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Downy Woodpecker. Photo by Bet Zimmerman.  

Downies rarely, if ever, nest in a birdhouse, but often roost in them at night. Sometimes they excavate the interior, leaving wood chips behind. More...

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- by E.A. Zimmerman

The smallest and most common woodpecker in North America is the Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens).  They are easily confused with Hairy Woodpeckers, which are larger (remember Hairy = Huge), have a longer bill, and are more wary of humans.  Other woodpeckers seen in CT include the Pileated and Red-bellied.  Red-headed Woodpeckers (males have a totally red head vs. Red-bellieds which sport a orange-red Mohawk-style stripe on their heads) are endangered in CT, but may have been spotted in Pomfret in 2008. 

flicker damage. Photo by Bet Zimmerman
Flickers have created numerous holes in the poor quality stucco used on this commercial building. Nestboxes were placed in some areas, but not directly over the holes that had been excavated. They were used by kestrels and a fox squirrel. Next the company is going to spend about $20,000 on a special stucco coating with embedded mesh and a distasteful tannin ingredient designed to deter woodpeckers.

Downies are often seen at backyard feeders, but three-quarters of their annual diet is made up of animals.  They eat at least 44 different kinds of insects, including beetles, aphids, butterfly and moth larvae, grasshopper eggs, and spiders.   The rest of the time they eat nuts, wild fruit and suet.  Clever Downies have been seen following White-breasted Nuthatches and stealing from their food caches.  They occasionally drink sap and eat cambium (tissue under the bark), but the holes they make are smaller and shallower than Sapsuckers, so they do not injure the tree.  Sapsuckers also have a chisel-like beak. They systematically punch a horizontal line of holes in a tree and then lick up the sweet sap with their tongues.

Downies usually spend the night (called roosting) in snags or dead limbs on live trees.  For nesting, they excavate a cavity with a circular entrance tunnel that curves down and leads to a gourd-shaped cavity.  This type of entrance makes it nearly impossible for climbing predators like raccoons to raid their nests.   Woodpeckers build a new nesting cavity each year, but their leftovers are often used by other birds like bluebirds that do not have strong enough beaks to create their own holes.  

You may hear woodpeckers drumming from February through July.  They create the reverberating staccato by using their bill like a jackhammer.  Drumming is a way to communicate with other members of their species.  It may help to establish and maintain breeding territory; attract, maintain contact with or guard a mate; and solicit sex.  Pairs may engage in duets.  Downies drum 16-17 times per second! Tapping is done at a slower rate than drumming. It is associated mainly with feeding, but may also be done at a nest site, perhaps to gain information about the quality of wood.

If woodpeckers are drumming, drilling or tapping on your dwelling, it can get really annoying.  They can be quite persistent.  Running outside in your bathrobe while waving your arms and screaming like a banshee doesn’t do much in the long term besides amuse your neighbors.  It is illegal to harass or harm protected native birds like woodpeckers. Here are some legal steps you can try to deter woodpeckers from attacking your house. 

  • First check for insect activity.  The birds may be after ants, bees, or flies that hide under siding. If the wood is rotten, replace it. If there is an insect problem, consult with a licensed pest control firm.  By the way, when woodpeckers attack siding, they are not seeking material to line their nests. Most woodpeckers just rely on wood chips or sawdust left over from excavation to cushion their eggs. If they are removing insulation underneath siding, it is probably to find insects underneath.
  • If there are no insects, try balloons, wind chimes, a pinwheel, strings of tin can lids, strips of aluminum foil, or bird "scare tape" where the woodpeckers are active.
  • Try an attack spider by Birds-Away. Unlike most scare devices that birds quickly become accustomed to, this one is motion activated, makes a noise, and is inexpensive.
  • Another option is to hang lengths of monofilament nylon (fishing line) a few inches out from the undersides of your eaves, spaced 4-6" apart along the side of the house. The line should go to the ground, and must be staked or have something like a heavy metal washer on the end to weight it down (otherwise flying birds could get tangled in it.)  It won't be noticeable when you look at the house, but may deter birds.
  • You can also temporarily hang a thick sheet of plastic like a painter's drop cloth over the area they are working on.
    You can try covering or wrapping a drumming site with padding.
  • Or provide an alternate drumming site away from the house. For example, firmly secure a board to a tree, and place another overlapping board on top of it, nailed only at the top end. Covering it with metal sheeting might make the new drum more attractive.  
  • If they make a large hole, they might be excavating a nesting or roosting cavity.  Leaving snags in place (even a 15 foot high stump), or creating new ones (by girdling trees, or cutting down a snag elsewhere and "planting" it in cement) may draw them away. 

In the meantime, keep in mind that woodpeckers are beneficial birds, as they eat many destructive insects and their larvae.

Originally published in the Villager newspapers in May 2009

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