Physical Characteristics of Woodpeckers

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The woodpecker is a marvel of evolution, having adapted itself to feeding habits that involve strenuous clinging, climbing and hammering. Learn more about the physical characteristics of woodpeckers.

The woodpecker is one of the world's most iconic bird species.  When it's hammering away at a tree with its trademark bill, which is used not only to harvest food, but also to communicate, it's unmistakable.   Yet, the woodpecker has a number of physical characteristics that are equally impressive as its beak.  In fact, its body is truly a marvel of avian evolution, having adapted itself to feeding habits that involve strenuous clinging, climbing and hammering.

Woodpecker species facts


There are approximately 217 species of woodpeckers worldwide; in North America, there are 22 breeding species.  North American woodpeckers are grouped into four tribes, which, respective of descending size, are Campephilini, Colaptini, Mealnerpini and Camphetherini.  

Woodpecker size

Woodpeckers range considerably in size  The largest woodpecker, the Imperial Woodpecker, is 22 inches, while the smallest, the Scaled piculet, is 3 inches.

Woodpecker plumage

Due to the large number of species, woodpeckers vary greatly in plumage.  Their colors can be black, brown, red, yellow or other hues..  Sometimes color differences among a species signifies sex, as many males have red head patches, while females do not.  Though all woodpeckers are sexually dimorphic, it is usually very difficult to determine sex from visual characteristics

Woodpecker bill and tongue

A woodpecker's bill is a chisel-shaped tool that has evolved specifically for excavating food from wood.  Some woodpeckers have bills with slight curves, while others have shorter, straighter bills.  

A woodpecker's tongue can be up to 4 inches long and is extremely efficient at removing ants or other bugs from wood due to its barbed and sticky surface.  It can also be used to slurp up sap from trees.  

Woodpecker feet and tail feathers

Woodpecker's feet are molded for climbing.  Woodpeckers have two toes that point forward and two that point back.  Their fourth toe can bend sideways, giving the bird greater flexibility when climbing and pecking at trees.

The tail feathers of the woodpecker are also crucial for pecking.  These feathers are extremely stiff and supported by a number of large muscles. The wedge shape of their tail feathers and their height give woodpeckers additional support and create an ideal posture during pecking.  

Lastly, the woodpecker has a number of special adaptations in its body to protect its internal organs, specifically its brain, from damage during pecking.  This is important, as some woodpeckers will deliver over 10,000 pecking blows in a single day.

Browse our inventory of woodpecker houses here.  Each woodpecker house we sell, like all of our products, is backed by a 30-day 100% money-back guarantee. Interested in learning more about woodpeckers? Then check out the articles below.
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