WOODPECKERS

Rex E. Marsh Fig.1. Red-headed woodpecker, Melanerpes erythrocephalus (left); downy woodpecker, Picoides pubescens (right).

Specialist in Vertebrate Ecology (retired) Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Conservation Biology University of California Davis, California 95616

Fig. 1. Red-headed woodpecker, Melanerpes erythrocephalus (left); downy woodpecker, Picoides pubescens (right).

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Woodpeckers

Legal Status

Woodpeckers are classified as migratory, nongame birds and are protected by the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The red-cockaded woodpecker (Picoides borealis) and the ivory-billed woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) are on the Endangered Species list and are thus offered full protection. When warranted, woodpeckers other than the endangered species can be killed but only under a permit issued by the Law Enforcement Division of the US Fish and Wildlife Service upon recommendation of USDA-APHIS-Wildlife Services personnel. Generally, there must be a good case to justify issuance of a permit.

Woodpeckers are commonly protected under state laws, and in those instances a state permit may be required for measures that involve lethal control or nest destruction. Other methods of reducing woodpecker damage do not infringe upon their legal protection status. Threatened or endangered species, however, cannot be harassed.

Damage Prevention and Control Methods

Exclusion

Netting. One of the most effective methods of excluding woodpeckers from damaging wood siding beneath the eaves is to place lightweight plastic bird-type netting over the area. A mesh of 3/4 inch (1.9 cm) is generally recommended. At least 3 inches (7.6 cm) of space should be left between the netting and the damaged building so that birds cannot cause damage through the mesh. The netting can also be attached to the overhanging eaves and angled back to the siding below the damaged area and secured taut but not overly tight (Fig. 3). Be sure to secure the netting so that the birds have no way to get behind it. If installed properly, the netting is barely visible from a distance and will offer a long-term solution to the damage problem. If the birds move to another area of the dwelling, that too will need to be netted.

Netting is becoming increasingly popular as a solution to woodpecker problems because it consistently gives desired results.

Fig.3. Plastic netting atached to a building from the outside edge of the eave and angled back to the wood siding. Insert shows one method of attachment using hooks and wooden dowels.

Fig. 3. Plastic netting attached to a building from the outside edge of the eave and angled back to the wood siding. Insert shows one method of attachment using hooks and wooden dowels.

Metal barriers. Place metal sheathing or plastic sheeting over the pecked areas on building siding to offer permanent protection from continued damage. Like all repelling methods, metal barriers work best if installed as soon as damage begins. Occasionally the birds will move over to an unprotected spot and the protected area must be expanded. Aluminum flashing is easy to work with to cover damaged sites. Woodpeckers will sometimes peck through aluminum if they can secure a foothold from which to work. Metal sheathing can be disguised with paint or simulated wood grain to match the siding.

Quarter-inch (0.6-cm) hardware cloth has also been used to cover pecked areas and prevent further damage. It can be spray painted to match the color of the building. The wire can either be attached directly to the wood surface being damaged, or raised outward from the wood siding with 1-inch (2.5-cm) wood spacers.

Once the woodpeckers have been discouraged, frightened away, or killed, the damaged spots on houses should be repaired by filling in the holes with wood patch or covering them to prevent woodpeckers from being attracted to the damaged site at some future time.

Some of the harder compressed wood or wood-fiber siding materials cannot be damaged by woodpeckers. Presumably, their hardness and/or smooth surface serve as deterrents. Aluminum siding can also be used as an alternative to wood siding.

To protect trees from sapsuckers, wrap barriers of 1/4-inch (0.6-cm) hardware cloth, plastic mesh, or burlap around injured areas to discourage further damage. This method may be practical for protecting high-value ornamental or shade trees. In orchards and forested areas it may be best to let the sapsuckers work on one or more of their favorite trees. Discouraging them from select trees may encourage the birds to disperse to others, causing damage to a greater number of trees.

Frightening Devices

Visual. Stationary model hawks or owls, fake and simulated snakes, and owl and cat silhouettes are generally considered ineffective as repellents. Toy plastic twirlers or windmills fastened to the eaves, and aluminum foil or brightly colored plastic strips, bright tin lids, and pie pans hung from above, all of which repel by movement and/or reflection, have been used with some success, as have suspended falcon silhouettes, especially if put in place soon after the damage starts. The twirlers and plastic strips rely on a breeze for motion. Stretching reflective mylar tape strips across a damaged area, or attaching them to the eaves and letting them hang down (weighted or unweighted) is a recent alternative to aluminum strips. Large rubber balloons with owl-like eyes painted on them are included in the recent array of frightening devices used to scare woodpeckers.

A good deal of attention has recently been given to round magnifying-type shaving mirrors installed over or adjacent to damaged areas to frighten woodpeckers with their larger-than-life reflections. Success is sometimes reported by those using the method and this encourages further testing. Contrarily, woodpeckers are not discouraged from damaging wooden window frames or casings very near to window panes where their own reflection would frequently be seen. In fact, some believe that seeing their own reflection intensifies the damage as a result of defensive territorial behavior.

Sound. Loud noises such as hand-clapping, a toy cap pistol, and banging on a garbage can lid have been used to frighten woodpeckers away from houses. Such harassment, if repeated when the bird returns, may cause it to leave for good.

Propane exploders (gas cannons) or other commercial noise-producing, frightening devices may have some merit for scaring woodpeckers from commercial orchards, at least for short periods. Because of the noise they produce, they are rarely acceptable near inhabited dwellings or residential areas. Around homes, portable radios have been played with little success in discouraging woodpeckers. Expensive high-frequency sound-producing devices are marketed for controlling various pest birds but rarely provide advertised results. High-frequency sound is above the normal audible hearing range of humans but, unfortunately, above the range of most birds too.

Woodpeckers can be very persistent and are not easily driven from their territories or selected pecking sites. For this reason, visual or sound types of frightening devices for protecting buildings — if they are to be effective at all — should be employed as soon as the problem is identified and before territories are well established. Visual and sound devices often fail to give desired results and netting may have to be installed.

Repellents

Taste. Many chemicals that have objectionable tastes as well as odors have been tested for treating utility poles and fence posts to discourage woodpeckers. Most have proven ineffective or at least not cost-effective.

Odor. Naphthalene (mothballs) is a volatile chemical that has been suggested for woodpecker control. In out-of-door unconfined areas, however, it is of doubtful merit. It is unlikely that high enough odor-repelling concentrations of napthalene could be achieved to effectively repel woodpeckers. Odorous and somewhat toxic wood treatments, such as creosote and pentachlorophenol, which are frequently used to treat utility poles and fence posts, do not resolve the woodpecker problem.

Tactile. Sticky or tacky bird repellents such as Tanglefoot®, 4-The-Birds®, and Roost-No-More®, smeared or placed in wavy bands with a caulking gun on limbs or trunks where sapsuckers are working, will often discourage the birds from orchard, ornamental, and shade trees. These same repellents can be effective in discouraging birds if applied to wood siding and other areas of structural damage. The birds are not entrapped by the sticky substances but rather dislike the tacky footing. A word of caution: some of the sticky bird repellents will discolor painted, stained, or natural wood siding. Others may run in warm weather, leaving unsightly streaks. It is best to try out the material on a small out-of-sight area first before applying it extensively. The tacky repellents can be applied to a thin piece of pressed board, ridged clear plastic sheets, or other suitable material, which is then fastened to the area where damage is occurring. For sources of sticky or tacky bird repellents, refer to Supplies and Materials.

Toxicants

Toxicants have only rarely been used to protect fruit crops. Woodpecker problems can be resolved without toxicants and none are registered for such use.

Trapping

Wooden-base rat snap traps can be effective in killing the offending birds. Federal and, most likely, state permits are required. The trap is nailed to the building with the trigger downward alongside the spot sustaining the damage. The trap is baited with nut meats (walnuts, almonds, or pecans) or suet. If multiple areas are being damaged, several traps can be used.

Cage traps have been tried in attempts to capture woodpeckers for possible relocation rather than killing the birds. None of those explored were very successful, and more research is needed to develop an effective woodpecker cage trap.

Shooting

Where it is necessary to remove the offending birds and the proper permits have been obtained, shooting may be one of the quickest methods of dispatching one or a few birds. The discharging of firearms is often subject to local regulations in residential areas.

At close range, air rifles or .22-caliber rifles with dust shot or BB caps can be effective. Shotguns or .22-caliber rifles may be needed for birds that must be taken from greater distances. Considerable discretion must be used around dwellings. Bullets and shot can travel long distances if they miss their targets.

With appropriate permits, shooting has been occasionally used to reduce woodpecker damage in commercial fruit and nut orchards.

Other Methods

Suet. Placing suet stations near damaged buildings, especially in colder parts of the country, has been recommended to entice woodpeckers away from buildings or damaged areas. Suet offered in the warmer seasons of the year, however, may be potentially harmful to woodpeckers. The suet gets onto the feathers of the head, which may lead to matting and eventual loss of feathers. Some damage control experts believe that any feeding of birds contributes to the problem and recommend against it.

Nest boxes. All North American woodpeckers are primarily cavity nesters that excavate their own cavities, but some of these species, such as golden-fronted, hairy, red-bellied, and red-headed woodpeckers, do occasionally use existing cavities or nest boxes (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4. Artificial nest boxes are used by some species, especially the northern flicker.

Fig. 4. Artificial nest boxes are used by some species, especially the northern flicker.

Northern flickers apparently use artificial boxes more often than any other woodpecker species. Some success has been achieved with the placement of cavity-type nest boxes on the building in the vicinity of damage by northern flickers. A thick layer of sawdust should be placed in the bottom of the box; better yet, some have found that filling the box completely full of sawdust entices the bird to remove the sawdust to the desired level. Possibly, the bird is fooled into thinking it is constructing its own nest. Working against the nest box is the fact that with primary cavity nesters, the preparation of the new cavity often seems a part of the breeding ritual. New cavities are often constructed even where preexisting empty cavities are available.

The use of nest boxes is definitely worth trying in an area where visual or sound methods have failed and where woodpecker populations are desired. Nesting woodpeckers defend their territories and keep other woodpeckers away. What effect such boxes will have on increasing local woodpecker populations is unknown.

Nest boxes are constructed of wood with an entrance hole 16 to 20 inches (40 to 50 cm) above the floor and about 2 1/2 inches (6 cm) in diameter. Inside floor dimensions should be about 6 x 6 inches (15 x 15 cm) and the total height of the box is 22 to 26 inches (56 to 66 cm). A front-sloping hinged roof will shed rain and provide easy access. Place the boxes at about the same height as the height of the structural damage.

Insecticides for indirect control. Based on the premise that woodpeckers are after insects, some control bulletins suggest treating insect-infested siding with an appropriate insecticide as a remedy for damage. While this may have some merit with insect-infested wood, woodpeckers often attack siding, poles, and posts that are sound and without insects. The use of insecticides for indirect control in these instances would be unfounded. Depending on their chemical nature, insecticides may have an adverse effect on the birds. Where the situation warrants the application of an insecticide, it should be selected on the basis of its safety for birds.

Some success has been achieved with the placement of cavity-type nest boxes on the building in the vicinity of damage by northern flickers. A thick layer of sawdust should be placed in the bottom of the box; better yet, some have found that filling the box completely full of sawdust entices the bird to remove the sawdust to the desired level. Possibly, the bird is fooled into thinking it is constructing its own nest. Working against the nest box is the fact that with primary cavity nesters, the preparation of the new cavity often seems a part of the breeding ritual. New cavities are often constructed even where preexisting empty cavities are available.

The use of nest boxes is definitely worth trying in an area where visual or sound methods have failed and where woodpecker populations are desired. Nesting woodpeckers defend their territories and keep other woodpeckers away. What effect such boxes will have on increasing local woodpecker populations is unknown.

 

Editors

Scott E. Hygnstrom; Robert M. Timm; Gary E. Larson

Prevention and Control of Wildlife Damage Logo 1994

PREVENTION AND CONTROL OF WILDLIFE DAMAGE — 1994

Cooperative Extension Division Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources University of Nebraska -Lincoln

United States Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service Animal Damage Control

Great Plains Agricultural Council Wildlife Committee

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