Bird Watcher's Digest: Home Bird Watcher's Digest Magazine Watching Backyard Birds Newsletter The Bird Watcher's Digest App Bird Watcher's Digest Nature Shop

Feeding Woodpeckers

Feeding woodpeckers: which species to expect at your feeders.

Excerpted from the new book Feeding and Identifying Backyard Birds by Bill Thompson, III

At backyard feeding stations, woodpeckers may be among the most consistent patrons. The majority of our 23 North American woodpecker species (or 22 if you've given up hope for the ongoing existence of the ivory-billed woodpecker) will visit feeding stations at least occasionally.

Using their chisel-like bills, woodpeckers make quick work of suet or suet cakes, but they will also eat sunflower seeds and hearts, peanuts, peanut butter, cracked corn and fruit. Some woodpeckers—especially redbellies, gilas, and golden-fronteds will visit hummingbird feeders to drink nectar.

The woodpecker species that are our most common feeder visitors are the widespread downy and hairy woodpeckers. These two, relatively small woodpeckers, are found in a variety of habitats from deep woodland and suburban backyards to urban parks. Both will join mixed-species feeding flocks in winter, roaming about with chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, kinglets and others in search of food. When these flocks find a reliable source of food, such as a feeding station, it becomes a stop on their daily foraging route. In the Southwest, the closely related ladder-backed woodpecker is a fairly common visitor at bird feeders.

Red-bellied woodpeckers are feeder regulars throughout the eastern half of the United States and parts of southernmost Canada. They especially prefer cracked corn, suet, suet dough, and peanuts. In summer they can be attracted to orange halves impaled in tree branch stubs.

Among the widespread woodpeckers that are less common at feeding stations are the northern flicker, and the red-headed and pileated woodpeckers. Flickers do much of their foraging in an un-woodpecker-like way: they eat ants on the ground, poking their bill and long, sticky tongues into ant hills to extract their food. Both red-headeds and pileated are more likely to be attracted to your trees than to your feeders, but some lucky backyard birders get pileateds to visit their large suet feeders, while others get red-headeds to come in to cracked corn, ears of field corn, or to peanuts offered on platform feeders.

Both red-headed woodpeckers and northern flickers are facultative migrants. This means they will migrate southward in winter to find food and to avoid harsh weather. This seasonal movement probably also contributes to their inconsistency as feeder visitors. Our more steadfast woodpecker patrons are non-migratory or resident species.

In the West we have a great variety of woodpeckers with ranges largely dictated by their habitat preferences. Within their somewhat constricted distribution many of these species will visit feeding stations, though they are more likely to visit a yard if their preferred tree species and foods make the habitat sufficiently appealing. Traveling in the West, I always get a thrill watching acorn and Lewis' woodpeckers because they seem so much more colorful and animated than our eastern woodpeckers.

I should not neglect our four sapsucker species: red-naped, red-breasted, yellow-bellied, and Williamson's sapsuckers. These birds lap up, rather than suck, sap, using their short, bristle-ended tongues. To get this sap, sapsuckers drill small holes through the outer bark of certain tree species, causing the trees to emit protective sap. This sap contains sugar. The sapsuckers lick up the sap and also any insects attracted to it. Interestingly, other species of birds and animals will visit sapsucker sap wells, including several species of hummingbirds, warblers, other woodpeckers, and even squirrels and butterflies.

Of our four sapsucker species, only the yellow-bellied sapsucker seems to be a regular feeder visitor. But even the yellow-bellieds will first be attracted to your yard by the presence of sap-rich trees such as fruit trees, pines, maples, and birches, among others.

Many backyard feeder operators find themselves purchasing specialized feeders for certain birds, and the woodpeckers are well represented in this trend. Thanks to their superior ability to cling while feeding, woodpeckers can use suet feeders that limit access to the underside of a feeder. These feeders are primarily used to foil hungry European starlings. There are also hanging suet and peanut feeders designed with extensions so that woodpeckers can use their stiff-feathered tails, which are specially adapted to support the birds as they cling and hitch up vertical tree branches.

It is especially gratifying on a cold winter day, to watch our familiar woodpecker friends chisel off a piece of suet or a peanut kernel from the feeder, then swoop away in their undulating flight to consume the food bit on a nearby tree.

Excerpted from the new book Feeding and Identifying Backyard Birds by Bill Thompson, III. Order your copy today >>