The Acorn Woodpecker

Photo by Adithya Ramakrishnan on Unsplash

A cozy nook in the woods with space aplenty to enjoy the silence. It’s a life often dreamt about.

Control over where one lives and it’s surrounding area provides us with peace of mind. It’s a luxury that the world’s most socially complex birds get to enjoy.

The Acorn Woodpecker flies overhead, it weaves through the forest acting as a location scout. Pine trees for their tasty sap, Oak trees for their acorns (a woodpecker obsession), and dead trees and stumps as prime real estate for building.

They want all a being could need. Food security, a nice neighborhood and a beautiful plot of land to make a home their own. Upon finding the area that ticks all their boxes, the acorn woodpecker gets to work.

Drilling into the dead wood first.

They want to make a shelter and then a nesting area. It’s a long list of rooms that will only keep expanding as the family does. Acorn woodpeckers live in family units of up to 12 individuals or more.

All members split the duties among themselves, this includes everything from child rearing to the gathering, storing, and even guarding of food.

Photo by Zdeněk Macháček on Unsplash


  • Genus, Family, Species: Species
  • Biome: Any Forest Where Oak Trees are Present.
  • Countries: United States(California, Oregon), Mexico, Central America
  • Preys On: Insects, Tree Sap, Nuts, Berries, Fruits
  • Eaten By: Bobcats, Coyotes, Foxes, Hawks, Snakes
  • IUCN Red List: Least Concern

The Socially Complex

It is within the realm of it’s family unit where it’s most intriguing behavior takes place. These birds are so socially complex that they have spawned several years long studies due to their behavior.

Acorn woodpeckers are aware of what they have and so they guard it fiercely. Patrolling up to 15 acres of land around their main trees that are used as granaries and for nesting.

Photo by Henry Hustava on Unsplash

There have been some granary trees found with more than 50,000 holes within them. Each hole filled with nuts of various kinds.

These trees are filled to the brim in order to help the family unit survive the winter. Serving as an easy food source to get them by during the cold and unforgiving months.

They’ll even wedge acorns into the entrances of their granaries to impede others from dining on their reservoirs.

Over time the entrance hole expands and the acorn woodpeckers will find more appropriately sized acorns in order to keep the entrance snugly sealed off.

Though their handling of food is interesting, it’s how they carry out the process of laying eggs where the weird world of the acorn woodpecker really comes out.

Photo by Esteban Trivelli on Unsplash

At separate times, all the females in the family unit will lay their eggs in the same nesting room. When a new female is ready to lay her eggs she will make her way to the nesting room.

If there are still eggs from a previous mother that are yet to hatch, the new female will destroy them.

Around a third of all acorn woodpecker eggs are destroyed due to this process. The remains of the eggs are taken to a separate hole in a nearby tree.

There, they are eaten by the rest of the family unit including the very mother that birthed them.

Efficient but incredibly morbid to think about.

Any members within the group that don’t breed often are sent out as scouts. They search for other woodpecker families, hoping to find a breeding vacancy. If found, they will breed with the available females of the new group.

New insights into the lives of these birds are still uncovered, even as recently as 2021. A study was published in Proceedings Of The Royal Society B that looked further into polygamy and how it benefits the male members of a family unit.

The members of a unit compete against each other as they each mate with the females.

Photo by Jonathan Chng on Unsplash

Even the males that don’t pass on their DNA can still contribute to the betterment of their family bloodline.

By taking care of their nephews, they are guarding a part of their own DNA since those children were fathered by the brother and sister of the non-breeding male. This is seen as cooperative breeding.

It ensures that part of the non-parent DNA is passed on.

Culturally the acorn woodpeckers only exist partially.

Famous cartoon character “Woody The Woodpecker” had his appearance based off of a Pileated Woodpecker but it was the acorn woodpecker and it’s harsh, little scream that inspired Walter Lantz to create the character in the first place.

Photo by Matheus Lara on Unsplash

You can read all about it in his biography.

In a way, the acorn woodpeckers cultural claim to fame only exists due to a “cooperative breeding” of sorts, some of it’s “DNA” being passed on. Though in an indirect manner.

And that brings us to a close, if you’d like to read a similar article then I suggest my story on the Dumbo Octopus. If you'd like to read more about animals with interesting homes then click here.



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