Acorn Woodpeckers Are the Ultimate Stockpilers

Updated: Jan. 26, 2024

Tap into what makes the quirky, clownish acorn woodpecker so unique. Acorn woodpeckers live in large groups and hoard thousands of nuts.

What Does an Acorn Woodpecker Look Like?

acorn woodpeckerCourtesy Kitty Warner
Female and male acorn woodpeckers eating an orange

It can be difficult to tell a female and male acorn woodpecker apart. But while both sexes have a red cap and a white forehead, the females have a black band separating the two.

Discover 14 mind-blowing woodpecker facts you should know.

What Do Acorn Woodpeckers Eat?

acorn woodpeckersMarie Read
Acorn woodpeckers store acorns in a granary tree

When it comes to hoarding food, few birds compare to the acorn woodpecker. Unlike woodpeckers that tap their way into tree trunks to mow down insects, these western birds bore small, tidy holes into wood where they store acorns (and sometimes other nuts) by the thousands. In fact, just one acorn woodpecker family unit may create a winter stockpile of up to 50,000 acorns in a single tree, called a granary.

Meet the yellow-bellied sapsucker: a woodpecker by another name.

One bird stands guard against any would-be thieves as the others focus on building their impressive cache. To make sure their treasures stay put, the birds knock each acorn into a hole, using their beaks as makeshift mallets. If an acorn starts to loosen, one of the woodpeckers will move it to a better-fitting cavity. Learn why birds cache food.

Acorn woodpeckers also use human-made structures to store food, from telephone poles to the sides of buildings. One of the biggest collections found was a wooden water barrel full of 485 pounds of acorns.

However, despite its name, an acorn woodpecker eats more than just acorns. They also consume ants and flying insects that they snatch out of the air. Tree sap, fruit and even lizards are on the menu, too. Keep your suet and seed feeders well-stocked.

Here’s the best foods to attract woodpeckers.

Nesting Habits and Eggs

250352686 1 Linda Sheive Hjelle Bnb Bypc2020Courtesy Linda Sheive Hjelle
Acorn woodpecker family nesting in a eucalyptus tree

Acorn woodpeckers are highly social birds. They live together in groups of up to 12 or more adults, and they nest and raise hatchlings communally. The breeding females often keep their eggs together in a shared nest, which is always inside a tree cavity. An especially crowded cavity was once found with 17 eggs in it.

Multiple group members help incubate the eggs. Acorn woodpeckers don’t build their nests, though. Instead, they utilize fresh wood chips, which accumulate inside tree cavities thanks to their pecking, as nesting material.

Once the young are born, other family members work alongside the parents to rear and feed the baby birds. It’s common for grown offspring from the previous year to assist their parents in raising the new brood.

Family groups are extremely protective of their habitat and guard a territory averaging 15 acres.

“A few years ago these acorn woodpeckers (above) took up residence in our cut eucalyptus tree off our front porch. Eventually we were able to get photos of the baby emerging,” says Birds & Blooms reader Linda Sheive Hjelle.

Meet 11 types of woodpeckers birders should know.

Do Acorn Woodpeckers Migrate?

19 Tonyattanasio Bbxjuly19Courtesy Tony Attanasio
Acorn woodpecker on a backyard sugar water feeder

Because they are masters at storing supplies for winter, acorn woodpeckers are resident birds, meaning they don’t typically migrate unless they run out of food. You can attract these rowdy birds to your backyard if you live in their range. This species lives year-round in western Oregon and California woodlands. They can also be found in the Southwest and south of the border in Mexico and Central America.

Meet the sapsucker birds: woodpeckers with a sweet tooth.

Acorn Woodpecker Habitat

17 Brianbailey Bbxmar18Courtesy Brian Bailey
Acorn woodpecker and a scrub jay

Your best bet for seeing these quirky woodpeckers in person is to take a walk through the woods. They can be seen year-round in areas with oak and pine-oak woodlands, including some suburban areas and urban parks. If you find a tree riddled with holes and hear a waka-waka call, look up!

Downy vs hairy woodpecker: how to tell the difference.

Acorn Woodpecker Fun Fact

acorn WoodpeckerRob Ripma
Look closely and you can see acorns stored in the holes in the tree.

Contrary to popular belief, Woody the Woodpecker was inspired by an acorn—not pileated— woodpecker.

Next, learn about red-bellied woodpeckers.