Ratta-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat. That rapid-fire drilling can only mean one thing: woodpeckers.
What are these birds looking for and can they damage your trees? Let’s find out!
What a headache!
The familiar drumming sound of a woodpecker hammering on a tree (or your house!) can mean they are looking for food, or a mate. They may also be excavating a nesting site. When a woodpecker drums on a tree trunk, or the side of your house, they do so at a rate of 20 to 25 times per second, with a force of 1200 grams. On average, a woodpecker weighs 100 grams. So, imagine banging your head on a wall, 20 times a second, with a force equal to 12 times your body weight! Woodpeckers perform this behavior on a daily basis without knocking themselves out, or causing brain damage. That’s pretty amazing. So amazing, in fact, that woodpeckers are studied extensively for things like shock-absorbers. It ends up that a woodpecker’s head can withstand a deceleration of 600 to 1500 grams, while the human brain can only handle 300. So, let’s see what all that drumming and drilling is about.
Both genders drill holes in wood to reach burrowing insects (pests) and to stimulate the flow of sap from the cambium layer. Woodpeckers eat the sap, and they use it to attract and trap insects, which they also eat. Anna’s hummingbirds and ruby-crowned kinglets also take advantage of this buffet created by woodpeckers. [They sure as heck can’t drill those holes for themselves!]. Woodpeckers also eat fruit, nuts, and berries, but they are, generally, not a significant problem in this way.
Male woodpeckers use the drilling to demonstrate their prowess to local females and to claim territory. The better the resonance, the better the performance, which is why many homes are chosen over nearby trees. They will even use metal rain gutters and downspouts during the peak of the breeding season. Females also enjoy drumming, both for food and to alert males to their presence.
Classically, woodpeckers are black and white, and males feature some red, usually on the head. The beak is sturdy and sharply pointed. You may not ever see it, but woodpeckers have a very long tongue, which they use to pull larva and other insects out of crevices. If you look closely, most woodpeckers also feature short legs and two, backward-facing toes with sharp claws. These 'zygodactyl' toes, combined with a stiff tail, help hold the bird in position while drilling.
The name ‘woodpecker’ actually refers to woodpeckers, sapsuckers, and flickers. These birds are all in the same family (Picidae). California is home to eleven woodpecker species, four sapsuckers, and two flicker:.
Acorn woodpeckers are particularly destructive to homes because they wedge acorns into all the holes they create. A single acorn woodpecker may collect and store thousands of acorns between wooden shakes and shingles in a single season!
Sapsuckers are a shy group. If you walk by, they will scuttle to the other side of a tree trunk, trying to stay hidden. These birds make a mewing sound. They drill rows of round or squarish holes in certain trees. All sapsuckers have a white rump, white wing patches, and there is always a degree of yellow on the belly. There are four different sapsuckers here in California:
These once common birds are losing ground to introduced starlings, which aggressively compete for nesting sites. Flickers love to eat ants and na be seen hopping up and down tree trunks in search of these treats. There are two species of flickers in California:
Preventing woodpecker damage
The problem with woodpecker feeding is that the loss of sap may weaken a tree, and it creates a point of entry for other pests and pathogens. Unless the feeding is extensive, however, most trees can handle it without much of a problem. If the feeding becomes a problem, woodpeckers can be blocked by panels of lightweight sheet metal or 1/4-inch hardware cloth wrapped around the favored feeding areas.
Woodpecker drilling can also cause structural damage to your home. This is especially true for trim boards, eaves, and wooden siding. Woodpeckers seem to prefer redwood and cedar. They are also attracted to plywood and other layered arrangements that create tiny spaces perfect for tasty insects.
All woodpeckers are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. But, you can use exclusionary measures to protect your home. The most effective method is to tightly stretch 3/4-inch bird netting over the eaves of your home, or to cover the side of a favored feeding/drumming wall.
Research has shown that repellents and frightening devices are not effective. Urban myth claims that hanging nesting boxes and providing suet is one way to eliminate the risk of woodpecker damage. Research has shown that these provisions do not consistently reduce the problem and may actually attract even more woodpeckers into an area.
Benefits of woodpeckers
Before we try to ban these beautiful birds from our gardens, keep in mind that the nesting holes they create are often used by other native, cavity-nesting birds. Woodpeckers also remove a significant number of potentially damaging insects from our fruit and nut trees. Finally, we do not yet fully understand the value of biodiversity.
While not a native of California, this magnificent bird of the Mississippi Delta deserves mention. The Ivory-billed woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) was/is believed to be extinct. The last confirmed sighting occurred in 1944. In 2005, video emerged that may have been of an Ivory-billed specimen. There is some debate about this, as it could also have been a slightly smaller, common Pileated woodpecker. The Cuban ivory-billed woodpecker has been considered extinct since 1987. Ivory-billed woodpeckers are/were very large. At 20” long, with a 30” wingspan, they must have been hard to miss. They were able to live 20 to 30 years, but Native Americans decided that the Ivory-billed woodpecker’s massive bone beak was a prized decoration, so the killing began. If you are ever lucky enough to hear the tell-tale double-knock of an Ivory-billed woodpecker, record it, photograph it, and contact the Audubon Society right away!
Did you know that a group of woodpeckers can be called a ‘gatling’ or a ‘drumming’ or a ‘descent’?
I didn’t either.
Do you have any woodpeckers visiting your garden? Tell us which ones in the comments!
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!
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