Conservation // 5 min Read

The Drummers of the Bird World

Written by Aaron Palmieri

Aug 25, 2020

Woody the Woodpecker is a character I remember fondly from my childhood. Even now I recall his iconic laugh and my attempts to impersonate it. Now in my adulthood, I have a deep admiration for the feathered friends that Woody represents. However, as a birder, I learned rather quickly that not everyone shares my love for woodpeckers. Pecking holes in houses and trees and drumming against stovepipes is not for everyone. Nonetheless, there is a purpose behind these behaviors, and we're going to share three common reasons why woodpeckers peck trees and houses.

The first reason is food. Most woodpeckers feed on insects under the bark of (typically) dead trees. Knowing that woodpeckers are attracted to insects within wood can be a great warning sign if they begin making holes in the side of a house. This activity could be a call to action to schedule an inspection for a potential insect infestation. However, woodpeckers hanging around the house is not an immediate cause for concern, especially if there are bird feeders in the yard they love to visit.

The second reason they create holes in trees is to form nest cavities. The only woodpecker in the southeast that will excavate a cavity in a living tree is the red-cockaded woodpecker, and the closest reliable locations to find them are the Webb, Donnelley, and Bear Island Wildlife Management Areas. The other seven woodpecker species in South Carolina nest in dead trees. Cavities for nesting tend to be larger than feeding holes as the birds need to fit their body inside. Thankfully, leaving green spaces with plenty of natural cavities helps reduce the chance of woodpeckers attempting to nest in the walls of homes. If they do take interest in a house, flashy ribbon hung near the location of their pecking during the spring can be a good deterrent. I would also check to make sure the wood is sealed properly and does not show signs of rot.

When they're not creating holes in trees for food or nesting, woodpeckers will drum on stovepipes. Drumming, the lovely knocking sound that most woodpeckers make against a tree, occurs mainly in the spring and tends to have two purposes. One purpose is to establish boundaries for that individual’s territory. The second purpose is to attract a female. In the latter, the male is trying to be as loud as possible to draw in a potential mate. The problem is that stovepipes are great at resonating noise! The solution for these early morning wake-up calls is to tie a flashy ribbon around the structure the woodpecker deemed as their “megaphone.” (Luckily, this is not a huge issue in the Lowcountry as stovepipe furnaces aren't needed in our warmer region.)

Hopefully, I have helped explain the somewhat odd and often bothersome behaviors of woodpeckers that live in the Lowcountry. Perhaps you've even garnered an appreciation for them. And who knows, observing woodpecker activity may help catch a potential problem (and save you money) down the road.