About Woodpeckers

pileated woodpecker © Kim Nagy
pileated woodpecker © Kim Nagy

Most everyone is acquainted with the signature sound of the woodpecker. In the spring and fall, especially, one can hear the distinct sound of a woodpecker drumming or drilling nearby. 

Woodpeckers are superbly adapted to life in the trees. Their feet have two toes pointing forward and two pointing rearward with sharp pointed claws. This enables them to scale vertical tree trunks and other vertical surfaces to look for food and shelter.

Their straight pointed bills and reinforced skulls help them to absorb the constant shock of pecking, chiseling, drilling, and drumming. Stiff tail feathers act as props (like a third leg) when the birds climb.

Species in Massachusetts

Seven woodpecker species breed in Massachusetts. They range in size from the tiny downy to the crow-sized pileated. Learn more


Primarily insectivorous, woodpeckers consume beetles, ants, aphids, flies, and caterpillars. They use their long tongues with bristly tips to extract insects from holes in wood.

Woodpeckers also rely on sound to locate prey. They can hear the rustling and chewing sounds that insects make in the wood. Flickers feed mainly on the ground, often seen hopping about lawns looking for ants.

Woodpeckers will also eat acorns, pine seeds, nuts, and berries. The hairy and downy woodpeckers commonly come to feeders for suet and sunflower seeds.

Breeding Behavior

Downy and hairy woodpeckers lay an average of four to five eggs in a tree or branch cavity during the month of May. The male and female take turns incubating the eggs (the male brooding at night) for about 12 days. Once offspring have hatched, both parents feed the young for 20-22 days and for another three weeks after offspring leave the nest.

Situations & Solutions

In the spring and fall, hundreds of homeowners are awakened by a woodpecker drumming on metal outside their house or have become aware of holes in their siding created by a drilling woodpecker. Four New England woodpeckers are known to drill and drum on houses: hairy woodpeckers, downy woodpeckers, pileated woodpeckers, and northern flickers. Downy woodpeckers appear to be the most common offender in Massachusetts. Learn why they do this and find out how to deter them