Woodpeckers [The Ultimate Guide]

woodpecker ultimate guide

If you’ve ever seen a woodpecker then you’ll know that they have a very appropriate name. They seem to be constantly pecking on wood, and they don’t really care what the wood is or where it is. There is usually a reason for it and once they start, you can’t stop them.

Woodpeckers are fascinating birds and fun to watch, so we’ve put together this guide of everything you need to know about woodpeckers.

The Basics

Where do they live?

Woodpeckers are found all over the World, with the exception of Australia, New Zealand and Madagascar. There are over 300 different species around the World, but in the US there are just 22. This guide will include a few of the more common species which you are likely to see around the country.

The average lifespan of a woodpecker is 5 to 11 years, depending on the species. The oldest recorded woodpecker was a Pileated Woodpecker who was 12 years and 11 months old when it died.

How big are they?

The size of the woodpecker will vary, depending on the species.

The Great Slaty Woodpecker is the largest and this can grow up to 20 inches / 50 cm long and weigh up to 360-560g / 12.7 – 19.9oz. Piculets are the smallest species and they can be just 3- 4 inches / 7 – 10 cm long, and weigh just 7g / 0.25oz.

What do they look like?

The plumage of a woodpecker is different for each species, but they do have some common features, such as a strong, stiff tale and zygodactic feet. We’ve picked out some of the most common woodpeckers in North America to help you identify them.

The Big 7

Downy Woodpecker

downy woodpecker

Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers look remarkably similar and they are easy to get confused.

  • Length: 6 – 9 inches
  • Male: The male Downy Woodpecker has black and white plumage with a patch of bright red on the back of their head. The tail feather is black and stiff and has speckled outer feathers. Its bill is short and stubby and about half the length of his head.
  • Female: Female: The female bird is the same as the male except they have a black patch on the back of their head.

Hairy Woodpeckers

hairy woodpecker

  • Length: 9 – 13 inches
  • Male: The male Hairy Woodpecker has black and white plumage with a black mark running from the shoulder to the breast. It has two white stripes on its head with a red patch on the back of the head. The tail is black with white outer feathers. Its bill is longer than the Downy Woodpecker and this is one way you can tell them apart.
  • Female: The female bird is very similar except she does not have the flash of red on the head.

Red Headed Woodpeckers

red headed woodpecker

  • Length: 8.5 – 9.5 inches
  • Male: The male Red Headed Woodpecker, as the name suggests, has a bright red head and throat. The rest of his plumage is white and blue-black.
  • Female: The female bird is similar to the male.

Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker

  • Length: up to 18 inches
  • Male: The male Pileated Woodpecker has a red crested head, with a dash of red along his cheek. The wings have white markings and he has white neck stripes.
  • Female: The female bird is similar except for a black forehead.

Red Bellied Woodpecker

red bellied woodpecker

  • Length: 8-9 inches
  • Male: The male Red Bellied Woodpecker has a striking zebra pattern on his back. He has a white rump, red cape and a slight red color to the abdomen. They have a red patch running from the bill, across the crown and on to the back of the head.
  • Female: The female bird is very similar and is only distinguished because they only have red at the base of the bill and back of the head.

Acorn Woodpecker

Acorn Woodpecker

  • Length: 9 inches
  • Male: The male Acorn Woodpecker has a cheeky face with a red crown and a yellow color to the throat and forehead. His body is black with a streaked chest and white rump.
  • Female: The female bird is the same as the male, except the red patch on her head does not extend to her forehead.

Yellow Bellied Sapsucker

yellow bellied woodpecker

Length: 7-9 inches

Male: The male Yellow Bellied Sapsucker has a black and white face, with a red head and throat. His sides, back and abdomen have a slight yellowish color and he has a white rump. His black wings have white spots on them.

Female: The female bird is similar to the male.

Habitat & Location

As their name suggests, woodpeckers like woodlands and forests. They prefer oaks and pines, though some species have been known to make their homes in areas where there are few trees. They generally prefer mature trees and can be found making their nests in dead trees. They also live in urban areas with woods and parklands.

They can be found through North America and Canada.

  • Downy woodpecker. This woodpecker can usually be found in forests and parks, but they are also seen in towns. They can be seen In Canada, North America and down to Mexico.
  • Hairy Woodpecker. This species can be found in similar surroundings to the Downy Woodpecker. They inhabit the same areas, Canada, North America and Mexico, and they are often mistaken for downy woodpeckers.
  • Red Headed Woodpecker. Red Headed Woodpeckers prefer open forests, pine savannahs and trees in wetlands. These birds are found all year round and are most often seen in the eastern part of the US.
  • Pileated Woodpecker. These birds prefer areas with larger, mature trees as they are very enthusiastic drillers. They can be seen in the eastern parts of the US, and some Pileated Woodpeckers have been seen in the northwest.
  • Red Bellied Woodpecker. This woodpecker prefers to live in dense forests, but with urbanization it also makes its home in suburbs which have plenty of trees and parks. They are most commonly seen in the eastern and south eastern parts of the country.
  • Acorn Woodpecker. This cheeky woodpecker loves oak woods and oak trees. They will live in parks or woodlands if there are oak trees there. They live in central Arizona and New Mexico, and can be seen all year down the Pacific Coast, from Oregon down to Southern California.
  • Yellow Bellied Sapsucker. These woodpeckers are migratory and like to live in orchards and woodland. During the summer they migrate to breed and can be found in Canada and the eastern parts of the United States. In the winter they return the warmer south eastern states, Texas, the coast of Mexico and as far south as Panama.

Unique Characteristics

Woodpeckers have certain characteristics which make it possible for them to drill in to wood and forage among the bark for insects.

The Bill

You need a strong bill to chisel out wood like a woodpecker. Their bills are designed for pecking holes in wood and they have 3 layers to protect them. The upper beak is longer than the lower beak and is kept razor sharp by the constant drilling.

A woodpecker can peck up to 20 times per second, and between 8,000 and 12,000 times a day. To do this it needs a strong bill.

The Tongue

Woodpeckers use their tongue to pick up insects from holes they have drilled in wood. Their tongues are long and thin, to help them get in to any holes, and when they’re not using them they wind around the skull. The surface of the tongue is sticky to help them collect insects.

woodpecker tongue

Zygodactal Feet

Woodpeckers have zygodactal feet, which means that while most birds have 3 toes pointing forwards and one toe pointing backwards, woodpeckers have 2 toes pointing forwards and 2 toes pointing backwards. Their toes have sharp claws and this is what helps them to cling to the side of trees while they peck. They can grip so well that they can even walk up the side of a tree. These toes make it easier for them to forage among the trees to find insects and give them a firm grip to keep them in place when they peck.

To help them balance, they also have very strong, stiff tail feathers which they use to support their weight.

A Woodpecker’s Head

Woodpeckers have also developed ways of protecting their brain from their constant pecking on wood. The force of this would cause serious damage to most of us, but woodpeckers have their own defenses.

  • The skull of a woodpecker is softer and slightly spongy. It fits very tightly around the brain holding it firmly in place. The sponginess of the skull acts like a shock absorber, protecting the brain from most of the impact.
  • The long tongue goes back in to the head and around the top of the skull. This acts another layer of protection for the brain.
  • The hyoid bone is another miracle of woodpecker science. It goes all the way around the back of the head, holding it in place and reducing the movement of the head every time the bird pecks.

They have even developed their own techniques for helping to protect the brain. As they peck they gently move the angle so that the pressure is spread over the skull and brain and not always in the same place.

best woodpecker feeder


Woodpeckers are omnivorous, so they eat a variety of foods. Some species will prefer some foods to others, but they mostly have the same, varied diet.


Woodpeckers can hear insects as they move around under the bark of the tree, so they will peck a hole until they can get to them. Some species, such as the Red Headed Woodpecker can even catch insects in flight.

Woodpeckers will eat most insects, including ants, grasshoppers and spiders, though some species do have a preference. Hairy Woodpeckers love caterpillars and moths, while Pileated Woodpeckers love carpenter ants.


Woodpeckers love suet and the animal fat makes it easy for them to digest. They will eat suet on its own or mixed in with other foods.


Nuts are another popular food with woodpeckers, particularly peanuts. They can use their sharp bills to remove the shells so they can eat nuts off any trees.


Most woodpeckers eat seeds, and black sunflower seeds are a favourite.


Just like other birds, they have a sweet tooth, so they will eat the fruit from fruit bushes such as blueberries cherries and strawberries. If you have a woodpecker feeder out with grape jelly, they will even try to get to that.

Tree Sap

Not all woodpeckers eat tree sap, and the Yellow Bellied Sapsucker is one species which does. They drill holes in the tree to find the sap, then drill another hole to encourage the sap to flow. Once it does, they don’t suck it as their name suggests, but lick the sap up.


Woodpeckers like mature oak trees and the Acorn Woodpeckers love acorns. They store acorns by drilling acorn sized holes in wood and placing one acorn in each hole. They don’t restrict themselves to trees and will store their acorns in fence posts and utility poles too, often creating a granary tree. They manage to pack the acorn in so tightly that squirrels cannot get them out.

Birds eggs

Certain species of woodpecker will eat eggs out of other birds’ nests, and sometimes they will eat the chicks too.

What’s All The Pecking About?

To the untrained eye, a woodpecker is just pecking to be a nuisance but that isn’t the case. Woodpeckers have several reasons for pecking and if you watch closely you will be able to see what they’re doing.

  • If they hear insects moving around under wood, whether it’s the bark of a tree or the eaves of a house, they will drill a hole to reach them.
  • One way a woodpecker has of marking his territory is to make a drumming noise. They can do this by drumming on trees, sign posts, or anything which makes a noise.
  • If the woodpecker is looking for a mate, it will use the same drumming technique as it does for marking its territory, but the drumming usually follows a pattern. If a male is looking for a mate, he can drum up to 600 times in a day. Both sexes drum and you can usually hear this between January and June.
  • Woodpeckers make their nests in holes in trees so they need to drill first to make the hole. It can take up to a month before they finish making this nest.

do woodpeckers get headaches

Nesting & Breeding

Woodpeckers are mainly monogamous and once they find a mate they will stay together for life. They both work together to create the nest and this can take up to 28 days to complete. When they have a suitable hole in a tree they will add wood shavings from the ones they have carved out. They do not re-use their nests but other birds and mammals will use the holes when they have been abandoned.

These are the average nesting times for woodpeckers, and more specific information on the common species can be found below.

  • Female woodpeckers lay between 2 and 5 eggs. These are white and as they are inside the cavity they do not camouflage them.
  • The incubation period lasts between 11 and 14 days. The male usually sits on the eggs at night while the female takes the day shift.
  • When they are born the chicks are blind and have no feathers. It will be about 2 weeks before they can open their eyes.
  • The chicks are ready to leave the nest when they are around one month old.

The Acorn Woodpecker is one species which is not monogamous, and are polygynandrous. They will have several partners during the mating season and will share nests. The young can be raised by up to 12 parents. The nest is usually between 5 feet from the ground and 60 feet, and is excavated by a group of birds.

Downy Woodpeckers will build their nest anything from 12 feet above the ground to 30 feet. They lay 4-5 eggs and the chicks are ready to leave the nest in 24 days. Some Downy Woodpeckers will raise more than one brood in a breeding season.

Hairy Woodpeckers will build their nest from 5 feet off the ground to 30 feet. They lay between 3 to 6 eggs, and the chicks are ready to leave the nest in 28 days.

Red Bellied Woodpeckers will build their nest anywhere from 5 feet off the ground up to 70 feet. They lay 4-5 eggs which are ready to leave the nest in 24-26 days. While most Red Bellied Woodpeckers only have one brood per season, birds in the south have been known to have 2 or even 3 broods.

Pileated Woodpeckers excavate their nests from 15 feet high up to 85 feet from the ground. They lay between 3 and 8 eggs and the young are ready to leave the nest in 26-28 days.

Red Headed Woodpeckers can make their nests at ground level, or up to 80 feet off the ground. They lay 4-8 eggs, but with only one egg being laid per day. The young are ready to leave the nest after 27 days.

Yellow Bellied Sapsuckers build their nests between 10 and 45 feet off the ground. They lay between 5-6 eggs and the young are ready to leave the nest in 25-29 days.

Interaction & Potential Threats

Woodpeckers can be quite shy and timid birds and prefer to be away from the busy lives of other birds.

They do live side by side with other birds and have been known to take the nectar from hummingbird feeders, but they won’t actively seek out their company. The Acorn Woodpecker, however, prefer to live together in colonies.

Woodpeckers will defend their territory from other birds who are trying to get their food or in to their nest. They show their aggression by pointing and jabbing their bill, flicking their bills and drumming.

Woodpeckers are not facing extinction, but they are facing more and more of a threat from urbanization. As woodlands and forest disappear to make way for towns and cities, the birds are losing more of their natural habitats.

The use of insecticides is also reducing the food available to them as they rely on insects to survive.

These delightful birds can be seen almost anywhere, even when you are on vacation. If you are lucky enough have these in your garden, you may even see them raise their chicks and watch the family grow every year.

Happy Woodpecker watching!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *