Woodpeckers and suet

By Kate Crowley
It’s hard to be inspired on a rainy day in mid-December in northern Minnesota, but I am finding a bit of a bright spot watching the woodpeckers.  We hung two suet feeders from the branches of the maple right next to our deck, and a third from the overhang near the kitchen window and this fall the action has been non-stop.  We have thought about hanging even more because for some reason this year we have been blessed with an abundance of these black and white birds. 

In Minnesota there are nine species of woodpeckers (including the yellow-shafted flicker and yellow-bellied sapsucker).  A couple – the black-backed and three-toed are only found in our far northern coniferous forests.  For the most part, what you can expect to see in the winter are the Downy, Hairy and Pileated Woodpeckers, although some people also see the Red-bellied.  

Even though they are not the most colorful of our birds – the male and female downy and hairy have red caps and both male and pileated have red on their heads (look for an extra red mustache on the male) – they nevertheless provide action and entertainment on a daily basis.
It was earlier this fall that I began to notice as many as four downy woodpeckers at one time on the branches of the maple, vying for a spot at the small suet feeder.  They probably spent more time chasing one another away from the food than actually feeding, but they never gave up trying.  Then the two larger hairy woodpeckers joined the action, and periodically the male or female pileated made an appearance, dwarfing the other two species and mesmerizing us.  There is just no other bird that is so large and striking that comes to our feeders. 
Suet is available in either its natural form – blocks of fat cut from the carcass of cows or deer, or in commercial form – square blocks of premade fat with seeds or fruit mixed in, which conveniently fit into the square wire suet feeders. Either type is popular with the woodpeckers, though the larger blocks from the meat department last longer.

Insects are the natural food for woodpeckers, and they can still find them in winter, though it takes more work. This is why they are constantly pounding on trees.  Dead trees have the greatest potential for harboring larvae and adult insects, but occasionally woodpeckers do hammer on live trees, which can be distressing for those of us who have planted these trees.  It is also not uncommon for the woodpeckers to turn their attention to cedar siding on our homes.  This is even more distressing for the homeowner. 

We have a cedar sided house and we have thought that by providing suet for the woodpeckers we could divert their attention from the house, but it hasn’t worked that way.  We still can hear them (when we’re home) tapping on the boards, at which point we either open a window and yell at them to stop, or go outside and do the same.  They will fly away, but we know they will win this game in the long run. 

The Minnesota DNR has a document on its website (http://files.dnr.state.mn.us/assistance/backyard/livingwith_wildlife/woodpecker-control.pdf) dedicated to ‘controlling’ woodpeckers.  In it they offer a variety of suggestions of things to do to discourage the birds from using your house as a food source or courtship megaphone.  There are various items you can hang on the house to try to scare them away, as well as special treatments to apply to the wood to discourage the insects from lodging there in the first place. 

But when it comes to the issue of using your house as a means to advertise for a mate, they suggested something I had never heard or thought of; a Woodpecker Bongo.  Necessity being the mother of invention, one Richard Hjort of Chisago City came up with this clever attempt at redirecting woodpecker’s need to drum.  He built a series of long, narrow wooden ‘boxes’ that can be hung on trees around the house. Using different lengths of wood, each one has a different tone.  We might just give it a try. Maybe we can create a little woodpecker percussion group, to add to their entertainment value. One way or the other we will find a way to coexist with these birds.  They were here first and they are an important part this local ecosystem, as well as our own daily lives. 


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