Woodpeckers

Image © 2006 Charles H. Warren

Woodpeckers have chisel-like beaks and long, flexible tongues designed for drilling and probing under tree bark. Most species peck on dead, dying trees to feed on insects that bore into wood, like carpenter ants, bark beetles and wireworms. Others eat plant material like nuts and seeds or are attracted to suet and sunflower seeds at bird feeders.

Feeding

Woodpeckers find prey by hearing the sounds they make while burrowing into wood. If a structure is infested with insects, the woodpeckers will drill small holes to extract them. But woodpeckers cannot tell the difference between the sound an insect makes or the sound electricity makes as it travels through the walls of a house, so they may drill holes in the siding of a house looking for insects when they are actually hearing electricity.

If the cause of this problem is an insect infestation, then you need to remove the insects. You may wish to consult a pest-control specialist. If they are attracted to the sound of electricity running through the walls of your house, muffle the noises.

Drumming

When a woodpecker’s persistent hammering at an area in the spring does not result in the production of a cavity, it is probably a behavior called drumming. Rather than singing to attract mates or announce their territories, woodpeckers drum at specific sites within their domain to announce their presence. They usually choose something that will produce a loud, resonating sound, such as a metal chimney cap. They visit these sites regularly to announce their presence to other woodpeckers in the area.

If you muffle the resonating quality of the object they have chosen, they will not achieve the desired effect by drumming on the object. To do this, cover the object with a blanket or foam rubber padding. Continue using this deterrent technique until the behavior stops.

Cavity Building

Woodpecker holes are round and deep and often occur at loose knots in the cedar siding of houses. Woodpeckers often start a hole and then abandon it to start another. In some cases, they may be confused when the hole penetrates the board and they encounter insulation. Sometimes the cavity is completed and nesting will continue in the wall of the building. This could be the most difficult behavior to try to control but it is also the most uncommon. Be sure to keep in mind that this is a seasonal behavior and that it will only be temporary. 

If cavity building can be discouraged before the cavity is fully built, the woodpecker may try to relocate, but it may return the next year and try again. Usually a combination of scare tactics and prompt repair of the excavation areas is somewhat effective in trying to discourage cavity-building activities. You should fill shallow holes with caulk or wood filler as soon as they are created. Larger holes and loose knots can be filled with wooden plugs or hardware cloth and caulk. You also may try to offer a ready-built nesting box, which they might use rather than making their own. When offering a nesting box, place it directly on the building or on a post in front of the problem area.

Bird Loose in the House

Confine the bird to one room; turn off the lights, and open a door or window. Leave the room; the bird will instinctively fly toward light and escape.  

Determine how it got in, and seal or screen entryways.

Recommended Deterrents   

  • Items that blow in the wind or shine in the sun will frighten the birds. Hang “eye-spot balloons,” beach balls with circles painted on them to represent large, predator-like eyes. Mylar ribbon, windsocks or aluminum foil strips are also effective.  
  • To restrict a woodpecker’s access to a favorite perching surface, try hanging a sheet or a plastic tarp over the surface. 

These deterrents should be used for seven to 10 days.

Finding a Baby Bird

If you find a featherless, downy or incompletely feathered young bird, find its home and place the bird back in the nest. Birds have a poorly developed sense of smell; the parents will not reject the bird.

If you find a completely feathered young bird on the ground that looks healthy but is unable to fly, leave it alone. These birds, called fledglings, are out of the nest and live on the ground for approximately two weeks. The parent birds are still feeding and caring for them, and during this time the fledglings are learning to fly. If you watch, you may see the parents make their presence known by squawks or swoop attacks when you approach the young. It is always in the best interest of the bird to be raised by its parents. Leave the fledgling alone unless a dog or cat is attacking it.

If you have a fledgling bird in your yard and you are concerned about neighborhood pets, turn on a sprinkler to deter pets from bothering it.

Public Health Concerns

The Illinois Department of Public Health has shown that a small number of birds in DuPage County carry West Nile virus, which is transmissible to humans through mosquitoes. Humans are not at risk simply due to the presence of birds in the area, but the presence of mosquitoes is a risk factor. 

What Not To Do

  • All native birds, including woodpeckers, are protected by the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act. It is illegal for any person to possess birds, dead or alive, nesting material, eggs, feathers or bones of a bird without the proper permits from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the state of Illinois. It is also illegal to harm or kill a protected bird species or to remove or destroy nesting material from a nest once an egg is laid. The law does not protect three nonnative birds: the pigeon (rock dove), the English house sparrow and the European starling.
  • It is illegal to keep wild animals, even for a short time. They have special nutritional, housing and handling needs that you are unlikely to be able to provide. Inexperienced individuals who attempt to raise or treat them inevitably produce unhealthy, tame animals that cannot survive in their natural habitats.
  • Never move young from the nest.      
  • Do not use poisons. They are inhumane, may be illegal, and can result in secondary poisoning of raptors, wild scavengers and neighborhood pets.

Willowbrook Wildlife Center

If you come across a wild animal and are concerned, leave it alone. Call Willowbrook Wildlife Center for advice at (630) 942-6200. The center is located at 525 S. Park Blvd. in Glen Ellyn and is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day except select holidays. Recorded messages provide general information for callers when the center is closed.

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