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What is a Woodpecker?

Mary Elizabeth
Updated May 21, 2024
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Woodpeckers are a type of bird, members of the order Piciformes and of the family Picidae. Closely related families include the honeyguides, barbets, and toucans. There are 28 or 29 genera in the order and 215 species. Members of the woodpecker order often have woodpecker in their names, but may also be called flickers, wrynecks, piculets, and sapsuckers.

Woodpeckers are a variety of sizes, including small, medium, and large. The smallest of the woodpeckers is Picumnus aurifrons, the Bar-breasted Piculet, live in South America. They weigh .25 oz (7 gm) and are 3.2 in (8.13 cm) long. Campephilus imperialis, the Imperial Woodpecker of Mexico — which may now be extinct — is or was the largest of the woodpeckers at 1.2 lb (563 gm) and 1.8 ft (55 cm) long. The diet varies somewhat across species, but includes small insects, spiders, nuts, seeds, and berries.

Woodpeckers are primarily arboreal, and typically have bills shaped like chisels and used for digging grubs out of trees and digging nest holes. The steady “clack, clack, clack” of their bills hitting the tree trunk is a sign to many of their presence. Their zygodactulous toes, two of which point forwards and two of which point backward, and stiff tail retrices, or tail feathers, assist in their perpendicular climbing of trees.

The range of the woodpeckers is extensive. They can be found in all of South America, Central America, and the continental United States except very far north in Alaska. They exist across much of Canada, except the northernmost regions, all of Africa roughly south of the Sahara Desert, and in much of Europe and Asia. They are not found in Greenland, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Madagascar, the Pacific Islands, or at the extremes of the polar regions. Some of the species of woodpecker are the Downy Woodpecker, the Hairy Woodpecker, the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, the Pileated Woodpecker, the African Piculet, the Black-cheeked Woodpecker, the Northern Flicker, and the Black-headed Woodpecker.

A number of species of woodpeckers are on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List from 2001. The IUCN categories include three levels of threatened species — vulnerable, endangered, and critically endangered — and two levels of extinction: in the wild and extinct. By this criteria, three species were considered to be critically endangered; two be endangered; and four to be vulnerable. Nine species were listed as “near threatened,” the category just before a species is designated as threatened.

One woodpecker has made its way into pop culture. The animated cartoon character Woody Woodpecker® has appeared in a number of cartoons and had a cameo in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, the 1988 film that combined live action with animations of many famous cartoon characters.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a woodpecker and how can it be identified?

A woodpecker is a type of bird known for its strong beak and skull, which it uses to peck at wood to find food or create nesting sites. They can be identified by their distinctive pecking behavior, sharp chisel-like beaks, stiff tail feathers for support, and often vibrant plumage with patterns of black, white, red, and yellow.

How many species of woodpeckers are there, and where can they be found?

There are over 200 species of woodpeckers worldwide, according to the International Ornithological Congress. They inhabit a variety of regions, including forests, deserts, and even urban areas, but are most diverse in South America and Southeast Asia. Woodpeckers are found on every continent except Australia and Antarctica.

What do woodpeckers eat and how do they find their food?

Woodpeckers primarily eat insects, especially wood-boring beetles, ants, and larvae. They locate their prey by tapping on wood and listening for the sound of insects moving or by detecting the hollow sound of damaged wood. Some species also consume fruit, nuts, and tree sap to supplement their diet.

Why do woodpeckers peck wood, and does it harm the trees?

Woodpeckers peck wood for several reasons: to forage for food, establish territorial communication through drumming, and create nesting cavities. While this behavior can cause damage, healthy trees can usually withstand the pecking. However, extensive pecking on weakened or diseased trees can exacerbate their decline.

How do woodpeckers avoid brain injury when pecking?

Woodpeckers have evolved several adaptations to avoid brain injury from pecking. Their skulls have a thickened bone structure and spongy tissue that absorbs impact. Additionally, their beaks are slightly elastic and their brains are tightly cushioned within their skulls, reducing the transmission of shock waves during pecking.

Are woodpeckers protected species, and what threats do they face?

Many woodpecker species are protected under various national and international laws due to their ecological importance. Despite this, they face threats such as habitat loss, deforestation, and competition for nesting sites. The Red-cockaded Woodpecker, for instance, is considered endangered in the United States due to the loss of its longleaf pine habitat.

AllThingsNature is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary Elizabeth
By Mary Elizabeth , Writer
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to writing articles on art, literature, and music for AllThingsNature, Mary works as a teacher, composer, and author who has written books, study guides, and teaching materials. Mary has also created music composition content for Sibelius Software. She earned her B.A. from University of Chicago's writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont.

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Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth


Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the...
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