Bird Watcher's General Store

Luring Woodpeckers - 01/03/03


Dear Bird Folks:

I really enjoy watching woodpeckers. Do you have any advice on how I can attract them to my yard.

-Erin, Brewster

Good for you Erin,

I like woodpeckers too. However, most of the time I have to listen to people whine about how woodpeckers are eating their house. It's funny how a little thing like a massive hole in the side of their home can get people upset.

Around here, in the good part of the world, we have three common woodpeckers, with a fourth species becoming more common every year. The confusingly similar Downy and Hairy Woodpecker and the distinct Northern Flicker can be seen just about anywhere on Cape Cod. The fourth species, the Red-bellied Woodpecker, is also distinct, except for its red belly which is more of a rumor and not a very good field mark. The Red-bellied Woodpecker is a southern bird that has been moving northward in recent years, perhaps to avoid the endless stream of northerners that have been heading south.

All of our woodpeckers come readily to beef suet. Raw suet can be bought rather cheaply at a meat market. But raw suet spoils easily, so only use it during cold weather or anytime you want to enjoy the stink of rancid meat. A less smelly, but a bit more costly approach is the packaged rendered suet. It is usually found in small squares with birdseeds built in. The packaged suet comes in all kinds of flavors, from blueberry to orange to root beer for the younger birds. The flavors seem to be more important to consumers than they are to the birds. Iím sure the birds have little interest in anything but the plain greasy fat.

You vegetarian freaks out there can use soy suet, as soon as itís invented. Until then peanut butter is a good alternative. Also, peanut feeders are becoming more popular, especially with Red-bellied Woodpeckers. Red bellies love to eat from wire mesh feeders that are filled with shelled peanuts.

Although woodpeckers live in tree cavities, they do not readily come to birdhouses. Woodpeckers are primary cavity nesters, which means they like to excavate their own nest sites rather than use a bird house. Other birds like wrens, bluebirds and Tree Swallows are called secondary cavity nesters. The secondary cavity nesters act like avian squatters and depend on woodpeckers to make their homes for them. Without the woodpeckers, the secondary cavity nesters would be standing in line for affordable housing like the rest of us.

Many of our woodpeckers do use the boxes that we put out, but only to roost in at night. They seem to prefer to chip out a fresh hole when it comes to nesting. Flickers are the most likely of all of our woodpeckers to nest in an appropriately designed birdhouse. I've read that if you fill a flicker box with wood shavings, the flickers are more inclined to use the box, as they are fooled into thinking that they are indeed digging out their own nest. In addition, filling the box with wood shavings keeps out the starlings, who refuse to do any of their own excavating. It must be some kind of union thing.

Like I said earlier, many people don't like woodpeckers because they have the habit of drilling into houses. But I wouldnít worry too much about that, woodpeckers don't play favorites, they will eat your house whether you feed them or not. In fact, most of the people who complain don't even have feeders out.

Feel free to feed and enjoy your woodpeckers, Erin, they are amongst our most interesting backyard birds. However, if you do use that soy suet, make sure you hang it real high, or you could end up with a yard full of vegetarians.

Artwork by Catherine Clark




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