Attracting Woodpeckers

By Edie Parnum

Offering suet and peanuts is a sure way to attract some kinds of woodpeckers to your yard. Downy and Red-bellied Woodpeckers will visit your feeders year round to consume these foods. Hairy Woodpeckers will come, too, provided there are some mature trees in the neighborhood. However, if you have a wooded area in your yard, exactly the habitat woodpeckers prefer in the wild, these birds will be around habitually. You will also be able to attract Northern Flickers and possibly Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, the latter a rather uncommon winter resident. Consequently, you will have opportunities to see a variety of woodpecker species exhibiting a range of foraging and breeding behaviors.

Woodpeckers love trees, either living or dead, whether big or small. They are adapted to finding their food and building their nests in the wood of trees. Their feet have two toes facing backward and two toes forward, unlike most birds with only one hind toe. As a result they can readily hold onto vertical tree trunks and even the underside of branches. With their stiff tails braced against the tree, they hammer, drill, and chisel into the wood using their sturdy beaks. Their heads can withstand these intense impacts because their skulls are unusually thick. To reach the beetle larvae, ants, and other insects deep within the wood, they have a long tongue with sticky barbules on the end. This tongue is so long that it retracts around the back and top of the skull.

Woodpeckers don’t exclusively rely on wood-boring insects for their food. Flickers will forage on the ground for ants. Most woodpeckers will also eat the fruits of shrubs and trees such as viburnums, cherries, and mulberries.

To build their nests woodpeckers excavate cavities in dead or partially dead wood. In the early spring listen for the sound of territorial drumming woodpeckers. Sometimes they will use a metal downspout or similar object that reverberates, perhaps too loudly for some family members. If you examine the decaying trunks and limbs before the trees leaf out, you may be able to locate a freshly excavated hole. In my own yard both Red-bellied Woodpeckers and Hairy Woodpeckers have nested in a dying beech tree.

Two other woodpeckers are uncommon year-round residents in our area. The Pileated Woodpecker is a large, impressive woodpecker with an attractive red crest. It prefers large old trees of at least 16” in diameter. If trees of this size are nearby, occasionally people are able to lure this woodpecker to suet fastened to a tree trunk or post. The Red-headed Woodpecker, with its flaming all-red head and bold white wing patches, is equally attractive but even less common. This species, which is in decline, prefers large, old trees in an open area and doesn’t frequent feeders—a rare yard bird indeed.

So, to attract woodpeckers, by all means offer suet and peanuts, but trees are their primary environment. Yes, trees grow slowly, but plant them anyway. If your property already has trees, plant more. When an existing tree or limb is dying but is not in a location that could fall and damage your house, car, or electrical wires, leave it for the woodpeckers. They will love it.