Bird Watcher's General Store

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How Much Wood Can a Woodpecker Peck…

Dear Bird Folks,

I’ve always considered myself to be a nature lover. I stop my car to let turtles cross the road. I pick up plastic on the beach. I have several bird feeders and even let the squirrels eat in peace. But I have a woodpecker that is about to turn me into Rambo. It is hammering on my house, waking me up at sunrise, and drilling holes into my shingles. Please tell me how I can get this bird to leave me and my house alone.

– Pat, Westport, MA


You have company Pat,

You are so not alone on this woodpecker thing. In the past few weeks I’ve gotten notes from Larry in Truro, Mary in Orleans, Jerry in Springfield, Donna from Virginia Beach, and someone named “Ready to Snap” in Portland (must be a family name). And that’s just to name a few. This time of year I get a lot of calls and letters about woodpeckers and most have an angry edge to them. A few people act as if annoying woodpecker behavior is somehow my fault. Let me set the record straight, I don’t control woodpeckers. I don’t control any creature. Okay, maybe once in a while I’ll tip off a squirrel on how to steal food from a bird feeder, but that’s it, I swear.

As you know, woodpeckers like wood, and most of our houses are made of wood. That’s an unfortunate coincidence. To a woodpecker our wooden homes are nothing more than giant odd-shaped trees, with tacky curtains and doorbells. Very rarely do I hear of woodpecker problems from people who live in brick houses. These people clearly learned a valuable lesson from the Three Little Pigs.

Woodpeckers decide to peck on houses for several reasons, none of which anybody fully understands. The first thought is for food. No, the birds don’t eat the house, but they do love those insects. Some houses, whether the owners want to admit it or not, have bugs living under their shingles or clapboards. Woodpeckers have excellent eyesight and are ever vigilant for telltale signs of live food. If a woodpecker thinks you have bugs hiding under your shingles, it is going to go after them. Unfortunately for the homeowner, woodpecker eating habits are noisy and damaging.

The second reason why woodpeckers attack our homes is because our walls are basically hollow. Woodpeckers like to drum on hollow objects to attract a mate or to announce their territory. The trim boards on our houses make wonderful sounding boards for mate attraction. (That’s something you may want to keep in mind, Pat, if you ever need a date.)

The next reason woodpeckers damage our buildings is for a place to roost. Woodpeckers like to have a nice, dry place to crawl into at night, just like we do. You may have noticed that I’ve often suggested that we need to allow more dead trees to remain standing. Here is reason #27 why dead trees are important. If a woodpecker can’t find a rotting tree to hack out, then it may pick the next closest wooden object, which could be your house. Woodpeckers aren’t fussy. They have no qualms about sharing your living quarters, especially if you have cable.

There are many other reasons why woodpeckers chomp on houses, but apparently those reasons are known only to the woodpeckers themselves. Sometimes there are no bugs under the shingles, there are plenty of dead trees nearby for them to live in and still they hack our houses. I think they just like to play with our heads. Strangely, woodpecker attacks have nothing to do with whether we feed them or not. Many people have suet feeders out to attract woodpeckers, while others have no interest in woodpeckers or any other bird. If there was equity in the world, those disinterested people would take the hit and the feeder people would get a pass. Unfortunately, for us good people, this is not the case. Feeder or no feeder there’s an equal chance the birds may drill into our homes. Where’s the justice?

According to Massachusetts Audubon, New England has four woodpecker species that have been known to bang on buildings: the Northern Flicker, Downy Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, and Pileated Woodpecker. For the sake of every homeowner, I hope drumming attacks by the jumbo Pileated Woodpecker are rare. One of those birds could turn an entire house into kindling in a half hour, or less. Fortunately most attacks in our area are from the sweet little Downy Woodpecker. Well, downys are little for sure, but whether they are sweet or not depends on which side of their beak your house is on.

Now that we have vaguely explained why woodpeckers trash our homes, the next step is what to do about it. The answer to that question is simple, but gosh, look at the time. I’m late for my haircut appointment. The answer will have to wait until next week, after I get a haircut. And after I think of an answer.