Woodpeckers Drilling & Drumming
In the spring and fall, hundreds of homeowners are awakened by a woodpecker drumming on metal outside their house or have become aware of holes in their siding created by a drilling woodpecker. Four New England woodpeckers are known to drill and drum on houses: the Hairy Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Pileated Woodpecker, and Northern Flicker. The most common offender in Massachusetts seems to be the Downy Woodpecker.
Woodpeckers are superbly adapted to life in the trees. Their feet have two toes pointing forward and two pointing rearward, and sharp pointed claws, enabling the birds to scale vertical tree trunks and other vertical surfaces. Their stiff tail feathers act as props (like a third leg) when the birds are climbing. All woodpeckers have straight pointed bills and reinforced skulls to absorb the constant shock of pecking and chiseling.
NEST AND ROOST SITES
Woodpeckers excavate cavities in wood for places to rear young during the breeding season, and to roost during the winter. They are the only birds in our region to make tree cavities and therefore have an important role in the ecology of the forest as a whole. Kestrels, owls, Tree Swallows, Crested Flycatchers, chickadees, nuthatches, bluebirds, flying squirrels, and other species all use abandoned woodpecker holes for rearing their own young. Drilling and chipping for food and shelter also contribute to the necessary decomposition of dead trees.
Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers lay an average of 4-5 eggs in a tree or branch cavity during the month of May. The male and female take turns incubating the eggs (the male brooding at night) for about 12 days. After hatching, the young are fed at the nest by both parents for 20-22 days and for another three weeks after they leave the nest.
Primarily insectivorous, woodpeckers consume beetles, ants, aphids, flies, and caterpillars. The birds use their long tongues with bristly tips to extract insects from holes in wood. Woodpeckers may locate prey acoustically. They seem to be able to hear the rustling and chewing sounds that insects make in the wood. Flickers feed mainly on the ground and are often seen hopping about lawns looking for their favorite food, ants. Woodpeckers will also eat acorns, pine seeds, nuts, and berries. The Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers commonly come to feeders for suet and sunflower seeds.
SITUATIONS AND SOLUTIONS
WOODPECKERS AND HOUSES
Although woodpeckers are beneficial members of the wildlife community, they can at times come into conflict with people. To a woodpecker, a wooden house is simply a large, oddly shaped tree, and the birds frequently choose houses as drilling or drumming sites.
Drilling and drumming are two distinct types of behavior.
DRILLING ON HOUSES
When woodpeckers drill on a house, they actually chip out wood and create holes in the search for food or the need to create cavities. Those houses that are attacked are often dark in color (browns and grays), or are natural stained cedar or redwood. Damage is usually located in shingling or corner posts, and the holes are generally quarter- to half-dollar sized and fairly deep. There may be one or two holes, or dozens, and the damage can be extensive. Often there is no particular pattern to the placement of the holes. Most of the drilling on houses occurs in the fall (September through November).
Several theories have been put forth to explain drilling behavior:
1) A primary driving force behind these drillings may be the need to excavate nesting and roosting cavities. In the fall, woodpeckers excavate several roosting holes in preparation for the coming winter. In the spring, there is a resurgence of drilling activity in preparation for the nesting season. These are the two times of year when woodpecker activity on houses is most prevalent.
2) One suggests that the culprits are inexperienced juveniles that are stressed for food in the fall. A house with hollow-sounding wood may seem like a likely place to search for insects. In fact, many small insects such as earwigs, cluster flies, and wasps, do hibernate under shingles and clapboards on houses in the fall. However, the presence of a woodpecker drilling on your house does not necessarily mean that you have a harmful infestation of insects. In fact, we have not heard of any cases in which the cause of woodpecker damage to a house was an insect infestation.
3) It has also been suggested that the woodpeckers are attracted to the buzz of electrical wires and appliances in a house. It may be that these sounds mimic the rustling of insects in the wood. However, in many instances the birds are found drilling in areas far from any wiring. It seems doubtful that this is a significant factor in drilling behavior.
In all cases, it is best to start deterrents as soon as the bird is noticed on the house, and before it becomes too attached to the site. Bear in mind that this is a temporary (seasonal) problem and that these measures can usually be discontinued in a few weeks.
COVER THE AREA BEING DAMAGED
Woodpeckers show strong preferences for particular sites, and are difficult to dissuade from drilling and drumming on favorite spots. However, there are some things homeowners can do to protect their houses. A large sheet of plastic, such as a painters’ drop cloth or a heavy duty garbage bag, can be tacked over the wood or metal on a house. Attach the plastic sheet at the top and leave the bottom free to bunch and blow in the wind. The birds will then not be able to get a good footing on the plastic, and the movement of the plastic will help scare the birds away.
In other areas of the house, such as corners or under eaves, bird netting (i.e., fruit tree netting, available at garden supply centers) can be stretched (keep it at least 6 inches from the surface) so that the woodpecker cannot reach the wood or metal.
Try hanging several, 6 foot long mylar streamers (found in party supply stores) ten inches apart over the damaged area. In hard to reach or inaccessible areas, extend helium-filled mylar balloons (with very long strings) directly in front of the area. The movement of these materials when the wind blows will help to deter the birds. The homeowner can supplement these scare tactics by squirting a hose near the bird before it gets settled in to work in the mornings.
Waste money on plastic owls or rubber snakes. These items are of no use in deterring woodpeckers. Mothballs are also ineffective since the birds do not have a well developed sense of smell. There are no repellents that will effectively and safely deter woodpeckers.
Conflicts between woodpeckers and people can generally be resolved if homeowners make an effort to discourage the birds. Plastic sheeting and balloons and streamers are effective in deterring most woodpeckers. Leaving dead trees and snags around the yard will also help provide natural feeding, nesting, and drumming sites for the birds.
BIRDS AND THE LAW
All birds are protected by federal laws under the “Migratory Bird Act of 1918,” as well as by Massachusetts state laws. It is illegal to destroy, relocate or possess birds, their nests or their eggs. The only exceptions are non-native species: House Sparrow, European Starling, and Pigeon. Trained and licensed wildlife rehabilitators, who have passed a federal and/or state-administered test, are permitted to care for injured or orphaned wildlife.