There are seven species of woodpeckers found in Tennessee: Downy Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, Pileated Woodpecker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Red-headed Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. Only the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is highly migratory, which is necessitated by the annual dormancy of their host trees and the lack of availability of their main food source, i.e. tree sap.
Woodpeckers have hard, pointed beaks, with incredibly long tongues and thick, shock-absorbing skulls. These traits make them particularly well adapted for excavating cavities for nesting and roosting, territorial drumming, and hunting for insects and sap. Woodpeckers are especially well designed for their tree living lifestyle as their feet are specially adapted with two toes pointing forward and two toes pointing to the rear with sharp pointed claws that are used for scaling up and down tree trunks. Woodpeckers also have a short, stiff tail that props them up when climbing.
Woodpeckers play a very important role in forest health. Old woodpecker cavities are used by a variety of other birds, squirrels, and even raccoons. The process of drilling and chipping trees apart for food and shelter also contribute to the necessary decomposition of dead trees. One of the best ways you can help woodpeckers is by leaving dead trees (snags) standing on your property, of course as long as they don't threaten to fall on your house and cause serious damage.
Problems and Solutions
There are 3 reasons woodpeckers are hammering or pecking on wood or metal on your house.
Problem #1 - The most commonly given reason for woodpeckers hammering on your home is that they are searching for food, however this is NOT correct. Woodpeckers are most likely not searching for food when hammering on your house. If you have wood shingles, you may want to have an inspector look for insect problems, but it is unlikely an insect problem that you have could be a woodpecker food source.
Problem #2 - Woodpeckers are hammering (or drumming) to announce their territory, much like a cardinal singing his song i
in spring. The drumming is loud, but generally not very destructive or as long-lived in duration as the third reason. This is most common in late winter and through the breeding season, i.e. late-February though June.
Solution: This kind of activity can best be stopped by making the drumming site unsuitable for noisemaking. This can be done by covering it with noise-deadening material such as canvas, foam rubber, a sheet, newspaper, heavy plastic, or ¾ inch bird netting attached to the building across the focal area. For specific exclusion methods, see Woodpecker Exclusion Method section below.
Problem #3 - The third reason entails the real "nuisance" issue. It is called excavating (or chiseling) whereby either a male or a female constructs a nest or roost hole with a cavity that would typically be placed in trees. This is the most common cause of damage and can be very destructive. If you see a hole at least 2 inches in diameter, you most likely have a woodpecker that is excavating a nesting cavity. Unfortunately, some woodpeckers try to place such a cavity in the side of a house, barn, utility pole, fence post, or other man-made structure.
Solution: Problems of this nature may be avoided by leaving dead snags or by hanging woodpecker nest boxes. Installing a bird box, much like a bluebird or purple martin box, at the site of excavation with either deter the bird or it will use the box for nesting. See "Woodworking for Wildlife" for box designs if you choose to build your own. Many stores sell bird boxes for those not choosing to build their own. For other exclusion methods, see following section.
Woodpecker Excusion Methods
Methods for excluding woodpeckers can be simply or very elaborate. To reduce hammering, cover the area with noise-deadening material such as canvas, foam rubber, a sheet, newspaper, or heavy plastic. Once the woodpecker finds that he can no longer produce his noise, he will usually go elsewhere. A variety of scare tactics use movement and reflective light to frighten woodpecker away. Try using items such as aluminum pans, pinwheels, wind chimes, strips of aluminum foil, or plastic streamers. Hang or attach them over the damaged area so they can move freely in the breeze. Hanging a silhouette of a predatory bird is generally not very effective. Mylar party balloons or balloons with large eyes printed on it can be hung as well. The balloon technique may work for only a short time as the bird will likely figure out it is not a threat.
To exclude woodpeckers, you can also hang netting, such as ¾", lightweight bird netting, to protect siding. Netting is near invisible from a distance when properly installed and is a long-term solution. Leave at least 3 inches of space between the netting and the siding so birds cannot cause damage through the netting. Netting can also be attached to the eaves and angled back to the siding to hang below the damaged area. Be sure to secure the netting tightly so no birds can get trapped behind it.
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker problem
Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers forage on sap flowing within tree trunks. They arrive in winter and will often be found in urban areas drilling horizontal lines of small holes for feeding. They rarely cause permanent damage to a tree. However, if the trunk is completely girdled with holes it could kill the tree and provide an entrance for disease or insects.
If you have a lot of trees it may be best to sacrifice a few for sapsuckers. If discouraged from one tree they may move on to another tree nearby and start to bore holes. If protection is necessary to save a tree, you may cover the entire tree trunk with netting. The damaged area can also be wrapped with burlap, plastic mesh or hardware cloth.
Notice - Woodpeckers and sapsuckers are migratory birds and are federally protected. When warranted, a bird may be killed under a special permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Before a permit will be issued it must be demonstrated that other methods of exclusion or deterrence were attempted first. Contact the nearest U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office for details. Violations draw up to a $500 fine and 6 months in jail for killing a woodpecker.