What Do Woodpeckers Eat?

Woodpeckers are unique birds known for their characteristic behaviors like pecking on trees and poles. Their distinctive drumming and hammering sounds can be heard resonating across forests and woodlands. But what exactly do these quirky birds eat? Woodpeckers have adapted specialized skills and physical features to help them find and consume their main food sources.

An Overview of Woodpecker Diets

Woodpeckers are omnivores and eat a varied diet consisting of both plant and animal matter. Their primary foods include:

  • Insects like beetle larvae, ants, bees, wasps, and caterpillars
  • Spider eggs and spiders
  • Sap
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Fruit and berries
  • Baby birds and eggs
  • Small reptiles and amphibians

Different woodpecker species have slightly different preferences when it comes to their diets. But most woodpeckers consume a combination of insects, sap, nuts, and fruit.

Tree sap is an important part of every woodpecker’s diet. Sapsucker woodpeckers specialize in drinking sap they extract from holes they drill into trees. But all woodpeckers will supplement their diet with tree sap for its carbohydrates and nutrients.

Nuts and fruits also provide essential nutrients to woodpeckers. Acorn woodpeckers stash acorns in storage holes they drill into trees to eat during winter when food is scarce. Many woodpeckers relish fruits like berries and can often be found foraging in fruit trees.

But the primary component in most woodpecker diets is insects, especially the larvae found inside trees. Woodpeckers use their strong beaks to chisel, peck, and excavate into dead and dying trees to find larvae, ants, and other insects to eat.

How Do Woodpeckers Find Food?

Woodpeckers have several key adaptations that help them find and access food:

  • Strong, chisel-like beaks – A woodpecker’s beak is its most important tool. Their beaks are strong and chisel-shaped, perfect for hacking into wood and digging out insects. The beaks are also adept at drilling holes for consuming sap.
  • Long, barbed tongues – A woodpecker has an extra long, spear-like tongue with barbs on the end. They use their tongues to skewer insects deep inside tree holes and crevices. Sticky saliva helps them extract insects.
  • Sharp claws – Woodpeckers have two sharp claws on each foot that help them grip onto tree trunks as they scale vertically up a tree. Their claws provide stability as they peck and bore holes.
  • Zygodactyl feet – Woodpecker toes are arranged in a zygodactyl pattern with two facing forward and two facing back. This gives them a firm grip and balance on vertical and horizontal surfaces.
  • Flexible tail feathers – The stiffened tail feathers of a woodpecker act as a prop against the trunk as they climb vertically. Their tails provide extra support as they lean in at an angle to drill holes and hammer.
  • Tough skull – A woodpecker’s skull and beak are reinforced to prevent injury from the high speed pecking and hammering they do thousands of times a day. Special head muscles help absorb impact.

Using these specialized features, woodpeckers are adept at finding food on trees in several ways:

  • Pecking and probing into crevices in the bark to find hiding insects
  • Carving out holes in wood to reach beetle larvae and ants inside
  • Licking up sap oozing from bore holes they have created
  • Ripping off bark to uncover crawling insects underneath
  • Drilling holes into structures to stash away nuts and acorns

Unique Foraging Behaviors

Woodpeckers exhibit some intriguing behaviors and adaptations related to how they find and eat food:

  • Drumming – Woodpeckers are known for hammering out rhythmic patterns of drumbeats on tree trunks and poles, a behavior called drumming. Scientists think drumming helps woodpeckers excavate into wood, establish territory, and attract mates.
  • ** Bark scaling** – Some woodpeckers like the Black Woodpecker rip off large chunks of bark from dead trees to access the smorgasbord of insects hiding beneath.
  • Sap wells – Sapsuckers are specialized woodpeckers that drill orderly rows of small holes into tree trunks to extract sap. These sap wells provide them with nourishment and allow other creatures to feed too.
  • Stashing food – Acorn woodpeckers create storage holes called granaries in trees to stash away hundreds or even thousands of acorns. They hammer small holes and wedge acorns snugly inside to save for later feeding.
  • Feeding on the wing – Some larger woodpeckers like the Northern Flicker can expertly catch insects like ants and beetles while flying and swallow them mid-air. Their sticky tongues help grab the food.
  • Following ants – Woodpeckers often follow trails of ants traveling up and down trees to feast on the ants and insects they disturb along the way.

Diet Differences Among Woodpecker Species

While most woodpeckers share some common food sources, their diets can vary slightly across the different woodpecker species:

  • Downy Woodpeckers – Primarily eat insects like beetle larvae but also sap, seeds, and fruits. They probe bark crevices and excavate wood to find insects.
  • Red-bellied Woodpeckers – Consume beetles, ants, wood-boring insects, spiders, seeds, berries, nuts, and sap. A versatile diet.
  • Northern Flickers – Ants and other ground insects make up over 75% of their diet. They also eat fruits, seeds, and nuts. They forage on the ground for ants more than other woodpeckers.
  • Pileated Woodpeckers – Bore deep into dead trees and logs for carpenter ants and wood-boring beetle larvae which make up most of their diet. They also eat fruits, nuts, and berries.
  • Red-headed Woodpeckers – Feast mainly on insects like beetle larvae but also eat seeds, fruits, nuts, acorns, and sap from feeders and holes they drill.
  • Sapsuckers – Specialize in boring sap wells into trees and licking up sap. They eat sap along with the insects attracted to the sap.
  • Acorn Woodpeckers – Consume acorns as a major portion of their diet along with fruits, sap, and insects. They store acorns to eat during colder months when food is limited.

The unique foraging habits of each woodpecker allows them to take advantage of multiple food resources available in their habitats. Their diverse diets help support woodpecker species across North America.

How Do Woodpeckers Eat?

Woodpeckers have specialized physical features and behaviors for extracting and consuming food:

  • Hammering – Woodpeckers use rapid hammering blows with their stiffened tails to help chip away and excavate into wood. This exposes buried insects to eat.
  • Chiseling – Powerful strikes from their chisel-shaped beaks allow woodpeckers to carve into tight crevices and tunnel into wood searching for food inside.
  • Prying – Woodpeckers will wedge their beak into cracks in bark and crevices in wood and pry pieces off to access hidden insects. Their sticky tongues then collect the exposed prey.
  • Drilling – Using sharp, pointed blows, woodpeckers bore perfectly round holes into tree trunks to create sap wells for drinking tree sap. Their beaks can drill through even very hard wood.
  • Skewering – Once an insect or grub is uncovered, woodpeckers harpoon it with their barbed tongue which impales the prey. Sticky saliva helps adhere the food to the tongue so it can be swallowed.
  • Licking – Woodpeckers use their long tongue like a brush to lap up sap oozing from holes and cracks they create on the sides of tree trunks and branches.
  • Storing – Some species like the Acorn Woodpecker wedge acorns and nuts into small holes they’ve chiseled out on trees. They hammer the food in to store for later access.
  • Perching – Woodpeckers will perch parallel to a tree trunk to help stabilize themselves as they peck. Their stiff tail feathers and pointed claws grip the bark to keep the bird in place while excavating a hole.

Best Places for Woodpeckers to Find Food

Woodpeckers are adept at extracting food from certain environments:

  • Forests – Woodpeckers drill into dead trees and fallen logs to find beetle larvae, excavate nesting holes, and drink sap. Forests provide abundant woody habitat.
  • Woodlands – Open woodlands allow access to trees along with wider foraging on the ground for ants. Woodlands provide both wooded and open space.
  • Pine forests – Pine forests offer nourishing pine sap that sapsuckers and other woodpeckers feed on extensively. The soft wood is easier to excavate as well.
  • Oak woodlands – Oaks provide Cavity-nesting woodpeckers with sturdy trees for nest holes. Oaks also supply acorns as a vital food source for acorn woodpeckers and other species.
  • Recent burns – Burned forests offer an abundance of wood-boring beetle larvae that woodpeckers prey on. Fire-damaged trees are easier to excavate for food.
  • Backyards – Backyard bird feeders supply seed, suet, and sap that draw in woodpeckers. Planted oak trees provide nuts and nesting sites.
  • Farmland – The scattered trees, forest edges, and fence posts on farmland provide good habitat for hunting ants and other insects.
  • Swamps – Swamps and wetlands contain dead trees used by woodpeckers for feeding and nesting. The softer wood is easier to drill into.

What Do Woodpecker Chicks Eat?

Baby woodpeckers rely on their parents to supply food for the first few weeks after hatching. The chicks remain inside their nesting cavities and await food drop-offs from mom and dad. Here is what parental woodpeckers feed their young:

  • Insects – Adult woodpeckers regurgitate insects like chopped-up beetles, caterpillars, crickets, ants, and other soft-bodied bugs to feed their chicks. Chicks swallow the insect mush.
  • Fruit – Berries and cut-up fruits are fed to chicks once they are a few weeks old and ready for solid food. The sugary fruit helps the babies grow.
  • Nuts – Some woodpeckers feed their young shelled nuts like acorns, pine nuts, and almonds once the chicks are older. The fat and nutrients help develop the chicks.
  • Seeds – Parents will supplement their chicks’ diet with seeds from trees and grasses, as well as from bird feeders stocked with sunflower and other seeds.
  • Sap – Older chicks get drops of sweet, nutritious sap that their parents collect from drilled holes and wells on trees. It provides an energy boost.

The nesting adults work tirelessly to deliver food to the demanding chicks, making hundreds of feeding trips a day to the nest. Once the young are strong enough, they venture out of the nest hole but continue to be fed by the parents for several weeks until they are able to forage independently.

Food Shortages and How Woodpeckers Adapt

Woodpeckers face lean times when foods like insects, nuts, sap, and fruit are less abundant. They have some key adaptations to help them survive seasonal food shortages:

  • Switching prey – Woodpeckers will turn to alternative food sources like scavenging for seeds, nuts, or fruits during insect scarcity.
  • Expanding foraging – During harsh weather, woodpeckers expand their foraging range to find new food sources.
  • Storing food – Some woodpeckers hoard supplies of nuts and acorns wedged into storage holes they’ve created in trees.
  • Entering torpor – Woodpeckers can lower their body temperature and metabolism to conserve energy during overnight cold spells when food is limited.
  • Nesting early – Nesting earlier ensures growing chicks have access to peak food supply. Early broods improve survival odds.
  • Drumming – Drumming out a rhythmic beat advertises a woodpecker’s presence during lean times to attract a mate and defend a feeding territory.
  • Visiting feeders – Woodpeckers come to backyard bird feeders more during food shortages to find seed, suet, corn and sap substitutes.

Woodpeckers are resourceful and adaptable when it comes to finding nourishment, a key reason they have thrived in forests across North America. Their unique skills and physical features allow them to take advantage of a diverse diet to survive and flourish.

What Do Woodpeckers Eat? – FAQs

What is the favorite food of woodpeckers?

Woodpeckers are primarily insectivores. Their favorite food is wood-boring beetle larvae that they excavate from dead and dying trees. Wood-boring grubs and ants offer the high-protein diet woodpeckers require.

Do woodpeckers drink water?

Yes, woodpeckers do drink water to stay hydrated. They suck water from tree holes, drink rainwater collected in hollows, and visit puddles, bird baths, and dripping garden hoses to get water. They also get moisture from tree sap.

Do woodpeckers eat acorns?

Acorns are a significant part of the diet of Acorn Woodpeckers. They wedge acorns into holes drilled in trees to store as a winter food source. Other woodpeckers like Northern Flickers will also sometimes feed on acorns when available.

Do woodpeckers eat berries?

Many species of woodpeckers enjoy eating berries to supplement their primary insect diet. Berries provide important carbs, vitamins, and antioxidants. Woodpeckers forage on and around berry-producing shrubs.

What kind of bugs do woodpeckers eat?

Woodpeckers eat beetle larvae, ants, cockroach eggs, spider eggs, termites, caterpillars, crickets, aphids, scale insects, midges, and other wood-boring insects they find through excavating trees. Flying insects like flies get nabbed by sticky tongues.

How do woodpeckers find insects?

Woodpeckers use their sharp beaks to chisel, peck, and drill holes into dead or dying trees which uncovers hidden beetle larvae and other insects to eat. They use their long barbed tongues to skewer and pull out the insects once revealed in the holes.

Do woodpeckers kill trees?

Most woodpecker drilling and excavation does not significantly harm live, healthy trees. They mainly feed on insects in already dead and decaying wooden structures. However, excessive sap well drilling by sapsuckers can sometimes stress trees and make them more vulnerable to disease.

What do baby woodpeckers eat?

Parent woodpeckers feed their young regurgitated insects for the first 2-3 weeks after hatching. Then they supplement with berries, sap, seeds, fruits, and nuts as the nestlings grow bigger. The chicks fledge the nest at 3-4 weeks old and are taught to forage on their own.

How do woodpeckers feed their babies?

Adult woodpeckers work together to feed their altricial young, meaning babies that are helpless at birth. The chicks remain in the nest cavity and parents take turns feeding them chewed up insects and other food by regurgitation directly into their mouths. Hundreds of feedings occur daily.

Why do woodpeckers peck on houses?

Woodpeckers sometimes drum and peck on buildings and rooftops instead of trees. They are likely hearing insect noises inside indicating a food source, or are defending territory by drumming on the loudest surface available – a house. Discourage them with loud sounds.


Woodpeckers are uniquely adapted to harvest food from trees other birds can’t access. Their specialized skills and physical features allow them to chisel, drill, skewer, and excavate to uncover wood-boring beetles, ants, termites, and other essential protein sources. They have a varied omnivorous diet but insects make up the bulk of nutrition for most woodpecker species. Sapsuckers and Acorn Woodpeckers have even more specialized diets centered around tree sap and acorns respectively. Understanding what woodpeckers eat provides insights into their key behaviors like drumming, drilling, and bark stripping. Their mastery of arboreal food foraging is a major driver of their evolution and success across forest ecosystems. Woodpeckers will continue to peck out their noisy existence as long as forests continue supplying the insects, sap, nuts and fruits they need to thrive.