Woodpeckers

Identification | Biology | Damage ID | Management | Resources

Red bellied woodpecker in Central Park (15864)
Figure 1. Red-bellied woodpecker. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Learning Objectives

  1. Explain key elements about the biology of woodpeckers important for their control. 
  2. Understand the federal laws and regulations that limit the control of woodpeckers. 
  3. Explain options for the control of woodpeckers to clients. 

Identification

Woodpeckers, flickers, and sapsuckers are species of birds in the Picidae family. Woodpeckers are found throughout the U.S. Different species are responsible for damage in different regions. The following species of woodpeckers most often are involved in damaging homes or other wooden, human-made structures:

  1. red-headed (Melanerpes erythrocephalus)   
  2. acorn (Melanerpes formicivorus), 
  3. golden-fronted (Melanerpes aurifrons), 
  4. red-bellied (Melanerpes carolinus), 
  5. ladder-backed (Picoides scalaris), 
  6. downy (Picoides pubescens), 
  7. hairy (Picoides villosus), 
  8. northern flicker (Colaptes auratus), and 
  9. pileated (Dryocopus pileatus). 

Although woodpeckers become a nuisance in some situations, they also provide valuable ecological services. Woodpeckers consume substantial numbers of insects, some of which are agricultural and forest pests.  

Legal Status

All species of woodpeckers are classified as migratory non-game birds and are protected by the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Red-cockaded (Picoides borealis) and ivory-billed woodpeckers (Campephilus principalis) are on the Endangered Species list and are offered full protection. When warranted, woodpeckers other than endangered species can be killed under a depredation permit issued by the Law Enforcement Division of the USDI-Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). Authorization by the relevant state wildlife agency also may be required before lethal control methods are initiated. Sound justification must be present for the issuance of depredation permits. Acts of hazing woodpeckers do not require a permit if the species is not endangered. 

Physical Description

Woodpeckers have a sharply pointed beak for excavating holes into wood and a long tongue that can be extended to dislodge insects present inside. Stiff feathers are present on the tail and serve as a prop when climbing vertical surfaces. Each foot has 2 talons that face forward and 2 that face backward, enabling the birds to cling to wooden structures and trees. Woodpeckers usually are 7 to 15 inches in length. Adult males of most species have a pattern of black, white, and red. Females are similar, but most lack red markings (Figure 2).  

Female Downy Woodpecker on Bough
Figure 2. Female downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens). Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Species Range

Range depends on species. Consult a field guide to the birds for more information.  

Voice and Sounds

Each species of woodpecker has characteristic calls. They also use a rhythmic pecking sequence to make their presence known. Referred to as “drumming,” pecking establishes territories and apparently attracts or signals mates. Both sexes drum by striking their bills against a hollow or dried branch or other hollow or resonant objects.  

Tracks and Signs

Tracks of woodpeckers are uncommon. Though sizes differ by species, nearly all have a characteristic butterfly outline (Figure 3). 

Figure 3. Track of a woodpecker. Image by Dee Ebbeka. 
Figure 4. Damage to a building caused by woodpeckers that were feeding. Photo by Stephen M. Vantassel. 

Damage to trees and buildings constitute rows of holes in wooden structures (Figure 4). Pileated woodpeckers make the largest holes of any woodpecker in North America. Other signs may include marks from feeding on trunks and branches of trees, stores of food, and chips of wood on the ground beneath holes in trees. Many signs are species-specific, and signs of woodpeckers may be especially helpful in identifying species in winter, when birds tend to call less often.