Woodpeckers and Relatives

Picidae is a diverse family of birds found on five continents. In the United States it consists of woodpeckers, flickers and sapsuckers. They are best known for their ability to bore into wood and prefer a forested habitat, but they have adapted to living in savannas, bamboo forests, grasslands and even deserts.

There are 11 species of Picidae found in Washington. Woodpeckers use their hard, pointed beaks to chisel into wood in search of insects and sap or to excavate nesting and roosting cavities. They also use their beaks to drum out signals during breeding seasons. They have thick skulls, which are protected from the concussive force of drumming by a narrow space around the brain that works as a shock absorber.

Did you know? Other species such as Wood Ducks use old Pileated Woodpecker cavities to nest in.

Pileated Woodpecker in nest cavity

A Pileated Woodpecker in a nest cavity


Woodpeckers have four strong toes, two pointing forward and two back, with sharp claws that enable them to cling upright to the bark of tree trunks and branches. Their stiff tail feathers also prop them up vertically.

Species in the Puget Sound area range in size from the larger Pileated Woodpecker, which is about 19 inches long, to the smaller Downy Woodpecker, which is 6 to 7 inches long.

The Northern Flicker is a woodpecker species that has adapted well to cities and suburbs. Unlike other woodpeckers, flickers often feed on the ground where they eat ants. Their wings and tails have reddish-orange undersides.

Northern Flicker active nest PAWS Campus

A Northern Flicker feeds her hatchlings.


Some species, such as sapsuckers and Hairy Woodpeckers, drill holes in live trees. Others, such as flickers and Downy Woodpeckers, prefer to drill in dying and dead trees also called snags. In either case, the birds tunnel down 6 to 18 inches deep, making the excavation wider at the bottom for the egg chamber.

Both male and female woodpeckers take turns incubating two to eight eggs. Hatchlings are naked and blind. Depending on the species, young leave the nest between 21 and 30 days after hatching.

Did you know? Sapsuckers drill holes in a line in live trees to feed on sap.

Hairy Woodpecker

Hairy Woodpecker


With long, flexible, bristled and sticky tongues, woodpeckers can probe small holes in wood to catch insects. Most woodpeckers start feeding at the base of a tree, searching for insects and spiders. Then they move up the trunk in spirals until they reach the larger limbs, where they explore the undersides of branches.

Did you know? Hummingbirds have relationship with sapsuckers known as commensalism. They will feed from sap dripping out of holes bored by sapsuckers. The Rufous Hummingbird is closely associated with Red-breasted Sapsuckers.

Red breasted Sapsucker and Anna's Hummingbird

A Red-breasted Sapsucker (left) and an Anna's Hummingbird

Common woodpecker species in Western Washington

  • Northern Flicker
  • Downy Woodpecker
  • Red-breasted Sapsucker
Downy Woodpecker

Downy Woodpecker

Living with woodpeckers

On occasion, woodpeckers may damage building exteriors, and their drumming may annoy occupants. There are three possible reasons for their behavior that should be assessed before taking remedial action.

Protecting territory

Since resident woodpeckers drum against hard, resonant surfaces to proclaim territory, they are likely to return to the same spot repeatedly during breeding season in spring. This can become frustrating when the site is a metal gutter, downspout, or wooden siding of a house, and especially when the woodpecker pecks on it in early morning.

To discourage drumming, change the site surface by covering it with fabric or foam. Providing an alternative drumming site may also work. Nail two boards together at one end and hang them on a secure surface.

Red-naped Sapsucker

A Red-naped Sapsucker at PAWS' wildlife hospital

Looking for food

If the woodpeckers' drumming activity is not restricted to one site on a building, and if it occurs throughout the year, the birds are likely drilling for food. They are attracted to insect-infested wood where they can drill small holes into the surface to extract the insects.

The first step is to control the insects, and the second is to repair or replace affected timbers, siding, or roofing.

A place to live

Woodpeckers may also drill cavities for nesting, roosting or storing food. Look for round, deep openings, often near knotholes in boards. In the spring or summer, assume there is an active nest with eggs or hatchlings inside, and wait until you are sure the young have completely left the nest before you begin repairs. Plug small holes with caulking or wood filler, and fill larger ones with wooden plugs, steel wool or wire screen before sealing.

Scare them off

At the first sign of activity, woodpeckers can also be scared away from a site by making noises at a nearby window or against an adjacent inside wall. Strips of foil, fabric or commercially available bird-scare tape hung from eaves might also deter them. You should never scare birds away from a nest with young.

This video depicts a Pileated Woodpecker at our wildlife hospital.

Can't see the video? Watch it on our YouTube channel.


Bowers N. Bowers R & Kaufman K. (2000). Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America. New York, NY: Hillstar Editions L.C.

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. June 1, 2016. Woodpeckers

What Bird. June 1, 2016. Pileated Woodpecker