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Woodpecker Problems

(OR: How Much Wood Can A Woodpecker Peck When They're Out There Pecking Wood?)

Q. Woodpeckers are eating through and living in the beautiful mahogany siding that covers our home's exterior. We filled in a number of the holes this past summer when the house was painted, but the little devils came back as soon as the painters were finished. We actually watched as one woodpecker put its head into the hole it had made and pulled insulation out of the wall. Next thing it will be in our bathroom!

    ---Judy in Rydal, Pennsylvania
Woodpeckers keep pecking through the T111 wood siding of my Cape Cod home and through the plywood underneath. Then they pull the insulation out, throw it on the ground and build a nest between the wallboard and plywood. I have put tin over the holes, but they just peck a new hole next to the tin. We plan on putting vinyl siding over the T111, but I'm afraid they may peck through that too. What can I do to deter them from making my house their house? There are no bugs in the siding; they just nest in it.
    ---Ellen in Sugar Grove, W. Va., near the Shenendoah National Forest
On a recent show, you suggested spraying animal repellent on the outside walls to deter woodpeckers from feeding on a house. Unfortunately, most birds have virtually no sense of smell. You might want to get a more expert opinion on this. Love the show,
    ---David in Philadelphia
Q. Yes, its mea culpa time here at YBYG! For many years I have been telling people that woodpeckers drilling holes into their homes was a good sign—that the birds were revealing that carpenter bees or wood eating insects were trying to move in with you. And yes, I did recently suggest that spraying the side of a home under attack with a foul smelling repellant might drive them away for a bit. But our friend in Philly is correct; these birds are felt to have very little sense of smell—OR taste, so even getting a nice big mouthful of deer repellant might not get them to quit work early.

AND I've been wrong about the insect warning part as well. Noted woodpecker expert Jerry Jackson, Ph.D., Professor of Biology at Florida Gulf Coast University in Ft. Myers, explains that when woodpeckers peck, they are probably seeking bugs in your boards less than 10% of the time—and most of the bugs they DO eat in such situations are harmless ones just trying to hide between the shingles. Sigh. But at least he adds that this is a great time for me to get the real story out, as we are about to enter nesting season, when many of you will have to contend with avian home invasions.

As Dr. Jackson explains, every individual bird—male and female—makes its own roost cavity in which to live. The preferred place is in a 'snag', an old dead tree that's still standing but whose wood has become nice and soft, which is why it's very good to leave such things on the outskirts of your property.

When a pair mates, typically in the early Spring, the male's roost will become a nest, but he will send the female back to HER roost every night; so that's two holes for just this couple. Add in the fact that the birds make a new roost every year (because the old one gets pretty nasty inside), plus replacements when a tree falls or a homeowner evicts them from the insulation, and of course, all the new roosts the young birds make when THEY leave the nest, and we're talking a lot of woodworking activity.

"There's a lot of excavation going on at this time of year," assures Dr. Jackson, who adds that people inadvertently make their wood-covered homes targets when they clear all the trees off a new property. His advice is to leave as many trees standing as possible, and when you must cut one down, "leave a 15 foot high stump instead of cutting it all the way to the ground. Woodpeckers just might use that tree for a nest instead of your home."

And what should a homeowner do when a woodpecker DOES decide to take up housekeeping inside their four walls instead of a tree?

"If this has been a problem in the past, erecting an invisible barrier might deter them before they can start to build their nest," he explains. "Hang lengths of monofilament nylon—fishing line—a few inches out from the undersides of your eaves every four to six inches along the side of your house. Let each line reach almost to the ground and hang a metal washer on the end to weight it down. This will create a screen that will keep the birds away, but that also will be invisible when you look at the house.

"If you are already under attack, hang a big sheet of plastic—like a painter's drop cloth—over the area they've excavated; the slick plastic will prevent them from gaining a foothold and buy you some time. Then nail an appropriately sized birdhouse or nesting box over the area they're trying to excavate; a bluebird house for a downy woodpecker and a larger one for birds like flickers and red-bellied woodpeckers that typically reach a foot in length.

"Make sure the bird house is made of rough wood, so they can get a foothold, and remove the perch if there is one. Before you put it in place, fill it with wood shavings—the type that pet stores sell for hamsters and such is ideal. They need to excavate when they build a nest, and the shavings will fill this need. They'll spend their time throwing the shavings on the ground instead of removing your insulation.

"You can even make this a permanent solution by buying a birdhouse with hinged walls for easy cleaning out, or by modifying a house so that one wall opens up enough that you can easily clean it in the off-season. Typically, woodpeckers don't reuse their nests because they become filled with feces and other disagreeable stuff, but they could well re-use a box that has been cleaned out and then refilled with a fresh run of wood shavings."

Luckily, I was right about one thing. Dr. Jackson assures me that having woodpeckers around is very beneficial: "They eat lots of beetles and other pest insects."

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