In the late winter and early spring we get an abundance of calls concerning small but pesky birds found in the woodpecker family (Picidae). We have several different species here in east TN ranging in size from 3 inches to almost 12 inches long. They seem to effortlessly flit from tree to tree (and sometimes houses) where they will hang on a vertical surface and peck in a rapid-fire manner. We get calls from people wondering why a bird is pecking on their house, chimney, and sometimes even the gutter. The key is in understanding a little of the woodpecker’s biology.
Woodpeckers will peck for three distinct reasons. The first is to find food. They have an acute sense of hearing and can actually hear bugs crawling under the bark of trees and sometimes in the wood of a house. They’ve been known to create large holes to find a burrowing carpenter bee or other insect in a wall or soffit. Other types of woodpeckers are sap eaters.
The second reason a woodpecker might peck on a house is to create a cavity in which to build a nest. They will lay 3-6 eggs (depending on the species) which will hatch about two weeks later. A particular favorite siding for them is stucco and cedar. Both of these types of siding have a relatively hard, thin layer covering insulation. Once they make it through the outer layer, the insulation serves as an ideal medium for a nest.
The third reason a woodpecker might peck on a house (and especially a gutter) is to resonate. They try to find a material that carries sound well and even amplifies it in order to attract a mate. Unfortunately this resonating leaves many holes in siding and often takes place at the crack of dawn.
Woodpeckers are involved in a particularly destructive cycle here in East TN. It’s common for them to peck a hole in the siding of cedar and stucco houses in the early spring to try to build a nest. They are often forcefully evicted by larger and more aggressive starlings, which make the hole even larger. Eventually grey squirrels can discover the hole, evict the starlings, and make the hole even larger for their personal interests. It’s common for us to get a call for squirrels in a wall that all started months earlier with a nesting woodpecker.
Because of the destructive cycle, it’s important to stop the cycle at the beginning. Woodpeckers will respond to different stimuli and can be driven away. It’s important to remember that woodpeckers are covered under the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act and, therefore illegal to shoot without a permit. They can usually be harassed fairly easily using different audio or visual techniques.