Why do Woodpeckers Peck?

Pileated Woodpecker

Woodpeckers are successful creatures, well known to everyone. Perhaps the most famous woodpecker besides Woody, the cartoon woodpecker, is the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, very likely extinct since 1948, the last verified sighting of it.

There are many kinds of woodpeckers in the world. Propped against the side of a tree trunk, they rapidly hammer against the bark. Why and how do they do that?

This pecking behavior serves three purposes. The birds uncover and eat adult insects, their eggs and larvae, and other invertebrates living in or under the bark and in the wood of the tree. The birds also drill holes in dead or dying trees in which to nest. These cavities are not only important for the woodpeckers, but also for the several species that use these cavities themselves for nesting but can’t make their own: nuthatches, creepers, wrens, bluebirds, some swallows and flycatchers, and even small owls. The third reason for hammering is for communication. Woodpeckers declare their territories and seek mates by what is called “drumming”. This is why you might see a flicker pounding on a metal power pole or your house siding – to make the loudest sound he can, not to look for food or drill a hole, but to make a statement.

How do woodpeckers hold vertically onto a tree and avoid banging themselves silly?  Unlike most birds which have three forward toes and one hind toe, woodpeckers have two toes in front and two in back. This toe arrangement, along with stiffened tail feathers, allows the birds to lean back and pound away. A special muscle and tendon mechanism at the back of the jaw acts as a shock absorber. The skull is a bony matrix – think of a sponge – with lots of criss-crossing pieces of bones and lots of spaces. Like a sponge, the skull can compress and expand so it can actually withstand 1200 g’s of force  – that’s 1200 times the force of gravity!

An adaptation unique to woodpeckers is their tongue arrangement. The tongue, consisting of nine long thin bones in the shape of a Y and covered by muscle, extends from the floor of the mouth along the inner jaw to the back of the head and then wraps over the top of the skull to the level of the nostrils. This very long tongue supported by bone allows the birds to extend it deep into tree crevices to search for food.

Well, if all that were not enough, woodpeckers have modified feathers called bristles that extend over the top of their nostrils so that they don’t inhale any wood chips while they are pecking away.

As adaptable as they are, it’s no wonder that some woodpecker species migrate and these birds are found all over the world except Antarctica, Australia, New Zealand, New Guinea, and Madagascar.As adaptable as they are, it’s no wonder that woodpeckers are found all over the world except Antarctica, Australia, New Zealand, New Guinea, and Madagascar.

40 thoughts on “Why do Woodpeckers Peck?”

    1. They may simply be drumming – making sounds to declare their territory, or drilling for sap, so it doesn’t matter where they drill. Or they may see insect damage to the tree which indicates insects in the region.

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  2. , I understood that hairy and Downy woodpeckers woodpec and girdle a tree a small tree with holes in a to attract insects this would be done in a live tree am I correct

    1. Woodpeckers, especially sapsuckers, often make small holes in tree trunks or branches to both eat the sap and attract insects. They in no way girdle the tree. Girdling means removing a wide strip of bar all the way around the tree. This interrupts circulation in the tree and kills it. Woodpeckers typically cause only minor injury that the tree can easily handle.

    1. The bugs may or may not hear the woodpecker, but the”bugs” are usually immature forms like larvae or are adults buried in the crevices of a tree trunk. In other words, they don’t move very fast. So hearing a woodpecker pecking is probably not useful to the insecta in terms of avoiding being eaten.

  3. William E Harris

    Are there any other reasons why woodpeckers do not continuously Peck other than eating and possibly communication?

  4. Is there any validity to the idea that woodpeckers in tapping wood listen for resonance to suggest hollowed areas that my contain insects beneath the surface?

    1. Yes. Woodpeckers will tap against a tree several times and then listen for the sound of insects in the tree bark. If it hears movement, it will drill into the tree or reach into a crevice with its long tongue. If the woodpecker doesn’t hear anything, it will move up the tree a bit and then tap a few more times, listening for insects as it goes, until it finds a tasty morsel.

  5. I have just seen a black white and red woodpecker pecking on a bird box where there are bluetits nesting, all seems ok now as parents continue to come and go. Could it be the woodpecker was after the fledglings?

  6. Wasn’t the Ivory-billed sighted in Arkansas in 2005? Was that sighting a hoax or misidentification?

    1. Patricia Friedrich

      For the past two years we have had a woodpecker making holes in the stucco along ridge line of our six story building. How do we stop it and prevent future holes?

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  9. Woodpeckers may fear certain ground-based predators (i.e., cats, snakes, coyotes,, etc.)

    In any case, how close to the ground will a woodpecker stop pecking (whether at a building wall or at a tree)?

  10. Is it possible that woodpeckers actually turn their head and press it against a tree or telephone pole to listen for insect activity? Someone just posted a photo on Facebook of a red-bellied woodpecker supposedly doing just that. If that is true, it’s a behavior I’ve never seen (would love to see!) and it would be a great photo! Thank you.

    1. Well, that’s what a lot of people say and it makes some sense, but I was not able to find any scientific evidence that supports the idea of woodpeckers listening for insects under the bark. But it seems a likely explanation.

      1. Thank you for the quick response. Perhaps this photographer captured the image of just that. People have suggested that he enter the photo into a photo contest. It’s a great photo.

  11. Woodpeckers are doing a lot of pecking on our maple tree that is covering the patio on the south side of our home, and it looks terrible. We understand that they are pecking for insects and etc, but we don’t want to lose our mature tree, we want to rid the tree of insects while not harming the woodpeckers, any help with this problem would be appreciated. Thank You

  12. We observe acorn woodpeckers pecking each other’s head. The peckee doesn’t seem to mind too much. It seems to take a full three minutes of pecking before the peckee moves away. Is this a part of mating? Seems unlikely because it is now the beginning of July. Thanks for a great website.

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  16. George J Cleppe

    I’m in Iowa and this morning I saw a red headed woodpecker taking something from my squirrel feeder which has corn, sunflower seed and peanuts on it. They would pick something up and go up the tree and peck above a knot in the tree. And repeat this a number of time. Are they burying what ever they pickup into the bark? It looked like the same spot all the time.

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