Skip to main content

The role of woodpeckers (family: Picidae) as ecosystem engineers in urban parks: a case study in the city of Madrid (Spain)


Many species of the family Picidae, such as the woodpeckers, excavate the tree-cavities where they nest. Frequently the cavities are used during a single breeding season and subsequently abandoned, which allows their use by non-excavator species for nesting or roosting. Here we analyze the role of woodpeckers as providers of nesting and refuge places in two urban parks in the city of Madrid. The environmental characteristics of the woodpecker nest-sites were also studied. Prior to the breeding season 75 trees bearing woodpecker-excavated cavities and 142 control trees (i.e. without woodpecker cavities) were located, georeferenced and characterized by a set of variables relative to the tree and its environment. During the breeding season the cavities were monitored with an endoscopic camera to verify occupation and user identity. Additionally, 71 non-excavated tree-cavities were monitored to measure their occupancy and make comparisons with those excavated by woodpeckers. Woodpeckers showed a strong preference for trees of the genus Populus: 54 of 75 (72%) woodpecker-cavities were in poplars, which comprised only 7–10% of available trees. The excavated cavities were found mainly in the trunk of the trees, north oriented and away from paths. The occupancy rate by bird species was higher, although not significantly, for excavated cavities than for natural cavities (36.0% and 23.9% respectively). The richness and composition of cavity-user species also differed between types of tree-cavities. This work shows the importance of woodpeckers as providers of nesting and refuge places for other cavity-user birds and highlights their role as ecosystem engineers in urban parks. Finally, we consider that these results can guide biodiversity conservation efforts in urban planning.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3

Data availability

The data that support the findings of this study are available from the corresponding author, upon reasonable request.


Download references


We wish to thank José Ignacio Aguirre and Álvaro Ramirez for providing us with some material and maps. We are also grateful to three anonymous reviewers whose comments contributed to improve this work.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



CAM conceived the study and contributed resources. PCA conducted the field work. PCA and CAM developed the methodology, analyzed the data and wrote the paper.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Patricia Catalina-Allueva.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors have no conflicts of interest to declare that are relevant to the content of this article.

Ethics aprroval

Not applicable.

Consent to participate

Not applicable.

Consent for publication

All the signing authors agree with the version sent and with its publication in Urban Ecosystems.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Catalina-Allueva, P., Martín, C.A. The role of woodpeckers (family: Picidae) as ecosystem engineers in urban parks: a case study in the city of Madrid (Spain). Urban Ecosyst 24, 863–871 (2021).

Download citation

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:


  • Cavity-nesting
  • Endoscopic camera
  • Excavator species
  • Keystone species
  • Nest-site selection
  • Secondary cavity users