What do woodpeckers eat? Despite what you might think, they don’t find all of their food beneath the bark of trees.

We have eight species in the state, all with similar diets.

These birds eat insects or insect larvae, nuts and berries, more of the former. All of them winter with us, so their diet varies with season. The five woodpecker species common in the metro area share territory without conflict, indicating dietary differences.

Downy woodpeckers, the smallest of our cohort, are more opportunistic than the others. The downy diet is about 75% animal matter, the remainder vegetable.

Downys eat beetles, wood-boring larvae, ants, plant lice, caterpillars, spiders, various other insects and snails. They take larvae from the galls common to goldenrod. The vegetable side includes berries, grain, sunflower seeds and acorns.

Hairy woodpeckers, almost identical in appearance to the downy but larger, have a diet more focused on wood-boring species. The hairy with its larger bill is better equipped for tree excavation than the downy.

The misnamed red-bellied woodpecker eats more vegetable than animal matter. Fruit and nuts are major food items. Animals eaten include a wide variety of insects, plus tree frogs, small fish and nestling birds. They will take sunflower seeds.

This species will cache food in the fall. It will drink at hummingbird feeders and at the holes made in trees by sapsuckers.

The red belly is faintly so, a wash of color that appears for courtship.

Flickers feed mostly in soil, with anthills a primary target. They eats other insects as well, and fruit and seeds in winter.

The red-headed woodpecker is a flycatcher, waiting for fly-by meals from obvious perches. It chooses the openness of savanna habitat for opportunities to catch insects on the wing. It eats nuts, cultivated fruit (all of your summer favorites), wild fruit and sometimes seeds from your feeder.

Visit a red-head nesting colony (Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve, East Bethel) and you could see the birds flying to and fro with acorns in their bills. Nuts form their winter diet, stashed in tree cracks and crevices, and holes the birds make. In years when acorn crops are slim, they collect corn.

The pileated is our largest woodpecker, the one with pronunciation issues. The Oxford dictionary gives a choice, PIE-lee-ay-tid or PILL-ee-ay-tid. (Pileus is Latin for cap.)

The big fellow eats insects, primarily carpenter ants and wood-boring beetle larvae. It also eats fruits and nuts. It can glean its food from branches or chop open trees to find prey. It has a powerful chop.

We have two boreal specialist species, black-backed and three-toed woodpeckers. The former is attracted to trees touched by fire. White-spotted sawyer beetles and the black-backed birds follow the smell of smoke. Black feathers are camouflage on a burned tree.

I have found black-backed by visiting locations of burned forest still smoking.

Three-toed woodpeckers do have only three toes, to better enable their particular foraging technique. They lean away from the tree to gain force and leverage allowing them to snap off flakes of bark. They favor spruce trees, where they are looking for insect larvae behind the bark.

Yellow-bellied sapsuckers cut holes in tree bark to draw sap that attracts insects. The birds eat the sap, the insects and inner bark. They often align holes in rank-and-file pattern. The name, accurate as it is, does sound cartoonish.

Twenty-two Minnesota songbird species, plus smaller raptors and some owls, use tree cavities for nesting, as do some mammals. That makes woodpeckers, cavity engineers, vital members of the birding community.

It also speaks to the importance of preserving dead trees or dead branches for these animals to use.


Lifelong birder Jim Williams can be reached at woodduck38@gmail.com. Join his conversation about birds at startribune.com/wingnut.