Living in the City of Oaks, it is common to hear the sound of woodpeckers drumming in my backyard.
Trees, fences, telephone poles and houses with wooden siding all are considered fair game by these fascinating birds that nest in cavities they create by hammering into wood with their strong beaks.
While out walking recently, I heard a startling sound, like a jackhammer drilling into metal. But it was only a large red-bellied woodpecker marking his territory on a nearby downspout. While I love to see these colorful birds, I had to wonder whether woodpeckers are a type of wildlife that I really want to attract to my backyard. Are they a menace or simply misunderstood?
Woodpeckers do at times damage personal property, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which has been studying woodpecker habits since the early 2000s to determine the risk they pose to houses and other structures.
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Their research determined that when woodpeckers are seeking to build nesting or roosting cavities, they are more likely to hammer on and damage wood siding that is stained in a natural color, especially cedar shakes and clapboards. But when it comes to drumming – the insistent hammering sound that has been common in my neighborhood lately – pretty much any structure is at risk. That’s because the drumming sound is considered more of a communication vehicle than an attempt to build a nest or search for insects to eat, especially in early spring.
“Since woodpeckers do not have a song … drumming may serve as a territorial signal similar to bird song and it may also serve to attract a mate,” according to the website birds.cornell.edu. “Both sexes are known to drum.”
Though they don’t have a traditional birdsong, they do create sometimes shrill sounds, which birdwatchers can use to help identify the type of woodpecker spotted. To hear the individual chirps, coos and caws, visit audubon.org/bird-family/woodpeckers.
As for physiology, the woodpecker’s vigorous tapping activities are made possible by its strong bill and powerful neck muscles, as well as a thick skull that protects the bird as it pounds away. Each bird may drum as many as 10,000 times per day.
Woodpeckers are part of the Picidae bird family with opposing toes – two that face forward and two backward. Unlike most songbirds, they hang vertically by their feet rather than perching. The also have long tongues with sticky saliva that helps them scoop out insects burrowed inside the wood.
In early spring, most woodpeckers stake out a territory with their tapping. By full summer, the nest – or cavity – building will begin in earnest as they prepare to lay eggs and raise their young.
A woodpecker may drum as many as 10,000 times per day.
Woodpeckers seen most commonly in the Piedmont are Red-bellied and Downy types, as well as the Northern Flicker, a brownish bird with a yellow tinge.
Red-headed woodpeckers, Pilliated, Red-cockaded and Hairy woodpeckers are here as well, but not in as large numbers and are much less likely to show up at the backyard feeder, said Tracy Atkins Rehberg, owner of the Wild Bird Center in Chapel Hill. The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is here during winters only, flying back to cooler climbs in the spring.
I asked about the birding community’s embrace of woodpeckers, and Rehberg assured me they have many fans.
“I lot of people like to attract woodpeckers,” she said. “They’re one of the more popular birds.”
Among the benefits of having woodpeckers around is their love of insects – the beetles, ants, caterpillars, bees, flies, mosquitoes and others found behind tree bark or along fence rows. But they also enjoy meals of fruit, acorns and nuts, items more likely to be found in a backyard feeder.
In Rehberg’s shop, there are suet plugs and cakes made for woodpeckers that contain peanuts and tree nuts, sunflower seeds, pecans and other goodies. Some also contain additional calcium, a nutrient that supports skeletal growth and egg-laying activities. Ornithologists surmise that woodpeckers hammering on Masonite siding may be looking for the calcium silicate it contains.
Rehberg suggests saving eggshells and crushing them for a calcium-rich meal woodpeckers and other birds would enjoy.
Identifying types of woodpeckers appears relatively easy, with the exception that the Red-bellied woodpecker is often mistaken for the Red-headed version. Both have red crowns, although the Red-bellied bird’s coloring is duller and covers a smaller area of the head than the official Red-headed version, Rehbert said.
Woodpeckers do become a nuisance, at times, Rehberg said.
“Some people are plagued by them constantly returning to drum on their house,” she added.
A woodpecker convinced that your wooden frame building is full of insects or would be an ideal nesting spot can be hard to dissuade. In the case of insects, it’s likely that the wood can be treated and the birds will eventually stop the behavior.
Otherwise, a number of sources seem to agree that the best deterrent is to hang several shiny streamers that move with the wind in the area you want to protect. Woodpeckers dislike that combination, for some reason, and will tend to avoid the area.