Why Do Woodpeckers Peck Wood? Here Are 12 Reasons


The question, “Why do woodpeckers peck at trees?” is one of the most frequently asked questions put to wildlife biologists. We know what this bird does, but not why. 

So let’s see if we can find an answer together.

12 Reasons why woodpeckers peck wood

To Find Food

Many different species of woodpeckers forage throughout the year on insects living under bark or in decaying wood. 

Some make deep holes in trees while searching for insects and larvae using their beaks as insect probes; others make shallow round holes, also looking for food; some drum on tree trunks, probably communicating with members of the same species nearby; and still others excavate nest cavities in which they may lay several clutches of eggs each season. 

The size, depth, and shape of these cavities varies from species to species, but each species has its own preferences. This is why you can sometimes find a pile of wood chips underneath a tree or telephone pole where Downy Woodpeckers have been excavating their nest cavities.

To Get Water

Insects may be a primary source of water, especially for those woodpeckers who live in arid regions. Insects themselves require a moist environment to keep their cuticles from drying out and they also need water to power their digestive systems which extract nutrients from their food. 

Woodpeckers drink the body fluids of insects through a process called “phagy” (feeding on liquids). Insects are also a source of liquid to drink, especially after they have been softened by enzymes in the woodpecker’s stomach.

 why do woodpeckers peck at trees

To build a nest

To prepare for breeding season, Woodpeckers peck in order to create or maintain cavities in which they will raise their young, excavating them either in dead trees, wooden utility poles, or even dead branches on live trees (called “excavations“). 

Cavities are essential because this is where woodpeckers lay their eggs and where the young hatch and develop into fledglings (or baby birds). These excavations take four to nine weeks of work by both parents to complete, since they do most of the digging with their beaks. It can take woodpeckers years to discover a cavity that they like or that is big enough for them to nest in.

To attract mates

Male woodpeckers drum on resonant objects– such as dead trees, utility poles, or branches- in order to attract mates during breeding season

Woodpeckers use their bills to drum on these resonant objects, since the sound is amplified by the object they are drumming on. The intensity of this drumming behavior increases as breeding season approaches and decreases after it has passed. 

Male woodpeckers also emit a squealing call when they see potential mates flying overhead in order to draw attention to themselves so females will fly over for mating purposes.

You may have noticed that the drumming of a woodpecker often sounds like “rat-a-tat-tat.” 

This sound is created by the woodpecker rapidly opening and closing its beak against the trunk of a tree. The sound spreads out in all directions, making it easier for other woodpeckers to hear it over long distances. It is thought that drumming primarily serves to attract mates or advertise ownership of territory during the breeding season.

To communicate with other woodpeckers

Drumming or “tattooing” is a common behaviour of woodpeckers. It may be done by males trying to attract a mate or to establish their territory boundaries. Sometimes both members of a pair drum—the male usually much more frequently than the female. 

A bird may also drum when it has found a well-concealed insect nest, presumably informing other family members where to go for dinner.

To Stay Cool

Woodpeckers are rather large birds with very small wings relative to their size. The larger the bird, the more difficult it is to stay cool since it is harder for blood to circulate through the small vessels and capillaries of a large bird than it is for smaller birds.

Woodpeckers need to keep cool in order to prevent their brain and eyes from overheating so they often use trees as shade sources for sunbathing.

To Mark Their Territory

Male woodpeckers want to let their competitors know where their area is so they drum loudly with their bills on dead trees, utility poles, or any other resonant object throughout the year. They may also peck at live trees during breeding season as a means of “flagging” territory since tree sap flows more readily during this time. 

This behavior serves as an advertisement that a male has arrived at a site and should be accepted by all other males in the area.


To Maintain Strong Woodpecker Beak Bones

Most of a woodpecker’s diet is made up of ants, beetle larvae, and other hard-bodied insects. The layers of a woodpecker’s beak are roughly the same thickness as the sole of its foot. In order to get through these hard outer body parts, woodpeckers must have strong, sturdy bills. 

To strengthen the outer body of its beak, a woodpecker will sometimes use its bill to tap against trees. Wildwood Nature Centre staff have observed Pileated Woodpeckers pecking at telephone poles in order to strengthen their beak bones before they embark on long migrations south for the winter.

To Get Rid Of Mites And Other Parasites

Woodpeckers are small birds with extremely large home ranges. This means they can potentially pick up mites and other parasites from any place they happen to visit.

One of the most common ways for these creatures to be transmitted is by sharing a nesting cavity, especially if it’s used by more than one species of bird; this is why it’s important to inspect every cavity you find, even if only one type of woodpecker is listed as using that specific site.

To Get Rid Of Ticks And External Parasites

Woodpeckers have to deal with a number of external parasites, especially ticks. In order to remove these parasites, a woodpecker will often tap its beak against the tree it is perched on. It does this because the vibrations from tapping send small waves of energy through the wood which knock off any tiny creatures clinging to the bark.

To Break Up Insect Nests

Some birds use their feet to break open insect nests or eggs they have located in crevices or cavities. This is especially important for cavity nesters, who need to ensure they don’t lay eggs on top of an existing nest. Woodpeckers also use their feet and beak to break open the nests of some ants, which are known for their strong defences.

To Strengthen Feet

Woodpeckers have very large home ranges, covering hundreds of hectares of forest. This means they need to move over vast amounts of land in order to find enough food to survive. To do this, woodpeckers have very strong legs and feet. 

In order to keep these strong, woodpeckers walk up and down tree trunks, sometimes tapping them with their feet or pecking them with their beak. This is a good way for a bird to get exercise, while also maintaining the strength of its limbs.

In Conclusion

Woodpeckers use trees in a number of different ways. 

Sometimes, they peck at them to make noise or to get rid of parasites. In other cases, they tap on the trunks and branches with their feet and beaks in order to strengthen their muscles. Whatever the reason may be for woodpeckers tapping at trees, it’s important to understand this behaviour is normal and not something you should interfere with. 

By knowing what woodpeckers are pecking for, you can better protect local habitats for these species so they can continue living in your area.

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