If you’ve ever watched a woodpecker work its way around a tree trunk or branch, tapping here and there as it hunts for insects hiding beneath the bark, you may have wondered, “What do woodpeckers eat?”
The answer depends on the species of woodpecker and its location.
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at what woodpeckers eat and the food preferences of different species.
We’ll also check out how much they eat in a day, what woodpeckers eat in the winter and more.
What Do Woodpeckers Eat?
In general, a member of the woodpecker family might eat ants, beetles, grubs and other insects, fruit, sap from trees and birds’ eggs. Woodpeckers hunt for food using their bill to chip away at bark or dig beneath it to expose insects.
The barbed tongue then becomes wet and sticky to catch the prey and pull it into the bird’s mouth.
While this is the diet of most woodpeckers, there are variations on this theme. Some species are primarily insectivores, while others are frugivores – eating fruit and berries. Still others eat a combination of insects, fruit and seeds.
Fruit is also part of the woodpecker diet, especially during the autumn when they prepare for their long migration south. We see them in orchards and backyards where apples, pears, cherries, and other fruits are growing.
Most woodpeckers favor trees with soft bark such as pine trees that are easier to dig into for insects living beneath the surface. If you have a garden or yard with healthy pines on your property, chances are it is an attractive feeding source for woodpeckers year-round.
Other common backyard trees include ash, beech, birch, cedar, dogwood, and elm. Some woods make good homes while others supply food for these birds.
Woodpeckers prefer nesting sites high off the ground such as up in a high branch on a pine tree or in a cavity in a dead tree trunk.
How much do Woodpeckers eat in a day?
A woodpecker will eat anything from a few ants to several worms in a day. As ant season comes and goes, so does the food source for the woodpecker. They will migrate or change locations based on what available food source there is.
For example, some species migrate to the Northern parts of North America during winter months where food is more readily available—insects hibernate and birds hatch eggs.
Here is how much some common species of woodpeckers eat:
- The Downy Woodpecker has been known to eat 5,000 ants in five hours. That’s 400 ants per minute, or one ant every two seconds!
- Hairy Woodpeckers may search up to 1,000 square feet for food and can spend an hour or more looking for just the right grub.
- Red-bellied Woodpeckers have adapted to life in colder areas by storing seeds in tree bark for wintertime meals instead of searching for insects. They also eat wild cherries, blackberries, and raspberries, along with nuts when they are available.
What Do Woodpeckers Eat In The Winter?
In addition to snacking on the leftovers of other birds, woodpeckers eat nuts and seeds in the winter. They will also eat carpenter ants if they can find them under the bark of dead trees or stumps.
Woodpeckers don’t come up to your bird feeder very often because they get most of their food from trees. It only takes a few minutes for them to scout out an area for bugs then get what they need.
If you do see one at your feeder, it’s likely that their favorite suet cake is running low!
Diet of the Ground-feeder vs Tree-feeder Woodpeckers
Scientists classify woodpeckers in two groups: those that prefer more open spaces such as deserts, fields, and meadows (ground-feeders) and those that live in forests where they can find plenty of trees, especially pine trees (tree-feeders).
Open-space woodpeckers eat ants and termites along with other insects, which they hunt on the ground. Members of this group have shorter, more powerful bills for digging beneath the bark and chiseling at wood to expose insects. They also have a highly developed sense of sight that helps them spot food from a distance.
Tree-feeding species include those that prey on ants in their nests as well as birds’ eggs and young. They have longer tongues than open-space species to help them reach into cracks and crevices around tree trunks or branches where insects dwell.
Those species with slightly curved bills can dig out insect larvae from under tree bark by using their heads like a hatchet – tapping here, prying there – until the hole is big enough to swallow their meal whole.
Diets of the 7 most common Woodpeckers in the US
Scientists classify woodpeckers into two groups: the Picidae, which includes the piculets and wrynecks, and the Picinae. Though there are more than 180 species of woodpecker worldwide, only about 30 live in North America. They include:
What do Downy Woodpeckers eat?
These birds have pale gray backs with black markings on their heads and white bars on their wings. Their red crowns stand out brightly from their duller bodies when they raise themselves up to peer around for insects beneath the bark. They eat ants and larvae living in trees, as well as fruit in backyards where homeowners grow apples, pears, and other fruit.
What do Hairy Woodpeckers eat?
These birds also have white wing bars and a black head, but they sport a black crescent on their red crowns. They eat ants, beetles, and grubs living in trees as well as fruits growing in orchards and gardens. If there’s sap on your pine tree, you may spot these birds gathering the sweet goo to add further calories to their already protein-rich diets.
What do Red-bellied Woodpeckers eat?
These birds have a bright red stripe on their white underbellies. They visit trees with a mix of hardwood and soft pines to forage for insects, including ants, beetles, and larvae found beneath the bark.
The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker’s food
Although these birds have dark gray backs with black stripes, they sport a yellow belly band outlined in black that makes them easy to spot against a backdrop of pine trees or green fruit. They drill rows of holes into branches where sap runs out from beneath the bark. The sap attracts insects, which the bird then hunts down along the trunk, or up high in tree branches.
This woodpecker also feeds on ants and beetle larvae found under the bark of trees.
The diet Northern Flickers
These birds sport dark brown backs with black stripes, while their fronts are white with black markings on their wings. Their cheeks boast an orange patch that can be seen during flight or when they spread their wings to brace themselves against tree trunks as they drill holes into trees for insects.
They eat ants, beetles, and larvae living in trees, plus fruits growing in yards where homeowners plant apple, pear, and other fruit trees.
What do Pileated Woodpeckers eat?
These large woodpeckers have jet black backs with white bars running down each wing. The males also sport red caps on the tops of their heads. As you might guess by these color combinations, it’s easy to spot these birds. They eat ants, beetles, and larvae living in trees, as well as fruits growing in orchards and gardens.
The Ivory-billed Woodpecker’s diet
These large woodpeckers have a large white stripe down their backs which is especially noticeable during flight. The male also sports a red crest on its head from which it gets its name. Like their relative the pileated woodpecker, they forage for insects including ants under the bark of trees, plus fruits growing in orchards and gardens found in backyards near the woods they live in.
It is a rare occasion to spot a woodpecker in your bird feeder. However, if you live near trees or in areas with fruit trees growing in your yard, you may spot one of these birds when they come to gather their favorite foods like ants, beetles, and insect larvae.
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