Behavior & MigrationDrumming, Tapping and Drilling by Woodpeckers - why, when, deterring

Drumming, Tapping and Drilling by Woodpeckers – why, when, deterring

Flicker damage. photo by Bet Zimmerman
Flickers have created numerous holes by pecking the poor quality stucco used on this commercial building. Nestboxes were placed in some areas, but not directly over the holes that had been excavated. They were used by kestrels and a fox squirrel. Next the company is going to spend about $20,000 on a special stucco coating with embedded mesh and a distasteful tannin ingredient designed to deter woodpeckers. Photo by Bet Zimmerman Smith in CO

QUICK TIPS:  It’s not easy. Deal with the insect infestation.  Offer an alternative.

Woodpeckers engage in drumming (also called tattooing, tapping [which is really for feeding] and rapping) to communicate with other members of their species. The steady, loud rhythm is used to announce territory or attract a mate. The reverberating staccato is created by rapidly and repeatedly striking a substrate like a jackhammer with their bill. For example, Downy Woodpeckers hit the substrate about 16-17 times per second, and a drumming event can last 0.25-1.8 seconds. (Ritchison). On the other hand, irregular pecking is done while searching for food or excavating a nest hole.

When? Downies primarily drum from February through July. Drumming rates are usually highest prior to nesting, lower during nesting, and increase again after young leave the nest. They tend to drum more in the morning. Females and males drum equally. If a downy looses a mate, they drum from frequently than paired birds.

Why? Drumming may be a response to longer day length, which in turn probably stimulates hormone production. It may help establish and maintain breeding territory, to attract a mate, to stimulate females, guard mates, maintain contact, strengthen pair bonds, and solicit sex. Pairs may engage in duets.

Tapping is done at a slower rate than drumming, and is associated mainly with feeding, but may be done at a nest site. Tapping might provide information about the quality of wood.

Red-headed Woodepcker. Pixabay photo.When woodpeckers attack siding, they are NOT seeking material to line their nests. Unlike many small cavity nesters, woodpeckers generally do not line their nesting cavities with found materials. They usually just leave some wood chips in there that are leftover from excavation. If they are removing insulation underneath siding, it might just be to find insects underneath. If it is a large hole, they might be excavating a nesting cavity. Woodpeckers seem to prefer stained wood over painted wood, especially cedar shingles.

Deterring Drumming or Drilling: If woodpeckers are drumming or drilling on your dwelling, it can get really old. They can be very persistent and hard to deter. (I hear that a rather effective but short-lived approach is to run outside, preferably in your bathrobe with neighbors watching, waving your arms and screaming like a banshee.) However, even though it may get very annoying or even destructive, it is illegal to harass or harm protected native birds like woodpeckers (see Migratory Bird Treaty Act.) I was horrified to hear someone say they actually shot and killed a red-headed woodpecker that was drumming incessantly on their chimney – this is a criminal offense. Besides, woodpeckers are beneficial birds, in that they eat many insects, including destructive insects and their larvae. Here are some legal steps you can try:

  • Get Rid of Insect Infestation: Check for insect activity if you hear tapping, or small holes are being excavated in your siding. The woodpeckers may be after carpenter ants, carpenter bees, cluster flies, or other bugs that hide under siding. If the wood is rotten, replace it with new wood. If there is an insect problem, consult with a licensed pest control operator to eliminate the insects.
    • Feed: Try putting up a suet feeder, which they may find a more attractive source of food. See recipes. Place it away from the house but within sight of their favorite spot. If they find it and eat it, move it away from the house, little by little. (Placement: try abtwo about 30 feet away from teh house, and one right next to the house where they are pecking. One person had 90-100% relief with this method.)Scare Eyes, Attack Spider
  • Scare: If there are no insects, try some scare devices (which you may have to move around periodically so woodpeckers do not become accustomed to them), such as balloons, wind chimes, a child’s pinwheel, “Scare Eyes for Birds” (inflatable colored balls hung from brackets, which run about $17.24 for 3 pack at, tin can lids, pie tins decorated with artificial eyes made of yellow disks with black centers, plastic owls that swing back and forth, strips of aluminum foil, or bird “scare tape” where the woodpeckers are active. You can remove the items if woodpeckers abandon the house.
    • Try an attack spider by Birds-Away. Unlike most scare devices that birds quickly become accustomed to, this one is sound activated (battery operated), drops down 18″ and makes a noise, and is inexpensive. About 9″ long, not waterproof.
  • Monofilament: Another option is hanging lengths of monofilament nylon (fishing line) a few inches out from the undersides of your eaves, spaced 4-6″ apart along the side of the house. The line should go to the ground, and it must be staked or have something like a heavy metal washer on the end to weight it down (otherwise flying birds could get tangled in it.) It won’t be noticeable when you look at the house, but may deter birds. You can also temporarily hang a thick sheet of plastic (e.g. painter’s drop cloth) over the area they are working on.
  • Pad: Cover or wrap the drumming site with padding.
  • Alternate Drumming Site: Provide an alternate drumming site away from the house. For example, firmly secure a board to a tree, and place another overlapping board on top of it, nailed only at the top end. Covering it with metal sheeting might make the new drum more attractive.
  • Alternative Nest Site: If larger holes are being excavated, the woodpecker may be trying to make a roosting or nesting cavity. Leaving snags in place (even a 15 foot high stump), or even creating new ones (by girdling trees, or cutting down a snag elsewhere and “planting” it in cement) may draw them away.
    • You can also try nailing nestbox over the area they are trying to excavate, and put some wood shavings inside (make sure the entrance hole is the right size for the bird species – see guide.)
    • Note: Each individual male and female woodpecker makes its own cavity (or uses an existing one) to roost in at night. They usually use a snag (standing dead tree.) They often make a new cavity each year for nesting.
  • Notes:
    • They may also pull insulation out – I’m guessing this is either to access bugs, or to empty out a cavity for roosting/nesting – Woodpeckers are not known to use insulation in a nest.
    • Spraying with smelly animal repellents is unlikely to work, since most birds have a poor sense of smell.

References and More Information:

  • Ritchison, Gary, Downy Woodpecker, Wild Bird Guide, 1999
  • All About Downy Woodpeckers (Bio)
  • Drumming: why, how, deterring
  • Sexy Snags, Our Better Nature
  • Migratory Bird Treaty Act
  • Carpenter bee control: using a straw, fill each hole with WD40 until it runs out. This coats all tunnels and eggs. Then stuff the holes with aluminum foil shoved in tight. Caulk it shut using stainable caulk. (Thanks to Kathy Clark)
  • Garden’s Alive, advice from Dr. Jerry Jackson, Professor of Biology, Florida Gulf Coast U

“the principal characteristics of this little bird are diligence, familiarity, perseverance”
– Wilson on the Downy Woodpecker


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