14 Mind-Blowing Woodpecker Facts You Should Know

Updated: Jan. 19, 2024

From their tree-climbing abilities to extraordinary hearing, there are plenty of interesting facts to learn about the woodpecker family.

pileated woodpecker pecking on wood tree
Courtesy Josh Doty
Pileated woodpecker drilling into a tree stump

1. Woodpecker Facts: They Prefer Dead Trees

Gardeners and homeowners will appreciate this one of our woodpecker facts. Don’t worry about these birds damaging your trees. The birds prefer dead or dying trees because the trees are insect magnets. It’s also easier to drill into a snag, which is a dead or dying tree. The soft rotting wood is perfect for finding insects and carving a nesting cavity.

But the birds will also visit live trees, which may contain tree-dwelling or wood-boring insects. Several species of woodpeckers pry off the outer layers of bark from trees to expose insects and then drill into the softer bark beneath to look for insect larvae. This is referred to as “bark sloughing.”

Here’s 11 types of woodpeckers that may be in your backyard.

A gila woodpecker perches on a flowering saguaro cactus.
Dave Welling
A gila woodpecker perches on a flowering saguaro cactus.

2. Woodpeckers Are Found Nearly Everywhere

Most woodpeckers are tied to forests, woodlands and shrublands. But some species, such as northern flickers, hang out in woodland edges. Downy woodpeckers look for spots near water and acorn woodpeckers seek out oak woodlands.

But some woodpeckers are desert birds. The Gila woodpecker thrives in the nearly treeless desert habitats of the southwestern United States and Mexico. These woodpeckers excavate holes in living saguaro cactuses, allow the plants to dry out and then inhabit them.

Where do woodpeckers migrate in winter?

red bellied woodpecker
Courtesy Sherry Nicholson
Red-bellied woodpecker

3. Woodpeckers Have Strong Head Muscles

Strong, dense neck muscles allow woodpeckers to repeatedly drill up to 20 times a second, while extra muscles in the skull act as a protective helmet by keeping the brain from jiggling around when a woodpecker is drumming.

Find out why woodpeckers peck and how to stop it.

woodpecker facts, A tree trunk full of woodpecker holes.
Danny Brown
A tree trunk full of woodpecker holes.

4. Woodpeckers Drill Holes Depending on Their Size

Usually, the bigger the woodpecker, the bigger the hole it makes. The nesting cavities of pileated woodpeckers range from 10 to 24 inches deep, which is twice as deep as those of downy and red-bellied woodpeckers.

male and female woodpecker
Courtesy Charity Pitts
Male and female red headed woodpeckers at a nesting cavity

5. Woodpeckers Use Their Bills for Drilling and Drumming

These birds use their bills for two behaviors: drilling and drumming. They use their sharp beaks to drill into trees to find food or to make holes for nesting and roosting in spring and fall.

Drumming, on the other hand, is most commonly done in spring to attract a mate or to mark territory by alerting the competition.

hairy woodpecker on tree in snow
Courtesy Judith Dedes
Hairy woodpecker pecking for bugs

6. They Have Excellent Hearing

Woodpeckers, like the hairy woodpecker, listen for the sounds of insects crawling and chewing in the wood of a tree before using their strong, sharp bills to capture their prey.

downy woodpecker
Courtesy Darlene Reinoehl
Downy woodpecker clings to tree bark

7. Woodpeckers Have Adapted to Cling to Trees

Stiff tail feathers act as a brace, forming a tripod with the bird’s feet to stabilize a woodpecker as it hops up a tree and chisels into the bark.

Downy vs hairy woodpecker: how to tell the difference.

A northern flicker extends its long tongue to grab a bug from a tree.
Ken Griffiths/Shutterstock
A northern flicker extends its long tongue to grab a bug from a tree.

8. Long Tongues Reach Past Their Bills

To reach deep into crevices in search of grubs, ants and sap, a woodpecker’s tongue can be up to a third of its total body length—so long that when it’s retracted, it coils around the back of the bird’s skull.

Learn how to identify a red headed woodpecker.

A red-napped sapsucker flies toward a tree.
A red-napped sapsucker flies toward a tree.

9. Woodpeckers Fly Like Goldfinches

Woodpeckers fly in an undulating pattern similar to that of goldfinches. “Unda” is a latin word that means wave. The motion is like a roller coaster—the bird flaps its wings during the rising phase, then glides as it descends into the valley of the wave.

can birds eat bread; suet feeder downy woodpecker
Courtesy Rich Nelson
Downy woodpecker on a suet feeder

10. Woodpeckers Range in Size

In North America, the downy is the smallest and most widespread woodpecker. The largest is the pileated woodpecker. Ivory-billed woodpeckers are bigger, but are considered to be extinct.

woodpecker facts, A northern flicker pokes its head out from a hole in a tree.
Richard Buquoi
A northern flicker pokes its head out from a hole in a tree.

11. Woodpeckers Nest in Tree Cavities

Woodpeckers are primarily cavity nesters that excavate their own nest spots in dead or dying trees. The cavities will usually hold three to six eggs, and both parents tend the young birds. Woodpeckers sleep in cavities throughout the year.

An illustration of a northern flicker foot with two toes facing forward and backward.
Brandy Kubig/Getty Images
An illustration of a northern flicker foot with two toes facing forward and backward.

12. Woodpeckers Have Unique Feet

We found amazing woodpecker facts from their head to their toes! With four toes—the first and fourth facing backward, the second and third facing forward—woodpeckers can navigate up and around tree trunks. The scientific name for this toe arrangement is zygodactylism.

Learn more about how bird feet work.

A Williamson's sapsucker flies toward a hole in a tree trunk.
Dave Welling
Female Williamson’s sapsucker

13. Males and Female Woodpeckers Look Different

Here’s one of the most helpful woodpecker facts for birders. In most species, males and females look similar. The only way to tell them apart is by red accents that are sometimes present on males.

Other male and female members of the woodpecker families are more distinct. Williamson sapsucker females look nothing like the males, which are black with red throats, yellow bellies and white wing bars. The species is found in western mountain forests. It may live in the same groves as red-naped and red-breasted sapsuckers.

Meet the sapsucker birds: woodpeckers with a sweet tooth.

An acorn woodpecker sitting on a sugar-water feeder for hummingbirds.
Courtesy Tony Attanasio
An acorn woodpecker sitting on a sugar-water feeder for hummingbirds

14. Woodpeckers Have a Varied Diet

As omnivores, woodpeckers eat a mix of foods. They target insects, spiders, seeds, nuts and acorns, as well as fruit and sap, and will even sip nectar from a hummingbird feeder on occasion. They also love suet, which you can provide in a hanging suet feeder cage to attract them to your yard.