How The Woodpecker Makes A House – The Woodpeckers

Black Woodpecker (Dryocopus martius) with Young ©WikiC

Black Woodpecker (Dryocopus martius) with Young ©WikiC



All woodpeckers make their houses in the wood of trees, either the trunk or one of the branches. Almost the only exceptions to this rule are those that live in the treeless countries of the West. In the torrid deserts of Arizona and the Southwest, some species are obliged to build in the thorny branches of giant cacti, which there grow to an enormous size. In the treeless plains to the northward, a few individuals, for lack of anything so suitable as the cactus, dig holes in clay banks, or even lay their eggs upon the surface of the prairie. In a country where chimney swallows nest in deserted houses, and sand martins burrow in the sides of wells, who wonders at the flicker’s thinking that the side of a haystack, the hollow of a wheel-hub, or the cavity under an old ploughshare, is an ideal home? But in wooded countries the woodpeckers habitually nest in trees. The only exceptions I know are a few flickers’ holes in old posts, and a few instances where flickers[21] have pecked through the weatherboarding of a house to nest in the space between the walls.

But because a bird nests in a hole in a tree, it is not necessarily a woodpecker. The sparrow-hawk, the house sparrow, the tree swallow, the bluebird, most species of wrens, and several of the smaller species of owls nest either in natural cavities in trees or in deserted woodpeckers’ holes. The chickadees, the crested titmice, and the nuthatches dig their own holes after the same pattern as the woodpecker’s. However, the large, round holes were all made by woodpeckers, and of those under two inches in diameter, our friend Downy made his full share. It is easy to tell who made the hole, for the different birds have different styles of housekeeping. The chickadees and nuthatches always build a soft little nest of grass, leaves, and feathers, while the woodpeckers lay their eggs on a bed of chips, and carry nothing in from outside.

Soon after they have mated in the spring, the woodpeckers begin to talk of housekeeping. First, a tree must be chosen. It may be sound or partly decayed, one of a clump or solitary; but it is usually dead or hollow-hearted, and at least partly surrounded by other trees. Sometimes a limb is chosen, sometimes an upright trunk, and the nest may be from two feet to one hundred feet from the ground, though most frequently it will be found not less than ten nor more than thirty feet up. However odd the location finally occupied, it is likely that it was not the first one selected. A woodpecker will dig half a dozen houses rather than occupy an undesirable tenement. It is very common to find their unfinished holes and the wider-mouthed, shallower pockets which they dig for winter quarters; for those that spend their winters in the cold North make a hole to live in nights and cold and stormy days.

Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) by Raymond Barlow

Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) by Raymond Barlow

The first step in building is to strike out a circle in the bark as large as the doorway is to be; that is, from an inch and a half to three or four inches in diameter according to the size of the woodpecker. It is nearly always a perfect circle. Try, if you please, to draw freehand a circle of dots as accurate as that which the woodpecker strikes out hurriedly with his bill, and see whether it is easy to do as well as he does.

If the size and shape of the doorway suit him, the woodpecker scales off the bark inside his circle of holes and begins his hard work. He seems to take off his coat and work in his shirtsleeves, so vigorously does he labor as he clings with his stout toes, braced in position by his pointed tail. The chips fly out past him, or if they lie in the hole, he sweeps them out with his bill and pelts again at the same place. The pair take turns at the work. Who knows how long they work before resting? Do they take turns of equal length? Does one work more than the other? A pair of flickers will dig about two inches in a day, the hole being nearly two and a half inches in diameter. A week or more is consumed in digging the nest, which, among the flickers, is commonly from ten to eighteen inches deep. The hole usually runs in horizontally for a few inches and then curves down, ending in a chamber large enough to make a comfortable nest for the mother and her babies.

What a good time the little ones have in their hole! Rain and frost cannot chill them; no enemy but the red squirrel is likely to disturb them. There they lie in their warm, dark chamber, looking up at the ray of light that comes in the doorway, until at last they hear the scratching of their mother’s feet as she alights on the outside of the tree and clambers up to feed them. What a piping and calling they raise inside the hole, and how they all scramble up the walls of their chamber and thrust out their beaks to be fed, till the old tree looks as if it were blossoming with little woodpeckers’ hungry mouths!

Lee’s Addition:

Pileated Woodpecker, female at nest hole

Pileated Woodpecker, female at nest hole

The trees of the Lord are watered abundantly and are filled with sap, the cedars of Lebanon which He has planted, Where the birds make their nests; as for the stork, the fir trees are her house. (Psalms 104:16-17 AMP)

This is Chapter IV from The Woodpeckers book. Our writer, Fannie Hardy Eckstorm, wrote this in 1901. There are 16 chapters, plus the Forward, which are about the Woodpecker Family here in America. All the chapters can be found on The Woodpeckers page. I added photos to help enhance the article. In 1901, photography was not like today.

Woodpeckers belong to the Picidae – Woodpeckers Family.

If you have ever been in the woods and heard a Woodpecker or other member of their family working on their “house,” that sound helps locate them. The Pileated Woodpeckers especially sound like they are tearing the place apart. The Lord created this family to prefer having their home in the tree trunks and larger limbs. He has prepared them with beaks that can handle all the pounding they do and a cushioned forehead to protect their brains.  The video on the Woodpeckers page explains part of this.


Picidae – Woodpeckers Family

The Woodpeckers by Fannie Hardy Eckstorm

Wordless Birds


Interesting link to a reader’s photos – Wonderful Woodpecker Family


6 thoughts on “How The Woodpecker Makes A House – The Woodpeckers

  1. Trying to figure out what kind of woodpecker we have. It’s in a palm tree in our front yard, just clearing out a hole for all it’s worth! Wonderful to watch! We are in central FL. He/she is beautiful!


  2. Yesterday a woodpecker made himself (or herself) very conspicuous and I knew he/she was trying to divert my attention. I didn’t know better, so I looked for a nest. Now I know. Live and learn… Thank you! :)


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