Acorn Woodpecker a.k.a. The Hoarder

HOARDING: the practice of collecting or accumulating something (such as money or food) Merriam-Webster.

The Acorn Woodpecker has one of the more obvious names in the avian world. This striking bird with an almost comical face has a thing for acorns. A group of these birds is called a “bushel,” a perfect description for this Western woodpecker with a most unusual habit. Although they eat insects, sap and fruit, they depend on acorns to a large extent and have a unique solution to maintaining their food source. They store acorns in granaries or “storage trees” by drilling holes and then hammer the acorn into the hole with enough force to knock out us humans. Lots of acorns! Some of these trees are riddled with up to 50,000 holes. They will also store them in utility poles, wooden structures and dead branches. They collect acorns and find a hole that’s the right size for it. Sometimes they misjudge and the acorn falls to the ground making another oak tree and the cycle continues. The work doesn’t stop there though. In order to maintain these vast storage trees, the acorns must be moved to different holes when they dry and shrink. The Acorn woodpecker’s work is never done.

Nature’s wisdom is clearly on display with this effective strategy for surviving cold weather without the need for migration. Acorns provide a food source rich in fat. If stockpiled, they are prone to mold and can become inedible. Storing them on the ground would make them easy pickings for deer, rodents, other acorn lovers. A quite adaptable bird, the Acorn woodpecker has easily set up territories in suburbia and is often not picky about what it uses to store nuts. In one well known instance, researchers found 485 pounds of acorns in an Arizona farmer’s water tank.

They use the same tree year after year and these “storage trees” are filled with acorns in the autumn. Even with this clever method they must fend off other tree-dwelling interlopers such as squirrels and Steller’s Jays who would love an easy meal. The Acorn Woodpecker means business and will defend its cache aggressively, dive bombing both squirrels and jays who quickly get the message and beat a hasty retreat.

Acorn Woodpeckers are very unusual members of the woodpecker family in that they live in large groups up to 15 individuals and breed cooperatively. Group members gather and harvest the acorns by the hundreds often spending all day making flight after flight bringing home this critical food. The acorn is such an important resource to them that they will nest in the fall to take advantage of the fall acorn crop, a very rare bird behavior.

They live in oak forests and mixed forest the southwest and Pacific coast of the United States. Travelling through northern California, I remember marveling at their work and admiring not only their unique beauty but their indefatigable work ethic.

It’s believed that Walter Lantz patterned the call of his cartoon character Woody Woodpecker on that of the Acorn Woodpecker, while patterning his appearance on the Pileated Woodpecker, with its prominent crest. The noise of an Acorn Woodpecker’s persistent calling and drumming on their cabin disrupted the Lantz’s honeymoon and a star was born!


Click below to hear Woody Woodpecker’s famous laugh.


Click below to hear the Acorn Woodpecker call.


Like so many other birds in North America, these woodpeckers face many threats including habitat loss and degradation as well as the increasing threat of fires brought on by climate change. Conserving this species depends on maintaining functional ecosystems that provide the all the resources on which the species depends. They require mature forests with oaks capable of producing large crops and places for the woodpeckers to nest, roost, and store acorns.

The next time you feel too tired to make dinner or go to the store think about the tireless Acorn Woodpecker making hundreds of flights a day, bringing one acorn at a time to its hoarding pantry.

Ross A. FeldnerRCC Board Member

Publications and Web Consultant, Ross FeldnerRoss Feldner is the lead, with Bob Musil, of the RCC Bird Watch and Wonder Program. Ross is a life-long birder and photographer who is the editor of the Friends of Patuxent National Wildlife Refuge newsletter. Ross also serves as a guide at the Patuxent National Wildlife Refuge, a frequent birding spot for Rachel Carson who first learned about the health effects of DDT at the laboratory there. He is also the owner/art director of New Age Graphics, a full-service graphic design firm in Wheaton, MD.