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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Woodpeckers Can Be Hell on Wooden Siding

A good friend shared a photo a few days ago, happily reporting that a “red-headed woodpecker” was visiting her feeders and feasting on a suet block.

I praised the photograph, but cautiously advised her that the bird was a red-bellied woodpecker. And I do mean I was cautious. Experience teaches that people would rather be corrected on grammar or word choice than be told they mistook an elk for a moose, or one bird for another.

My friend didn’t seem offended by my response, but she was skeptical, maybe even defensive. “Well, it has a red head and I didn’t notice any red on its belly,” she replied.

True enough. Most people don’t notice the rose coloring on a red-bellied woodpecker’s breast. Unless the bird faces you head-on and head-up, its belly blush is easy to miss.

Ryan Brady,a researcher in the Department of Natural Resources’ Ashland office, said the red-bellied woodpecker is one of Wisconsin’s most misidentified birds. He agrees it could be better named.

“Its name goes back to the era when people shot birds and examined them in hand before naming them,” Brady said. “Many people don’t see this bird’s red belly, but everyone sees the red crest on its head and neck, so they assume it’s a red-headed woodpecker. Plus, redheads aren’t as common as red-bellieds these days, so many people aren’t aware of them.”

Brady said red-headed woodpeckers declined rapidly for many years, but recently their population stabilized as Wisconsin restored more of its savanna habitats, which red-headed woodpeckers prefer.

“Redheads are doing better in our central and southern range the past decade, but they’re not doing well up north,” Ryan said. “Red-bellieds are doing quite well and creeping northward. Wisconsin is the northern edge of their range. They’re becoming much more common in the Northwoods, but they’re not all over the place up here.”

One lucky Northwoods reader spotted a “genuine” red-headed woodpecker last summer. Dave Hoff of Barron wrote:

“We could not believe our eyes. The real McCoy was on the roof of our birdfeeder. Lucky my wife saw him, too, or I would have thought I was dreaming. He stood there and turned so we got a profile, and turned again so we saw all four sides. I hoped he liked our place and would stick around so I’d get a picture. But that was the only time we’ve seen him. I had not seen a red-headed woodpecker since I left for service in the Korean War.”

Meanwhile, I received many emails and letters the past month after sharing some photos and observations in late December about pileated woodpeckers, and their efforts to pound holes and carve trenches into my home’s barn-board siding.

Several readers offered ideas on this giant woodpecker’s comeback, and how to deter them and other woodpeckers from damaging homes and other buildings. Owen A. Anderson of Rice Lake wrote:

“I’m a retired conservation warden. In the 1950s and probably into the ’60s, we issued permits to the power companies to kill pileateds damaging their power poles. When that practice ended, few pileated woodpeckers remained. … A pileated pair nests near my house. I built this house 24 years ago, and we’ve had pileateds nesting here every year. They bring their young to my suet feeder when they fledge, but then I don’t see their young again. They’re very territorial, so you never see two pairs in close proximity.”

Other readers offered various ways to prevent pecking. Jay Coggins of St. Paul, Minnesota, wrote:

“Flickers damaged the pine-board batten siding on our Ladysmith cabin last year. My solution was to screw 18-inch 1-by-2s into the building every 8 to 10 feet, and staple 18-inch strips of holographic tape to them. The tape is a little noisy on breezy days, but it’s worth it. We haven’t had any woodpecker trouble since.”

Ann Piccola of West Virginia found a different solution: “We own a home in the Appalachian Mountains, and had a terrible time with (woodpeckers), so I mounted a large, realistic owl made of plastic on our home. The woodpeckers stopped coming around. They’re afraid of owls.”

Jim Frymark of Madison shared a similar solution: “We had pileateds pecking on our house several times. One time they actually made a 2- to 3-inch diameter hole through a plastic/vinyl covering over the wood. We've since replaced it … but this fall we were visited once again by a pileated woodpecker that made a 1-inch or so diameter hole just above the window. Shooing it away didn’t work. Finally, I printed a picture of a colorful owl face with big eyes on an 8½-by-11 piece of paper, and taped it on the window just below where the bird was pecking. It never come back. Taping up a picture of an owl is not practical in most cases, but here it worked.”

Herb Nachreiner of Merrillan shared this caution: “I’ve had a cabin on Lake Arbutus in the Black River State Forest since 1989. We’ve always enjoyed the pileated woodpeckers, and agree their numbers are increasing. When I bought the cabin, an older resident warned me not to install an electric clock or lamp-timer on (the interior) of the cabin’s outside walls. He claimed the woodpeckers’ acute hearing would perceive such noise as insects or grubs in the walls, and cause damage looking for them. We try to warn new cabin owners before the woodpeckers damage their dwellings.”

Brady didn’t dismiss Nachreiner’s observation. “Woodpeckers can hear insects in the wood, which is one way they find food,” Brady replied. “I doubt the clock/timer hypothesis has been tested (scientifically), but it seems plausible, even if a long shot.”

Personally, I wish I could trace our home’s woodpecker problems to an electric clock or other appliances, but I’m sure our barn-board siding is the problem. It probably provides endless easy meals for foraging woodpeckers.

Between ants, larvae and other insects that dwell in old, decaying wood, our recycled siding provides a smorgasbord of woodpecker treats.

Something tells me I’ll be testing some of my readers’ suggested deterrents later this year.

A female pileated woodpecker hunts for backyard worms alongside a flicker. -- Patrick Durkin photo

The red-bellied woodpecker is often mistaken for a red-headed woodpecker. -- Patrick Durkin photo

Pileated woodpeckers find most of their food in old trees, but often bedevil homeowners by pecking on wooden siding. -- Patrick Durkin photo

Red-headed woodpeckers declined for many years in Wisconsin, but stabilized the past decade. They’re primarily found in southern and central Wisconsin. -- Patrick Durkin photo

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