Woodpeckers are busy birds, frequently seen (and heard) tapping away at tree trunks or even visiting backyard bird feeders for a free suet meal. Birdwatchers in the United States and Britain are usually familiar with a handful of local species, but the family is surprisingly diverse, with over 230 species known worldwide.
Have you ever wondered when Woodpeckers sleep or where they go after dark?
Woodpeckers are diurnal birds that spend the night in tree cavities and other sheltered spots. Adults usually excavate their own holes in tree trunks and larger limbs, although some will use existing natural or artificial cavities, and others simply cling to the bark of trees or other structures.
If you would like to learn more about Woodpecker sleeping habits, this fact-filled guide is just for you. Read along to discover where, how, and when Woodpeckers sleep.
Pictured: Nuttall's Woodpecker. Woodpeckers are busy birds often seen tapping away at tree trunks
Birds sleep every day to rest and recover from the day’s activities. Most species sleep at night, although nocturnal birds like owls typically sleep during the day. However, bird sleep patterns aren’t always so clear-cut, and some birds, like shorebirds and waterfowl, are active both day and night.
Stopping to rest is not always practical, so some birds have developed the amazing ability to sleep while flying! You might be wondering how they avoid crashing. Well, these birds use a special technique called unihemispheric slow-wave sleep which rests one half of their brain, allowing them to sleep while navigating with one eye open.
This kind of sleep is vital for birds like large seabirds that spend weeks in the air, but Woodpeckers prefer to bed down in a cozy cavity for the night. Sleeping birds enter REM (rapid eye movement) and non-REM sleep just like we do, but their cycles are much shorter than our own.
You can learn much more about how birds sleep in this in-depth guide.
Pictured: Downy Woodpecker. Woodpeckers prefer to bed down in a cozy cavity for the night
Woodpeckers usually sleep in holes that they chisel out of tree trunks and larger limbs. These could be repurposed nest cavities or holes specifically created for roosting. Purpose-made roost cavities usually aren’t quite as deep as nests and can be made in just a few days.
They may also roost in natural cavities or use birdhouses and nest boxes. In some cases, these birds choose to excavate their roosts in utility poles or wood-sided houses, and some even use artificial materials like foam board.
Some Woodpeckers prefer to excavate in live wood, although most drill their holes into dead trees or in parts of living trees that are damaged by fungus and have rotten heartwood. Others, like the Black-backed Woodpecker (Picoides arcticus), are quite content to roost in naturally sheltered sites like hollow logs, deep furrows in bark, or between closely spaced trunks.
Woodpeckers may have more than one roost site, but they rarely share roost cavities, so each bird must build or find their own place to sleep. If you find a woodpecker chipping out a new hole after the nesting season, it’s probably hard at work building a bedroom for the colder months.
Location is important, so roost cavities set up for the winter are often sheltered from the prevailing wind to help the sleeping birds keep warm.
Pictured: Black-backed Woodpecker. This species is quite content to roost in naturally sheltered sites like hollow logs
Woodpecker chicks are raised in a nest cavity and will sleep within this sheltered environment until they fledge. After leaving the nest, the young birds will roost out in the open until they find an appropriate cavity or excavate one for themselves.
Rufous Woodpecker chicks sheltered in the nest cavity
Woodpeckers may sleep in an upright sitting position at the bottom of a cavity or, more usually, they will cling to the vertical inner wall. They fluff out their feathers, turn their heads back, and tuck in their bills to keep warm.
Birds that roost outside of cavities also sleep while clinging to a vertical surface like the bark of a tree or even the wall of a house. Clinging to a wall all night might not sound very comfortable, but Woodpeckers are perfectly adapted for this behavior.
They have stiffened tail feathers that prop them up, and their sharp curved claws hook into place on the surface. Unlike other birds, Woodpeckers have two toes facing backward, which provide increased grip strength and spread their weight more evenly across their digits.
Pictured: A Northern Flicker. Woodpeckers have two toes facing backward, which provide increased grip strength
Woodpeckers are diurnal birds that retire to their roost cavities or a sheltered spot each evening to spend the night. The time they spend roosting varies through the year as the day-length changes, and they may enter their roost cavity well before sunset and leave after sunrise the following day.
Woodpeckers may also take short naps during the day, especially in rough weather when conditions are unsuitable for foraging. They may do this outside of a roosting cavity by simply clinging to the bark of a tree.
Pictured: A Greater Spotted Woodpecker. Woodpeckers take short naps during the day by clinging to the bark of a tree
Between freezing temperatures, violent storms, and the ever-present threat of predators, sleeping can be a dangerous time for Woodpeckers.
Roosting in cavities, especially purpose-made roost holes on the wind-sheltered side of trees, provides excellent protection from the elements and excludes most predators that are too large or clumsy to reach the sleeping bird.
Some species, like the Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus), roost in hollow trunks with several entrances so they always have an escape route. The Red-cockaded Woodpecker (Leuconotopicus borealis) uses a different strategy. These birds are content to excavate into living trees like the long-leaf pine. Excavating into this resinous tree creates a sticky entrance, and this behavior could have evolved as a means to keep snakes and unwanted visitors from sneaking in.
Unfortunately, there is little that Woodpeckers can do about extreme weather events and lightning which can cause trees to collapse or split open.
Some species, like the Pileated Woodpecker (pictured) roost in hollow trunks with several entrances so they always have an escape route
It’s difficult to say how much human activity impacts sleeping Woodpeckers. Many birds, including Woodpeckers, have adapted to life in suburban and even urban areas where light pollution, the noise of traffic, and other human activities could be disruptive.
Artificial light can disrupt activity patterns in some birds and allow them to forage at night. However, Woodpeckers seem to be sticking to their natural daily activity pattern.
Pictured: A Ladder-backed Woodpecker foraging for insects
Consider the following tips if you’d like to create a healthier environment for roosting Woodpeckers around your property.
A Red-headed Woodpecker in a nest cavity in a tree stump
Unlike us, Woodpeckers prefer to sleep in an upright position. Most species sleep clinging to a vertical surface, such as the inside wall of their roost cavity.
Woodpeckers are diurnal birds, so seeing an active specimen after dark would be very unusual. However, a sleeping bird disturbed by a human or a predator might fly a short distance before finding a new spot to spend the night.
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