Stopping Woodpecker Damage

Has stopping woodpecker damage on your home suddenly become a top priority?

You’re not alone, if that’s any consolation. It’s not uncommon for nearly every house in a wooded development to suffer woodpecker damage! Some houses have had such severe problems that the entire house needed new siding.

Even less extreme damage isn’t cheap to repair: a 1984 study found that homeowners spent an average of $300 to repair woodpecker damage, equivalent to $700 today.

Woodpeckers also damage wooden utility or ‘electrical’ poles, costing homeowners hundreds of thousands of tax dollars every year to repair or replace the poles.

Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to stop woodpecker damage. First, let’s look at why woodpeckers damage houses, and which houses are most at risk.

Woodpeckers Gonna Peck

Woodpeckers don’t care if you’re trying to sleep (or get the baby to sleep), nor do they care what your siding, roof, deck or trim looks like after they’re done with it. They’re just bent on pecking holes. So why are these crazy birds attacking  homes? From a woodpecker’s point of view, it’s not crazy at all. In fact, there are 3.5 good reasons why woodpeckers damage houses:

A triumphant Pileated woodpecker peers out of a good-sized hole in stucco – photo by Mike G.

1. To build nesting or roosting holes to live or sleep in. Most homes are clad in material that’s a lot softer than hardwood – pine or cedar siding for example. And stucco.
Once the bird reaches the inside of the wall, there’s an incredibly cozy, well hidden space that’s just perfect for raising kids and getting a good night’s rest.

2. To dig insects out of the walls to eat. The wood – or crevasses between pieces of wood – might be infested with carpenter ants or bees, termites or the larvae of wood-boring beetles. Some siding is made of plywood, which has tunnels inside it that readily harbor insects.

If plywood siding is grooved so it looks like tongue-and-groove or board-and-batten siding, the gaps in its structure are exposed. Insects get inside and create delicious buffets for hungry woodpeckers.

In addition to excavating nests and foraging, Acorn woodpeckers in the southwest also make holes to store various kinds of nuts in. (Acorns as well as almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, pecans, and pinyon pine nuts.) They will also wedge nuts between or beneath roof shakes and drop them into unscreened rooftop plumbing vents.

3. To make a loud noise signalling their claim on the area to other woodpeckers, the louder the better. This is called “drumming” and can go on for weeks during the spring mating season. Drumming doesn’t normally do much damage, except for chipping paint, but it sure can be annoying. How would you like to wake up to this every morning? (Turn your speakers on please.)

Oh, you want to know the “half-a-reason”? Woodpeckers, like other birds, also engage in what ornithologists call “shadow boxing” or attacking their own reflections in windows, trying to drive the “other bird” away. Like drumming, shadow boxing is territorial behavior.

Woodpecker activity related to mating and nesting is worst in the spring and fall, but defending territory and foraging goes on all year round because most woodpeckers don’t migrate.

The bad news: all of this is hard-wired instinctive behavior, which means it’s pretty much impossible to stop. The good news:  while you can’t stop them from pecking, you can get woodpeckers to stop pecking your house IF you act fast.

Woodpeckers Gonna Peck All Over

It’s not just siding that woodpeckers damage – they also go after eaves, stucco, window and door frames, and trim boards. And it’s not just houses either. Woodpecker damage is a big problem for commercial and public buildings too. Utility (electrical) poles are another favorite woodpecker target. Heck, even the Space Shuttle had major woodpecker damage in 1995 that resulted in a three-week mission delay and a million-dollar repair bill!

The Usual Suspects

Northern flicker by KCBirdFan, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

There are about 22 species of woodpecker in the US and Canada, but “only” 10 of them are associated with damage to houses, with the worst offender being the Northern flicker. The other woodpeckers known to damage houses are, by region:

Northeast US/Canadian Maritimes

  • Pileated woodpecker
  • Hairy woodpecker
  • Downy woodpecker

Midwest US/Central Canada & Canadian Prairies

  • Pileated woodpecker
  • Hairy woodpecker
  • Downy woodpecker

Southeast US

  • Hairy woodpecker
  • Downy woodpecker
  • Red-cockaded woodpecker
  • Red-bellied woodpecker (uncommon)
  • Red-headed woodpecker
  • Pileated woodpecker

Southwest US

  • Acorn woodpecker
  • Hairy woodpecker
  • Downy woodpecker
  • Ladder-backed Woodpecker
  • Red-cockaded woodpecker
  • Red-headed woodpecker
  • Red-bellied woodpecker
  • Golden-fronted woodpecker

Mountain US

  • Downy woodpecker
  • Hairy woodpecker
  • Pileated woodpecker

Pacific US & Canada

  • Pileated woodpecker
  • Hairy woodpecker
  • Acorn woodpecker (US only)
  • Downy woodpecker

Alaska/Northern Canadian Territories

  • Downy woodpecker
  • Hairy woodpecker

 

Why Are Some Homes Damaged But Not Others?

This place is a prime target for woodpecker damage – wood siding, natural color, wooded area. Looks like a wood roof too.

It’s hard to say — but scientists have done a few studies that turned up some interesting results.

It seems that woodpeckers are strongly attracted to wood siding that is stained or painted in earth tones. If the house is covered in that material and located in a heavily wooded area or lot, it is virtually certain to be damaged by woodpeckers.

Soft cedar, rough pine and redwood siding gets the worst treatment, but plywood siding with grooves in it gets, er, hammered too. Also on the hit list: wood shakes/shingles, decking, rails and trim.

Even metal siding sometimes takes a beating. Stucco is another easy target for pesky woodpeckers.

On the other hand, researches found that houses which are painted white or light pastel colors suffer far less woodpecker damage than houses dressed in earth tones.

 

It’s Not Just About the Holes

Woodpecker nest hole in a house.

Unsightly as they are, holes are just the beginning of what could be a very expensive set of problems if you let the woodpecker carry on unchecked.

For one thing, rain and snow can get into the wall, leading to water damage and mold growth.

For another, most wild birds are infested with mites and other parasites, which also get into their nests. Bird mites are bloodsucking insects that complete their lifecycles in just seven days, so an infestation that starts with just a few mites can spread into your home in a very short time.

Woodpeckers are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in the US and the Migratory Birds Convention Act in Canada, which make it illegal to harm, disturb or destroy protected birds and their active nests, eggs and young.

Wait long enough for the woodpecker to establish a nest and breed and you’ll have to leave them alone until the birds are gone. Got mites?

If you read Knock Knock – All About Woodpeckers, you also know that even after the woodpecker is gone, the hole will be reused by other birds and small mammals. It’s a gift that keeps on giving!

 

Why Woodpeckers Peck Houses

The next key is to figure out why the woodpecker is attracted to your house and work on removing or diverting the attraction:

Foraging

Woodpecker damage caused by woodpeckers looking for insects.
Damage caused by woodpeckers looking for insects.

If the woodpecker is making a long, straight line of small holes, a series of small deep holes, or is excavating tunnels in the wood, it’s feeding on bugs inside the wood and you have an insect problem. You’ll need to get an exterminator in pronto to take care of it so there’s nothing for the woodpeckers to eat.

In the meantime, you may be able to distract the birds by offering suet and mealworms (live or dried) inj a spot that’s away from the house. Be warned though: if the woodpeckers are pecking your house for a different reason, suet and other foods may make the problem worse by attracting other woodpeckers.

Note: If you have wood siding, rails, deck, shingles or shakes, or door/window frames, you may be able to prevent insects from ever becoming an issue by treating your with a good quality wood preservative and sealant to keep bugs out. Be sure to follow the recommended schedule to keep your wood in good condition.

Nesting and Roosting

Large, roundish and deep holes mean the woodpecker is excavating a nest or a roost, which is a shallower cavity meant to be a safe place to sleep at night.

Some homeowners have been able to divert this activity by placing a suitable nest box on top of the hole and a few more nestboxes elsewhere on the house. If you do this, be sure to pack the boxes full of wood chips,shavings or coarse sawdust which will keep other birds from nesting there and allow woodpeckers to simulate excavation, which is a natural part of their nesting activity.

If nest boxes aren’t feasible, you’ll need to repair the damaged area and/or cover it with metal flashing or hardware cloth, which can be painted the same colour as the house. (Note that Pileated woodpeckers are strong enough to peck right through hardware cloth.)

Another option for, those who enjoy providing wildlife habitat, is adding a tree snag to your property. You can often get these from firewood sellers or land development contractors for nothing.

Removing dead trees, which is sometimes recommended, is not advisable. Experts speculate that one reason woodpeckers excavate on houses could be a shortage of dead trees!

Establishing Territory

Northern flicker drumming on a metal chimney cap. Image by Living Montana via YouTube

If a woodpecker is “just” drumming to mark his or her territory or find a mate, it wants to make the loudest possible noise, so anything you can do to deaden the sound will make that spot less attractive. This might mean filling the wall with an expanding foam or enclosing your chimney cap and metal vents with hardware cloth or chicken wire to keep the bird out. Unfortunately, woodpeckers also drum on metal gutters and downspouts.

This is one problem that will go away by itself, eventually. Drumming is mostly a springtime activity that goes on for three weeks or so, until breeding begins. If you can stand the noise for that long and you’re positive it’s just drumming, you might choose to just ignore it. (It’s not  just drumming if you can see actual holes.)

You can also try setting up a woodpecker drum away from your house – this can be anything that makes a loud noise when struck, such as a metal garbage can or lid, two boards loosely fastened together, an old pot etc. Hang smaller items securely, 10 to 20 feet above ground on a post or tree. Place a suet feeder nearby to attract the woodpeckers.

 

Stopping Woodpecker Damage

The single most important key to stopping woodpecker damage is to take action at the first sign of a problem. Once a woodpecker has established a pattern of behavior, it is very hard to dislodge.

 

There’s Only One Way to Stop Woodpecker Damage for Sure

Bird netting is the only reliable way to stop woodpecker damage. Image by Bird B Gone via YouTube.

I won’t make you read to the bottom to find out the truth: there’s only one effective woodpecker deterrent, one that reliably stops woodpeckers from damaging a house, and that is bird netting. The netting must be hung at least three inches away from the surface to keep the birds at bay, and must be secured so the birds can’t wiggle their way behind it. (They aren’t likely to crawl up from below, so don’t worry about leaving a gap at the bottom.)

Properly installed netting is barely visible at any distance, so don’t worry about making your house look ugly. Netting should last for several years.

Bird netting comes in various sizes and weights – here are a few things to keep in mind when choosing bird netting as a woodpecker deterrent:

  • Choose a mesh size of one inch (1″) or smaller – the 2″ mesh sold as poultry netting isn’t suitable for stopping woodpeckers.
  • If the netting isn’t taut it is likely to trap smaller birds which can lead to their deaths.
  • Netting can be damaged or displaced by heavy weather. Woodpeckers will get through any holes large enough for access.
  • Buy a few more yards than you think you’ll need as insurance against measuring errors.
  • Choose a quality product that will stand up to weathering and UV light.
  • Consider using a professional installer


Installing bird netting on a house is a fairly big undertaking, so some might be tempted to try a less drastic solution first. Please read on to find out why you should avoid most woodpecker deterrent products.

 

You Can Fool Some of the Woodpeckers Some of the Time, But…

Woodpecker damage to utility pole.
Northern flicker nesting in a utility pole.

As previously noted, woodpeckers are a major headache for utility companies and the military, who have, along with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, sponsored or assisted a good deal of scientific testing in hopes of finding an effective solution to woodpecker damage problems. The US Army and Air Force, and airports all over the world have also invested a LOT of money in researching bird deterrents. I looked into this research to on your behalf, and here’s what I found:

The homeowner-type products that were tested include: fake owls and snakes, balloons, reflective tape, chemical deterrents, sticky gels and devices that play sounds such as territorial, distress and bird predator calls.  These products target one or more of the five senses: sight, sound, smell, taste and touch.

Some people claim success with some of these methods, some of the time but when put through controlled scientific testing, the results were profoundly disappointing in all but one case. Let’s take a look.

Sticky Gels

Sticky gel-based products with product names like Tanglefoot™ or Bird-Proof Gel™ are based on the idea that birds will stay away from anything that interferes with them getting a solid footing. Some of these gels include capsaicin, the active ingredient in pepper spray, or other strong-tasting or smelling ingredients. Manufacturers claim the capsaicin creates a mild burning sensation on the birds’ feet. Other gels sold as bird repellents claim to emit ultraviolet light and that birds perceive this as fire and avoid it.

These products are applied like caulking, in long wavy lines and would be best used in places like window sills, deck rails or the edges of gutters. They are not practical for use on areas covered by siding.

How Effective Are These Gels?

1. Claims that capsaicin repels birds are complete rubbish: several studies have shown that birds are completely insensitive to capsaicin because they lack the anatomical receptors to perceive it. In other words, they don’t even notice it!

2. Optical gels do emit light in the ultraviolet range, and many birds do perceive ultraviolet light quite well. However, a fire would have to be hotter than 2,500 °C (about 4500 °F) to emit ultraviolet light. How likely is it that any given bird has seen a fire that hot? Even forest wildfires don’t get that hot – wood ignites at about 590 °C (1,000 °F).

In other words, there’s no possible way that birds could associate ultraviolet light with fire. (And there’s no evidence that birds are inherently afraid of fire anyway.)

What the Scientists Said

There is very little scientific data on the effectiveness of bird repellent gels, but I did find an interesting study that tested the gels’ ability to stop pigeons from landing on surfaces. (Woodpeckers have to land before they can peck, right?)

Credit: Frank C. Müller CC by SA 3.0

Results from the study indicated that the gels did reduce the number of pigeons that landed on tested areas – for about a week. This was probably because it was new and spooked them a bit. After the first week, the birds gradually got used to the stuff. They even landed right in it and tracked it all over.

The scientists noted that both types of gel were quick to collect insects, feathers, dust and feces, making them ineffective (and unhygenic).

Finally, they had a heck of a time cleaning up gel that had been spread around to other surfaces by the birds. In fact, despite using strong cleaners, they couldn’t get rid of it all.

Others have noted that these gels can slump and spread in hot weather and also may mark or stain the surface where they are used.

Keep in mind that songbirds and other non-target birds may land in these gels too. The gels can get into feathers, sticking them together and making it hard for birds to fly or stay warm.

To sum up, gel repellents don’t work all that well, may harm other birds and have a huge potential mess factor. Not recommended.

 

Chemical Repellents, Mothballs and Other Stinky Stuff

Mothballs

Methyl anthranilate is an expensive chemical sold under brand names like Bird Stop™. The idea is that birds will be repelled by the smell and/or taste of the chemical. It does keep woodpeckers from eating suet treated with the chemical, but it won’t stop them from chipping away at your house, since they don’t eat the wood.

Other strong smells such as peppermint oil, and mothballs have also been tried as woodpecker deterrents, without provable success. Why?

Scientists believe that birds have very poor senses of both taste and smell.

In short, another ‘solution’ that doesn’t work. Save your money.

 

Scare Tactics

Get rid of woodpeckers
Fake owls don’t work to get rid of woodpeckers.

Scare tactics include “decoy” objects like fake owls and snakes, balloons, “scare eyes™”, foil pie pans, old CDs, mirrors and other reflective items except reflective tape, which we’ll get to in a moment. Banging pots and pans together, yelling, firing cap guns or squirting birds with water are other frequently recommended scare tactics.

The survival of all birds, including woodpeckers, depends on their ability to determine whether or not an actual threat exists – and they’re pretty good at it.

Do Scare Tactics Work?

You’ve probably noticed that birds are quite easily spooked by anything that’s new or strange in their environment, especially if it moves. You’ve probably also noticed that it doesn’t take them long to get used to such things and stop avoiding them. Scientists call this process “habituation.”

The survival of all birds, including woodpeckers, depends on their ability to determine whether or not an actual threat exists – and they’re pretty good at it.

That’s the problem with all “decoy” type devices. There’s no actual threat present and woodpeckers quickly figure that out.

Some decoys might be effective in scaring some woodpeckers for a short time, especially if you’re prepared to go out and move them every few hours for several weeks.

Noise-makers will work IF you’re prepared to go out an make loud noises every single time a woodpecker starts pecking over a period of two or three weeks … by which time your neighbors might be ready to tar and feather you!

Sound Repellents

There are quite a number of electronic products for sale that emit audible and/or ultrasonic sounds which are supposed to keep woodpeckers away. Audible sounds used may include distress calls, territorial calls and bird predator calls – so-called “bio-acoustic” sounds.

Birds do have much better hearing than humans – woodpeckers, for instance, can hear insects and larvae moving inside wood.

Sound-based repellents sound promising, so let’s see what independent scientists have learned by testing these devices:

One study tested a bio-acoustic sound broadcaster on Pileated woodpeckers in a flight cage with two utility poles. One pole (the test pole) was equipped with the device; the other pole wasn’t. The device emitted various sounds (except for distress calls) whenever it detected a woodpecker landing on the test pole. There were eight woodpeckers in the study, and the device’s full range of sounds was tested on each bird.

The result: scientists found there was no difference at all in the “amount of time spent on poles, amount of time spent pecking on poles, and weight of wood chips removed from poles with and without” the sonic device.

Sound-based repellents don’t work either.

Several other studies have tested both ultrasonic-only and combination sonic-ultrasonic bird repellents on a number of non-woodpecker species. All of the the studies concluded that while the devices may scare birds away for a day or two,

“Tests to date indicate that the device has no significant effect on the species studied.”

It’s not surprising that ultrasonic noise doesn’t repel birds: 26 of 33 bird species tested can’t even hear sounds in the ultrasonic range!

The one study I found that tested a sonic repellent on woodpecker damaged homes found it was the least effective deterrent, eliminating woodpecker damage in only one of six test sites. The woodpeckers were back again within 8 days. So you might get some relief from one of these devices, but it won’t last.

 

Reflective Tape: A Partial Victory

Reflective tape helps deter woodpeckers
Reflective bird tape

Bird scare tape is wide, shiny plastic ribbon that is sold in rolls of various lengths. Most products are silvery and feature a highly reflective hologram pattern. It is sold under brand names like Irri-Tape™, Bird Blinder™, Brite Way™ and others.

The tape (ribbon) is used by attaching it in long strips (three or four feet or so) such that one end can move freely in the breeze. For siding, strips of tape need to be placed along the wall about every four feet.

A study that tested six common woodpecker deterrents on 16 different houses found that none, including reflective tape, were consistently effective at eliminating damage. (This study did not test bird netting.)

However, the study found that reflective tape was far more effective than any other method. In fact, it completely eliminated woodpecker damage in 50 percent of the test sites, and reduced overall woodpecker damage by 95 percent.

If you’re going to try the tape, keep in mind:

  • It will deteriorate/come loose in heavy weather.
  • It only works in a breeze – motion is essential.
  • You’ll need to place near all the spots where the woodpecker is active.
  • It won’t do much for your curb appeal.
  • Look for a sturdy product that won’t break easily.

Permanent Solutions

Other than bird netting, the only permanent way to stop woodpecker damage is to replace your wood siding with something that’s woodpecker-proof.

If you’re prepared to make such a substantial investment, your options include metal siding, fiber cement siding (SmartSide™, Hardie plank™) or a new exterior treatment developed by EIFS Armour that is guaranteed woodpecker-proof. To date about 300 (mostly commerical) clients have been very happy with the results of this treatment.

For the Birds

Most woodpecker deterrents are “for the birds.” It’s true that some people claim success with these items, but the scientific evidence indicates that most woodpecker deterrents are “Band-Aid™” solutions at best.

The bottom line: if you already have a problem woodpecker damaging your home, you need to cover the damage quickly and remove whatever is attracting the bird.

If it’s insects, get a pest control team in to eradicate them.

If it’s a place to nest or roost, provide suitable alternatives.

If it’s a place to drum – and you’re certain – you can just ignore it. The woodpecker may chip your paint a little or make a few dents in the wood but any damage will be minimal. If you can’t stand the noise, reflective tape is your best option and can be placed pretty much anywhere until breeding has begun. (Of the woodpeckers, not the tape.)

The Best Defense

Once you’ve solved the immediate problem, you’ll need to make your house less attractive and/or less vulnerable to future woodpeckers by:

House painted white to deter woodpeckers.
Painting your house white may keep woodpeckers away. NPS Photo
  • Painting your house white or a pale pastel (helpful but not fool-proof.)
  • Keeping all your wood finish, trim, roof and decking in good condition with bug-proof stain and sealer.
  • Swapping your wood siding for something tougher.
  • Hanging bird netting to exclude woodpeckers from targeted areas.

 

Have you ever had a pesky woodpecker? What did you do about it and how well did your solution work over period of several weeks?

Image credit: The top featured image is a U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Cody Dowell and shows bird netting that is successfully keeping birds out of a hangar at Altus AFB, OK.

See Also

Knock Knock – All About Woodpeckers

How to Attract Woodpeckers to Your Yard

Woodpecker References – Damage Control

9 thoughts on “Stopping Woodpecker Damage

  1. my heavens, this is fascinating
    I really had NO idea that a bird of this kind could cause such untold damage and be such nuisance and mischievous pests.
    my only real recollection of woodpeckers are from the cartoon show and that formed my perceptions of a little cute quaint colourful creatures. Now I’m going to look at woodpeckers in a whole new light.

    oliver

  2. I wish I had this kind of information a few years ago. I lived in a house up north and it seemed like there was a whole community of woodpeckers there! We tried moth balls for awhile, but I guess they weren’t that effective because they stuck around. Next time I come across these pesky birds, I will refer to your article for other ways to get rids of them. Thanks!

    • Hi Miranda,
      It’s really hard to stop woodpeckers from attacking a house once they’ve established that behavior. Sorry you had troubles – I hope they didn’t do too much damage!
      Joy

  3. I didn’t realize woodpeckers are that destructive. Wow! I live out in the country and I haven’t (knock on wood–no pun intended) had this issue with woodpeckers. They do fly into our yard and peck in our trees, but then are on their way again. They are beautiful to see, but would change my view on them if they were becoming a nuisance and being destructive to my property.
    Thank you for the information; if this ever becomes a problem I can refer back to your website. Have you tried scare tactics, other than noise? I saw you had listed some, but wasn’t sure if you, personally, had used any.

    • Hi Denise,
      Fortunately I’ve never had to deal with this problem myself. I was inspired to write this article when I tried to verify some of the miracle claims that are made for woodpecker deterrents. I found that real scientific research from several sources says that scare tactics seldom have a lasting effect, because the birds quickly figure out that there’s no actual danger. The only scare tactic that worked reliably but not perfectly, was the reflective tape. (If you want to see the scientific stuff for yourself, check out the Woodpecker References page here:https://www.joyofbirds.com/woodpecker-references/#damage).
      Best,
      Joy

  4. The small damage woodpeckers create really are nothing compared to the bigger problem at hand, especially because rain and snow can get inside the holes and crate even bigger issues down the line (rust, rot, etc). I’ve had woodpeckers at my house lately and thankful I found your article before it was too late.

  5. This is a very interesting article, and although I don’t have any woodpecker problems (that I know of), there is a woodpecker that pecks on an electrical pole in my yard. I didn’t realize why that cute but annoying noise maker was so loud.

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