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Woodpeckers are attractive and unusual birds with bright colors, bold markings, and vibrant personalities. But ask any birdwatcher “what do woodpeckers eat?” and there will be many different answers. The truth is, woodpeckers are primarily insectivorous and feast on insects they find in trees. These gorgeous birds also have an anatomical particularity that allows them to seek their favorite food in the crevices of trees: it is a long tongue with hairs. Thus, their salivary glands secrete a slimy, sticky substance that coats the tongue and makes it, together with the hairs, a formidable tool for catching insects.
But do woodpeckers use their formidable tongue to also devour other birds? Maybe, but that would only be a rare and seasonal feeding strategy.
Only some species, such as the Red-bellied and Red-headed woodpecker, may occasionally scavenge carcasses or carrion. Yet, in 2015, an ornithologist caught on camera a gruesome behavior never seen before: a Gila woodpecker feasting on a baby dove’s brain.
Fortunately, this behavior seems rather unusual, given the lack of reported cases in the scientific literature, although the Gila woodpecker has been known to eat bird eggs and occasional juicy pieces of meat.
Rest assured, the main diet of woodpeckers does not consist of baby bird brains.
As mentioned earlier, woodpeckers are primarily insectivores. But depending on the season, a woodpecker can eat several different things. The exact foods preferred by each species vary, but the most popular foods for woodpeckers include:
Woodpeckers stay in the same range all year round, but as the seasons change, they change their diet to take advantage of readily available foods that meet their nutritional needs.
In spring and summer, woodpeckers feed on flying or hidden insects as they find them. Once the eggs hatch, they must find larger, easier-to-catch prey for their chicks, such as caterpillars, mayflies, and moths. In season, the woodpecker also feeds on wild berries.
After the nesting period, the woodpecker resumes its particular food habits. It stalks small insects and larvae that infest trees and hide in cracks and crevices of twigs and trunks.
In addition to varying their food choices depending on the season, some species have developed foraging strategies to conserve their food during the long winter months. The Acorn woodpecker, for example, stores hundreds of acorns in vast holes in dead trees. Other species go so far as to bury dead insects in the ground to retrieve them later, much like a dog burying its loot in the garden!
Some species, like the Gila woodpecker, are more aggressive and may attack other birds, mainly during the nesting period. However, they do so to defend their territory and do not hunt other birds to eat them. But it is true that as foragers and opportunistic birds, woodpeckers find their food wherever they can, including in the nests of other birds.
Apart from some species, woodpeckers are rather shy and prefer to stay away from the noise and activity of other birds. Also, since they eat large amounts of insects, including ants and beetles, they are welcome among gardeners. Here are some tips for attracting woodpeckers to your yard:
Most woodpeckers are rather shy and will not attack other birds unless they invade their territory. While it is true that some woodpecker species, such as the Gila, the Red-bellied and Red-headed woodpeckers, may eat bird eggs or carrion if other food resources are scarce, these behaviors are not common. So, don’t hesitate to attract these magnificent birds to your yard if you want to take advantage of their beauty and great skills as ruthless insect hunters!
Featured Image Credit: CoastalSandpiper, Pixabay
Robert’s obsession with all things optical started early in life, when his optician father would bring home prototypes for Robert to play with. Nowadays, Robert is dedicated to helping others find the right optics for their needs. His hobbies include astronomy, astrophysics, and model building. Originally from Newark, NJ, he resides in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where the nighttime skies are filled with glittering stars.
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