The familiar pecking or rhythmic drumming of a woodpecker on a tree is often heard as spring arrives. Like other birds, woodpeckers begin to forage, build nests, and mate.
Woodpeckers rely on trees for their basic survival needs, including nutrition.
Woodpeckers do not eat wood from trees. Rather, they excavate the wood with their beaks and long tongues to access wood-boring insects. Woodpeckers eat other food sources such as bird eggs, mice, fruit, and nuts. Woodpeckers also peck at wood to create nesting cavities and winter food storage. Pecking is also a way for woodpeckers to communicate to claim territory, call a mate, or deter predators.
Read on to learn more about what woodpeckers eat and how their physiological features protect them from powerful pecking reverberations and vibrations.
This article will also inform the reader of the multiple reasons why woodpeckers peck.
What Woodpeckers Eat
Woodpeckers belong to the family Picidae, consisting of about 180 species of birds.
They are omnivorous, eating foods such as insects, fruit, seeds, and nuts. Their diets typically consist of what is available in their habitat and season.
Most woodpeckers primarily forage to eat insects and their larvae such as termites, ants, and wasps. These high sources of protein are optimal for breeding and raising young.
Woodpeckers will also eat acorns, sunflower seeds, corn, mice, carrion, bird eggs, grapes, peanuts, and apples. Some woodpeckers are sapsuckers, feeding on sap from trees.
Baby woodpeckers (chicks) receive food from their parents for about a month. One parent stays with the brood (group of chicks) and the other gets food to regurgitate to the hatchlings.
How Woodpeckers Peck
The woodpecker’s physiology allows them to skillfully peck into sources for food.
They have long and strong chisel-like bills. The sharp tip can powerfully dig into wood and prey and break shells on foods such as nuts. It is a sponge-like bone structure that allows for shock absorption.
They have long tongues that can be as long as 1/3 third of the bird’s body length. These long tongues are covered in backward-facing barbs and sticky saliva to help the woodpecker pull insects out of a hole.
The woodpecker’s neck and skull are designed to absorb the impact of forceful (1,200 to 1,400 g-force) pecking on a hard surface at a rate of 18 to 22 times per second. This produces audible sounds of up to 20 Hertz (Hz).
This bird has a hyoid bone, covered in muscle, located in the cranium, and connected to the neck and bill. Other muscles for the throat, tongue, and head are also attached to the hyoid bone.
The hyoid bone secures the brain while diverting vibrations away from it so that the bird does not have brain damage or head injury from the force of the pecking impact.
The hyoid bone also allows the woodpecker to store and then propel the tongue when collecting food.
Why Woodpeckers Peck Wood
Woodpeckers peck to locate and feed on food sources, store food in holes, create nesting sites, and claim territory for breeding.
This video shows a woodpecker pecking:
The rhythm, speed, and length of drumming and pecking vary by species of woodpecker. However, they tend to make this noise for the following common reasons.
Hunting And Feeding
Woodpeckers primarily peck for access to insects or sap underneath the bark of a tree. They can also peck open nut shells for the seeds inside.
Woodpeckers hunt by using their senses of smell and hearing to locate insects. They will also tap on trees to listen for movement.
For example, wood-boring grubs make an audible sound when they are feeding. Ants, bark beetles, and termites excrete odiferous formic acid.
Woodpeckers will also store food in cavities (holes, hollows) that it pecks into the wood.
For example, the acorn woodpecker (M. formicivorus) drills holes in deciduous trees to store acorns for its winter food supply.
Some species migrate in the winter, while others stay year-round near brooding sites.
A woodpecker often drills nesting cavities in trees typically up to 50 feet above the ground, surrounded with lichen, fungus, or moss for camouflage.
However, they may find other places such as electric poles to house their homes.
These nests also provide extra protection during the winter season.
Nesting within trees also helps in protecting woodpeckers from predators such as foxes, domestic cats, hawks, Eastern screech owls, and bobcats.
Communication: Territory, Breeding, Alert
Pecking is used for more than finding food, but as a way to communicate.
Woodpeckers can be heard pecking not only on wood, but also on metal, sidings, and buildings. Generally, drumming is heard in the morning, but can also be observed at other times.
Woodpeckers create a drumming sound to claim territory or attract another for mating.
Generally, an increase in drumming or pecking occurs in late winter and spring as the birds breed and claim territory. Strong drumming indicates the bird is healthy and available for breeding.
The sound of pecking may also scare off predators as a warning sound to keep them away.
Ecological Role Of Woodpeckers
Woodpeckers help to control the populations of insect pests. They are protected by the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
In general, the pecking of woodpeckers on trees does not kill or cause extensive damage to them. Conversely, wood-boring insects cause more damage to the tree than the woodpecker does.
So, when the woodpecker consumes insects, they are helping the tree to survive.
Additionally, their vacant nest cavities are used by other species of birds that are non-drilling such as owls and nuthatches.
Hollow-dwelling animals such as bats, tree frogs, and squirrels will also live in vacant woodpecker cavities.
Woodpeckers do not eat wood.
They peck with powerful bills, connected to a hyoid bone in the skull to reduce the repercussions of forceful pecking vibrations.
A long and sticky barbed tongue pokes into holes to gather insects from within a tree.
Woodpeckers can also eat nuts, mice, eggs, and larvae, feeding on sources that vary throughout the seasons.
Woodpeckers also peck as a way to communicate about territory or for breeding, as well as to warn predators.