Why Do Woodpeckers Peck Wood? [Food, Nesting & Territory]

why do woodpeckers peck wood

There are basically three reasons why woodpeckers peck wood. They are either searching for food, building a cavity to nest in or establishing their territory.

Although woodpeckers are not intentionally destructive, their constant pecking can cause some damage to trees and other wooden structures. But, they’re really just doing what nature intended.

Luckily, they prefer to peck dead or dying trees, especially those with a soft wood. They posses amazing hearing and can hear insects hiding under the bark of a tree.

Let’s discuss the three reasons that woodpeckers peck wood in more detail.

Searching For Food

Most woodpeckers feed on wood-boring insects and larvae. Some of them will also feed on fruit, nuts, seeds and native berries. There are even sap-sucking woodpeckers that will consume tree sap as well as the insects that live under the bark.

Usually, if you see a woodpecker pecking away at a tree, it’s likely that the tree is infested with hundreds of wood-boring insects underneath the bark.

The pecking action allows the woodpeckers to create holes in the bark of the tree. They then use their long tongues to snare all the insects that they want.

In fact, if you see lots of small holes in the trunk of a tree, it’s likely that a woodpecker has been foraging for food in it. This might indicate that the tree is infested with borers and is likely to be not too healthy.

Building A Nest

Unlike many other species of birds, woodpeckers do not create nests from twigs and leaves. Instead, they create large cavities in dead or dying trees to use as their nesting site. Unfortunately, they may also favor other soft timber structures around your yard.

You’ll find that some species will come back to the same nesting site each year but others like to create new nesting cavities. There are even other bird species that nest in these cavities after the woodpeckers have vacated. These include bluebirds, wrens, nuthatches, creepers, swallows and even some small owls.

Establishing Their Territory

The third reason that woodpeckers peck on wood is to communicate and establish their territory. This communication is called “drumming”. It allows other birds to know that a woodpecker is present.

This drumming is also used to attract a mate. You’ll hear it most often in spring during the mating season. And, it might go on for days on end.

How Are Woodpeckers Able To Peck Continuously Without Causing Themselves Any Harm?

Woodpeckers have an interesting physiology that is quite different from other birds. Let’s look at some of the most unique features that make up the body of a woodpecker.

  • Woodpeckers have two forward toes and two backward toes. These allow them to grip onto the side of a tree.
  • They have stiff tail feathers to allow them to balance as they’re pecking.
  • Woodpeckers also have a muscular “shock absorber” at the back of their jaw. This means that they can continuously tap away at the wood without getting a concussion. In fact, they can easily peck 10,000 times a day without harming themselves.
  • Their skull is made up of a criss-cross of bones with lots of space in between. This acts like a sponge that can expand and compress with each tapping motion.
  • Their long tongue is made up of nine thin bones and is shaped like a Y. This allows them to extend their tongue far into the crevice of a tree to catch the insects that are hiding in there.
  • And lastly, woodpeckers have bristles over their nostrils. These stop the birds from inhaling any wood chips as they’re busy pecking away.

How To Deter Woodpeckers From Damaging Your Timber Structures

If you have timber structures around your yard or your house has timber sidings, you obviously want to deter woodpeckers from damaging them. There are a few things you can do to deter the woodpeckers away from these.

  1. Inspect your structures for insects and use a pesticide or a natural method to get rid of any that you find. Also, plug any holes or openings that insects are likely to get through to build their nests.
  2. Patch any woodpecker holes that you may find. Be vigilant so that you can prevent woodpeckers from pecking before they do any damage. You can patch holes in wood with a suitable patching compound. Alternatively, you can cover the area with some aluminum flashing or even quarter inch wire mesh.
  3. If you have healthy trees you want to protect, try loosely wrapping some hardware cloth or burlap around the tree where possible holes are.
  4. Leave one or two not so healthy trees alone so that the woodpeckers will focus solely on those trees.
  5. Try using various decoys to frighten the woodpeckers away such as plastic owls or snakes. The solar powered ones with flashing eyes seem to be the most effective.

Frequently Asked Questions:

Do Woodpeckers peck at healthy trees?

Woodpeckers that peck at trees are looking for wood-boring insects. Therefore, the trees that they choose are already likely to be infested with insects beneath the bark. This indicates that the tree is in poor health and may be dying.

Is a Woodpecker a bad sign?

In most situations, the woodpeckers don’t do too much harm to a tree. However, their pecking can create wounds that are then susceptible to disease and insect infestation.

Do Woodpeckers come back to the same spot?

Some species of Woodpeckers will return to the same spot every year to nest in tree cavities. Other species like the Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers find new trees each year to create cavities in for their nesting.

Are Woodpeckers good to have around?

Woodpeckers are part of the natural environment and are actually handy to have around. They will eat a lot of wood boring insects as well as other garden pests.

Final Thoughts

Woodpeckers seem to get a bad rap because they are viewed as being quite destructive. However, they are part of the natural environment and are useful to have around to help control wood-boring insects.

Plus, they’re quite attractive and fascinating to watch if you get the chance. Remember, there are basically three reason why woodpeckers peck wood. To find food, build their nests or establish their territory by communicating their presence.

If you can leave one or two trees for them to peck away on, then you can enjoy watching them working away in your garden. Do you have woodpeckers in your yard and do you enjoy watching them? Please feel free to share your stories with us in the comments below.

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