Like the true woodpeckers, Wrynecks have large heads, long tongues which they use to extract their insect prey and zygodactyl feet, with two toes pointing forward, and two backwards. However, they lack the stiff tail feathers that the true woodpeckers use when climbing trees, so they are more likely than their relatives to perch on a branch rather than an upright trunk. Their bills are shorter and less dagger-like than in the true woodpeckers. The two species have cryptic plumage, with intricate patterning of greys and browns. The voice is a nasal woodpecker-like call.
Their their chief prey is ants and other insects, which they find in decaying wood or almost bare soil.
They re-use woodpecker holes for nesting, rather than making their own holes. The eggs are white, as with many hole nesters.