Do Woodpeckers Fly South For The Winter?


Every fall in North America, you can see geese flying through the air as they migrate south. It’s a somewhat common behavior among birds, but are woodpeckers among those that migrate?

Woodpeckers rely on their strong drilling abilities for both food and shelter. Because they can penetrate wood so well, they’re better able to survive in colder areas during the winter.

Most woodpeckers do not fly south for the winter. Many of them don’t migrate at all, while others may only travel short distances in search of food. Most can survive cold regions by drilling into wood and trees to make nests and find food that other birds can’t.

Some Woodpeckers Fly South For The Winter, Others Don’t

Migration is the seasonal movement of birds from one area to another for resources. A common idea about migration is that it has to do with temperature, but this is only part of the explanation.

Many birds can tolerate freezing temperatures, but they have to have a food supply. Since cold temperatures affect food availability, birds will migrate away.

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Migration is very common for birds. There are 650 species of breeding birds in North America. Over half of them are migratory. In the wider world, almost half of all bird species migrate.

There are a few woodpeckers that fall into this category. But, like their mating habits, the migratory behaviors of woodpeckers vary between species. 

In Minnesota alone, there are nine species of woodpeckers that only migrate short distances. That’s if they migrate at all.

Red-headed woodpeckers are “partial migrant” birds, as well as short-distance migrants.

Not all of their population migrates. When they do, they don’t go very far, and they don’t always go south.

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Their migration depends on the crops of acorn and beech nuts. Red-headed woodpeckers more meandering than following a genetic impulse to a specific area.

The northern flicker does move further south in the winter.

However, it never leaves North America like long-distance migrants. Some flickers will even overwinter in the north instead of moving to warmer areas.

The pileated, downy, hairy, red-bellied, black-backed, and American three-toed woodpeckers are the remaining species.

These woodpeckers tend to stay in the same area year-round. If they do travel, it’s only a short distance to find better food sources.

What Determines If A Woodpecker Will Migrate?

Food is a major motivation for migration, but it’s not the only reason. Nesting availability is also a factor in whether a woodpecker will fly south for the winter.

If nesting material is dead or frozen over, a woodpecker will need to fly where it’s still available. This often means finding warmer climates.

In general, though, migration is about energy.

Food is energy, of course, but birds also have to factor in the energy it takes to get the food. This also goes for their other necessary survival activities.

Migration takes a lot of energy, and there are a lot of potential hazards. Depending on how far the bird travels, the physical distance of the trip takes its toll.

Long-distance or medium-distance migratory birds may struggle to find food along their way. They also have to fly through bad weather and look out for predators while they’re out in the open.

Many woodpeckers are able to find adequate food and shelter in their usual home area, or at least close by. So, there’s no need for them to migrate very far, if at all.

What Supplies Do Woodpeckers Need For The Winter?

Two of the major factors in migration are food and shelter. Many woodpeckers don’t fly south for the winter, or only go a short distance.

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Since that’s the case, what resources do woodpeckers have that gets them through the cold months?

Woodpecker Diet

As their name suggests, woodpeckers spend a lot of time drilling or drumming on trees. Although they’re not eating the wood, it does have to do with food gathering.

Woodpeckers are omnivores, which means they eat both plant and animal matter. Much of their protein comes from insects and larvae.

Some of these insects overwinter in a larval stage inside of trees.

This is perfect for species like the pileated woodpecker, for example. They can excavate deep into trees during the winter to find insects.

A small number of woodpeckers store food to help them get by during colder months. This also helps them avoid migration.

Red-headed woodpeckers are one of the four species in the world that hide food for the winter.

First, they’ll stock acorns and other nuts in one place, similar to a larder. Then, they’ll return to the larder and hide them in several different locations.

This relocation stops competing animals from compromising the woodpecker’s whole food stash.

Nesting Materials

The stereotypical image of a bird’s nest is a round bundle of twigs and leaves. However, there are a multitude of different bird nests, each one dependent on the species.

Woodpeckers often use cavity nests. These are small holes or chambers in trees that the birds hollow out themselves.

There are two types of cavity nesters: primary and secondary. Primary nesters make their own hollows.

Secondary nesters make their homes in cavities that already exist. They often take over empty cavities after the primary nesters leave.

Woodpeckers are primary cavity nesters. They have short, powerful beaks to help them excavate the hard bark of trees.

These cavities help them stay warm and protect them from bad weather. Secondary cavity nesters may find it hard to shelter in the winter if there are no empty cavities.

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Woodpeckers can make their own shelters and can do so using just a dead tree if necessary. This makes it easier for them to stay in one place instead of needing to fly south.


Woodpeckers in general do not fly south for the winter. At most, they may travel a little way south, and mostly for food. Some migrate due to the success or failure of various nut crops rather than temperature.

Woodpeckers have advantages over other migratory birds in cold weather.

Woodpeckers can use their pecking skills to find food. They’re omnivores, so they can eat insects to survive.

Throughout the year, they can drill into trees and find insects and their larva.

This is a helpful skill during the winter. They can still find overwintering insects to eat even when the vegetation is dead. They can also build cavity nests by drilling into the bark of trees, even dead ones.

These cavity nests keep them warm and protect them from bad weather and predators.

The energy it takes to migrate is not worth the effort for many species of woodpeckers. They’re capable of surviving the whole year in the same place, regardless of temperature.

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James Goodman

James is a native Texan with a love for birding and outdoor adventures. When he's not birdwatching, you can find him hiking, camping or playing the piano.

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