A Hole for a Home

Discover three species of hole nesting birds locally this spring with expert guidance from Wendy Carter, Communications Manager at Worcestershire Wildlife Trust.


Did you know that in the UK, 46 species of birds nest in holes? From familiar blue and great tits to owls and woodpeckers; even a couple of species of duck are included. The bird boxes we put up in our gardens don’t just provide shade and shelter, they replicate the kind of natural hole that many of our native birds would usually call ‘home’.


‘Home’ for almost all of our birds is only ever temporary – nests are for raising young and not for all-year-round residence. At the start of the breeding season one or both parents-to-be will construct a nest but, unless they try for a second or third brood, they will leave it behind as soon as their youngsters have fledged. From then on, both adults and juveniles alike will find a variety of sheltered spots in which to spend their nights.


As winter turns to spring across Worcestershire, it’s possible to spot lots of examples of hole-nesters; just wander into any woodland or find a stand of mature trees that is well connected with others in the area and take a closer look. If there are a lot of trees in your neighbourhood, you might even be lucky enough to find them visiting your garden. Perhaps the most obvious hole nesters (away from nest boxes in gardens) are woodpeckers, nuthatches and treecreepers.


All three species feed on the trunks or branches of trees; both woodpeckers and treecreepers have relatively short, stiff tails which act to support them as they move along the bark. All three species tend to settle in one nesting area for life with nuthatches and treecreepers being particularly faithful to their favoured territory. Discover a nesting pair this year and you may have the pleasure of their company for years to come.


Great spotted woodpeckers

Britain’s three woodpecker species (great spotted, lesser and green) physically excavate their own holes, although green woodpeckers will sometimes adopt a pre-existing hole. To help them, they have evolved two toes facing forwards and two toes facing backwards, with strongly curved claws that enable them to grip the tree.


Great spotted woodpeckers are the most commonly seen of the three species and are the type most likely to be found visiting gardens, often coming to nuts or fat balls. They are about starling size, much bigger than the sparrow-sized lesser spotted woodpeckers, which are now quite rare across the UK and difficult to find in this area.


Both species are predominantly black and white but great spotted woodpeckers have thick black markings running vertically down their backs and vivid red at their tail. By contrast, lesser spotted woodpeckers have a distinct barred pattern which runs across the wings (compare the photos on this page and overleaf).


Female and male ‘great spots’ can be distinguished by the colouring on their heads – males have red feathers at the nape of their neck whereas females have pure black caps. Look out for youngsters as the year moves on – they’re the ones with a red mark at the front of their heads.


Great spotted woodpeckers start pairing early in the year; I heard one drumming in Birlingham on New Year’s Day, though this was unusually early. The unique sound of ten to twenty strikes of beak on wood - once, twice, then again and again. Drumming is how both males and females advertise their existence and it’s the most important contact signal during pair-formation in late winter and early spring. An unpaired male may drum up to ten times a minute, 600 times a day, in order to attract a female. It’s a good job they have a shock-absorber at the base of their skull!


Once mated, woodpecker pairs are usually monogamous and their relationship will last for up to three years or so. Both parents take it in turns to excavate their nest-hole (which takes them 14-15 days) as well as incubating and feeding their young. The sharp chisel blows made during hole excavation are a quieter and slower affair than drumming; look out for chips on the ground under a tree which give their game away.


But woodpeckers are not only fast drummers. Great spotted woodpeckers also have long tongues with a sticky, harpoon-like tip to impale their prey. Think about it and it makes sense – perfect for poking and probing into crevices for insects and seeds. Long muscles running behind the skull enable their tongue to extend 4cm beyond the bill tip. And if you think this is impressive, you should look out for the ant-loving green woodpecker whose tongue can extend by an incredible 10cm!


You’re more likely to spot a green woodpecker (immortalised as Professor Yaffle in Bagpuss) pausing on the lawn in its hunt for ants rather than on appearing on a birdfeeder. Discover a field with anthills whilst you’re out walking, such as the one on Bredon Hill, and you’ll have a better chance of spotting one.


Identify the sex of a green woodpecker by studying the detail of the ‘moustache’ which sits beneath its eyes; the male has a red centre to his whilst that of the female is solid black.



These small birds are striking in appearance; blue-grey from above with a rusty orange undercarriage, a black eye-stripe and short tail.


It’s a bird that’s usually faithful to the area in which it’s born - most travel no more than 15km in their entire lives - but some have been pushing the boundaries so their numbers and range have been rising steadily and they’re now found well into Scotland.


Although nuthatches are usually associated with mature trees in woodlands, gardens and parks, they can sometimes be spotted on solitary but wellconnected trees when they’re visiting winter feeding stations. Thanks to their strong claws, nuthatches are the only birds that you’ll spot walking down a tree as well as up one, a skill which helps them explore cracks and crevices with their daggershaped beaks as they search for insects.


Nuthatches often re-use old woodpecker holes as their nests, blocking up the oversized entrances with mud to make a smaller and safer ‘front door’ of about 3cm in diameter. They have been known to use artificial nest boxes set up to attract them in woodlands. Worcestershire Wildlife Trust runs a rent-a-nest scheme and in 2016 supporters who had subscribed to a nest box in Tiddesley Wood, near Pershore, discovered a beautiful nuthatch home lined with dried leaves in one of their boxes.


Nuthatches are loud birds and their piercing whistles will carry through the treetops as the males spend several hours each day defending their territories against other birds. However, at this time of year, as nest-building begins, the female will become the dominant bird in a pair. Listen out for the nuthatch’s long, rich ‘tweep’ call as well as the sound of one of the pair hammering on a nut they’ll have wedged into the bark of a tree.



The high-pitched ‘tseeeeptseeeep’ of a treecreeper is often the first sign that there’s one nearby. These well-camouflaged, brown-speckled birds are extremely active and almost mouse-like in appearance. They have clear white bellies which comb the bark as they busy themselves looking for insects and spiders to eat, or small caterpillars to feed their young.


Pairs remain together throughout the winter months but come spring they’ll look for a flap of loose tree bark or similar crevice behind which to create and build their nest; anywhere from ground level to five metres up a tree. Once established, they will aggressively defend their territories which can be as small as one hectare in quality habitats but up to fifteen hectares in poorer environments. Like nuthatches they don’t travel far, rarely beyond a kilometre from where they were born.


Treecreepers have interesting anatomy including a long, thin down curved bill which enables them to search under loose bits of bark for food and suitable nesting spaces. They also have incredibly stiff tails which often become quite ragged from repeatedly brushing against bark.


If you’re fortunate enough to spot one, take time to watch it spiralling its way up a tree and note its habit of moving under and over branches and limbs, probing almost every available crevice.


Treecreepers prefer to nest in sites with mature trees and lots of foliage cover as these provide the best opportunities for food and shelter. Unlike nuthatches, they are birds that rarely visit garden feeders, only doing so in extremely cold and icy weather, but we can always hope...


How to encourage birds


Find ways to encourage birds to your garden by browsing our website and downloading our free factsheets including Feeding Garden Birds and Bird Boxes at www.worcswildlifetrust.co.uk/ gardening-factsheets.


Good bird foods include suet, sunflower seeds, unsalted peanuts, mealworms and coconut halves, baked potato, oats, sultanas, currants and raisins, pieces of apple, uncooked pastry and mild grated cheese.



Find out more







WWT spring events include:


• Thur 1st March, 7.30pm

Farming with Nature by Caroline Corsie. Lyttelton Rooms, Malvern, £2.50


• Sat 3rd & Sun 4th March

10am-1pm – Log & Wood Chip Sales at Harry Green nature Reserve, Tiddesley Wood, near Pershore.


Thur 22nd March, 7.30pm

Hollybed Farm Meadows Nature Reserve by Andrew Forecast. Wulstans Hall, Pershore, £2.50


Thur 3rd May, 7.30pm

Wildlife of British Woodlands by Paul Hobson. Lyttelton Rooms, Malvern, £2.50


Sun 6th May, 10am-5pm

Tiddesley Wood Open Day, Pershore. £3 adults, £1 children.


For full details of events visit www.worcswildlifetrust.co.uk/whats-on


Helping wildlife this spring

Visit the FAQ pages on our website for answers to our most popular queries - from what to do with a baby bird to where to see bluebells to how to book an expert speaker for your group.


Did you know?

We can recycle mobile phones, ink cartridges, stamps, cameras, laptops, video cameras, electronic gaming devices, mp3 players, iPods etc. Simply drop them off at Lower Smite Farm, Smite Hill, Hindlip, near Droitwich, Worcestershire, WR3 8SZ during office hours or contact Becky on 01905 754919 or by emailing becky@worcestershirewildlife trust.org


For daily updates about wildlife around the county please follow us on twitter @WorcsWT




Tel: 01905 754919



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