woodpecker looking for insects

What Do Woodpeckers Eat? Discover Their Fascinating Diet Secrets

So, what do woodpeckers eat? Woodpeckers are fascinating birds known for their unique ability to peck into tree trunks in search of food. Their diet consists of a diverse array of insects, nuts, berries, and fruits, and they have even been observed sipping nectar and tree sap during warmer weather.

Woodpeckers are adaptable birds that manage to thrive across various habitats by utilizing different food sources depending on the season and availability. In this article, we will delve into the specific foods that woodpeckers enjoy, how their feeding habits change with the seasons, and what you can offer these magnificent birds at your backyard feeder.

By understanding and providing the right foods, you can attract and support a healthy population of woodpeckers in your area while also enjoying their captivating presence in your garden.

A Few Types of Woodpeckers – What Do Woodpeckers Eat?

Woodpeckers are a remarkable avian species, famed for their adeptness at finding sustenance beneath tree bark. But did you know there is a great variety of woodpecker types with wide-ranging diets? Dive into the wonderful world of these birds and explore their diverse dining preferences!

woodpecker looking for insects

Red-Bellied Woodpeckers

These omnivorous birds are quite versatile in their diet, consuming a wide variety of insects, seeds, nuts, fruits, berries, and tree sap. According to the National Wildlife Federation, they sometimes eat small fish, tree frogs, and insects, including grasshoppers, caterpillars, ants, flies, and beetle larvae.

A Red-bellied’s diverse diet allows them to adapt to different environments easily. The Red-bellied ability to be so adaptable is why they are one of the most common woodpeckers in NY, year in and year out.

Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers

As their name suggests, these woodpeckers are known for their affinity towards tree sap. However, they also consume other food sources like insects, fruits, and seeds. They’ll feast on carpenter ants, which can help keep their populations in check.

After they bore a hole and let the sap run down, they use their brush-like tongue to scoop it up. Not only that but then insects begin to flock to the sap, turning a sapsucker’s “dining table” into a veritable feast.

close up of sap dripping down a tree that woodpeckers eat

Downy Woodpeckers

Falling on the smaller side of the spectrum, Downy Woodpeckers feed mainly on insects and spiders. They will also eat fruits, berries, nuts, and tree sap.

Since they are so widespread in North America, you’ll often see them foraging in trees, lawns, and gardens, making them a common sight at backyard feeders. Here’s more: Downy woodpecker – interesting facts! This interesting mix of diet preferences allows these birds to thrive in a variety of habitats.

Other Woodpecker Species

In addition to Red-Bellied Woodpeckers, Downy, and Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers, there are several other species of woodpeckers that have unique dietary preferences. Some enjoy acorns, emerald ash borers, termites, ants, tree sap, pecans, corn, mice, small lizards, other birds, bird eggs, crickets, beetles, oranges, grapes, apples, suet, peanuts, sunflower seeds.

A woodpecker’s varied diets are key to its ability to thrive and adapt to different environments.

Pine Tree Farms 9001 Tree Icing Suet Spread, 1.75-Pound
  • Contains rendered beef suet, peanut butter
  • A mix of seed and peanut butter to attract a variety of birds
  • Not for human consumption
  • This product comes in 1-3/4-pound

FAQ (What Do Woodpeckers Eat?)

What kind of nuts do Woodpeckers eat?

Woodpeckers eat peanuts, hazelnuts, almonds, and many other nuts. These birds also love tree nuts and beechnuts. If you are trying to attract woodpeckers, peanuts may do the trick, however, it’s not healthy for them to eat a diet of only peanuts. Variety is key!

What time of day do Woodpeckers feed?

Like other diurnal birds, Woodpeckers typically feed during the morning and afternoon hours. Are woodpeckers nocturnal? No, they feed during the daytime hours.

Dietary Preferences

Insects and Larvae

Woodpeckers primarily feed on insects and their larvae, including ants, beetles, roaches, and wood-boring beetle larvae, which they hunt for by chipping away at tree bark or digging beneath it to expose insects.

Fruits and Nuts

Woodpeckers eat berries
Woodpeckers eat berries

During seasons when insects are less abundant or difficult to find, woodpeckers will shift their diet to fruits and nuts, such as grapes, oranges, apples, and tree nuts.

Seeds and Sap

In addition to insects, fruits, and nuts, woodpeckers also supplement their diet with seeds, like sunflower seeds and tree sap which they extract from trees directly or consume at feeders. In the summertime, woodpeckers are known to drink nectar and tree sap to stay hydrated and protect themselves from the heat.

Occasional Animal Diet

Although woodpeckers mainly consume plant-based food and insects, some species are opportunistic feeders and may occasionally eat other animals, such as small birds’ eggs if they are hungry enough. Did you know that the red-bellied woodpecker may eat the skull and brains of other birds? Read more here.

FAQ on Woodpecker Dietary Preferences

What can I offer woodpeckers at feeders?

Popular foods for woodpeckers at feeders include suet, fruit, sunflower seeds, peanuts, peanut butter or peanut butter blends, mealworms, and nectar.

attract woodpeckers with a bird feeder

Can I use regular peanut butter for woodpeckers?

Yes, any regular brand of unsalted peanut butter will work.

Foraging Techniques

Drumming and Excavating

Woodpeckers are known for their unique foraging techniques, such as drumming and excavating. Drumming involves rapidly pecking at tree trunks and branches to create a loud, resonating sound.

The boring of holes and drumming helps them to locate insects living under the bark and serves as a form of communication between woodpeckers. Once they locate a food source, they use their strong beaks and extendable, barbed tongues to excavate and extract their prey.

Excavating, on the other hand, involves creating holes in tree trunks, branches, or even wooden structures to access insect larvae or other hidden food sources. This technique can cause damage to trees, but it also provides valuable help in controlling insect populations that can be harmful to the trees.


Gleaning is another foraging technique used by woodpeckers, where they pick insects and other small prey items from the surface of tree bark, leaves, or branches. Through this method, woodpeckers feed on a variety of insects, such as beetles, ants, and spiders.

Different woodpecker species have their preferences, but they all play an essential role in controlling insect populations and maintaining the health of their habitats.

Seasonal Diet Variations

Woodpeckers’ diets change according to the seasons, as food sources vary throughout the year. In this section, we will explore the seasonal diet variations of different woodpecker species.

Pine Tree Farms 9001 Tree Icing Suet Spread, 1.75-Pound
  • Contains rendered beef suet, peanut butter
  • A mix of seed and peanut butter to attract a variety of birds
  • Not for human consumption
  • This product comes in 1-3/4-pound

Downy Woodpecker

In the summer months, Downy Woodpeckers mainly feed on insects and larvae, while in winter, they switch to seeds, nuts, berries, and fruits. The Downy is also known to sip nectar and tree sap during the warmest weather.

Hairy Woodpecker

The diet of Hairy Woodpeckers is similar to that of the Downy, but they often go after larger insects and different food sources. Like Downies, they eat insects in the summer and consume seeds and fruits during the winter months.

Red-Headed Woodpecker

Red-Headed Woodpeckers have a more varied diet, which includes insects, fruits, seeds, nuts, and even the eggs of other birds. They’ll adjust their diet according to the availability of these food sources.

Pileated Woodpecker

As the largest woodpecker in North America, the Pileated Woodpecker has a powerful bill that can easily chip away at the bark to hunt for insects. They primarily consume ants, beetles, and wood-boring larvae but will also feed on fruit, nuts, and berries when insects are less abundant.

Frequently Asked Questions Seasonal Diets in Woodpeckers

Q: What do woodpeckers eat in the winter?

A: During the winter months, when the insect population declines, woodpeckers tend to eat seeds, nuts, berries, and various fruits.

Q: How do woodpeckers find insects under the bark?

A: Woodpeckers use their strong bills to chip away at bark or dig beneath it, exposing hidden insects. Their barbed, wet, and sticky tongues help them catch the prey and pull it into their mouths.

Q: Can woodpeckers sip nectar like hummingbirds?

A: Yes, some woodpecker species, particularly during the summer months, will sip nectar and tree sap to stay hydrated and nourished. Although they do not have long thin beaks like hummingbirds, so if they sip nectar, they will brush it up with their specialized long thin tongue.

Woodpecker Adaptations for Eating

Woodpeckers have developed unique adaptations that enable them to find and consume various types of food efficiently. Let’s explore these adaptations in detail.

Beak Structure

The beak of a woodpecker is ideally structured for breaking through tree bark and accessing insects hiding underneath. Composed of a strong, chisel-like tip, the beak allows woodpeckers to chip away at wood and expose insects for consumption efficiently.

Furthermore, a woodpecker’s beak structure is vital for the diet of woodpeckers, as it enables them to access food sources that other birds may have difficulty reaching.

Tongue and Muscles

Woodpeckers have specialized tongues designed for extracting insects from trees. These tongues are both long and flexible, allowing the bird to reach into small crevices and holes in tree bark. In addition, their tongues are equipped with barbs and sticky saliva, which help them effectively capture and remove insects from their hiding spots.

The muscles supporting the tongue are also unique to woodpeckers. A specialized structure called the hyoid apparatus is responsible for these adaptations, providing support and strength to the tongue and playing a crucial role in extracting hard-to-reach food sources.

Head and Neck

Another remarkable adaptation of woodpeckers is the construction of their head and neck. These birds possess strong neck muscles that enable them to deliver powerful blows to tree bark, breaking it apart to expose hidden insects.

Furthermore, woodpeckers also have specialized skull structures and strong tendons connecting their beak to their skull to absorb the shock from repeated pecking.

Lastly, woodpeckers have an advanced blood circulation system within their head, which prevents damage to their brain due to high pressure from their pecking activity.

Woodpecker Species and Their Diets

The diets of various woodpecker species can differ, or they may prefer specific types of food. Let’s examine the food preferences of a few notable species:

Downy Woodpecker

The Downy Woodpecker primarily feeds on insects such as beetles, ants, and caterpillars, but it also enjoys fruit, seeds, and acorns.

Red-headed Woodpecker

Red-headed Woodpeckers have a diverse diet, consuming insects, nuts, seeds, berries, and even small mammals and other birds’ eggs.

Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpeckers focus on feeding on insects such as carpenter ants and wood-boring beetle larvae. They also enjoy fruits, nuts, and berries.

More FAQs on the Topic What Do Woodpeckers Eat?

Can I feed my backyard woodpeckers?

Yes, you can offer a variety of foods such as suet, fruit, sunflower seeds, bark butter, peanuts, and mealworms to attract and nourish local woodpeckers.

What do woodpeckers eat_ Bird feeders attract them

Pine Tree Farms 9001 Tree Icing Suet Spread, 1.75-Pound
  • Contains rendered beef suet, peanut butter
  • A mix of seed and peanut butter to attract a variety of birds
  • Not for human consumption
  • This product comes in 1-3/4-pound

Do woodpeckers only eat insects?

While insects make up a significant part of their diet, woodpeckers also consume fruit, nuts, seeds, and sap from trees, depending on the species.

Do Woodpeckers Eat Wood?

One might wonder if woodpeckers, being named after their wood-pecking behavior, actually consume wood as a part of their diet. Despite their name, woodpeckers do not eat wood.

More importantly, a woodpecker’s primary purpose for pecking wood is to search for insects living inside it, and for drumming. However, it does not consume the wood itself. Their diet mainly consists of insects and their larvae, as well as nuts, seeds, and berries.

Woodpeckers have strong beaks that allow them to bore into the wood, revealing hidden insects and their larvae. Various species of woodpeckers have different dietary preferences, so let’s dive a little deeper into a few species and find out what exactly they eat.

How to Attract Pileated Woodpeckers?

Pileated Woodpeckers are fascinating birds, and attracting them to your yard involves a few simple steps. Providing the right food sources, habitat, and nesting spaces is crucial in luring these birds to visit your area.

One effective way to attract Pileated Woodpeckers is by offering food they enjoy. Bark butter, spreadable suet, is popular among these birds and can be smeared on tree bark or a bark butter feeder.

Pine Tree Farms 9001 Tree Icing Suet Spread, 1.75-Pound
  • Contains rendered beef suet, peanut butter
  • A mix of seed and peanut butter to attract a variety of birds
  • Not for human consumption
  • This product comes in 1-3/4-pound

Preserving Dead Trees and Planting Fruit-Bearing Trees and Shrubs

Leaving dead, dying, or fallen trees intact is essential for attracting Pileated Woodpeckers. They rely on these trees for food and nesting. If it is safe to do so, preserve dead or downed trees on your property to increase your chances of attracting these enigmatic birds.

Additionally, consider planting fruit-bearing trees and shrubs like wild grape and Virginia creeper, which provide nourishment for the woodpeckers in the fall and winter months.

Providing Water and Nesting Boxes

All birds need water to drink and bathe in, including Pileated Woodpeckers. Consider installing a bird bath or small pond in your yard to meet their hydration needs. This simple addition will attract not only woodpeckers but also a variety of other wild birds.

Moreover, hanging a nesting box specifically designed for Pileated Woodpeckers can provide them with the proper shelter, encouraging them to settle in your yard.

How to Feed Woodpeckers?

Feeding woodpeckers can be a rewarding experience that helps with their survival and enhances backyard birdwatching. By providing the right food types, you will be able to attract various woodpecker species.

Using a variety of bird feeders is essential to ensure woodpeckers can find their preferred food sources easily. Let’s take a look at some popular foods to offer woodpeckers.


Suet is a favorite among woodpeckers, particularly during colder months when insects are less abundant. Nut, insect, or fruit blends are the most appealing types. Ensure the suet is fresh and not spoiled, as rancid suet can be harmful to birds.


Woodpeckers enjoy various fruits, such as oranges, grapes, and apples. Fresh or dried fruit pieces can be placed in platform feeders to attract woodpeckers searching for a sweet treat.

Seeds and Nuts

Seeds like sunflower seeds and nuts like peanuts can be offered to woodpeckers. Whole or hulled seeds, as well as whole or shelled peanuts, are all suitable. A peanut butter mixture can be smeared directly onto tree trunks or a log feeder, which woodpeckers will readily enjoy. Keep in mind to avoid low-fat peanut butter when feeding woodpeckers.


Woodpeckers are predominantly insectivorous, so live or dried mealworms are a great food option. These can be placed in platforms, tray, or mesh feeders, allowing woodpeckers to access their protein-rich food source easily.

Tree Sap and Nectar

During the summer, woodpeckers may sip tree sap or nectar from bird feeders. Offering nectar in oriole or hummingbird feeders will help woodpeckers stay hydrated and cool in warmer weather.

FAQs on What Do Woodpeckers Eat?

Do woodpeckers eat live insects?

Yes, woodpeckers primarily feed on bugs, such as ants, caterpillars, spiders, termites, beetles, and their larvae. They also hunt for insects hidden beneath tree bark.

Can woodpeckers drink nectar?

Yes, woodpeckers may drink nectar, especially during summer months to stay hydrated and cool. However, they do not sip nectar in the same way as hummingbirds do; they have their own technique, which utilizes their tongue.

Which fruits do woodpeckers like?

Woodpeckers enjoy various fruits, including berries, oranges, mulberries, grapes, and apples. The fruits will depend on the region.

What Do Baby Woodpeckers Eat?

Baby woodpeckers primarily rely on their parents to provide them with food. Just like adult woodpeckers, their diet mainly consists of insects, with some differences depending on the specific species of woodpecker.

Regurgitated Insects

In general, baby woodpeckers eat regurgitated insects that their parents bring to the nest. This includes a variety of insects such as ants, beetles, caterpillars, and more. These insects provide essential nutrients that help baby woodpeckers grow and develop.

Specific Food Preferences by Species

Though baby woodpeckers generally have similar diets, there may be slight differences in the preferences of specific species:

  • Downy Woodpeckers: Primarily feed on insects and arachnids, such as spiders, for their protein needs.
  • Hairy Woodpeckers: Prefers larger insects like beetles and grubs, and they drill into tree bark to find them.
  • Red-bellied Woodpeckers: Typically consumes insects like ants and beetles but may also eat berries or seeds.

As baby woodpeckers grow and familiarize themselves with their natural habitat, their diets may gradually shift to accommodate more of the food sources available in their local ecosystem.

FAQs about Baby Woodpecker Feeding

What can I do if I find a baby woodpecker?

If you find a baby woodpecker, it’s best to leave it where it is or contact a professional wildlife rehabilitator, as the parents are likely nearby and still providing for the chick.

Should I feed baby woodpeckers in my backyard?

It’s best to let baby woodpeckers learn to find food on their own; however, providing a natural habitat with access to insects, berries, and seeds will benefit the whole woodpecker family.

How long does it take for baby woodpeckers to become independent?

Baby woodpeckers generally become independent after about a month, as they learn to fly and forage for food on their own.

Final Thoughts for What Do Woodpeckers Eat?

Woodpeckers are fascinating birds that play an important role in the ecosystem, and it’s important to understand their dietary needs. From regurgitated insects for baby woodpeckers to live insects, fruits, seeds, and nectar for adults, there is a variety of food sources available to keep these beautiful creatures healthy.

If you find yourself with a backyard woodpecker or even if you just want to learn more about them, understanding what they eat is imperative. Studying what they eat can help make sure they get all the nutrients they need while also helping protect wild populations from overfeeding or other human-related disturbances.

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