Their common name reflects that they routinely peck wood,
for food (insects), for shelter (nests), and for drumming
to establish territories and attract mates. Woodpeckers may
be nuisance or damaging pests when they attack wood structures,
but they are federally protected. Although this family includes
the sapsuckers (horizontally band a tree trunk with small
1/2"/6 mm holes) and the flickers, this section is restricted
to woodpeckers. There are 22 species found in Canada, the
United States, and Mexico.
Depending on the species, adults about 6-18"; (15.2-45.7
cm) long. Color varies greatly between species but most males
with some red on head and many species with black and white
marks. Bills stout, sharply pointed, chisellike. Tail feathers
stiff and spiny, used as support prop. Legs short, each with
2 sharp-clawed backward-pointed toes.
(1) Sapsuckers (Picidae) almost always with long white wing
patch, if lacking then with yellow belly and barred back.
(2) Flickers (Picidae) with black patch across its chest and
usually brown barred back.
The 4 species listed below are those which typically cause
problems on structures, from drumming to actual damage.
Downy woodpecker, Picoides pubescens (Linnaeus). Adults about
6" (15.2 cm) long; color black and white, head with black
and white stripes, back black with white in center, wings
black with white spots, outer tail feathers white with narrow
black bars, underparts white, male with small red patch on
nape (back of neck); bill short, about half head length; found
in southeastern Alaska east to Newfoundland and south to southern
California and Florida, with northern birds migrating south
Hairy woodpecker, Picoides villosus (Linnaeus). Adults about
9-9 1/4" (22.9-23.5 cm) long; color black and white,
similar to downy woodpecker except outer tail feathers white,
lacking black bars; bill almost as long as head; found in
southern Alaska east to Newfoundland and south to Florida
and Central America, with some northern birds migrating south
Pileated woodpecker, Dryocopus pileatus (Linnaeus). Adults
about 16 1/2-18& (41.9-45.7 cm) long; color mostly black
with white face and neck stripes, white wing linings, and
male with bright red crest, crown, forehead, and mustache
(off beak base) but female with red crest and crown only;
found in southern Canada south to northern California in west
and in eastern United States through Florida.
Red-bellied woodpecker, Melanerpes carolinus (Linnaeus). Adults
about 9-10" (22.9-25.4 cm) long; color with head and
belly tan, back, tail, and wings black barred with white,
and male with red crown and nape (back of neck) but female
with red nape only; found in the eastern United States.
This can be summarized for the 4 representative species as
Downy woodpecker. Females lay 4-5 white eggs. The incubation
period is 12 days. The young hatch helpless and are dependent
on parental care. Young birds leave the nest in about 12 days.
There are 1-2 broods per year. They feed on a variety of insects
including wood-boring beetles; also found at feeders for suet
and sunflower seeds.
Hairy woodpecker. Females lay 4-6 white eggs. The incubation
period is 11-12 days. The young hatch helpless and are dependent
on parental care. Young woodpeckers leave the nest in 28-30
days. There is 1 brood per year. They feed on a variety of
insects including wood-boring beetles; also found at feeders
for suet and sunflower seeds.
Pileated woodpecker. Females lay 3-5 white eggs. The incubation
period is 15-16 days. The young hatch helpless and are dependent
on parental care. Young birds leave the nest in about 28+
days. There is 1 brood per year. They feed on carpenter ants
(especially in winter), beetles, and other insects; they also
feed on seeds and come to feeders for suet mixes.
Red-bellied woodpecker. Females lay 3-8 white eggs. The incubation
period is 12-14 days. The young hatch helpless and are dependent
on parental care. Young woodpeckers leave the nest in 25-30
days. There are 2-3 broods per year. They feed on wood-boring
beetles, grasshoppers, ants, other insects; they also eat
fruit, berries, acorns, beechnuts, seeds, and come to feeders
For the 4 representative species, this can be summarized as
Downy woodpecker. They excavate a nest cavity in dead wood
and rarely accept a nest box. Males drum to announce their
territory and to attract a mate during breeding season. They
are typically found in woods, wood lots, parks, gardens, farms,
suburbs, and frequent suet feeders in winter.
Hairy woodpecker. Similar to downy woodpecker except they
prefer deciduous/hardwood forests in addition to the other
Pileated woodpecker. They excavate a nest cavity in dead wood
about 15-70 ft (521 m) off the ground. The entrance hole is
about 3 1/2" (8.9 cm) in diameter and the cavity may
be 10-24" (24.5-61 cm) deep. Feeding holes are squarish
and about 3-6" (7.615.2 cm) in size; occasionally they
may excavate a long gash when after ants. Unmated males drum
to attract a mate, or drumming can be done between mated pairs
as part of the courtship. They are typically found in mature
forests and along their borders as well as in the suburbs.
Their territory size may be 150-200 acres (60.7-80.9 ha).
Red-bellied woodpecker. They excavate a nest cavity in a living
tree or one which recently died, but they will also use an
abandoned hole in an old stump, fence post, or utility pole,
as well as a bird house. Males and females mutually drum in
1-second bursts as a part of courtship, usually with one inside
a potential nest hole and the other on the outside. They habitually
store food by wedging it deeply in crevices. They are found
in woodlands, parks, and the suburbs.
occasionally achieve pest status because of their drumming
on structures and/or attacking wood structures because of
an insect infestation, for nut storage, or as a potential
nesting site. For drumming purposes, they prefer substrates
which resonate loudly, such as gutters, vents, metal siding,
drain pipes, chimney caps, roof vents, etc. Drumming may be
done several times each day and can continue for several days
or weeks It may result in damage to the surface used and/or
a most annoying racket.
will attack the wood of a structure especially if it is insect
infested. The acorn woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorus Swainson),
which occurs in the western and southwestern states, drills
a series of closely spaced holes just large enough to store
1 acorn in each. Sometimes wood is pecked and explored as
a possible nesting site, with cedar and redwood siding being
Woodpeckers are protected by the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty
Act as migratory, nongame birds. Some species are also protected
by state laws. Two species are on the Endangered Species list,
namely the red-cockaded woodpecker (Picoides borealis Vieillot)
and the ivory-billed woodpecker (Campephilus principalis Linnaeus).
woodpeckers can be very persistent and are not easily driven
from selected territories or pecking sites, any control effort
should be started as soon as the problem begins. Positive
results come easier before their territories are well established.
Serious damage is more likely to occur to summer/vacation
homes which are often vacant, since the attack can persist
for long periods of time before discovered.
is the best overall control technique. To prevent further
damage to wood beneath the eaves, plastic bird netting can
be installed from the gutter angled back to the siding below
the damaged area. Metal sheeting (aluminum usually best) painted
to match the siding can be installed over the area being attacked;
hardware cloth can also be used but should be raised on 1"
(2.5 cm) wood spacers.
repellents, such as bright aluminum/plastic strips, noise
makers, and sticky/tacky gels, may give some relief.
are required for the use of wooden-based rat snap traps. Nail
the trap to the siding alongside the damage with the trigger
downward. Bait the trap with walnut/almond/pecan nut meats
or suet. These traps are quite effective as is shooting which
also requires a permit and an excellent marksperson to avoid
general, decoys do not work. Although treating insect infested
wood may have some merit, woodpeckers often attack sound and/or
uninfested wood and hence such treatment is not appropriate.