The sights and sounds of Woodpeckers foraging in a forest or a backyard are usually a joy to behold, but many people are understandably concerned about the potential damage they can do to trees.
In this article, we’ll explore the relationship between Woodpeckers and wood, whether you need to worry about the trees in your backyard, and what you can do to prevent or minimize any potential damage.
A Great-spotted Woodpecker perching on a tree in a backyard
Woodpeckers are a diverse group of birds with some very specific characteristics. There are over 230 species in the Picidae family, and these birds have evolved into many shapes and sizes and adapted to many different environments.
However, the vast majority have one thing in common - their ability to use wood for feeding, communicating, sheltering, and nesting. Let’s run through these classic Woodpecker behaviors.
Pictured: Greater Flameback Woodpecker. There are over 230 species of Woodpecker in the Picidae family
Woodpeckers peck on wood to find food. This usually causes little damage because they will remove as little material as possible to achieve their goal. Most species are more interested in insects living under the bark or within the wood than the tree itself, but some feed on sap and wood cambium.
Woodpeckers also peck on wood to communicate with their partner and other Woodpeckers in the area. Drumming Woodpeckers are not trying to drill into the wood at all, although this behavior could cause some very minor damage.
Most birds build their nests by collecting materials, but Woodpeckers do just the opposite. These birds chip away and remove wood to create a cozy tunnel and chamber where they can lay their eggs and raise their young. Their nests can measure over a foot long, and the larger species create entrance holes that are several inches in diameter.
However, not all Woodpecker holes are used for nesting. These birds also drill out their own roosting sites, sometimes with multiple entrances.
Pictured: A Pileated Woodpecker feeding its young at the nest hole
So it’s pretty clear that Woodpeckers can make holes in trees, but is this really harmful? Well, it depends on the tree and the Woodpecker species involved.
Expert horticulturalists and biologists associated with various institutions, including the Universities of Arkansas, Pennsylvania, and Iowa, have concluded that Woodpeckers generally do not cause severe damage to trees.
Woodpecker bills have evolved to chisel and remove material from tree trunks and branches. In that sense, whenever a Woodpecker pecks a tree, it causes some damage. Looking at the bigger picture, however, the damage they inflict is often negligible.
Woodpeckers usually peck on already dead trees or those with dead and decaying limbs. They do this because dead wood is the perfect environment for woodboring insects - one of the Woodpecker’s favorite foods. Decaying wood is also softer and lighter, making it much easier to excavate a nest into, and if hollow, much more effective for drumming.
However, Some Woodpeckers peck on live trees both for feeding and nesting.
Pictured: A Red-bellied Woodpecker. Decaying trees are the perfect for Woodpeckers to find woodboring insects
North America is home to a unique group of Woodpeckers called Sapsuckers (Sphyrapicus spp.). These birds peck at living trees like pines, maples, elms, and birches to feed on their sap, which can cause some problems.
Usually, the amount of damage done has little long-term impact, but in rare cases, they can remove the bark around the entire circumference of the trunk or limb and effectively kill everything above that point.
Girdled trees will not necessarily die because they may resprout from the base, but the effect can be unsightly. Extensive damage also causes stress to trees and could create weak spots where disease and pests can be established.
Pictured: Red-breasted Sapsucker. Sapsuckers peck at living trees to feed on their sap
Some Woodpeckers also drill through living tree tissue for nesting. The endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker (Leuconotopicus borealis), for example, typically excavates its nest in living pine trees, and research on Golden-fronted Woodpecker (Melanerpes aurifrons) nests in Southern Texas has shown that live trees were preferred over dead ones.
Drilling holes into trees might seem destructive to us, but it can be helpful to many other animals and even the affected tree. Continue reading to learn more about the ecological effects of Woodpecker behavior.
Research has shown that the Golden-fronted Woodpecker (pictured) prefers to excavate its nest in live trees
Woodpeckers are an important part of woodland and forest ecosystems because they benefit many other species. These birds have co-existed with trees for millions of years, so there’s little cause for concern. Let’s take a look at some of the benefits of Woodpeckers in natural ecosystems:
Pictured: European Green Woodpecker. Woodpeckers are an important part of woodland and forest ecosystems
Healthy trees usually sustain little serious damage from nesting Woodpeckers and species that feed on insects. These birds are typically attracted to trees that are already in poor shape due to insect infestations and fungal infections.
Sapsuckers typically feed on softwoods by drilling neat lines of regularly spaced holes in their bark. They prefer trees that produce a lot of sap, and these species often heal quickly by sealing their wounds with resin. However, there may be an increased risk of pest infestation or disease if the tree is already stressed or the birds are causing a lot of damage to their bark.
Of course, from an aesthetic point of view, rows of holes in a tree trunk might not be ideal, especially if the tree in question is a favorite ornamental species in your landscape. The damage caused to some trees might also reduce the value of their lumber.
Pictured: Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. Neat lines of regularly spaced holes are drilled in the bark of softwoods to feed
Even bird lovers can find it pretty distressing to see live trees being damaged by Woodpeckers, particularly if the tree in question is growing on your property. Growing healthy trees can be a big investment in time and money, so how do you protect them?
Start by assessing whether you need to take any action at all. In most cases, Woodpeckers will cause only minor damage to areas of trees that are already dead or dying. They might even help these trees by removing harmful pests.
If a Sapsucker is visiting your tree and you’re concerned about serious or unsightly damage, a physical barrier is a good solution. A master Gardener for the College of Agricultural Sciences at Pennsylvania State University suggests wrapping the affected area in a material like burlap/hessian or plastic/wire mesh.
Discouraging them with reflective materials is another option worth trying. Small mirrors, mylar, or highly reflective tape hung from branches and allowed to move in the wind can act as a deterrent to Woodpeckers. The Colorado State University Extension suggests suspending hawk-shaped mobiles or cardboard cutouts as another effective way of frightening them off.
A Red-headed Woodpecker resting on the limb of a dead tree
Whichever method you choose to deter Woodpeckers, please remember that these birds are protected in the United States, the United Kingdom, and many other parts of the world. You may not kill or harm these birds without special permits; even disturbing them while nesting is an offense.
A Downy Woodpecker feeding on sap from a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker drill site
So Woodpeckers interact with trees in various ways, mostly good, but sometimes they cause minor damage. It’s natural to want to get rid of these birds when you think your trees are under attack but take a moment to appreciate the role Woodpeckers play in the natural environment.
Woodpeckers benefit many other species in the ecosystem, including ourselves. The damage they do is so minor that, in most cases, it’s best to grab a pair of binoculars or a camera, relax, and enjoy the sights and sounds of these remarkable birds.
The Grey-headed Woodpecker feeds mainly on ants and insects found in decaying wood
Woodpeckers rarely cause enough damage to chop down a tree, and this is certainly never their intention. However, extensive damage caused by large species like the Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) could cause small dead or diseased trees to snap in time or due to strong winds, especially if they are already severely infested with wood-boring insects.
You can discourage Woodpeckers from feeding on trees by wrapping the affected area in hardware cloth, plastic netting, or burlap/hessian. Woodpeckers rarely girdle trees completely like some rodents, but it may be possible to save severely affected trees using horticultural techniques like bridge grafting.
Woodpeckers often peck on dead trees, but this is not always the case. These birds also look for parts of living trees that have been killed off by fungus and attacked by woodboring insects. Some species drill nest holes into living trees, while others feed on the sap of healthy softwoods.
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