Do Woodpeckers Kill Trees?


Gardeners and homeowners may cringe when they hear the familiar tapping and drumming sounds of a woodpecker on their favorite tree or house eaves. Many fear that the woodpecker may be damaging the tree or house, or even killing the tree,. However, that isn’t necessarily the case.

The presence of a woodpecker may be a sign of the true tree killing culprit…bugs. Woodpeckers use their drilling beaks to get to bugs that hide beneath the bark of trees. Under most circumstances the damage a woodpecker inflicts on a tree is minimal, with the added benefit of ridding the tree of bugs that cause the tree to get sick.

woodpecker on a branch

However, there are some cases where the woodpecker’s drilling can cause significant damage to the tree.

Noticing patterns and behaviors that lead to woodpecker caused tree death will allow the homeowner a chance to take certain precautions to catch the problem early.

By taking some preventative actions, both the tree and woodpecker can be saved from unnecessary measures that may result in one or each of their demises.

Why Do Woodpeckers Peck Trees

There are several reasons that woodpeckers peck at trees.

Woodpeckers are omnivores with a love of all things creepy and crawly, as well as fruit, nuts, sap, and sometimes even baby birds and eggs.

With over 300 species of woodpeckers (22 which are found in the United States), they have a very wide range of tastes and are adapted to live in many regions from snow capped peaks to dry deserts.

In most instances, woodpeckers are tapping or drilling to find bugs that lurk under the bark of trees.

In fact, they can listen for their prey moving under the bark.

Once the bug is located, the woodpecker will drill a small hole to reach the bugs and extract them by using their tongue, which is so long that it actually wraps around the brain when not in use.

The tongue has a brush like tip that attaches to the bug and is then reeled back into the bird’s waiting mouth.

According to Let’s Talk Science, a woodpecker can hammer up to 20 times in one second.

Because of the small size of the brain and the closeness of their skulls, woodpeckers do not suffer from brain trauma.

However, looking for bugs is not the only reason woodpeckers tap.

Tapping or drumming is also a form of communication between woodpeckers, a way to claim their territories, and to find mates.

They also use their drilling to create homes for themselves in trees, cacti, and other areas with cavities where they can nest.

Do Woodpeckers Peck at Houses

You may have noticed woodpeckers pecking at non-tree items and structures.

Woodpeckers are known to peck at things other than trees, including houses, fencing, chimneys, cacti, telephone poles, etc.

If they are drumming something that doesn’t have bugs, such as tin or other metal, they may be trying to communicate with other birds.

If they are pecking at parts of your house or wooden fencing, you may have terminates, ants, or other bugs.

Examine the area where the drilling is occurring to see if you need to consult a pest exterminating professional to address the issue.

What Kind of Bugs are Woodpeckers Looking For

As stated before, woodpeckers are omnivores.

This means they eat both meat, in this case bugs and other smaller birds, and vegetarian sources of food.

Woodpeckers are not very discriminate about the bugs they eat, which attributes to their wide distribution throughout different ecological zones.

However, there are bugs that seem to be very common in the woodpecker diet including:

  • Mosquitos
  • Wood boring beetles
  • Insect larvae and grubs
  • Carpenter and other forms of ants
  • Scorpions

Basically, if it is a bug or arachnid, a woodpecker will probably eat it.

Woodpeckers are a great natural defense against bugs that would kill trees.

In the state of Arizona for example, there is a nasty bug called the Black Bark Beetle which is decimating Arizona’s pine forests.

You heard right, Arizona does in fact have native pine trees and forests.

How can a small, insignificant bug destroy entire forests?

If you are walking in the forest and pick up a small piece of wood or a branch with intricate shallow carved designs, those designs are courtesy of the bark beetle.

The Black Bark Beetle is a small beetle the bores into the soft wood below the outer bark of a tree, also known as the xylem layer of the tree.

It is the xylem of the tree that transports the water and nutrients of the tree from the roots to the various parts of the tree.

Bark beetles basically damage this essential layer, causing the tree not to get water and nutrients to the tree, causing the tree to dehydrate and die.

If the bark beetle eats a ring around the entire tree, also known as girdling, there can be no transport of nutrients beyond the ring which will make the tree above the ring completely die.

With dead trees in an inherently dry environment, wildfires are very prevelant.

A natural defense for the trees are woodpeckers, who eat the beetles before they can girdle pines.

This scenario plays out in forests across the United States

What Kind of Trees do Woodpeckers Prefer

Woodpeckers can be found in forests and deserts all across the country.

Because their prey lives in soft wood, woodpeckers are naturally drawn to soft woods as well including pine, oak, and some softwood forms of maple.

They also enjoy cacti and other softer large plants that they can build their nests safely high above the ground.

Since there is an abundance of food and soft material, woodpeckers are also generally drawn to dead or dying trees.

They are also attracted to nut and fruit trees as sources of food.

woodpecker pecking

How Can a Woodpecker Kill a Tree

Although most woodpeckers can be beneficial to trees, there are some species that can greatly damage or even kill trees.

One such specie is the sapsucker woodpeckers, which is a migratory bird with a range from northern Canada to the southern tip of Central America.

Unlike most other woodpeckers, a sapsucker main food supply is well…sap.

The Sapsucker will drill several holes to get to the sap in trees, especially birch and maple trees.

Master Gardeners of Santa Clara County report the following statistics:

“According to the U.S. Forest Service, sapsuckers cause mortality rates in 67 percent of gray birch, 51 percent of paper birch, 40 percent of red maples, 3 percent of red spruce, and 1 percent of the hemlock that they attack.”

Sapsuckers generally return to the tree each time they take their migratory journey, creating or enlarging holes to reach the sap of the tree.

If that wasn’t bad enough, sapsuckers drill several holes in a fairly straight line, risking girdling the tree thus cutting the tree off of the nutrients coming from the roots.

How to Prevent Woodpecker Peckings

There are several things that you can do to help prevent woodpecker damage to your trees or other parts of your home and yard.

The first step to take is to see why the woodpecker may be attracted to a certain tree or structure.

Check to see if there are any bugs that may be burrowing in the wood beneath the bark of your tree.

Look for the actual bugs or trails left by any wood boring beetles or termites.

How to Get Rid of Wood Boring Beetles and Other Bugs

There a few options of treating a plant or tree infested with bark boring beetles.

Texas A &M Agrilife Extension Suggests the following measures to prevent or exterminate these pests:

  • Avoid causing tree stress (trees that are unhealthy or suffering from severe stress are often susceptible to beetle infestations).
  • Remove heavily infested limbs and try to manually extract beetle larvae
  • Apply pesticides such as imidacloprid, Dinotefuran,  Fertilome┬« Borer, Bagworm, Tent Caterpillar & Leafminer Spray

If you are unsure what pest control measures you should take, contact your local pest extermination professional to see what options are available to you.

Protecting Areas Pecked By Woodpeckers

If a woodpecker seems to be pecking too much on a certain tree or surface, you can wrap the area of the tree with a barrier to deter the bird from pecking that particular spot.

Wildlife Damage Management recommends securing burlap and bird netting around the affected area, as well as filling in the woodpecker made holes as soon as possible.

They also state that woodpeckers do not like shiny objects, so placing aluminum foil near the pecking site will also deter them from pecking.

Some other suggestions include trying to scare the bird away, props that mimic owls, and setting a sprinkler to spray on the bird if it returns to the same spot.

Can You Legally Kill a Woodpecker

Woodpeckers are a federally protected species and cannot be physically removed or killed without the right authorization.

That is why it is important to nicely get rid of the woodpecker as soon as you notice that it is beginning to damage your trees or even your house.

Discourage it from making your house or trees its new home.

Making an Inviting Environment for Woodpeckers

If woodpeckers are a benefit to your garden and you would like to attract them to help cut down your yard’s insect population, there are a few things you can do to make them feel at home.

  • Make a simple bird house and secure it 10 to 20 feet of the ground, making sure that the opening is big enough for the bird to get through.
  • Have a source of water, such as a bird bath that the birds can have easy access to.
  • Make bird feeders and hang them up in trees and fill them with a variety of seeds.

To Peck or Not To Peck

Woodpeckers are fantastic birds that are fun to study and learn about.

Take time to get to know them and discover their habits, so that you can use their super pecking powers to help control the insect population at your house.

However, even if they are not beneficial to you, find creative ways that you can keep your trees safe while protecting this amazing bird.

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