Sunday 25 March 2018

New pecking order as Woody and friends wing it to Ireland

Lynne Kelleher

BIRD watchers have reported that woodpeckers have finally settled in Ireland after an absence of centuries.

A few pairs were spotted in 2009 but the doubling of their numbers to 15 woodpecker couples this year confirms their status as Ireland's newest bird species.

The bird, made famous by the cartoon character Woody Woodpecker, is common across Europe and North Africa but bird experts have remained baffled at its absence here, until now.

There has been a flurry of excitement among bird experts in Ireland and DNA tests have been carried out on newly arrived woodpeckers to decipher their origin.

The woodpeckers generally use their sharp beaks to drill holes in trees, before inserting their long, sticky tongues to withdraw food.

Niall Hatch from Birdwatch Ireland said the breeding of the iconic red-headed birds in Ireland was an exciting development. "It's the first time a forest bird like this has colonised in Ireland," he said. "They are gorgeous creatures and they are beautiful and interesting to watch.

"The sound of them on a tree is amazing. On a clear day, you can hear it up to a mile away.

"It is increasing our native Irish biodiversity and is another extra component in food chains in forests."

He added: "There were an estimated seven to eight pairs last year and there are conservative estimates of 15 to 20 pairs this year, mainly in Wicklow.

"It will be interesting to see if they move to Dublin suburban gardens or the Phoenix Park."

There has been the odd sighting of a woodpecker in Ireland over the years but this is the first time they have bred in the country since records were taken.

Mr Hatch said it is uncertain why woodpeckers were absent from Ireland until now. But the birds are known as nervous flyers over large stretches of water, which could provide one reason why. "They do rely very much on woodland and Ireland has the lowest forest cover in Europe," Mr Hatch said.

"They could have been here before the massive deforestation in the 16th century but there are no records back that far."

It is thought the recent immigrants have come from either Scandinavia or Britain in search of new territory.

"They rely on pine cones in Scandinavia in winter and every few years the pine cones fail and they could have been forced south looking for food," said Mr Hatch.

Another theory is that an explosion in the woodpecker population in Britain has sent them flying across the sea seeking fresh forests.


"It's very hard for young birds over there to find new territories so they could be moving over here," according to the Birdwatch Ireland development officer.

In the first DNA tests of their kind in the country, feather and blood samples were carefully and painlessly taken from the small community of great spotted woodpeckers to determine their origin.

"DNA testing has been done with some feathers and some samples of blood, but it will take a few months to get the results," said Mr Hatch.

"From a conservation point of view, if we know where they come from, we will be better able to protect them and we will also be able to find out if there is in-breeding among the birds. The bigger the gene pool, the better."

Irish Independent

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