How to coexist with woodpeckers

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While most birds alert us to their presence with their songs, woodpeckers have another way of letting people know they are nearby. Their sometimes incessant pecking, tapping, drumming and drilling serves many purposes, including attracting a mate, establishing a territory, building a nest or roost and foraging for food.

Illinois is home to seven species of woodpeckers, and all are found in Illinois for at least part of the year. Our local woodpeckers are the downy woodpecker, hairy woodpecker, northern flicker, pileated woodpecker, red-bellied woodpecker, red-headed woodpecker and yellow-bellied sapsucker.


Most woodpeckers in Will County are non-migratory, Wildlife Illinois reports. Northern flickers and red-headed woodpeckers are migratory, but some birds from both species remain in Illinois year-round. Yellow-bellied sapsuckers are also migratory, and they are typically seen in Illinois only in April and May and again in September and October, passing through on their migrations between their northern breeding grounds and their southern wintering grounds.

The preferred habitat of woodpeckers depends on the species. Most of our local woodpeckers are commonly seen in forests and wooded areas, but many are also frequent visitors in towns and yards, according to Wildlife Illinois. Pileated woodpeckers are not as often found in urban and suburban habitats, because they prefer large wooded areas. Yellow-bellied sapsuckers are frequent visitors to orchards, and northern flickers are commonly seen on the ground, because they eat a lot of ants.

Ecological effects

A red-headed woodpecker on tree bark.

Woodpeckers are considered a “keystone species” in the ecosystem because they create habitat for other wildlife through their normal behavior of pecking and tapping, according to the National Audubon Society. The holes they create for their nests, once abandoned, become homes for a variety of other creatures, including small owls, cavity-nesting birds like wrens, swifts and swallows, wood ducks and small mammals.

In addition, most woodpeckers eat insects, and because of this, they are an important means of controlling the population of many bugs, including nuisance insects, Wildlife Illinois reports.

Mating and reproduction

Pileated woodpeckers poking their head out of a tree cavity.

Woodpeckers mate in the spring, but they begin to pair up and establish breeding territories in late winter, Wildlife Illinois reports. Most of our local woodpeckers nest in cavities in trees or other wooden structures, like utility poles, but red-bellied woodpeckers and northern flickers will also nest in birdhouses.

Excavating a nest is done by both the male and female, and it takes a week or two. The number of eggs laid varies by species, but it is usually between three and eight. Both the male and female will incubate the eggs, and the babies typically hatch after 11 to 14 days, Wildlife Illinois reports. Pileated woodpeckers have a longer incubation period — about 20 days.

Young woodpeckers typically leave the nest after 20 to 30 days. Most woodpeckers will have just one brood of offspring each year, although some birds will have two.

Health risks

A yellow-bellied woodpecker on tree bark.

Woodpeckers pose no health risks to humans.

Problems and solutions

A northern flicker in a tree.

Woodpeckers can become a nuisance around homes and other buildings because of both their repetitive drumming, which is typically used to attract a mate, and because they sometimes will build nests or roosts in wood siding or wood buildings. They also sometimes peck holes into wood siding and other wooden structures while looking for insects to eat. Woodpecker damage is most common in spring and fall, Wildlife Illinois reports.

Relentless drumming by woodpeckers can be annoying and intrusive, but the birds usually stop this behavior in the spring, once breeding season begins, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. While woodpeckers most often cause damage to wooden surfaces, they also may sometimes drum on aluminum siding, chimney caps and other metal surfaces that produce a lot of noise.

If woodpeckers are causing damage to your home because they are trying to get at insects in and under wooden surfaces, you may need to try to limit the insects in the wood by caulking or plugging any holes or tunnels created by the insects. Insecticides are not advised as they aren’t always effective in removing the insects, and they may harm birds as well, Wildlife Illinois reports.

You can try to keep woodpeckers away from under the eaves of your home by installing three-quarter-inch wire mesh netting, according to Wildlife Illinois. Attach the netting to the eaves and angle it back toward the siding, affixing it below where the damage has been caused. Netting should be attached tightly and tautly and set at least 3 inches from the siding to prevent the birds from pecking through. You can also place metal or plastic barriers over where the woodpeckers have caused damage to deter them from further drilling or pecking into the wood.

Some people have also had success deterring woodpeckers from causing damage around their homes by placing windsocks, pinwheels, reflective tape, aluminum foil strips and shiny Mylar balloons in the area, Cornell Lab reports.

Excavating of nesting and roosting cavities usually occurs in April and May. If you need to remove woodpeckers from your property, aim to do so either before or after nesting season, the Cornell Lab advises.

Do not use sticky repellents to keep woodpeckers away, Cornell Lab advises. The products can cause serious and sometimes fatal injuries to woodpeckers as well as other animals.

Yellow-bellied sapsuckers can damage tree trunks by their drilling behavior, which typically involves drilling rows of small holes in a trunk to get at the sap inside. If you notice trees being harmed by sapsucker activity, try wrapping burlap or quarter-inch hardware cloth around the trunk during the period when sapsuckers are in the area, Wildlife Illinois advises.

If woodpeckers on your property continue to cause damage after corrective measures have been taken, consider humanely removing and relocating them only as a last resort. Woodpeckers are protected by both the Illinois Wildlife Code and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and they cannot be removed from private property without proper federal and state permits. To request a removal permit for a woodpecker, contact the U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service’s Wildlife Services at 217.241.6700 or 1.866.4USDAWS.

All wildlife in Illinois are under the jurisdiction of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. The Forest Preserve District of Will County does not treat, rescue or remove wildlife from public or private property. Both the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and Wildlife Illinois maintain lists of wildlife rehabilitators you can contact for assistance with injured wildlife.


(Photos via Shutterstock)

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