Do Woodpeckers Mate For Life? [Explained]


Mating for life is a rare habit among bird species. However, there are some birds who will keep the same partner year after year.

Even if most birds have multiple partners throughout their life, they rarely have more than one at the same time. The term for this practice is “monogamy.”

There’s a difference between monogamy and mating for life. A bird might exhibit both behaviors, and they might only exhibit one. So where do woodpeckers fall on this spectrum? 

Most woodpeckers do not mate for life. However, it is typical for them to only have one partner per breeding season. There are a few species of woodpeckers that mate for life, but they are the minority among not only woodpeckers, but all birds as well.

Most Woodpeckers Have One Mate Each Season

The IOC, or International Ornithological Committee, recognizes 239 species of woodpeckers. As with most large animal families, there are variations between each member.

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On the whole, though, woodpeckers have similar mating habits across the board.

Of the five most common woodpeckers in North America, only one mates for life. This is the northern flicker, which has one brood per year of about five to eight eggs.

The lifespan of a northern flicker is only a few years. The longest lifespan on record is nine years.

Though other four common North American woodpeckers don’t mate for life, they do only have one mate per breeding season.

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But there is no genetic drive that guarantees these woodpeckers will choose the same mate each year.

In fact, the yellow-bellied sapsucker may have more investment in a particular breeding area than the mate itself.

Even so, these woodpeckers, along with the hairy woodpecker, are very likely to choose the same mate over the years.

The remaining two common species are the red-bellied and the downy woodpecker. These two species don’t show as strong an inclination to remain together as the others.

They will sometimes choose the same mates, but the research is not as firm about their monogamy.

Mating Rituals Of Some Woodpeckers

The name “woodpecker” is as literal as it sounds.

These birds are famous for their loud drumming or drilling into trees with their beaks.

Their short legs, backwards toes with sharp claws, and stiff feathers help them hold on to a surface while pecking.

Woodpeckers drill into wood in order to find food. They have very sharp, short beaks to penetrate the wood, and long tongues.

Their tongues let them reach into the holes they make and dislodge insects for food.

Woodpeckers also peck wood to communicate with other woodpeckers and to nest. Finally, they use their drumming technique to attract a mate.

When finding a mate, woodpeckers tend to drum into dead tree limbs or trunks because they’re not looking for food. They may also use buildings and utility poles.

Woodpeckers may use particular calls in addition to drumming. The red-bellied woodpeckers use a “kwirr” call.

Woodpeckers Share Parental Responsibilities

Once they find a potential mate, some woodpeckers use “mutual tapping” to select a nesting site.

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One woodpecker gently taps a nesting site from the inside. The other will tap back from the outside.

Coparenting is common among woodpecker species. The females sit on the eggs during the day, while the male incubates them at night.

Both parents are responsible for feeding their young as well. Woodpecker nestlings hatch between 11-18 days after the mother lays the eggs.

Nestlings May Have To Leave The Nest Quickly

After a month or so, the baby woodpeckers can leave their nests. Depending on the species, some woodpeckers must immediately find their own homes.

The red-headed woodpecker chases away their young after a few weeks. Acorn woodpeckers, on the other hand, can stay for years, helping their parents raise more young.

Mating For Life Is Uncommon Among Birds

Woodpeckers are not alone in their seasonal mating. Of all the bird species in the world, about 90% do not mate for life.

They may only have one mate at a time, but those mates can change from season to season.

Only Certain Birds Mate For Life

Only certain birds mate for life. These include ospreys, barn owls, swans and geese, and golden and white-tailed eagles.

One reason birds may mate for life is due to their development cycles. Larger birds will only lay one brook per year. These chicks also take longer to grow due to their size.

If large birds don’t need to find a new partner each year, they begin to mate early in the season. This gives them more time to raise their young so they’re ready to begin mating again as soon they can.

Large birds also want to stick together so they don’t waste their energy on other tasks.

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The bigger the bird, the harder it is to migrate. They prefer to save their energy for that instead of a new partner.

Lastly, it’s a matter of numbers. The more broods a bird can have, the better it is for their skills and their genes. They’ll get better at parenting faster, leading to more successful broods.

The more successful broods they have, the longer and stronger their genetic legacy becomes.

In Summary

In general, woodpeckers do not mate for life, with the exception of a small number of species. They find it more advantageous to have multiple partners over the course of their life than to stick to one.

This doesn’t mean that woodpeckers always find new partners every season. But they are far more likely to switch partners after a few years than not.

Even still, most woodpeckers will only have one partner at a time. The majority of all bird species exhibit this behavior, not just woodpeckers.

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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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