Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Woodpeckers Causing Damage to Houses
November 14, 2015
By Steve Grinley

     The first snowy owls of the season have arrived on Plum Island. At least two birds were spotted on the dunes side of the refuge road this week. More are sure to follow.

     Flocks of snow buntings are also being seen on the island and at Salisbury Beach State Reservation. Good numbers of the other “snow bird”, our beloved juncos, are arriving and already showing up at bird feeders. The winter plumaged goldfinches are covering our feeders as I write, with many still waiting their turn. Today’s wet, raw weather might have something to do with that.

     So many customers tell me that the birds have been ravenous lately at their feeders. We hope that it is not indicative of the winter ahead. Often customers tell me that the birds are “eating them out of house and home!”

     Then there are some customers who have one or more birds that ARE literally eating them out of house and home! Woodpeckers are chowing down on the wood shingles, fascia or trim boards on the wood exterior of their houses. And these homeowners are not exactly delighted about it!

     This woodpecker activity is seasonal and often only lasts days or a few weeks. I hear more complaints in the spring, but the last several weeks have been nonstop with phone calls and irate visitors complaining about woodpeckers. For many, the woodpeckers, even the small downy woodpecker, are causing some serious damage!

     There are three main reasons why woodpeckers are drilling on houses. The first is simply drumming to make noise. This happens mostly in spring when they are trying to attract a mate. Clever woodpeckers choose a metal chimney and others a nearby metal lamppost. The metal resonates and carries the sound in their attempt to attract a mate. But wood will do the job as well.

     When I first opened my store about twenty years ago in the early spring of 1995, I had a friend bagging seed in our back “seed room” come out and ask if I was still having work done on the outside of the building. I responded in the negative, but then listened as I then also heard banging on the exterior. We both went outside only to find a flicker hammering away on the metal chimney!

     The second reason woodpeckers drill on houses is to make a cavity in which to nest or roost. Again, nesting is more in the spring, however excavating for a winter roost couldn’t be finer than in a large, warm and well-insulated house! And much of the exterior of homes is made of soft woods that are more easily penetrated than the nearby oaks and maples!

     The third main reason for drilling is that the woodpeckers may be foraging for food. Insects will use any crack or gap in the wood to enter in order to hide, lay eggs, or overwinter. Wood shakes and shingles have many nooks and gaps for woodpeckers to explore by drilling.

     Law protects woodpeckers, but there are a few things you can try to help deter them. If the bird is concentrating on a specific area that is accessible, you can tack a thick sheet of plastic, like a drop cloth or garbage bag, over the area. If the plastic is thick enough, the woodpecker will be unable to grasp it. If it is not thick enough, you can tack just the upper part and let the lower part blow in the wind. It is not very attractive, but it is only temporary.

     Alternatively you can hang long strips of foil, tacked at the top and left to blow in the wind and reflect light. We have a commercial holographic tape called Scare Tape that comes in 100-foot rolls that works well, or you can use strips of aluminum foil. If the area is inaccessible, Mylar helium-filled balloons on very long strings might do the trick.

     Some people have told me that putting out suet keeps the woodpeckers off the house. I am not certain that would work all the time, and may even attract more woodpeckers, but it might provide the food source they may be looking for. Other people provide nest houses or roosting boxes nearby to give the woodpeckers the shelter they may be seeking. Leaving dead trees and tree branches in your yard, instead of cutting them down, will provide another alternative for the woodpeckers.

     If all else fails, ‘round the clock guard duty armed with a garden hose or powerful Super Soaker may be a last resort!

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
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