Woodpeckers are unique group of birds.


Woodpeckers are members of the family Picidae whose distribution stretches from the tundra to the tropics and includes all continents except Antarctica and Australia. The family Picidae is related to the other families of the Order Piciformes which include jacamars, puffbirds, honeyguides, barbets, and toucans. There are about 215 species in the family Picidae. Although they are most commonly associated with hunting insects in wood, they can feed on a variety of food items and some live in grasslands which lack trees. Woodpeckers nest in holes, usually which they make themselves, where their naked and blind chicks are hatched after a short incubation. The smallest piculets weigh 7 grams and possess winglengths of 44 mm while the largest woodpeckers (Campephilus imperialus) are about 2 feet long, weigh about 700 g, and possess wings which measure 313 mm (Winkler 1995; Short, 1982). The earliest fossil woodpeckers are known from the Miocene in Germany, about 25 million years ago (Backhouse, 2005).

A woodpecker's bill is hard, typically straight, and chisel-tipped. This structure, in addition to neck muscles and muscles around the hinge help to redistribute the forces from pecking away from the cranium. The bill not only allows them to make holes in wood to search for insects, but also to excavate a nest and to make the loud “drumming” sounds which only woodpeckers make (Winkler 1995; Short, 1982). Usually a dead branch is used and woodpeckers may strike the wood 20 times per second (Brooke, 1991). Drumming can be used to attract a mate and to establish a territory. In most species, both males and females drum and in some, such as the downy and hairy woodpeckers, there is no apparent difference between the drumming of males and females (Backhouse, 2005).

The young are cared for by both males and females in many woodpecker species. The following images are of male and female red-bellied woodpeckers leaving the nest opening.


True woodpeckers possess long tongues which have barbs at the tips. Salivary glands coat the tongue with sticky saliva. The tongue length varies in woodpeckers depending on their diet, as does the hyoid bone to which supports the tongue. The tongue and the hyoid apparatus which supports it may be so long (up to five inches) that they can encircle the skull and end near the eye. Species which hammer at wood more to extract insect larvae tend to have shorter tongues. Some woodpeckers have short tongues, such as downy woodpeckers, while others have longer tongues, such as flickers (Winkler 1995; Short, 1982; Sibley, 2001).

True woodpeckers evolved stiff tail feathers for support as they climb. To support their vertical feeding habits, woodpeckers possess wider ribs and stronger muscles to support the neck. Woodpecker tail muscles are also enlarged (Backhouse, 2005).


While most woodpecker feet are adapted for vertical climbing, this is not true of many ground-dwelling species (such as campo flickers pictured below). Three lineages of woodpeckers have separately the first toe from their foot.


Woodpeckers can feed on a variety of items. All species are capable of preying on insects from the ground and the surface of trees and all woodpeckers can eat berries or fruits. A number of species can even feed on bird eggs and nestlings; the great spotted woodpecker does this the most. In addition to ants, other insects, and spiders, woodpecker diets have included scorpions, lizards, and mussels. Downy and hairy woodpeckers have been observed to remove fat from carrion and red-bellied and red-headed woodpeckers have scavenged dead fish from shorelines.

The majority of woodpeckers can also include plant material in their diet such as fruits, berries, acorns, sap, and nectar. White-headed woodpeckers feed primarily on fruits, seeds, and honey from bees nests which they open.

The insect material in their diet includes insects they catch in flight. Acorns may compose half the diet of the populations of the acorn woodpecker which live in the United States. Ants compose the majority of the diet of many African woodpeckers which often spend much of their time on the ground. For example, 95% of the ground woodpecker’s diet is composed of ants from 8 genera (Backhouse, 2005; Winkler 1995; Short, 1982).Lewis’s woodpecker preys on flying insects moreso than any other woodpecker and its flight pattern is unlike those of other woodpeckers, utilizing increased gliding and maneuverability (Tobaleske, 1996).


Downy woodpeckers are the smallest woodpeckers in North America. In springtime, they include some sap in their diets. They feed on a variety of insect pests and can eat flowers, berries, seeds, and nuts.

Hairy woodpecker males drum to attract females. Males incubate the eggs at night while females guard them during the day. They feed on insects, berries, and seeds.

Flickers are the most abundant woodpeckers in North America. The Northern flicker eats more ants than any other North American bird. They can stretch their tongues three inches past the tips of their beaks. There are more than 100 local names for flickers. The Eastern form has yellow under their wings and a black stripe near their mouths. In winter, flickers may make holes in vacant buildings and winter there. During summer they eat ants and wild bayberries while in winter they eat bayberry and poison ivy fruits.

The pileated woodpeckers are the second largest woodpeckers in North America (after the ivory billed woodpecker which has recently been observed in the United States after being classified as extinct outside Cuba). The holes they generate are several inches across. They can feed on ants, wood-boring insects, and berries.

Red bellied woodpeckers possess fine feathers which cover their nostrils to prevent wood chips from entering their nostrils. They possess very long tongues which can both stick to ants and spear insects. They feed on insects, fruit, and seeds.

One fifth of the diet of the yellow bellied sapsucker is sap from a diversity of trees and shrubs. It also eats insects and berries. While most woodpeckers possess a long tongue with a sharp tip, sapsuckers possess short tongue with hairs adapted to licking up the sap.

The Ivory billed woodpecker is the largest woodpecker in the U.S. with a length of up to 21 inches long. The Ivory-billed woodpecker was once found in 14 states along the Mississippi and along the Caribbean and South Atlantic coasts. Following the Civil War, deforestation throughout the south from the late 1800s through the early 1900s destroyed much of the mature swamp forest which composed its habitat. By 1937, its range was limited to a small area in Northeast Louisiana. The last sighting in the United States was in the 1950s and the last sighting in Cuba occurred in 1987. In 1999 and the early years of the 21 st century, a few sightings of the woodpecker in Louisiana led the official announcement in 2005 after video footage confirmed the sightings (Hoose, 2004; Backhouse, 2005; Sibley, 2001).


The Imperial Woodpecker was the largest woodpecker in the world. Habitat loss in its native habitat of Western Mexico led to its decline. The last official sighting occurred in 1956 and the last unofficial sighting in 1996 (Backhouse, 2005).