What Do Woodpeckers Eat? 20 Types of Food They Forage and Hunt

Written by Kyle Glatz
Published: December 10, 2021
Image Credit rhfletcher/Shutterstock.com
Share this post on:

Woodpeckers are known for the immense amount of noise they make while living up to their names, pecking wood from trees in search of a meal, or drumming to attract a mate. These noisy birds live all over the world, except in Australia and New Guinea. That means they have a wide range in which to live and many opportunities to interact with other animals, which begs the question, what do woodpeckers eat?

Like many other birds, woodpeckers are swift and have great senses to help them find food. However, it’s their unique skulls and tongues that will provide the best insight into how they hunt and eat. Learn how they find food and how they fare in dire situations.  

What Foods Do Woodpeckers Eat?

Largest woodpeckers - Great Slaty
Woodpeckers eat insects, tree sap, seeds, and nuts.

Woodpeckers eat insects, nuts, and fruit. They are omnivorous birds that like to feast on bugs that infest trees, using their special physiology to root them out. These birds do not have any problems pecking through tough shells to reach the seeds inside. They are not very picky, either, eating a host of different bugs and seeds.

3,949 People Couldn't Ace This Quiz

Think You Can?

Some of the foods that woodpeckers eat are:

The woodpecker’s diet is varied, but the vast majority of their preferred foods are wood-boring insects, especially their larvae. Long-horned beetles and other bugs like them that live in trees and other wood make up 75% of some woodpecker species’ diet.

Although they will eat fruits and nuts, they’ll also dine on the occasional bird egg, fledgling bird, or even a lizard. Perhaps the rarest meal in which a woodpecker will partake is meat from small rodents, like mice.

They’ll also consume carrion, meat that was killed by another source, but this is not their preferred food. They would rather eat insects and fruit. The woodpecker is an amazing forager, capable of finding a meal in just about any environment. Their special beaks and skulls make them perfectly suited for finding food.

How Do Woodpeckers Hunt Their Food?

Female Pileated Woodpecker on Tree Trunk in Fall.
Woodpeckers hunt their food by using their beaks to break wood and find the insects below.

FotoRequest/Shutterstock.com

Woodpeckers have amazing physiology, especially when it comes to their beaks and skulls. Their bill is long, and their beak is very strong. In fact, it is best described as chisel-like. The tip of their beak is powerful enough to dig through wood, break through shells, and dig into prey.

Their skulls are also interesting because they are made from spongy bone that cushions the impact from striking their beak against trees. Along with powerful neck muscles, the woodpecker’s hyoid bones provide tremendous shock absorption so the bird can hammer into trees thousands of times per day.

When hunting for bugs, they will use their sense of smell to locate high concentrations of formic acid produced by their prey of choice. Next, they tap on portions of trees and listen for movement beneath the bark or within the wood. If they detect movement, they will bore into the wood with their powerful beaks and then insert their highly elastic, sticky tongues into the hole they’ve made.

They are very successful at finding and eating wood-boring insects in this way. They can also catch some insects mid-flight.

Hungry woodpeckers will sometimes locate a nest with bird eggs or hatchlings and raid it, killing and eating parts of the young. Woodpeckers are vicious and effective when attacking prey like mice, lizards, and fledglings.

What Do Baby Woodpeckers Eat?

Pileated woodpecker nest in Florida
Baby woodpeckers eat regurgitated insects from their parents.

Baby woodpeckers hatch after their eggs are incubated for up to two weeks. For the following 25-30 days, they are cared for by the parents. During the first two weeks of that time, one of the birds will sit and brood the hatchlings while the other goes to get food and then regurgitates it for its young. Insects are the most common food that woodpeckers will regurgitate for their babies.

Once the birds have started to grow feathers, both parents will hunt food and regurgitate it for the young or bring whole insects to them. Woodpecker babies depart the nest after about 30 days, and then they are ready to leave their parents shortly after.

What Do Woodpeckers Eat During Winter?

Largest woodpecker - Northern flicker
Woodpeckers rely on nuts, seeds, and residual fruit to get them through winter.

The cold winter months impose hardships on many animals, including the woodpecker. Some species of woodpecker will migrate to warmer climates, but others stay near their breeding areas. One reason woodpeckers stick around longer than other species is that they make hollows in trees for their nests.  The extra protection from the elements helps.

When the winter comes and insects are less available to them, woodpeckers eat the following foods:

  • Fruits
  • Seeds
  • Nuts

Woodpeckers can easily crack open seeds that other birds had to leave behind, and these birds have been known to create a stash of food to help them in times of scarcity. Notably, the acorn woodpecker is known for hoarding acorns to help survive the cold winter months.

What Predators Eat Woodpeckers?

bobcat looking directly at camera
Bobcats can make short work of woodpeckers.

iStock.com/Anita Elder Design

The woodpecker is a bit of a predator in its own right, but that does not mean they are apex predators. Some creatures can track them down and put an end to their incessant drumming while getting a meal in the meantime. Woodpecker predators include:

One notable absence on the list of woodpecker predators is human beings. Although many people would love to get rid of these birds, they are protected under the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Humans need a special permit to get rid of them. However, putting out a few decoy hawks and owls often reduces their numbers in a small area.

Woodpeckers are great at digging insects out of trees, finding bountiful deposits of sap, and scooping up the occasional bird egg for dinner. These birds are not hard to find due to their constant drumming and squawks, so it’s possible to watch them in action as they dig into trees. Their unique skulls and beaks set them apart from other birds their size, making the woodpecker an interesting albeit loud creature.  

Share this post on:
About the Author

I'm a freelance writer with 8 years of experience. I've written in a variety of niches such as video games, animals, and managed service providers. I graduated from Rowan University in 2014 with degrees in English and Education. When I'm not working, I enjoy playing video games, reading, and writing for fun.

Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.