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    8 Facts About Woodpeckers

    Authored by Jodi Helmer

    Even those who don’t know the difference between the Hairy Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker and Red-headed Woodpecker know the unmistakable tap-tap-tap sound of a woodpecker transforming a dead tree into a home.

    Here are eight interesting facts about woodpeckers.

    1. Woodpeckers are diverse.

    There are 22 different woodpecker species in North America from the Acorn Woodpecker, a species native to the west coast that has bold black, red and white markings on its head, to the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, a migratory woodpecker that is black, white and red, not yellow. Each species of woodpecker is distinct in their size, appearance, behaviors and habitat.

    The Downy Woodpecker is the smallest species in North America and the Pileated Woodpecker is the largest. (The Ivory-billed Woodpecker is even bigger but the species is believed to be extinct).

    2. Woodpeckers are omnivores.

    Their diet consists of seeds, nuts, acorns, fruit, sap and nectar. Fill hopper or platform feeders with sunflower seeds, peanuts or cracked corn or hang nectar feeders or suet feeders to attract the colorful birds. 

    Woodpeckers also use their long tongues to scour crevices for ants, spiders, grubs and other crawling, wiggling sources of protein. Their tongues can be as much as one-third of the total length of their bodies, allowing them to reach into deep, narrow spaces in search of their next meal.

    3. Woodpeckers nest in trees.

    All species nest in cavities, using their strong beaks to bore holes into trees where they lay their eggs. Woodpeckers prefer dead or dying trees. In urban areas where there are fewer trees, woodpeckers will even nest in utility poles. Woodpeckers rarely nest in the same tree cavity more than once.

    The size of the nesting cavities depends on the size of the woodpeckers. Pileated Woodpeckers can create cavities that are up to 24 inches deep!

    4. Woodpecker hatchlings are helpless.

    During nesting season, woodpeckers lay clutches of three to six eggs in tree cavities; the incubation period is 12 to 14 days (about 2 weeks). Once the hatchlings are born, they are altrical, which means they are unable to move. Woodpecker hatchlings are dependent on their mothers for feeding and care, and it takes up to 30 days (about 4 and a half weeks) before they are ready to leave the nest and survive on their own.

    5. Woodpeckers peck for different reasons.

    The tap-tap-tap-tap on tree bark is a means of creating nesting cavities; it also allows woodpeckers to search out insects that live beneath the bark. Woodpeckers also “drum” on trees to attract mates and mark their territories; the continuous drumming can reach a tempo of 20 times per second and can last for weeks or months during mating season.

    6. Woodpeckers were built to drill.

    It can take some time to drill out nesting cavities in trees and woodpeckers were built for the job. The birds have two front toes and two back toes—an arrangement called zygodactylism—to help them perch on tree trunks and their stiff tail feathers act like a stand to help prop them up against the trunk.

    Woodpeckers also have extra muscles in their skulls that prevent their brains from jiggling while drumming.

    7. Woodpecker habitats are varied.

    Different woodpecker species can be found in different parts of the United States (with some species extending their ranges north into Canada and south into Mexico) and their preferred habitats include forests, groves and orchards. 

    While most species of woodpeckers prefer forests and woodlands, some will nest in deserts and rocky hillsides. In the desert southwest, certain species of woodpecker bore holes in cacti.

    8. Woodpecker populations are declining.

    Two species of North American woodpeckers—the Ivory-billed Woodpecker and the Imperial Woodpecker—are extinct and populations of other woodpecker species, including the Red-cockaded Woodpecker and the Red-headed Woodpecker, have experienced sharp declines.

    It’s estimated that up to 80 percent of the population of Red-Headed Woodpeckers have disappeared in the past 50 years due to loss of habitat. Conservationists have recommended leaving dead trees, snags and even dead branches in open forest habitats to help restore populations of Red-Headed Woodpeckers.


    More backyard birding information

    These beautiful songbirds are popular pairs in backyards across the country. Learn more about cardinals and their special characteristics.
    Learn how to attract wild birds to your backyard. Read more to find out the most common backyard birds, what plantings are attractive and the equipment you want to get the most from your bird watching.