Ask any backyard birder 'what do woodpeckers eat?' and there will always be many different answers. Woodpeckers stay in the same range year-round, but as the seasons change they alter their diets to take advantage of easily available foods that meet their nutritional needs. Understanding what woodpeckers eat can help birders provide the best woodpecker food at their feeders, and can help birders in the field know how to find feeding woodpeckers to observe.
Drumming and Eating
Many novice birders and non-birders mistakenly assume that woodpecker drumming is related to feeding, and that woodpeckers may even eat the wood or sawdust they peck. In fact, while some woodpeckers may use drumming to help dislodge insects to eat or to drill holes to get at sap or burrowing insects, drumming is most often unrelated to eating. Instead, drumming is a method of communication, typically used to advertise a territory or attract a mate. In some cases, vigorous drumming also warns off intruders or scares away potential predators, especially if the bird is drumming on a loud, resonant object. While woodpeckers will use their bills as tools when feeding, they do so by prying insects out of wood rather than just hitting the wood, and no woodpeckers actually eat wood.
Woodpecker Food Sources
Depending on the season, a woodpecker may eat several different things. The exact foods preferred by each species vary, but the most popular woodpecker foods include:
- Insects, especially wood-boring insects, grubs, spiders, and ants
- Tree sap
- Berries and fruit, including juice from broken fruit
- Flower nectar
Woodpeckers change their diets according to what food sources are most abundant. Sap is a popular food in the spring when few other foods are available but rich, sweet sap is rising in trees reawakening after a long winter. In the spring and summer, these birds feast primarily on insects that provide high levels of protein for breeding birds and growing hatchlings. In the fall, nuts, seeds, and fruit are popular foods for woodpeckers because of plentiful natural harvests. In the winter, seeds and nuts are the most abundant foods, as well as some leftover fruit that remains on sturdy bushes or trees.
In addition to varying their food choices by season, some species will even store foods for colder months when supplies are scarce. The acorn woodpecker, for example, creates extensive granary trees to hold hundreds or thousands of acorns. Smaller woodpeckers may hide seeds or dead insects under loose bits of bark, or even bury them in the ground to retrieve later if fresher foods aren't available.
Attracting Woodpeckers With Food
Woodpeckers will visit yards that offer appropriate foods all year round. The most popular foods for woodpeckers at feeders include:
- Suet, especially nut, insect, or fruit blends
- Fruit, including oranges, grapes, and apples
- Sunflower seeds, either whole or hulled
- Peanuts, either whole or shelled
- Peanut butter or peanut butter blends
- Mealworms, either live or dried
- Nectar, either for orioles or hummingbirds
- Jelly, particularly grape, apple, or marmalade flavors
The types of feeders available are also important for feeding woodpeckers. Suet feeders should be securely anchored and provide a tail prop panel or similar support for woodpeckers to feed, or may be attached to the trunk of a tree for good support. Hopper or tray feeders are the most effective for offering other types of foods while allowing these birds comfortable room to perch. Smaller woodpeckers, such as the downy woodpecker, may cling to a variety of cage feeders, and woodpeckers will also cling to dried sunflower heads to feed directly from the plants. Birders will also occasionally see woodpeckers sipping from hummingbird feeders, especially feeder styles that include wide bases or good perches. Providing saucer-style nectar feeders can be effective for feeding woodpeckers
Providing natural foods for woodpeckers is an even easier way to attract these birds and sate their appetites. The best ways to ensure natural foods for woodpeckers include:
- Minimizing or eliminating insecticide use that would remove insects from the food chain.
- Planting berry bushes for birds, especially bushes that retain fruit into winter.
- Planting fruit trees for birds, and allowing some fruit to hang well into the winter.
- Planting oak trees or other nut-bearing trees and bushes for woodpeckers to use.
- Adding seed-bearing flowers to the landscape for ground-foraging woodpeckers.
Like all birds, woodpeckers eat a variety of different foods. Birders who offer a range of foods, both naturally and in the appropriate feeders, can easily attract woodpeckers with hearty appetites all year long.