My life is about living with nature – here you can live it with me!

What Woodpeckers Eat

Downy Woodpecker

The woodpecker’s main diet is insects that are heard from under the bark of the tree. They will drill a hole and then use their awfully long tongue for pulling the insects out. The tongue is sticky at the end which is helpful in grasping the insect from the center of the tree. You can think of the woodpecker as a tree doctor removing the insects that could potentially do harm to the tree (that’s how I think of them)!!

Grub in Firewood Carpenter Ant
Wood-boring Larvae and Frozen Carpenter Ant found in firewood

Most woodpeckers have a Zygodactyl foot pattern that allow them an extra grip (along with the use of their stuff tail feathers) for climb up the side of a tree in search of these insects. The Pileated Woodpecker can be commonly found drilling a large oblong hole in the side of the tree, searching for a colony of Carpenter Ants. Below is a minute long video showing how the Pileated Woodpecker is able to extract these large holes.

Insects are not the only diet of the woodpecker . . . . they will also enjoy fruit, berries and other seeds that are found around the forest. Just last weekend I photographed this Downy Woodpecker feeding on some Sumac seeds (I just love the sumac fluff around its bill).

Downy Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker on Sumac

Last spring I witnessed a Red-headed Woodpecker at Presque Isle State Park (PA) take this acorn and lodge it in multiple locations so that it could easily chip the meat from the middle of the acorn. Other woodpeckers (like the Acorn Woodpecker) have been known to drill perfectly sized holes for storing their acorns in the bark of the tree. They can easily store tens of thousands of acorns in a single tree (isn’t that crazy?)!!

Red-headed woodpecker with food
Red-headed Woodpecker with an acorn

Sapsuckers get their names by drilling rows of evenly spaced holes in a tree. They drill through the bark and cambium layer in an oval shape in specific tree species. When the sap wells are flowing they drip with watery sap that attracts many species of insects to these wells. Once they wells heal over, the sapsuckers will then redrill the same wells year after year. A large part of the sapsuckers diet is ants but they also actively drink the sap as it flows from its wound. I have seen many other critters like the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Red Squirrel and other warblers using these wells for food.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and its sap wells

Placement of suet cakes is the best way to encourage woodpeckers to regularly visit your back yard. There are many suet mixtures out on the market today like “berry”, “fruit”, and even “insect” cakes. Long before bird food became a billion dollar industry, birdwatchers used raw beef fat from around the kidneys and loins. I prefer making my own suet using the standard peanut-butter mix (now days known as zick dough). You wouldn’t expect suet to be naturally found in the wild but just last December my nose located a deer carcass. Within a short period we saw a Downy Woodpecker pair making use of the frozen meat that was lying on the ground. This natural fat must be extremely helpful in making it through the winter months.

Downy Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker feeding on dead deer carcass

Once you understand the diets of the woodpeckers . . . you can then easily locate the woodpeckers moving through the forest or when visiting in your back yard. Don’t be afraid to watch the woodpeckers in your yard . . . you would be amazed at what you will find them doing or where they will find their next food source.

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28 responses

  1. Great info about woodpeckers. We have had a Downy visit us infrequently, since we put out a suet block.
    Last summer, a woodpecker tried to drill on our brown aluminum downspout. My husband yelled–hey, woodpecker, cut it out. I scolded my husband for chasing a woodpecker away. Tee hee.

    25 January 2009 at 10:50 pm

  2. This was fascinating! I love woodpeckers! I don’t know why they don’t get massive headaches, though =)

    25 January 2009 at 11:28 pm

  3. @ KGMom – thanks and sounds like they are doing some drumming on your aluminum! LOL
    @ Rondi – the Iroquois legend says that they don’t get headaches because they have red behind their ear. Long story for comments . . . maybe I can type up their legend one day for a blog post!

    25 January 2009 at 11:41 pm

  4. I love the woodpeckers, too. Didn’t know they would eat the sumac. I’ve seen bluebirds eat some, though. Today we saw a cardinal on the road at Presque Isle that looked to be picking at a small bird or rodent road-kill of some kind. Would they or were our eyes deceiving us? We thought maybe he was after the stomach contents. Everything is frozen over and I imagine there is little food right now.

    26 January 2009 at 1:37 am

  5. Great information about woodpeckers, and some fine photos too. The downy and hairy woodpeckers here do like the peanut butter mix, but they have to be quick about getting to it since the blue jays also think it’s great.

    26 January 2009 at 3:31 am

  6. Thanks for the resourceful information on woodpeckers. Good way to refresh my knowledge on them and with beautiful photos too. Thanks.

    26 January 2009 at 3:50 am

  7. A Downy on a deer carcass? I would have never imagined that. Interesting. Your woodpecker photos are fantastic, as usual.

    26 January 2009 at 6:01 am

  8. Great pictures and interesting post. I have yet to see a Red-headed woodpecker. They aren’t in Ontario any more. Are they easy to find in your area?

    26 January 2009 at 7:18 am

  9. Excellent post Tom. It was reported in our paper that many birds are feeding on the Sumac for lack of other food sources. Interesting about the woodpecker on the deer carcass. Lots of protein there.

    26 January 2009 at 7:31 am

  10. A wonderfully informative post! I would love to see a picture of the Downy’s eating the deer carcass – wow!

    26 January 2009 at 8:43 am

  11. Lisa at Greenbow

    This is a great tutorial about Woodpeckers Mon@arch. I love the Sapsuckers. They are so neat and tidy with their lines of sap holes. We had these holes on our pine trees. I have even seen butterflies at these holes. Great photos.

    26 January 2009 at 9:20 am

  12. Lisa at Greenbow

    P.S. I loved the video. I often find the holes that Pileated make but rarely see them actually make them.

    26 January 2009 at 9:22 am

  13. So many wonderful woodpecker photos and i loved hearing more about their ingenuity!

    26 January 2009 at 11:12 am

  14. I have never seen the Red Headed Woodpecker. In Virginia, their habitat has largely been taken over by the Red Bellied Woodpecker.

    Nice information and photos.

    26 January 2009 at 1:17 pm

  15. Excellent post, and very informative. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this, and — as always — I admire your photos, too.


    26 January 2009 at 2:57 pm

  16. Great post & Gorgeous images Tom! Two things; I’d love for you to direct me to info about your camera equipment (if your a canon user.) Beautiful shots! Meanwhile, I’ve been doing very little in terms of birdwatching except watch woodpeckers. (So far I’ve ran into downy, hairy and pleated… all adorable btw) I loved how informative this post is! p.s. I’ll post my shots (not as good as yours) in the next couple of days. It may be interesting to see the western version of the downy.

    26 January 2009 at 6:53 pm

  17. I love the fact that you not only share pictures, but your entries are also educational.

    26 January 2009 at 7:01 pm

  18. Oh my that a Pileated Woodpecker
    They are here in The Singing Woods but
    very scarce.. I’ve seen a glimpse ONCE
    ..I pray for a sighting here.

    Smiles, Deena

    26 January 2009 at 9:14 pm

  19. @ Linda – I have seen many woodpeckers and many other birds feeding on Sumac! Food isn’t wasted whenever times are tough for the birdies!
    @ Marvin – Thanks and my bluejays come in a group gobbling up everything!
    @ PSYL – Thanks and glad you enjoyed!
    @ Mary – Yep and thanks for your kind words!
    @ Ruth – Thanks and not in my area unless you go to a few specific spots!
    @ Toni – Thanks and they do rely on Sumac for when other food is rough!
    @ Bird Girl – Thanks and it was fun to watch “not smell”
    @ Lisa – Thanks and I love Sapsuckers also! I have done many post on them in the past!
    @ Shelley – Thanks
    @ Joan – They are fun birds and wish we had them around more in this area!
    @ Right Blue – thanks and glad you enjoyed!
    @ Aullori – thanks and don’t have anything on my camera equipment! Normally you can see it in the meta info on flickr! I am using the Nikon D300 with a 400mm lens! Nothing special about the lens!
    @ Kelley – Thanks and glad you enjoy . . makes me feel good everyone likes the additional info that I add!
    @ Deena – thanks and yes it is! You never know if they will show up there!

    26 January 2009 at 11:37 pm

  20. Marg

    I just love downies well all woodpeckers really-great info Tom!

    27 January 2009 at 9:39 pm

  21. Grace

    I would love to see more Red-headed Woodpeckers. One of my sightings was also at Presque Isle (and two at L. Erie State Park.)

    27 January 2009 at 11:03 pm

  22. ps. thanks Tom for your equip. update. (your shots are amazing!) meanwhile I’m with the last guy… your redheaded guy is a dreamboat! and after taking shots of a downy for the last month I have to admit, as a canon user makes me wish I went with nikon. ;o)

    28 January 2009 at 2:56 am

  23. Dang, Mon@rch, how did you get to close to film that video of the pileated woodpecker? That was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen!

    28 January 2009 at 5:14 pm

  24. Great post-informative and great/photos to go along with it. I’ve never been able to capture such a good video of a Pileated.-My wife got a kick out of seeing it.

    29 January 2009 at 5:52 pm

  25. Corinne

    Thanks for the great info about woodpeckers. These are by far my favorite birds, I think they are fascinating and beautiful! I read so many books on woodpecker species, but you never know everything, and linking the suet to deer carcasses, one would think is common sense, yet, I have never made the correlation. I had the chance to see a Pileated directly outside my window, but he hasn’t come back since, I’m hoping for another visit before spring:-) Such an amazing species! Thank you for sharing your field experiences.

    31 January 2009 at 6:51 pm

  26. armene

    I have a whole family of them and they feed off of the Hummingbird feeder

    16 June 2010 at 3:07 pm

  27. dameta

    From the pictures above, I believe I have a downy woodpecker. It has been hanging and eating from my thistle sock. I was surprised to see it there. Any comments about this type of woodpecker eating thistle seed would be great!

    I’m also trying to get a picture of it hangin there but it is always on the look out. It has flown away at my every attempt of getting a photo so far.

    19 August 2010 at 1:09 pm

  28. Barbara Pfister

    I have a pair of Downy Woodpeckers who eat daily from my two hummingbird feeders. One is on a Shepherd’s hook and the other is window mounted.

    20 July 2012 at 11:00 am

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