It's time for our third look at collective nouns, and this week I've chosen a group of birds that have far fewer different collective nouns associated with them then either of the first two. Perhaps this is because you rarely see more than a pair of them together!

We may still be in the depths of winter, having to scrape frost from frozen windscreens every morning, but in the bird world there are signs of spring all around us. The variety of birdsong is increasing by the day, with tits, robins, dunnocks and thrushes all in full voice, but one of the most distinctive sounds of spring is not a song at all. 

The rapid drumming of a great spotted woodpecker on a hollow branch is such a distinctive sound in city parks, large gardens, and Minsmere's woods that maybe it is not surprising that one of the two collective nouns for woodpeckers is a gatling, after the early machine gun.

An adult and juvenile (left) great spotted woodpecker by Peter Hewitt

Of Britain's three resident woodpeckers it's only the two spotted ones that drum. Great spots are common, widespread and increasingly frequent garden bird visitors, and I'm sure many of you will be excited to see one during the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch later this month. In contrast, you'll have to be very lucky to find a lesser spotted woodpecker anywhere, never mind in your gardens. These tiny sparrow-sized woodpeckers are now almost extinct in many counties and at serious risk of extinction in your garden.  

Green woodpeckers never drum, and are unlikely to visit feeders in your garden, but you may see them probing in your lawn. Their favourite food is ants, so golf courses, school playing fields and large parks are good places to look for them.

Male green woodpecker - note the red whiskers

All three woodpeckers spend a lot of time in trees, and this no doubt accounts for the alternative collective noun, a descent of woodpeckers, although you are more likely to see they going up the tree than down. Perhaps a descent of woodpeckers is an apt reflection on the declining fortunes of the lesser spotted woodpecker, or the migrant wryneck that no longer breeds here at all!

You'll have to be lucky to see one lesser spotted woodpecker, nevermind a descent of them. Photo by Ben Andrews (rspb-images.com)

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