Woodpeckers live up to their namesake – they peck wood. They peck wood to hunt for insects and to create nest cavities. Woodpeckers are called a “keystone species” for their role in creating habitat that other wildlife use for nesting and protection. Abandoned or unused Woodpecker nest-holes become nests or roosts for small Owls, Kestrels, some Ducks, and many birds including Blue birds and Tree Swallows. An unpleasant-looking dead tree, broken off at the top and with multiple holes in it, may actually be one of the most valuable trees in a forest. In simple terms, other bird species have better survival odds because of Woodpeckers.
It's late fall and Woodpeckers are reminding me why they’re one of my favorites. In part it’s because they’re one of the few species that remain in my region year-round. It’s also because they’re always beautiful and always enjoyable to watch. I want to spotlight several of my favorite Woodpecker images and share some facts and tips about these Master Wood Carvers -- including how to peacefully coexist with them.
Fledgling Downy Woodpecker
- Woodpeckers prefer dead trees. Unless a live tree is loaded with the kind of bugs woodpeckers like, they typically do their wood pecking (feeding) on dead trees. This is just one reason why it’s important to leave dead trees in place, when safe and possible.
Red Shafted Northern FlickerWoodpeckers prefer dead trees
- Woodpeckers are found nearly everywhere in the world; except Australia, New Guinea, New Zealand, Madagascar, and the extreme polar regions.
- Woodpeckers drum on wood to find food, but also to communicate with other Woodpeckers. Specifically, to attract mates and claim territory.
- Some woodpeckers have a sweet tooth. Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers drill holes to tap into the sugary sap in trees. They’ve also been known to eat berries, which is where I photographed the sapsucker below. If you place hummingbird feeders up you may also notice downy or hairy woodpeckers occasionally drinking from them for a sweet snack.
Male Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Downy WoodpeckerDowny Woodpecker looking for some seeds in winter
- Woodpeckers have excellent hearing and can hear bug movement in wood. The sound of bugs in wood is one thing that triggers them to drum into wood.
- It’s all in their heads. Woodpeckers have powerful muscles around their heads. These muscles and surrounding tissues allow them to safely drill into wood with force and to do it repeatedly. The total length of a woodpecker tongue can be up to a third of the bird's total body length and part of the tongue is anchored in their heads. If our tongues were the same proportion as woodpeckers’, they would be around two feet long. Woodpeckers need those long tongues to reach the bugs and insects they feed on.
Male Pileated WoodpeckerMaster Wood Carver
- On occasion, and temporarily, some Woodpeckers, including Northern Flickers, will drum on metal. When trying to attract mates, Northern Flickers learn that some of those metal parts high up on our homes make a really big sound when pecked. Perfect for attracting other Northern Flickers! It’s happened at my home and my neighbors’ homes, though no damage ever resulted. Woodpecker drumming for territory or social reasons typically occurs in the early spring at the start of the breeding season and lasts for a very short time. With that said, you can buy flexible foam or plastic padding from a hardware store and wrap it around the metal cap. The muffled sound can encourage woodpeckers to move on.
Yellow Shafted Northern FlickerListening for Bugs?
- It’s also the case that a woodpecker might be attracted to pecking on wood parts of your home. This is usually because rotting wood is present and bugs have made their way into the wood. If this happens, the first thing to do is KNOW THE LAW. Woodpeckers have protection under federal law (the Migratory Bird Treaty Act). This means there are things we can and can’t do when trying to control woodpeckers. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service is the authority on this and they have a helpful article with resources and information.
Last and not least -- there are things we can all do to help Woodpeckers
- In the colder months provide suet, peanut feeders, and/or peanut butter feeders (a favorite of Northern Flickers) when other food sources are scarce.
- If you have to cut down a tree, consider leaving part of it as a snag. You’ll be helping the woodpeckers, and all the species that depend on them for homes.
- Keep cats indoors
- Avoid pesticides
Sources and Information