What a variety of woodpeckers there are — twenty three species are found in various parts of the U.S.! Woodpeckers are considered a “core” species and are important to other birds, such as chickadees, titmice and other birds that use old woodpecker cavities for nesting sites.
Unfortunately, the dead trees that woodpeckers require for nesting are continuously being removed in suburban areas and for development. If you are a landowner, keeping dead trees standing can help woodpeckers significantly and also the other birds that depend on their abandoned nesting holes.
Woodpeckers, sapsuckers and flickers all share similar traits: a sharp bill to excavate nesting cavities in trees, to drill for insects and to drum against trees (or buildings!) to declare their territories and attract mates. And they have stiff tail feathers they use to support their bodies as they cling vertically to trees with sharp claws. Depending on the specific bird, they will have at least one toe pointing backwards, most often two. Woodpeckers have extremely long tongues to reach insects deep in the crevices of tree bark and feathers over their nostrils to keep out wood particles as they excavate nesting holes.
Here are some fun facts about a few interesting woodpeckers:
Acorn Woodpeckers of the west and southwest have an interesting habit of drilling holes in trees to store acorns in them for winter use. And colonies will use the same “storage tree,” called a granary, year after year. One tree could have as many as 50,000 holes, which are filled each autumn. Look for a granary in a telephone pole!
The flashy Red-headed Woodpecker is an aggressive bird that stores its food and is the only woodpecker that covers its cache with wood or bark. They’ll even store live grasshoppers and wedge them into crevices so tightly they can’t escape.
The cute little Downy Woodpecker is found all over the U.S. and is our smallest woodpecker. The male has a red patch on the back of his head. They’re a social little bird and they’re frequently found in the company of chickadees, nuthatches and other birds. Downys feed on the smaller insects that larger woodpeckers can’t access — such as fly larvae in goldenrod stems.
Gila Woodpeckers of the southwest excavate cavities in mesquite trees or saguaro cactus. The cavities are left to dry out inside before they are used for nesting. After the woodpeckers are done using the cavities, other birds will occupy them, such as the tiny Elf Owl.
And how about the amazing Pileated Woodpecker? Our largest woodpecker, their sheer size alone makes them the kings and queens of the woodpecker world. Have you ever heard one drumming?
So, how can you attract interesting woodpeckers to your yard? Woodpeckers seem most attracted to suet, and they also like peanuts and peanut bits or any seed mix with lots of “tree nuts” such as almonds, pecans, pistachios and walnuts. Feed peanut and fruit flavored suet cakes in a basket feeder, or in a “tail prop” feeder. Tail props allow woodpeckers to feed comfortably, using their tails for support and balance — just like they do on trees. Peanuts can be offered in special peanut feeders or on a platform feeder. Keep in mind that woodpeckers are big birds that like to cling. They’re uncomfortable on small tube feeders. Any feeder that allows them to cling to feed would be a good choice. Have fun enjoying woodpeckers!
— R. Brune