How to prevent woodpeckers from damaging trees


How To Prevent Woodpecker Damage To Trees

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By: Heather Rhoades

Image by James Pintar

Woodpecker damage to trees can be a serious problem. Woodpecker tree damage can cause trees to become diseased or even die. Because of this, it is important to stop woodpecker damage before it hurts or kills beloved trees in your yard. Keep reading to learn more about how to prevent woodpecker damage and the steps for repairing woodpecker damage once it has happened.

Identification of Woodpecker Damage to Trees

Woodpecker tree damage normally appears as holes in trees. Depending on the species of woodpecker that is pecking at your tree, these holes may be clustered or in a straight line. While most of the time these holes are small in diameter, if the woodpecker has settled on your tree as a nesting spot, the hole can be quite large.

Woodpecker holes in trees happen for a variety of reasons. In many cases, woodpeckers are going after insects that are in the tree ,which means that not only do you have a woodpecker problem, you may have an insect problem as well. Other types of woodpeckers may be creating holes in your trees so that they can get at the sap of the tree. Other reasons a woodpecker may be pecking on trees is to build nests, attract mates and even store food.

In most cases, woodpecker damage to trees itself is not very harmful to the tree, but does create wounds that diseases and insects can enter the tree. In extreme cases of woodpecker holes in trees, the tree trunk or branch may become girdled, which causes the area above the girdled bark to die.

How to Prevent Woodpecker Damage

The best way to stop woodpecker damage is to keep the woodpecker from getting to the tree in the first place. Bird netting is a popular way to keep woodpeckers from getting at trees but other methods, such as using sticky substances on the trunk, will also work. Several commercial products are sold that can be applied to the trunk of the affected tree and will make it difficult for the woodpecker to land on the tree. You can also wrap the trunk in mesh or cloth to help deter woodpeckers.

Another way to prevent woodpecker damage is to frighten them away. Hanging mirrors, old CDs, Mylar strips or other reflective objects from the affect tree will help to frighten away woodpeckers. Loud or startling noises can work to frighten the woodpecker away, but must be persistently repeated to permanently scare the bird away from the tree. Decoy predators, such as plastic hawks and owls, can be used but stop working quickly once the woodpecker determines they are not actually a threat.

All species of woodpeckers are at least somewhat protected by federal and local laws, this means that intentionally killing woodpeckers is illegal and is not recommended.

Tips for Repairing Woodpecker Damage

Before doing anything to repair woodpecker holes in trees, first examine the damage. Determine if there has, in fact, been damage to the tree and, if so, how bad it is. Remember, just because you see a woodpecker pecking on the tree does not mean that there will be damage.

After you determine what kind of woodpecker tree damage you have, you can make a plan to repair it. If the damage is small (a few holes that are an inch (2.5 cm.) or smaller), the best thing you can do for your tree is to not do anything to repair it. Filling in these holes can trap disease against the wound in the tree and make it worse. Treat the woodpecker holes with a fungicide to keep disease from getting in and let the wounds heal over naturally. Check the damaged area frequently until it is healed over and treat immediately if you see insect activity or rot.

For larger woodpecker holes in trees or for many holes in the tree, treat the woodpecker damage with fungicide and cover the damage with hardware cloth (galvanized mesh). The hardware cloth can be attached to the tree with small bolts. Only cover the damaged area and do not encircle the tree with the mesh. Going all the way around the tree could harm it as it grows. The mesh will keep out animals and prevent further damage while the tree heals.

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Do Woodpeckers Damage Your Trees?

Do Woodpeckers Damage Your Trees?

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    Woodpeckers are native birds that make holes in wood to feed and to create nesting sites. Though rarely a problem, find out how to protect your trees and property if necessary.

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    Yellow bellied sapsucker holes in a healthy redbud tree. Photo credit: Barb Ryan

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    Pennsylvania is home to a number of year-round resident woodpecker species as well as the migratory yellow-bellied sapsucker. Hairy and downy woodpeckers and the red-bellied woodpecker are common feeder visitors. Pileated woodpeckers and yellow-shafted flickers are also common. These aptly named birds drum on and drill holes in trees and large shrubs as they search for insects, set up territories, prepare nesting sites, and call to mates.

    Many homeowners question whether woodpeckers cause life-threatening damage to the trees they drill. In general, the answer is that they do not. Healthy trees can withstand the minor damage woodpeckers cause unless trunks or limbs receive girdling injuries. This is rare and would generally only happen with sapsucker damage since these birds create horizontal or vertical rows of holes in their search for sap and the insects that subsequently get trapped in that sap. Sapsuckers frequently return to the same tree or shrub. To dissuade them, wrap the affected area of the tree in burlap, hardware cloth, or plastic mesh. Be sure to remove the burlap during summer months when humidity is high. Many websites suggest painting the trunk with sticky deterrents to deter woodpeckers. However, Cornell Lab of Ornithology and some wildlife rehab centers warn that these products can fatally injure birds if it gets into their plumage, so be aware that there is controversy about using these products. It is possible that woodpecker holes in less healthy trees provide access to pests and disease, but these trees are usually under stress from other factors as well. Excessive numbers of random holes in a tree might be a symptom of a tree that is already hosting high pest populations of insects. Also, holes in the trunk are not always caused by woodpeckers. Wood-boring insects can also be the culprits.

    Woodpeckers prefer dead trees or those whose heartwood is rotting to create their nest cavities. If suitable trees are not available, some birds will drill holes in wooden siding, especially redwood or cedar siding, and wooden items like fence posts and utility poles. This is rare but can become a problem! Some birds will also drum on siding or on metal parts of houses as part of their territorial and reproductive behaviors in the spring. Possible solutions to these problems and more information about woodpecker identification and behavior can be found here:

    • Penn State Extension article on Woodpeckers
    • How to Prevent Woodpeckers from Damaging Buildings

    Woodpeckers are protected by state and federal laws and may not legally be killed without permits. Woodpeckers have an important ecological role in helping to control populations of insect pests, and their nest holes are used by non-drilling species of birds and mammals. Their antics provide entertainment for scores of birdwatchers as well!

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    Woodpecker Damage - How to Fix It and Prevent Future Trouble

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    Q: Woodpeckers recently attacked my property and caused damage to my cedar, siding and roof. How do I plug the holes they left, and is there a way to prevent them from coming back and creating new ones?

    A: If you plug woodpecker holes in outdoor structures without first ridding your property of what attracts them, backyard winged pests may return to peck in the same or nearby areas. Therefore, repairs should always begin with the eradication of insects that woodpeckers feed on. Once you have implemented the strategies for getting rid of potential food sources first, use the methods below to effectively repair woodpecker damaged trees, siding, and shingles, and prevent future attacks.

    Eliminate insect infestation.

    Examine and remove any of the insects listed below from outdoor structures to reduce the chance of woodpecker damage from birds drilling in your area for food.

    • Carpenter ants usually burrow in damp, rotting or dead areas of trees or in the cladding and roof of wooden houses to create nests. If you have a carpenter ant infestation, look for the entrance to the nest - usually a small hole or row of holes in trees or siding, accompanied by nearby ant tracks or piles of sawdust. Fill the nest entrance with a dust insecticide containing carbaryl or pyrethroids to kill the nest along with the queen clutch. If you can't find the nest entrance, or if ants are visible on roof tiles or other places where it's hard to find the nest entrance, set up bait stations near the ant trail that contain poison that the ants will carry back to their nest. .
    • Carpenter bees bore small holes in damp or rotten wood, which then turn at a 90 degree angle into long corridors with chambers where they lay their eggs. If you have carpenter bee infestations, you will most likely notice their burrows one to two inches deep on the underside of a timber house siding, eaves, or ceiling. Once you find the hole, eliminate the infestation by hanging a carpenter's trap directly over the hole, or by filling it (along with any available chambers in the hallway) with residual dust insecticide, preferably with a curved applicator to allow easy access to the chambers.
    • termites can be detected through discarded wings, termite droppings, voids in wood structures or foundations (which can be found by tapping the area with a screwdriver), nests in dry wood, or underground mud tunnels. If you suspect a termite infestation, call a certified pest control professional to eliminate it with soil treatments such as Termidor, bait and monitoring systems, or physical termite barriers.

    Repair damage.

    Covering woodpecker holes in the following outdoor structures can prevent further woodpecker damage to your property.

    • trees with woodpecker damage, mostly limited to areas of dead wood, can often be disposed of. Start by spraying a solution of one to two teaspoons of liquid dish soap and one cup of warm water into tree holes to flush out pathogens from the woodpecker's beak, then rinse the holes with water from a garden hose. You can dry small holes in trees outdoors, but larger holes should be temporarily covered with window screen or a piece of metal cloth to prevent additional woodpeckers from causing more damage to the area. Tape the displaced living bark back to its original position on the tree. Remove the tape and window screen or metal cloth once the wood is fully healed. Note: More severe conditions such as shingles, a ring of woodpecker damage around the circumference of the trunk, may require the assistance of an arborist to prevent death of the tree.
    • Hole siding can be filled with epoxy putty, two part epoxy adhesive and curing putty (see example on Amazon). On a warm day, mix the two materials with a spatula, then spread the mixture over the holes in the siding until they are completely covered. Use a spatula to scrape off excess, then air dry and sand the putty before painting the patched area to match the rest of the siding.
    • tiles with cracks or holes can be filled with wood putty (see example on Amazon) and then painted to match the rest of the tiles as a temporary measure to prevent further damage to the tiles. However, replacing damaged shingles, or even the roof itself (if woodpecker damage is extensive enough), is generally more effective than repairing damaged shingles. The new shingles show no visible signs of previous pecking sites, which increase the likelihood of woodpeckers returning.

    Prevent future attacks.

    Various woodpecker deterrents are available to keep woodpeckers away from outdoor structures after you have repaired them. First, protect the trees by sticking duct tape to their trunks or hanging old mirrors from their limbs: their shiny, reflective surface will scare away nearby woodpeckers. You can also hang homemade wind chimes, plastic owls, or hawks from tree branches, siding, or house eaves to scare intruding woodpeckers. Finally, if you have a dead tree in your yard, consider hanging a tallow feeder (a wire cage filled with high-calorie bird food) on it to lure the birds into the dead forest and thus keep the trees alive.

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    Ornithologists have found no shock absorbers in the woodpecker's skull

    It is often claimed that woodpeckers avoid concussions by absorbing the impact energy from the cancellous bones of their skulls. However, analysis of high-speed recordings showed that there is no shock absorber in the head of these birds. And if he did exist, he would simply reduce the effectiveness of beak strikes on a tree and prevent woodpeckers from getting food and gouging hollows. As noted in a journal article Current Biology , woodpeckers don't actually need a shock absorber inside their skull because their intracranial pressure at the time of impact is well below the concussion threshold.

    Woodpeckers regularly peck tree trunks with their beaks to reach insect larvae, make a hollow for a nest, or communicate with relatives using drum rolls. However, abrupt stops of the head due to constant impacts on a hard surface are fraught with brain damage. When a woodpecker's beak makes quick contact with a tree, the front of its brain shrinks and the back expands, which can damage neurons and even render them inoperable.

    It is commonly believed that woodpeckers get around this problem by having a shock absorber in their skull. According to previous studies, its role is played by a layer of spongy bone, which is especially developed in the frontal part. It is supposed to act like a bicycle helmet or an airbag, absorbing impact energy. In addition, the protractor muscles of the quadrate and mandible can serve as additional shock absorbers.

    In most sources, from ornithological monographs to popular articles and information stands in zoos, the idea that the woodpecker's brain is protected from damage by means of a shock absorber is presented as a firmly established fact. Engineers were even inspired by the structure of the skull of these birds when creating shock-absorbing materials. However, no one has ever tested whether woodpecker skulls are really capable of softening blows. Moreover, on closer examination, this hypothesis seems to be self-contradictory. If the skull or muscles serve as shock absorbers, then they weaken the force with which the woodpecker's beak strikes the tree. As a result, the bird is forced to make more efforts to get to food or hollow out a hollow, which puts additional stress on the brain.

    A team of zoologists led by Sam van Wassenbergh from the University of Antwerp decided to look into this confusing topic. The researchers filmed with a high-speed camera how woodpeckers living in captivity peck wood. Two great spotted woodpeckers ( Dendrocopos major ), two bile-trees ( Dryocopus martius ) and two crested woodpeckers ( D. pileatus ) participated in the tests. In total, the authors recorded 109 videos. They then traced the position of several points on the woodpeckers' heads: two on the beak, one on the eye, and, in the case of crested bells, one behind the eye.

    After analyzing the video recordings, van Wassenberg and co-authors found that when hitting a tree, the point on the woodpecker's eye, and hence the front part of the brain, moves with the same or even greater negative acceleration in absolute value as the beak. Thus, contrary to popular belief, during a strike, the woodpecker's brain slows down as abruptly as its beak. Additional analysis showed that depreciation in the woodpecker skull is either negligible or non-existent.

    The researchers then created a computer model of the zhelna's skull, based on anatomical measurements and data on the speed and deceleration of the head during the impact on the tree. As the authors suggested, if a shock absorber is placed in the model between the base of the beak and the brain, the beak will penetrate much less deeply into the wood. This situation can be compared to trying to hammer a nail with a hammer, the striking surface of which is attached to the head on a spring. Thus, to penetrate the same depth with its beak, a woodpecker with a shock-absorbing skull would need to do much more work than a woodpecker with a hard skull. And when shock-absorbing head models pecked at the tree at an increased speed to compensate for the reduced impact efficiency, the shock absorber's ability to protect the brain was lost.

    As a final step, van Wassenberg and his colleagues set out to find out how woodpeckers manage to avoid brain injury given that their skulls lack a shock absorber. Representing the skull of a woodpecker in the form of a closed vessel filled with water, the authors calculated how much pressure is created in it during the impact. In an adult with a concussion, which is caused by a sharp deceleration in the sagittal direction, a pressure of 103 kilopascals is created in the anterior part of the skull, and 101 kilopascals in the back.


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