January 18, 2018
By Bettina Abe
“What on earth is that staccato drumming I hear penetrating the walls of my house?!” This fall Acton Natural Resources Division got a call from an Acton homeowner who noticed a bird pecking the fascia board of his house and wanted advice on how to make it stop.
There are a few common species of woodpecker one is likely to encounter in Acton and Boxborough’s forested habitats or at back yards feeders. One is tiny Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) about 6 inches tall, considered “dainty with a very short bill” according to David Allen Sibley, well-known ornithologist and author. Its drums are almost slow enough to count, about 9-16 per minute, a few seconds pause between drums. The Hairy Woodpecker (Picoides villosus), about 9 inches tall, has a sharper, louder and more high-pitched call than the Downy. Its drum is a very fast buzzing, usually slowing at the end. The drumming is fairly long with a long pause between drums, four to nine per minute. Red-bellied Woodpeckers (Melanerpes carolinus) are frequently seen here, too. They are medium-sized with a fairly long bill and more distinctly marked by red sweeping from the top of its head down the back of its neck. They are about 9 inches tall. More likely to perch high up on a dead tree is the long-necked, broad-winged and long-trailed, unmistakable Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus), which is our largest woodpecker and is usually about 16.5 inches tall. Its call is loud, deep, resonant, often given in flight with higher-pitched calls on landing. Its drum is slow, powerful, accelerating and trailing off at the end; or short, up to three seconds long only one or two per minute. Other species that are common in Massachusetts are the Northern Flicker (Colaptes chrysoides), and the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius).
Woodpeckers have strong bills that can chisel, peck and pull away bark in search of insect prey. They also excavate cavities in trees for nesting or as winter roosts. Pecking and drumming communicates with other woodpeckers. Fortunately, their reinforced, shock-absorbing skulls absorb the shock from the repeated blows. They have long tongues that are barbed and coated with bristles for spearing and extracting wood-boring insects or licking tree sap. They do not “sing” like other birds, but use sharp calls and rapid drumming to attract mates or announce territories. Occasionally, a woodpecker will drum on our houses or metal structures.
According to MassWildlife (Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife), woodpeckers generally nest during April, May or June in tree cavities ranging in size from 1.25 up to 4.5 inches, which they line with wood chips. They lay between 3-10 eggs (depending on the species) that incubate for between 11-18 days. Both parents take turns sitting on the eggs. Some species migrate, while others are year-round residents in Massachusetts. They excavate the nest cavities not only to lay eggs, but also to create winter shelter.
Woodpeckers eat tree-dwelling insects including their larvae, pupae, and eggs. They also eat fruits, nuts and seeds. Some eat the sap that insects are attracted to. They have particular affinity to older, large diameter trees that indicate the presence of insect prey, rough or broken bark, dead or dying limbs, trunks damaged by weather or disease.
Though fascinating and important to the ecosystem, woodpeckers can cause problems for homeowners. Frequently in the fall, woodpeckers can damage the exterior of buildings with cedar, pine, fir, even redwood or plywood siding, including even aluminum flashing or vinyl siding. They seem to prefer wood that is brown or gray or natural-stained. Though woodpeckers are attracted to rotten wood, selecting a building does not necessarily indicate the presents of insects or unsound wood.
Woodpeckers are strictly protected by the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act and by state law. It is illegal to destroy, relocate, or possess these birds, their eggs, or nests.
So what can a homeowner do to prevent damage? The best methods are to discourage woodpeckers by scaring them away, or by using materials to prevent them from causing damage. It’s best to act quickly to try and intervene before a particular bird becomes habituated to damaging behavior.
Scare tactics may include yelling, clapping, loud music, or gently spraying with a garden hose. Hang strips of high-reflective tape or aluminum pie plates on strong over or near to the affected. It’s best to cover the spot that the woodpecker has been pecking with plastic sheeting, nylon tarp or plastic fruit netting. Attach the covering material so that it hangs at least 3 inches out from the wall to prevent birds from grasping the wall with its claws. Substitute wood trim with plastic/engineered products that are more dense than wood.
- The Sibley Guide to Birds, written and illustrated by David Allen Sibley; Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York. 2000.
Bettina Abe is a Town of Acton Natural Resources Assistant who introduced WildAware in 2015, with Paula Goodwin, a member of the Acton Conservation Commission and Land Stewardship Committee. The WildAware program is sponsored by the Acton Natural Resources Division and its purpose is to educate the community about the existence and habits of wild creatures, with the goal to increase community awareness of shared habitats. For information, call 978-929-6634 or send email to email@example.com.