Woodpeckers are common birds in many parts of the world. They have adapted to live in a huge variety of habitats, and many species are quite at home around our suburbs and even cities. Have you ever wondered how long they live and what affects their lifespan?
Woodpeckers are fairly short-lived birds. Many species have a maximum lifespan of just over a decade, but most individuals won’t live more than a few years. They are vulnerable to many threats like predation, starvation, and collisions with buildings and windows.
There’s a lot more to learn about Woodpecker longevity. Read along as we uncover the lifespans of some of the more familiar Woodpecker species and learn about some of the dangers they face.
An Acorn Woodpecker collecting acorns
With over 230 species in the Woodpecker family and more than twenty in the United States alone, we’ve chosen a selection of the better-known species to highlight their potential lifespans. Bear in mind, however, that these are the maximum recorded lifespans. Some Woodpeckers will live longer, but most will perish at a much younger age.
Considering the longevity records of the species listed above, you can see that Woodpeckers have a lifespan comparable to many other small to medium-sized bird species.
Pictured: A Green Woodpecker. The maximum recorded lifespan for this species was 15 years
Woodpeckers are vulnerable to many threats that could cut their lives short. Continue reading to learn some of the major causes of Woodpecker mortality.
Woodpeckers are prey for a wide range of carnivores, including birds of prey, mammals, and even reptiles. Adult birds may be taken in flight, while out foraging, or perhaps even while cornered in their nest or roost cavity.
The following animals are known to prey on adult Woodpeckers:
Woodpecker eggs and chicks are also vulnerable to birds and animals that can enter the nest cavity. The following animals are known Woodpecker nest predators.
Pictured: Red-bellied Woodpecker. Mammals like Pine Martens, Raccoons, and Domestic Cats are known to prey on Woodpeckers
Birds need a lot of food to maintain their metabolism and a steady body temperature. Any injury, illness, or major change in their environment could lead to death by starvation. Starvation can affect individual birds or large numbers. For example, a mass fall bird die-off in 2020 in the Southwest of the United States was suspected to result from starvation caused by drought and cold weather.
Collisions are a major cause of mortality for many bird species, including Woodpeckers. The unsuspecting birds may collide with windows during the day and with buildings and other structures while migrating at night.
Woodpeckers are occasionally struck by motor vehicles, and some species, like the Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus), are thought to be particularly vulnerable due to their hunting habits.
A Red-headed Woodpecker flying from a berry bush
Woodpeckers are susceptible to various illnesses, including viruses, bacterial infections, and internal and external parasites.
Woodpeckers nest and roost in tree cavities, which leaves them vulnerable when their tree collapses, breaks, or splits. Hurricanes and lightning strikes may cause trees to topple over, killing adult Woodpeckers as well as their eggs and chicks.
A Great Spotted Woodpecker storing food during the winter
Woodpeckers have evolved over millions of years into the specialized birds we know today. They’ve gotten this far by developing some rather unique morphological and behavioral adaptations along the way.
Read on to learn more about Woodpecker survival strategies and adaptations.
Woodpeckers have many physical and behavioral adaptations to increase their chances of survival. They have unique physical features like a powerful bill and an extra-long tongue, stiff tail feathers, and zygodactyl feet.
Specialized physical features allow them to find a meal hidden behind bark, within the wood, or even underground, but they also enable Woodpeckers to chisel out secure nesting and roosting sites that are safe from many predators and the weather.
However, sleeping and nesting in a cavity offers little chance of escape from predators small enough to enter. To counter this, some species, like the Pileated Woodpecker, create many separate entrances to their roosting areas to avoid being trapped.
The Pileated Woodpecker creates separate entrances to their roosting areas to escape from predators
Many Woodpeckers can survive in surprisingly harsh climates during every month of the year, including the freezing cold of the far north and the extreme heat of places like Death Valley in the American Southwest.
However, some species migrate each year to avoid food shortages. The Northern Flicker and the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker are among the best-known migrants in the Woodpecker family, but many species make regular short/medium distance migrations and dispersive movements.
The Acorn Woodpecker is a social species that knows how to plan ahead. These birds store a crop of acorns and other forest tree mast for the lean days of winter. Other species that are known to store food include the Red-bellied Woodpecker and Lewis’s Woodpecker.
The Northern Flicker (pictured) are among some of the best-known migrants in the Woodpecker family
Conservation efforts are generally more focused on preserving Woodpecker populations than individuals, although they certainly can help reduce mortality. Conserving natural habitats protects Woodpeckers by securing a healthy environment with natural feeding and nesting sites.
The Acorn Woodpecker (pictured) is a relatively long-lived species, with some birds reaching at least 17 years of age
Woodpeckers are cavity-nesting birds that raise one or more broods of young each year. They are generally monogamous and form pairs when they are just a year old. Their eggs hatch fast, often in less than two weeks, and their young fledge the nest after about three to four weeks.
Most Woodpeckers probably die of starvation and predation. An exhausted, injured, or sick Woodpecker will not survive long without food. An opportunistic predator may discover the weakened bird before it succumbs, or its body may be scavenged or simply decompose.
The Acorn Woodpecker is a relatively long-lived species, with some birds reaching at least 17 years of age. While impressive for a Woodpecker, this is nowhere near the potential of long-lived species like Albatroses and Cockatoos that may live over 70 years!
Brighten up your inbox with our exclusive newsletter, enjoyed by thousands of people from around the world.