles, or rain birds, because their calls were thought to presage rain and it’s true they do often seem to call in that still calm before a summer storm.
Green Woodpeckers are eccentric birds and as often as not you’ll first catch sight of them on the ground rather than in a tree where you might expect a woodpecker. But, unlike other woodpeckers that mine tree branches in search of beetle larvae, Yaffles eat almost nothing but ants. As anyone who has ever disturbed an ant nest will know, workers swarm vigorously out in defence of their brood and Green Woodpeckers take advantage of this aggression by simply rummaging around in the turf of an anthill and then licking up the attackers with their long, mobile, sticky tongues. And they eat vast numbers of ants, a study in Romania estimated that a brood of seven young woodpeckers consumed no less than 1.5 million ants and ant larvae while they were in the nest, every one licked up and regurgitated in dollops back at the nest by their parents.
To make their nests, Green Woodpeckers drill a perfectly circular hole in a tree trunk or hefty branch and then excavate a deep chamber in which to lay their eggs. So impregnable are these nest holes that Green Woodpeckers don’t seem to make any great effort to avoid being seen at them and, if you tap the trunk of the nest tree with a stick they’ll sometimes even appear at the nest hole to look at you.
With their bright yellow rumps and crimson heads Green Woodpeckers look almost tropical in some lights. So exotic are they that, until I showed him a picture, a non-birding friend of mine was once convinced he’d seen a parrot.
Now the Wryneck is extinct we only have two other species of woodpecker in Britain, the Great Spotted Woodpecker, which is becoming familiar as a visitor to winter garden feeders, and the increasingly rare sparrow-sized Lesser Spotted Woodpecker which seems to have suffered from the loss of its favourite tree, the elm.
Woodpeckers abound in diversity throughout the world and there was great joy in the USA in 2004 when a single specimen of the iconic Ivory Billed Woodpecker, thought to be extinct since the’40’s, was filmed in the swamps of Arkansas.