Many 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 backyard birders provide the best woodpecker food at their feeders, and can help birders in the field know what to look for 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. In fact, while some woodpeckers may use drumming to help dislodge insects to eat or to drill holes to get at sap, drumming is most often unrelated to eating. Instead, drumming is a method of communication, often used to advertise a territory or attract a mate. While woodpeckers will use their bills as tools when feeding, they do so by prying insects out of 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 and ants
- Tree sap
- Berries and fruit
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. 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, and some species will even cache foods for colder months when supplies are scarce.
Attracting Woodpeckers With Food
Woodpeckers will visit backyards that offer appropriate foods all year round. The most popular foods for woodpeckers at backyard feeders include:
- Suet, especially nut, insect or fruit blends
- Fruit, including oranges and apples
- Sunflower seeds
- Peanut butter
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, and hopper or tray feeders are the most effective for offering other types of foods. 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. Backyard birders will also occasionally see woodpeckers sipping from hummingbird feeders, and providing saucer-style feeders can be effective for feeding woodpeckers.
Like all birds, woodpeckers eat a variety of different foods. Backyard birders who offer a range of foods in appropriate feeders can easily attract woodpeckers with hearty appetites.
Photo – Nuttall's Woodpecker Feeding Chick © Alan Vernon