Woodpeckers: Damage Management

With their colorful plumage, quirky habits, and a propensity to attend backyard feeders, woodpeckers are among the most well-known and popular birds in Iowa. Unfortunately, their habit of drumming on wood siding and metal gutters sometimes gets them into trouble. Fortunately, with proper construction techniques and building materials, we can limit the damage that they might cause.

Woodpecker species

In Iowa, there are seven woodpecker species, all of which dwell around human habitation at various times of year. The downy woodpecker, hairy woodpecker, and red-bellied woodpecker are resident woodland birds that have adapted to living in wooded towns, farms, and cities, where they frequently visit feeders. The strikingly patterned red-headed woodpecker prefers open woodlands and farmlands with scattered trees, especially in areas with abundant mast-producing trees (oaks and hickories); it stops by residential areas largely during spring and fall migration. Likewise, the northern flicker likes open ground to search for ants and other invertebrates during warmer months. However, in fall and winter, the flicker incorporates a variety of wild berries into its diet; other woodpeckers also make this dietary shift, albeit to a much lesser extent.

The crow-sized pileated woodpecker principally inhabits large tracts of mature forest with numerous dead or dying trees, on which it creates large, square-shaped drillings in search of insects. Although secretive and less common than other Iowa woodpeckers, this vociferous giant occasionally finds its way into urban/suburban neighborhoods bordering parks and greenbelts, as well as wooded farmsteads that have extensive forests nearby. Finally, the yellow-bellied sapsucker, which nests in aspen woods in the northern third of the state and silver maple floodplains in the northern half, spreads out to visit towns, parks, orchards, and farm groves across Iowa during migration and winter.

Woodpecker conflicts

The following tendencies make woodpeckers prone to causing property damage at times.

  • Drumming. Unique skeletal-muscular composition, along with highly specialized cushioning structures in the head and neck, enable woodpeckers to bang their bills on firm structures without injuring themselves. In this way, they often communicate by “drumming” on trees, snags, and man-made structures, such as wood siding of homes. Hollow trees make the best (loudest) natural drumming sites, and so gutters and vertical drain spouts provide an excellent approximation, causing woodpeckers to target these spots. Drumming tends to be most frequent and prominent during spring and summer when the woodpeckers are announcing their nesting territories.
  • Feeding. Woodpeckers often eat by drilling, pecking, and probing into bark to find grubs, beetles, and other insects. This habit also attracts them to wood siding, where they look to extract bugs from the exterior of homes and other buildings.
  • Sapsucker wells. The yellow-bellied sapsucker uses a different tactic: rather than drilling specifically for insects, it bores a series of holes in tree bark – and then feeds on oozing sap and any insects trapped in the sap. These drillings in trees typically cause little or no damage, but they can occasionally lead to more serious problems, such as when the holes serve as entry points for infections on trees in orchards and yards.

Reducing woodpecker damage

DeterrentsMethods of woodpecker deterrent on house including reflective streamers, artificial owl, pinwheel, and balloon with fake eyes

Keep in mind that even the best deterrents fall short of stopping all woodpecker damage. These techniques merely reduce the problem, with varying levels of success. Below, we have listed some of the available remedies from most to least effective, approximately, based on current research.

More Effective

  • Metal hardware cloth or sheeting placed across sections susceptible to damage.
  • Plastic netting installed 2-3 inches from the siding.
  • Reflective streamers or garland hung from the eaves and/or siding.

Less Effective

  • Auditory scare tactics, such as loud sound systems with woodpecker distress calls (eventually woodpeckers adjust and ignore it).
  • Visual scare tactics, including artificial hawk, owl, and snake models (again, the woodpeckers seem to adjust and ignore, even when the location of the fake predator varies through time).
  • Diversionary methods, such as placing a food source or artificial drumming structure elsewhere in the yard to draw woodpeckers away.
  • Treating or reducing insects in wood siding to reduce the food source attracting woodpeckers. Though woodpeckers may still search for insects in uninfected wooden siding.

Building components

Selecting the right materials when designing a house is by far the foremost means of curtailing woodpecker damage. If the external elements do not appeal to woodpeckers for drumming or feeding, then they are less likely to damage a building. But if you choose materials that make great drumming platforms or harbor tasty insects, then you’re inviting a perpetual battle.

Construction materials on exterior of houses and other buildings

Avoid: wood shakes, grooved plywood, tongue-and-groove, and board-and-batten sidings

Use: clapboards and modern non-wood sidings whenever feasible.

Sealants/paint on exterior of houses and other buildings

Do not: use stain sealants, especially earth tones, as these colors attract woodpeckers.

Do: protect existing wood siding with paint rather than reapplying stain sealant.

sapsucker wells on the trunk of a tree
Sapsucker damage on tree.

Reducing sapsucker damage to trees in orchards and yards

Sapsuckers occasionally injure trees by drilling numerous “sapsucker wells”, rings of holes from which the birds feed on sap and insects trapped in the sap. These holes sometimes serve as entry points for infections in the trees. If you have a persistent issue of sapsuckers on your valuable trees, consider some of these possible remedies.

  • Wrap the bark in burlap or similarly dense material and remove it after sapsuckers have left the area.
  • Place a lightweight plastic netting 2-3 inches from bark and branches.
  • Apply tactile (sticky) repellents on the bark, especially around any wells that appear.
  • Hang double-sided reflective streamers from multiple branches.

Keep in mind: The Migratory Bird Treaty Act protects all woodpeckers as native, migratory, non-game birds. It is illegal to kill or harm them. The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service issues permits for lethal control only in extreme circumstances. Thus, prevention and exclusion are keys to limiting the potential impacts of woodpeckers.

This article is an update of "Managing Iowa Wildlife: Woodpeckers" (PM-1302c) originally authored by Steven Gabrey and James Pease.