Woodpeckers are a real treat in the garden – they are colorful, fun to watch and great for keeping the bugs under control. Since most of them don’t migrate you can hope to attract woodpeckers all year round, especially in summer when they bring their babies to your feeders. They tend to be very shy birds, but with patience you can attract them into your yard by tempting them with clean water for drinking and bathing, some favorite treats and a safe place to shelter.
If you’re lucky enough to live near a wooded area or have a property with lots of trees, you probably already have few woodpeckers within shouting distance. This will be especially true if you live in an area affected by the emerald ash borer beetle, an imported pest that has killed thousands of trees. Many imported pests have no natural predators in our ecosystems but fortunately, our woodpeckers love to eat this beetle’s larvae and have been seen to eat up to 85% of an infestation.
Attract Woodpeckers with Water
Who doesn’t love a nice long bath? The water’s just right, the tub’s big enough to stretch out, and it’s super easy to wash your hair. At least, this Pileated woodpecker seems to think so.
Woodpeckers of all kinds will come to a bird bath for a drink and will also bathe if they feel safe enough. The bird bath should be placed in a low-traffic area near but not under bushes or trees that can provide cover and a few branches for preening.
For more about attracting birds with a bird bath, please see Bird Bath Secrets: How to Attract More Birds.
Offer a Bountiful Feast
Nature is just one big buffet for woodpeckers, who will eat almost anything: insects, nuts, berries, more insects, tree sap, small creatures like frogs, lizards, fish, nestling birds and bird eggs. They’ve even been known to crack open beehives in search of honey! They focus primarily on foraging for these foods and in general, are not big on bird feeders.
But when it’s time for dessert, that’s when you can get their attention. Woodpeckers and flickers —along with nuthatches, chickadees, starlings and about 75 other species— love suet (beef fat): raw suet, plain suet cakes, suet mixed with cornmeal, nuts, seeds, fruit or even dried mealworms.
Larger woodpeckers appreciate long suet feeders and feeders that have a tail prop, so consider that when trying to attract woodpeckers to your yard.
(If you find that squirrels are gobbling up your suet as fast as you can put it out, there’s a simple solution to that: wrap the suet feeder in small-mesh hardware cloth.)
Woodpeckers also love tree nuts (acorns, walnuts, hazelnuts, pecans etc.), peanuts and peanut butter (unsalted of course) and black oil sunflower seeds, shelled or in-shell. You don’t even need a feeder for peanut butter – just smear it on a tree trunk or other rough-ish vertical surface.
Woodpeckers like oranges, apples and grapes too. Serve the fruit fresh or as jelly, the same kind you put on toast.
Speaking of sweets, remember the tree sap? The nectar in your hummingbird feeder makes a nice substitute as far as woodpeckers are concerned.
Suet Safety Notes
It’s pretty much impossible to go overboard on suet for woodpeckers. However, raw suet spoils quickly when temperatures are above freezing, so it’s best to use this only in deepest winter.
Rendered suet can soften into a sticky mess in hot weather. That’s dangerous for birds in nesting season, because it can get on a bird’s feathers and transfer to its eggs, where it will block the tiny pores that feed oxygen to the developing embryo.
It can also cause feathers to mat, leading to reduced insulation and waterproofing, infected follicles and feather loss, especially around the face.
If you want to offer suet in late spring and summertime, stick to “no-melt” kind.
Got starling problems? Smaller woodpeckers, like the downy, hairy, ladder-backed, Arizona and Nutall’s woodpeckers will have no problem feeding from an upside-down suet feeder, but starlings will be completely foiled.
Feeders meant for perching birds aren’t that great woodpeckers, which are built for clinging and climbing on rough vertical surfaces.
For woodpeckers, look for long, tubular peanut feeders, peanut wreaths or solid “woodpecker snack” cakes of mixed nuts, fruit and seeds. The cakes hang in a feeder that’s like an extra-large suet cage, and this type of treat is also available in a log-shaped block that hangs vertically.
Gardening for Woodpeckers
Landscaping for Woodpecker Conservation
Woodpeckers are in decline all over North America, with some having already reached “Near-Threatened” status. Woodpeckers are biodiversity indicator species, so this means that a lot of other species that depend on woodpecker activity are also in decline.
A major contributor to this decline is the outright loss of habitat due to development of course, but recent forestry practices have also played a major role by controlling (or attempting to control) forest fires and by clearing away dead and rotting trees. Of the dead trees that remain, studies show that many of their trunks are too solid for smaller woodpeckers to excavate. Smaller woodpeckers don’t have the pecking power of their Pileated pals and they need these softer trees for nesting and foraging.
Therefore, if your property includes a tall stump, dead tree or partial tree (“snag”) that isn’t a hazard to humans, consider leaving it in place, especially if it was burned or is rotting.
If you don’t have a dead tree snag in your yard but are open to providing this kind of habitat, you can probably get a tree snag for free from a firewood seller or land development contractor, especially if you can pick it up yourself. For woodpeckers, choose the largest diameter and tallest snags available. Once installed in your yard, a snag can last up to 10 years, providing valuable habitat and foraging for woodpeckers, bluebirds and secondary cavity nesters. To learn more about adding dead trees to your landscape, check out this awesome article by Richard and Diane Van Vleck.
Food Gardening for the Birds
Woodpeckers and lots of other birds will appreciate fruit-bearing trees or shrubs, especially those that retain their fruit through the winter. Trees like beech, oak, mulberry, hazelnut and saw palmetto are attractive to woodpeckers. The fruits of serviceberry and viburnum shrubs are great winter bird helpers, as is the Virginia creeper vine, a member of the grape family that offers attractive fall foliage in addition to fruit.
Downy woodpeckers will adore you for planting Goldenrod, which harbors fly larvae they love to eat.
Consider a Woodpecker Nest Box
Only the Hairy woodpecker, Lewis’ woodpecker, Red-bellied Woodpeckers and Flickers are known to use man-made nest boxes or birdhouses to nest in, although a few other woodpeckers, such as the Downy and Red-headed, may roost in them at times.
Despite this fact, you will see birdhouses marketed as suitable for Downy, Pileated and other woodpeckers. Don’t be fooled. You will only get nesting pairs of the four species named above, so choose a nest box sized for those species.
As with all birdhouses:
- Remove perches if any and place the box away from branches, wires and other structures that could provide access to predators like snakes and racoons
- Install baffles to keep squirrels out of the box
- Ensure good ventilation by choosing or building a box that has holes or spaces at the top or bottom to let air in. If the box is ventilated at the bottom, you may have to line it with screen door mesh or something similar to keep the fill from falling out.
- You’ll need a good-sized box 17 to 20 inches deep, with a hole of about 2 inches and very thick walls; floor about 9” X 11” for flickers, 9” X 7” for the other woodpeckers listed.
Clean out old birdhouses before each nesting season and have them in place by March 15th at the latest. Woodpeckers won’t nest that early, but they do start claiming territory from late winter onwards.
Pack the Box Full
Excavating a nest is a natural part of woodpecker mating activity, so be sure to pack the box full of untreated pine or cedar wood chips or shavings. Coarse sawdust will work too but avoid fine sawdust as it traps moisture easily and is hard for birds to work with. Bonus: packing the box full to the rafters discouraging starlings and other early-nesting birds from usurping the boxes.
If the woodpeckers happen to empty the box, go ahead and add a few more inches of fill to keep them happy.
Which Nest Box?
Flicker Nest Boxes
Flickers are larger than the other box-nesters, so you’ll need a larger box for them. Place the box between 6 and 12 feet high, facing south or east. If you can mount the box so it leans forward a bit, that will help the chicks climb out. The box can be mounted on trees, poles/posts or on house siding if flickers have been trying to excavate a nest there. Flickers are very territorial, so try to place the box about 110 yards from the next nearest flicker nest or birdhouse.
One-size Nest Box Fits the Rest
The Hairy woodpecker, Lewis’ woodpecker and Red-bellied Woodpeckers can all use the same-sized nest box.
Placement for Lewis’s woodpecker
New nesting boxes should be in place no later than April 1st. Mount them around 12 feet high on dead or partly dying trees, facing northeast. If you can attach a slab of bark to the front of the box, this woodpecker will use it to stash food and to break up bugs and keep them in place while feeding the chicks. In subsequent years, clean out the box around April 1st.
Lewis’s woodpeckers are semi-colonial, with two or three pairs happy to share the same tree. You can place several boxes fairly close together and hope to attract more than one pair.
Placement for Hairy woodpecker and Red-bellied woodpecker
Both these birds are quite territorial, so at most you will attract one breeding pair of each. Place the box about 12 to 20 feet above ground facing south or east (or with the front facing away from prevailing winds in your area.) Like flickers, these birds are aggressively territorial, so you will need to place the box at least 100 yards from the next nearest Red-bellied woodpecker nest, perhaps 450 yards away from the next nearest Hairy woodpecker nest.