Cavity Nesters: Birds that Use Holes in Trees

Bird_Northern Flicker

Half of all birds are cavity nesters. Woodpeckers, owls, chickadees, nuthatches, and parrots are among the species that do. Cavity nests are safer than open nests.

Cavity nesters can be divided into several categories:

  • those who excavate their own nests and don’t use abandoned holes (primary excavators)
  • those who excavate and use natural or abandoned cavities
  • those who don’t excavate but use natural or abandoned cavities – snags (secondary cavity nesters)

Remember: Good birders don’t disturb nesting birds. Observing nesting birds should be only done from inside a blind (like your house) or not at all.

Female Hairy Woodpecker Picoides villosus) at nest cavity
Female Hairy Woodpecker Picoides villosus) at nest cavity

Do-It-Yourselfers: Birds that Excavate Their Own Cavity Nests

Woodpeckers are the primary excavators of nest holes. Where the Northern Flicker is the primary nest cavity excavators, the Flicker’s nest holes provide homes to over thirteen species of mammal and bird species.

On average it takes a woodpecker two weeks to excavate a cavity.

Most birds that nest and excavate in living trees choose softwoods such as aspens. Some woodpecker species will choose living trees with hardwood softened  by fungal disease to drill new nests. The woodpeckers spread the fungal infections by carrying the spores on their bills. This creates future potential nest sites.

Other species will choose trees with wood softened by disease and fungal infestations. These primary nest hole builders include:

  • Northern Flicker
  • Pileated Woodpecker
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • Red-headed Woodpecker
  • Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
  • Hairy Woodpecker
  • Downy Woodpecker


Species that nest in living trees often make new holes in the same tree over several years.

Eastern Woodpeckers that use Living or Dying and Dead Trees

  • Red-cockaded Woodpecker –  living pines; taking up to two years to excavate the cavity
  • Yellow-bellied Sapsucker – living poplar or birch tree with heart rot
  • Downy Woodpecker – dying or decaying tree
  • Hairy Woodpecker – living or decaying tree trunk or limb
  • Flicker – dead or dying deciduous tree

The Red-cockaded Woodpecker (Picodes borealis) nests in living pines. It is a rare and local bird of the southeastern U.S. It lives in mature Longleaf Pine savannas. It spends on average two years excavating the cavity because of the living trees relatively hard wood.


Western Woodpeckers that Excavate Nest Holes in Living Trees

  • Golden-fronted Woodpecker – live trunk or large tree; usually mesquite, pecan, oak or in a dead limb
  • Yellow-bellied Sapsucker – live tree with rotting heartwood caused by fungus
  • Red-naped Sapsucker – dead or living tree with rotting heartwood caused by fungus
  • Ladder-backed Woodpecker – live saguaro cactus
  • White-headed Woodpecker – live tree or dead shrub of pine
  • Black-backed Woodpecker – live tree with rotting heartwood


Both male and female woodpeckers build nest holes. Most woodpecker species will excavate a new nest cavity every year. This provides plenty of abandoned cavities for other animals to use. Woodpeckers are supremely important to ecosystems for their excavation activities. Many woodpecker species are poorly studied. This means citizen scientists can help to fill in the gaps in research by collecting data.

Woodpecker nest holes can be identified by shape. The large Pileated Woodpecker makes a large squarish, oblong hole. The wood chips beneath the hole will be oblong, too. Wood chips are often used to line the nesting cavity. Hairy Woodpeckers make round holes.

Black-capped Chickadee nest cavity
Black-capped Chickadee (Parus atricapillus) nest cavity. Photo Credit: Sara Hollerich, USFWS.

Birds Who Excavate their Own Cavity Nest or Use Natural or Abandoned Cavities

Secondary nesters will build their nest on top of the old nests left in the hole. Snags (standing dead trees) with natural cavities are important to secondary cavity nesters. Secondary cavity nesters are the birds that will use human-made birdhouses.

Chickadees and nuthatch don’t have the powerhouse drilling bills of woodpeckers. But these little birds manage to drill their own nest cavities in the rotten wood of old trees.

  • Black-capped Chickadee
  • Carolina Chickadee
  • Red-breasted Nuthatch
  • Brown-headed Nuthatch
House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) entering nest cavity
House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) entering nest cavity

Birds who can’t excavate and only use natural or abandoned cavities

Some birds are unable to excavate their own nests. These species will locate and occupy abandoned woodpecker holes. The competition is fierce among these secondary cavity nesters to find and keep their nest holes. These birds will often use birdhouses.

  • Bluebirds
  • Brown Creeper
  • Carolina Wren
  • European Starlings
  • Wood Ducks
  • Common Goldeneye Duck
  • Bufflehead Duck
  • Barrow’s Goldeneye Duck
  • Barn Owls
  • Eastern Screech-Owl
  • Great Horned Owl
  • Northern Hawk Owl
  • Elf Owl
  • Barred Owl
  • Long-eared Owl
  • Boreal Owl
  • Saw-whet Owl
  • American Kestrel
  • Purple Martin (in Western North America)
  • Tree Swallow
  • Tufted Titmouse
  • White-breasted Nuthatch
  • House Wren
  • Winter Wren
  • Prothonotary Warbler

On really cold nights, some birds have been known to seek the shelter of abandoned nest holes to survive the cold. Many birds will even gather together in holes for warmth.

bird houses
martin houses at Tinicum NWR

Winter Nature Journal Activity Ideas

Find abandoned nest cavities in trees

  • search for abandoned bird nests and holes
  • sketch the holes
  • note whether the wood is living, rotten or diseased
  • guess who made the hole
  • guess  the age of the hole
  • guess who might live in the hole

I’d be careful looking into the hole. You don’t want to startle a Great Horned Owl with sharp talons.

And if you upload your sketch to the Internet, let me know. I would like to share it with your fellow naturalists. We would love to see it.

Further Information

Winter Animal Signs

Nesting Boxes: National Wildlife Federation

A Winter Bird Feeding Guide: Attract Birds to Your Backyard

Winter Birding: How to Master It 

Put Out Nesting Materials and Nest Boxes, March 1 



  1. I enjoyed your article about cavity nesters. One of your statements caught my eye:
    “Some woodpecker species will choose living trees with solid hardwood to drill new nests.”
    I remember reading a couple of years ago that a woodpecker made its cavity in a ‘healthy’ tree and took 2 or 3 years to do so. I have been unable to find that reference again.
    Can you please provide me what woodpecker species make their cavity in a healthy tree?
    Inquiring minds want to know!
    Many thanks.
    Jim Wilson

    • Hi, Jim
      Thanks for contacting me. I’ll get back to you on the woodpecker species. I don’t recall which one off the top of me head.

    • Hi, Jim
      Here is an answer to your question. I focused on the key idea of taking 2 or 3 years to excavate a nest cavity. The only bird that I found that takes that long is the Red-cockaded Woodpecker (Picodes borealis) that nest in living pines. It is a rare and local bird of the southeastern U.S. It lives in mature Longleaf Pine savannas. It spends on average two years excavating the cavity because of the living trees relatively hard wood. I found this information in – wait for it – The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior, 1st edition, p. 381 by David Allen Sibley.
      I am also updating the “Cavity nesters” post with all the other info I found. Thanks for an absorbing mystery to solve. Peace, Donna

      • Donna
        Thank you! I have the Sibley’s book on my shelf but I never thought to look thru it for an answer.
        I am enjoying reading your articles now that I have discovered them.
        Jim Wilson

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