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ATTRACTING WOODPECKERS IN ALABAMA

By Jerome Jackson

If you have already attracted woodpeckers and they are 
destroying the side of your house click here for suggestions.

NINE SPECIES OF woodpeckers have made their homes in Alabama within historic times, and fortunately, eight of them still do. The Ivory-billed Woodpecker, known a Norther Flicker & Nestlings century ago from the virgin forests of south Alabama and the Tombigbee drainage of Lamar County, is almost certainly gone from the state. A well-done exhibit of an Ivory-billed, its nest, and eggs can be seen at the Anniston Museum of Natural History.

 Of the remaining eight species, one, the Red-cockaded is endangered as a result of losses of its old growth pine forest habitats. It can still be found in Alabama, although primarily on National Forest lands. The other seven species: Downy, Hairy, Red-headed, Red-bellied, and Pileated woodpeckers, Common Flicker, and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker are all common enough that they can be found in appropriate habitats throughout the state -- and can be attracted to backyard habitats with a little effort.

Three Alabama woodpeckers, the Common Flicker, Red-headed Woodpecker, and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker are migrants. Of these, the first two species nest in the state, and can be found here year-round. Sapsuckers only winter in Alabama, showing up in late September and usually leaving by early May. The key to success in attracting any of these woodpeckers can be summarized in one word: habitat.

All but the sapsucker in Alabama require a suitable site for excavating nest/roost cavities. Most woodpeckers rarely use a bird house as a roost or nest, although flickers and Red-headed Woodpeckers are more prone to use one than others. If you want to try enticing woodpeckers to a nest box, design your box to look as much like a dead limb as possible. For Downys, a Bluebird House is an appropriate size.

For Hairys, Red-bellieds, and Red-headeds, a woodpecker house  that is 6" X 6" X 15" is about right. Flickers may use one this size or even one as large as a Wood Duck box, but they prefer something along the order of 8" X 8" X 18". If you should be so lucky as to have Pileated Woodpeckers in the neighborhood, you might try enticing them with a Wood Duck Box or one that measures about 12" X 12' X 20".

Entrance sizes aren’t so important as long as they’re not too large -- theRed-bellied Woodpeckers woodpeckers will enlarge them as needed. An entrance diameter of 1.5" is fine for Downys; for the medium-sized woodpeckers, a 2" diameter entrance is good; try 3" for flickers and 4+" for Pileated. Use rough, unplaned, and untreated wood so the birds can easily cling to both inner and outer surfaces. Alternatively, you can make several shallow saw cuts below the entrance (inside and out) to roughen the wood and create a "ladder" for the birds to climb. Perches are not needed and can be detrimental in that they encourage starlings. Once the box is completed, fill it to the entrance with sawdust or wood chips.

Somehow, for woodpeckers, a home isn’t a home without doing a bit of excavating. If you’re lucky and your nest box is adopted, the birds will toss out the chips or sawdust until they’ve formed a cavity they like.

Your nest box should be securely fastened to a large limb at least 10 feet up (higher is better) and positioned so that the entrance opens slightly downward. Take a look at natural woodpecker cavities and you’ll find that most are on the underside of a limb or leaning trunk, thus protected somewhat from weather. If you’ve had trouble with woodpeckers excavating on your home’s wood siding, you might try nailing a nest box over their most recent efforts -- with luck they’ll claim the box as home and leave yours alone!

As an alternative to building a nest box, consider leaving dead stubs on your trees. I emphasize stub, since the broken top will allow water to seep in, creating the proper Pileated Woodpecker - Sometimes referred to as a "Good God". environment for wood-rotting fungi that woodpeckers depend on to soften the wood for them. If you have no trees with dead stubs, you can sometimes be successful in attracting at least Downys by "planting" a dead stub you’ve found elsewhere.

Attracting woodpeckers with food is much easier than providing housing. Most small to medium woodpeckers will occasionally come to a feeder for oil sunflower seed feeder, although they sometimes look awkward clinging to the feeder as if it were a tree trunk. They often take their seeds elsewhere to wedge into a crevice where it can be broken open with a few well-directed blows. Beef suet offered in a wire basket or nylon/plastic mesh bag suspended against a tree trunk readily attracts woodpeckers in winter, but should not be offered in summer because it melts and the oil can damage feather follicles. Peanut butter mixed with cornmeal so that the mixture is of a doughy consistency is also readily taken. I use a hanging log with holes drilled into it which I fill with this mixture --again, mostly in winter. Peanut butter/cornmeal mixtures can also simply be spread into bark crevices. Red-bellied Woodpeckers are easily attracted by an orange half impaled on a nail driven part way into a tree trunk. Once Red-bellieds find the orange, they’ll easily clean one of the fleshy fruit within a day or two. Red-bellied, Red-headed, and Downy woodpeckers and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers also occasionally come to hummingbird feeders -- or better, to a cup or small bottle of sugar-water attached to a vertical tree surface. A solution of one cup of sugar dissolved in four cups of water is adequate for attracting woodpeckers.

Other foods such as peanuts, mealworms, cornbread, raisins, and various fresh fruits will be used by woodpeckers too. As with all birds, water is an essential for woodpeckers for drinking and bathing; a clean, consistently filled bird bath suspended from or near a tree is almost certain to attract woodpeckers.

Although woodpeckers use the foods and housing I’ve described in their own unique ways, you’ll find that by providing for the woodpeckers, you’ll also be attracting other birds. I’m always willing to forgive a Great Crested Flycatcher for moving into my woodpecker houses -- and just put up another one nearby.

Jerome A. Jackson is Professor of Biological
Sciences at
Florida Gulf Coast University

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