Ask any backyard birder what 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. 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
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 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. 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.
Young baby woodpeckers tended by their parents have largely the same diet—small insects, nuts, seeds, fruit, and tree sap. The parents will feed them exactly the same foods you are offering them at your feeders. Should you come across an abandoned baby woodpecker, you can give them emergency foods such as mealworms, canned dog food, moistened dog biscuits, raw liver, and hard-boiled eggs, offered in small quantities with tweezers. But as soon as possible, bring the baby bird to an animal rescue service that has the expertise and supplies to give the baby woodpecker a decent chance for long-term survival.
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.
9 Common Woodpecker Species and Diet Specifics
- Downy Woodpecker: This is one of the smallest woodpeckers, at 5 to 7 inches in length. It can be found over much of the United States year-round. The belly is predominantly white, the back is black with white bars. It is easily confused with the hairy woodpecker, which has identical markings but is a larger bird. The downy woodpecker eats mostly small insects but also nuts, berries, and seeds. A feeder filled with sunflower seeds and cracked corn is especially effective at attracting downy woodpeckers, as is suet mixed with peanut butter.
- Hairy Woodpecker: This species has very similar coloring to the downy woodpecker, but is a larger bird, at 6 to 9 inches in length. It can be found year-round over much of the United States. It is primarily an insect-eater, but also consumes nuts, seeds, and berries. In winter, it is very fond of suet and black-oil sunflower seeds.
- Red-bellied Woodpecker: Although this bird has a reddish-orange head, it is named for the rusty orange hues on its abdomen. It is a medium-sized woodpecker, 7 to 9 inches long. Though sometimes confused with the red-headed woodpecker, this species has a body color with alternating bars of white and black, not the large sections seen in the red-headed woodpecker. Offering sunflower seeds, peanuts, and suet is a good strategy for attracting this bird.
- Red-Headed Woodpecker: This striking bird has a solid dark red head and solid black and white body color. It is a medium-sized woodpecker (7 to 9 inches), found mostly in the east-central United States, migrating to the north during the summer breeding season. Loss of habitat has threatened this bird over much of its historic range, and bird-watchers are usually thrilled to spot one at a bird feeder. It is an omnivorous feeder that consumes bugs, berries, seeds, and sometimes even small rodents. You have a decent chance of attracting this woodpecker if you live within its range and offer a varied diet including suet and a water source.
- Pileated Woodpecker: This is one of the largest woodpeckers, at 16 to 19 inches in length. It is found year-round in the far northern United States and in the Southeast. It has large areas of black and white coloring, with a crested head of solid red. Pileated woodpeckers are almost exclusively insect eaters. The best way to attract them is to allow dead trees and stumps to remain on your property and to maintain suet feeders and birdbaths.
- Flicker: Several types of flicker are found across the United States, all notable for their overall brownish color interrupted by black bars and splotches. They are medium-to-large woodpeckers (around 12 inches). Most types have sections of red somewhere on the head. The yellow-shafted flicker is regarded as a subspecies of the red-shafted flicker—the red-shafted found in the western United States, the yellow-shafted in the East. Flickers typically eat at ground level on ants and beetles and are not commonly seen at feeders. However, maintaining birdbaths in your yard may well attract flickers.
- Ladder-Backed Woodpecker: This smallish woodpecker (about 6 to 7 inches long) has alternating white and black bars along its back. The males have a narrow cap of red. Its primary diet is larval and adult insects and fruit. It is found year-round in the Southwest United States.
- Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker: This colorful woodpecker with yellow splotches can be found in many areas of North America at different times during its migrations. It has a typical woodpecker diet but is especially fond of fruit. It is an average-sized bird, 7 to 8 inches long. In summer, it is found in the Northern United States; in the winter, in the U.S. South and Southeastern states; and in the east-central United States during migration periods. As the name suggests, it has a fondness for tree sap. The best way to attract them is to plant maple, birch, or beech trees, or to offer suet.
- Acorn Woodpecker: This common west-coast woodpecker has a clown-like facial pattern and a notorious appetite for acorns. Offering acorns in your feeders is very likely to draw in these birds if you live in their region.
Why do woodpeckers like to hammer on houses and what can I do about it? Cornell University Ornithology Lab.