Prepared by the National Wildlife Control Training Program.  http://WildlifeControlTraining.com
Research-based, certified wildlife control training programs to solve human – wildlife conflicts.


Figure 1. Red-headed woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus). Photo by Ron Case.
Figure 1. Red-headed woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus). Photo by Ron Case.


  1. Explain key elements about the biology of woodpeckers that are important for managing the damage they cause.
  2. Explain the options for managing damage caused by woodpeckers.

Species Overview


Woodpeckers can damage wood siding and soffits on structures. They may also cause economic losses to utility companies due to cavities in wooden power-line poles.  The weakened poles could snap in high winds. Their spring-time, territorial “drumming” on wooden or metal objects can be an annoyance to people during early morning.

Figure 2. Female downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens). Photo by Stephen M. Vantassel.
Figure 2. Female downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens). Photo by Stephen M. Vantassel.

Legal Status

All species of woodpeckers are classified as migratory nongame birds and are protected by the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

When warranted, woodpeckers can be killed, but only under a depredation permit issued by the Law Enforcement Division of the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). Authorization by the relevant state wildlife agency also may be required before lethal control methods are initiated.

Sound justification must be present for the issuance of depredation permits. Hazing woodpeckers does not require a permit.


Woodpeckers are found throughout the US. Downy (Picoides pubescens), hairy (Picoides villosus), and pileated (Dryocopus pileatus) woodpeckers are most often involved in damaging homes or other wooden, human-made structures in the northeast. Yellow-bellied sapsuckers (Sphyrapicus ruber) may cause resin wells and damage valuable ornamental trees, especially during fall migration. Red-bellied (Melanerpes carolinus) and red-headed (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) woodpeckers, and northern flickers (Colaptes auratus) may be common in some areas, but are less often involved with damage situations.

Although woodpeckers become a nuisance in some situations, they provide valuable ecological services. Woodpeckers consume substantial numbers of insects, some of which are agricultural and forest pests. They are remarkable, intriguing animals to observe.

Physical Description

Woodpeckers have sharp pointed beaks for excavating holes into wood, and long tongues to dislodge insects. The stiff tail feathers serve as a prop when climbing vertical surfaces. Each foot has two talons that face forward and two that face backward, enabling the birds to cling to trees and vertical wooden structures. Woodpeckers usually are 7 to 15 inches in length.

Adult males of most species have a pattern of black, white, and red. Females are similar, but most lack red markings. Northern flickers are light brown with black and white stripes on the back, yellow or red under-wing, with a black crescent on the breast, and a grey hood with a red crescent.

Species Range

Range depends on species. Consult a bird field guide for more information.

Health and Safety Concerns

Woodpeckers are not known to be a significant disease risk for humans or domestic animals.

General Biology, Reproduction,
and Behavior


Clutch size and other characteristics vary with species. Most species have one brood per year, but red-bellied woodpeckers may have up to 3 broods. Typical clutch size is 3 to 8 eggs, with an incubation period of approximately 11 to 12 days. The nestling period often lasts 18-30 days, depending on the species.  Egg color is usually white.  Consult a bird field guide for more information.

Nesting/Denning Cover

Woodpeckers nest in cavities in trees or structures. Nest cavities are hollowed out areas below and perpendicular to the entrance. Cavities may be chiseled into tree trunks, branches, or structures, or may be natural or pre-existing cavities. Both sexes may help excavate the nest cavity, and sleep in it throughout the year.

Some species, such as downy and hairy woodpeckers, excavate new cavities each year. Others, such as northern flickers, return to the same cavity annually. Some species, such as yellow-bellied sapsuckers, prefer to excavate cavities in live trees, while red-headed and pileated woodpeckers favor dead trees.


Some species, such as northern flickers, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, and red-headed woodpeckers are migratory. Most woodpeckers live year-round in the same area in small social groups.


Woodpeckers are dependent on trees for shelter and food, and generally are found in or on the edge of wooded areas.

Red-headed woodpeckers reside in areas of low elevation along stream courses, or in open country with extensive grasslands and small woodlots. Red-bellied woodpeckers occupy habitat similar to that of red-headed woodpeckers, as well as openings in mature forests, wooded wetlands, and large trees in open pastures. Yellow-bellied sapsuckers are found in heavily forested areas. Downy and hairy woodpeckers are widespread and common in almost any habitat where deciduous trees occur and are common suburban residents. The northern flicker is common in habitats ranging from city parks to heavily forested areas, though it has experienced significant declines in recent years. Pileated woodpeckers are common in mature and extensive forests.

Food Habits

Most woodpeckers feed primarily on tree-living or wood-boring insects, but may feed on a variety of other insects including ants, wasps, and bees found on trees. Northern flickers commonly feed on ants they gather from the ground. Many woodpeckers also feed on berries, fruit, nuts and seeds, particularly when insects are not available.

Yellow-bellied sapsuckers feed on sap that oozes from horizontal rows of small holes they drill into tree trunks. Their tongues are shorter and have fine, hair-like processes on the tip that help collect sap. Sap also serves as a trap from which insects can be harvested.

Voice, Sounds, Tracks, and Signs

Each species of woodpeckers has characteristic calls. They also use a rhythmic pecking sequence to make their presence known. Referred to as “drumming,” pecking establishes territories and apparently attracts or signals mates. Both sexes drum by striking their bills against a hollow or dried branch or other hollow or resonant objects.

Damage Identification

Damage to Landscapes

Sapsuckers bore a series of parallel rows of ¼- to ⅜-inch holes, closely spaced in the bark of healthy trees, and use their tongues to remove the sap. Sapsuckers usually feed on just a few ornamental or fruit trees, while nearby trees of the same species may be untouched. Continued pecking will enlarge holes and large patches of bark may be removed or sloughed. The girdling of limbs and trunks may kill trees. Wounds of attacked trees may attract insects, porcupines, and tree squirrels. Wounds from feeding also serve as entrances for diseases and wood-decaying organisms. Wood-staining fungi and bacteria may enter the wounds and cause a grade defect called “bird peck” that lowers the value of hardwoods.

Vegetable matter constitutes much of the diet of some woodpeckers. Native and cultivated fruits and nuts play an important role in their diet.

Damage to Crops and Livestock

Birds involved in orchard depredation often are so few in number that damage is limited only to a small percentage of the crop. Control actions to protect commercial crops are rarely necessary. A crop of isolated backyard fruit or nut trees may, however, be severely reduced.

Some woodpeckers will kill young birds and eggs. Occasionally, woodpeckers drill into and devastate beehives.

Damage to Structures

Damage by woodpeckers is easily identified by the pounding noise and excavated holes. Damage to buildings is a relatively infrequent problem nationwide, but may be widespread regionally or locally. Houses or buildings with wooden exteriors near wooded areas or in rural wooded settings most likely will suffer pecking damage, although structures with synthetic siding may also be damaged. Damage to a building typically involves only 1 or 2 birds, but may involve up to 6 or 8 individuals during a season. Most damage occurs from February through June, which corresponds with the breeding season and territory establishment, and again in the fall during dispersal and establishment of new territories.

Holes may be drilled into wood siding, eaves, window frames, and trim boards. Woodpeckers prefer cedar and redwood siding, but will damage pine, fir, cypress, and others when available. Natural or stained wood surfaces are preferred over painted wood. New houses often are primary targets. Rustic-appearing, channeled plywood with cedar or redwood veneers are particularly vulnerable to damage. Woodpeckers have also been found to damage plastic used for rooftop solar heating and electric panels.

Imperfections in the layers of intercore plywood exposed by the vertical grooves may harbor insects. Woodpeckers often break these core gaps, leaving characteristic narrow horizontal damage patterns in their search for insects. If a suitable cavity results from feeding, it also may be used for roosting or nesting.

Tubes that are used for collection of maple sap are sometimes damaged by woodpeckers. Drilling in utility poles by pileated woodpeckers in some regions has necessitated frequent and costly replacement of weakened poles. Similar damage to wooden fence posts can be a serious problem for some farmers and ranchers.


Drumming on the sides of houses, chimneys, and eaves, especially during spring can be annoying to people during early morning. Sometimes woodpeckers will drum on other metal objects, such as signs or gutters.

Damage Prevention and Control Methods

Damage by woodpeckers should be addressed as soon as it appears.

Habitat Modification

Remove dead trees. Construct buildings with woodpecker-resistant siding. Application of insecticides to reduce insect populations may provide indirect control by removing the food source. Providing suet as an alternative food, or next boxes as alternatives roost cavities, has shown poor results for hairy and downy woodpeckers.


Exclude woodpeckers by covering susceptible areas with nets or metal barriers. Repair damage quickly.

Frightening Devices

Devices with recorded distress calls of woodpeckers and hawk predator calls failed to reduce damage to buildings in a recent study.

Visual strips of Irri-TapeTM or Mylar® tape suspended on cords along the faces of buildings with woodpecker holes deterred birds and reduced new incidences of pecking damage.


Polybutenes are sticky gels that can be applied to vertical structures to repel woodpeckers, but they may discolor siding. Methyl anthranilate (ReJex-itTM) may be sprayed on siding to repel woodpeckers if the damage is caused by feeding activity.  Check pesticide registrations in your state and follow label requirements.


No toxicants are registered for use on woodpeckers.


A .177 and .22 caliber rifle, or shotgun with size 7 shot, are effective. Proper federal and state permits must be acquired. Note many communities or states have laws restricting firearm discharge in suburban areas.


A rat snap trap mounted vertically on damaged siding with the trigger down and baited with nut meats or suet can be used to kill woodpeckers. Proper federal and state permits must be acquired.



Given the mobility of birds, relocation of woodpeckers is only suitable in rescue situations.


Given the mobility of birds, translocation of woodpeckers is only suitable in rescue situations.


Lethal control of woodpeckers requires federal and state permits. Carbon dioxide gas and cervical dislocation are appropriate techniques for the euthanasia of birds.


Web Resources

Government or private agencies, universities, extension service.




Key Words

Woodpecker, NWCO, wildlife control, wildlife damage management