Great and Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers

A short guide to the main differences between Great and Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers.

At this time of the year my local woodland is literally drumming with activity. The woodpeckers are busy announcing their territories with their percussive rhythmical hammering on hollow trunks. The sounds echo throughout the wood and can be heard some distance away.

Yesterday I was lucky enough to see and hear both Great Spotted and Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers. Usually I only see the more common Great Spotted, so I was delighted to see its smaller cousin. I thought I’d make a little post to help you tell the difference between them.

Visual differences

Both species are black and white, but size is the main difference between them. The Greater Spotted is the size of a starling or blackbird, so a medium-sized bird. The Lesser Spotted is the size of a sparrow.

The Great Spotted has a large white shoulder patch and scarlet underneath the tail. It has a very distinctive bouncing flight. The male has a distinctive red patch on the back of his head.

Great spotted woodpecker
Great Spotted Woodpecker by Ray Jennings from Pixabay

The Lesser Spotted is more barred, lacking the large white wing patches of its larger relative. It also lacks the red underneath its tail. The male does have a red crown though.

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker by Kurt Bouda from Pixabay

Identification by drumming

Identifying birds by sound is great fun and these days is made easier with the Merlin Bird ID App that I described in an earlier post. All the audio clips below are made by Uko Paal.

The Great Spotted Woodpecker’s drum is short and loud, and usually fades away off towards the end. :

The Lesser Spotted Woodpecker’s drumming is weaker and quieter but it lasts for longer:

Identification by call

The Great Spotted is a noisy bird, and its loud call can often be heard in parks and gardens, particularly in the Spring:

The Lesser Spotted Woodpecker’s call is completely different, and is often confused with a kestrel:

So there you have the main differences between these two lovely and fascinating birds. I hope they help you identify your local woodpeckers. If you want to share what woodpeckers you see and hear in your own garden or nearby park or woodland, just drop a comment below.


  1. We have a lot of Greats here where I am in Sussex but the Lessers are really uncommon. I hadn’t realised about the call though so I will listen out – we have a lot of Kestrels too!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. We don’t have any where I live in Ireland but the Greater Spotted is starting to spread so I am always on the look out. The only woodpecker I have ever seen was a green woodpecker on Hampstead Heath a few years back…I was thrilled to bits!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. There are two small woodpeckers here on Vancouver Island, Downy and Hairy (sounds like a pair of comedians!) I see a pair regularly at my feeder. I suspect they’re Downies, as they’re quite small. There is also a large type, the Pileated Woodpecker, that prefers forested areas. I used to hear their calls, rather like a crazy laugh, when I worked in a building that backed onto a park with large fir trees.
    I haven’t heard any drumming yet, but usually do once spring is under way.

    Liked by 1 person

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