Fun Facts About Woodpeckers

Pileated Woodpecker
Lee Hunter/Flickr/Used With Permission

Woodpeckers are instantly recognizable by the unique way they peck vertically on trees and poles, but how much do you really know about these outstanding birds? These interesting woodpecker facts can surprise even experienced birders!

Woodpecker Trivia

  • There are more than 180 species of woodpeckers worldwide, and they are adapted to a wide range of habitats, including forests, deserts, jungles, and even urban settings. No woodpeckers, however, are found anywhere in Australia, Madagascar, New Zealand, or Antarctica.
  • The downy woodpecker is the most common backyard woodpecker in North America, and is one of only about two dozen woodpecker species found in the United States. These small woodpeckers with their stubby bills often visit suet feeders or will take black oil sunflower seeds, hulled sunflower seeds, peanut butter, or peanut chunks from feeders and feeding platforms. They will also nest in birdhouses, and may use roost boxes in the winter.
  • The most common plumage colors for all woodpeckers are black, white, red, and yellow. A few species also have orange, green, brown, maroon, and gold in their coloration. Brighter colors are usually flashy patches, typically on the head, neck, or back where they will be easily seen. Bright colors are also more common on tropical woodpecker species, where the habitat naturally has many bright flowers and plants.
  • A woodpecker's tongue is up to 4 inches long depending on the species, and it wraps around the skull when it is retracted. Many woodpecker tongues are barbed to help the birds extract bugs from trees and holes. Woodpeckers can lick up sap and insects, and will also use their agile tongues to sip from nectar feeders for hummingbirds and orioles.
  • Most woodpeckers have zygodactyl feet, which means they have two toes facing the front and two toes facing the back to help them strongly grip trees and poles in a vertical position. They use those toes with their stiff tail feathers to brace on trees as they climb. Many woodpeckers also have longer, thicker talons than other birds, which helps them have an exceptional grip.
  • Woodpeckers eat bugs, sap, fruit, nuts, and seeds. In the backyard, they are often attracted to suet feeders or nut feeders, and may even visit nectar or jelly feeders. Woodpeckers may also be interested in some kitchen scraps, but these foods should only be offered as rare treats in limited quantities because they are not as nutritious.
  • The two largest woodpeckers in the world are the imperial woodpecker and the ivory-billed woodpecker, but both may be extinct. The largest confirmed woodpecker is the great slaty woodpecker of Southeast Asia, which measures 20 inches long. The pileated woodpecker is the largest North American woodpecker species and measures up to 18 inches long and has a 28-inch wingspan.
  • The piculets are a type of woodpecker found South America, Africa, and Asia and they are the smallest woodpeckers, measuring only 3-4 inches long depending on the species. While piculets share many characteristics with more familiar woodpeckers, they do not usually have the longer, stiff tails woodpeckers use to balance. Instead, piculets often perch upright similar to passerines. There are roughly 30 piculet species in the world.
  • Woodpeckers do not have vocal songs, though they can make chirps, chatters, and other alarm calls. For more elaborate communication, they drum on resonant objects such as hollow trees, stumps, logs, utility poles, chimneys, rain gutters, and trash cans, as well as any other object that may echo loudly. Woodpeckers drum to attract mates, establish territories, and otherwise communicate, and both male and female woodpeckers will drum.
  • Between feeding, excavating nest cavities, and drumming, woodpeckers can peck up to 20 times per second, or a total of 8,000-12,000 pecks per day.
  • Woodpeckers don't get headaches from pecking. They have reinforced skulls structured to spread the impact force, and their brains are tightly cushioned and protected from repeated impacts. This is only true when the impact is from the proper direction, however, originating from the bird's bill. Woodpeckers are just as susceptible to fatal window collisions as any other birds, especially if they hit the glass at a bad angle.
  • Most woodpeckers have a distinct undulating flight consisting of a few rapid wing beats followed by a quick glide when the wings are tucked against the body rather than spread like many other birds.
  • The average life span of a wild woodpecker can be from 4-12 years, depending on the species. In general, larger woodpeckers typically have longer lifespans, and may live up to 20-30 years in ideal conditions.
  • The greatest threats to woodpeckers include habitat loss through urban development and population sprawl and insecticide use that eliminates food sources. Natural disasters such as forest fires that eliminate dead wood for feeding and nesting can also reduce suitable woodpecker habitat. In urban and suburban areas, cats are a constant threat to woodpeckers as well.
  • The most famous woodpecker is the fictional Woody Woodpecker, created by artist Ben "Bugs" Hardaway in 1940. Despite his popularity, however, Woody Woodpecker is not a distinct woodpecker species. His red head, blue back and wings, and white underparts, however, do show inspiration from the red-headed woodpecker, though his size is closer to the pileated woodpecker.