The European green woodpecker measures 30-36 cm in length with a 45-51 cm wingspan. Both sexes are green above and pale yellowish green below, with yellow rump and red crown and nape; the moustachial stripe has a red centre in the male but is solid black in the female. The lores and around the white eye are black in both male and female, except in the Iberian race P. v. subsp. sharpei, in which it is dark grey and males have only a lower black border to the moustache. Juveniles are spotty and streaked all over; the moustache is dark initially, though juvenile males can show some red feathers by early June or usually by July or August. It can be distinguished from the similar, but smaller, grey-headed woodpecker by its yellowish, not grey, underparts, and the black lores and facial 'mask'.
It is a shy woodpecker, often hard to see, and lives in woodlands.
This bird feeds on larvas taken from trees, but often searches ants on the ground. The flight is undulating, with 3–4 wingbeats followed by a short glide when the wings are held by the body.
Although the European green woodpecker is shy and wary, it is usually its loud calls, known as yaffling, which first draw attention. It 'drums' rarely (a soft, fast roll), but often gives a noisy kyü-kyü-kyück while flying. The song is a loud series of 10-18 'klü' sounds which gets slightly faster towards the end and falls slightly in pitch. The female makes a thinner pü-pü-pü-pü-pü-pü-pü.
The nesting hole is larger but similar to those of the other woodpeckers. It may be a few feet above the ground or at the top of a tall tree; oaks, beeches, willows and fruit trees are the preferred nest trees in western and central Europe, and aspens in the north. The hole may be excavated in sound or rotten wood, with an entrance hole of 60 mm × 75 mm. The cavity inside may be 150 mm wide and up to 400 mm deep and the work is performed mostly by the male over 15–30 days. Some tree holes are used for breeding for more than 10 years, but not necessarily by the same pair. There is a single brood of four to six white eggs, measuring 31 × 23 mm and weighing 8.9 g each, of which 7% is shell. After the last egg is laid, they are incubated for 19–20 days by both parents taking shifts of between 1.5 to 2.5 hours. The chicks are naked and altricial at hatching and fledge after 21–24 days.