COMMON NAME: Woodpeckers
SCIENTIFIC NAME: Various
CLASS/ORDER/FAMILY: Aves/Piciformes/Picidae

INTRODUCTION

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.

RECOGNITION

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.

SIMILAR GROUPS

(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.

REPRESENTATIVE SPECIES

The 4 species listed below are those which typically cause problems on structures, from drumming to actual damage.

1. 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 in winter.

2. 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 in winter.

3. 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.

4. 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.

BIOLOGY

This can be summarized for the 4 representative species as follows:

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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 with suet.

HABITS

For the 4 representative species, this can be summarized as follows:

1. 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.

2. Hairy woodpecker. Similar to downy woodpecker except they prefer deciduous/hardwood forests in addition to the other habitats given.

3. 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).

4. 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.

Woodpeckers 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.

Woodpeckers 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 preferred.

CONTROL

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).

Because 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.

Exclusion 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.

Occasionally repellents, such as bright aluminum/plastic strips, noise makers, and sticky/tacky gels, may give some relief.

Permits 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 liability/damage.

In 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.

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