Woodpeckers are amazing birds, excavating dead trees to find insects for food and creating cavities for nesting. These cavities are essential for many species of birds and mammals that can’t make their own, so woodpeckers are critical to maintaining a diverse and functioning ecosystem. However, their habitat of drilling for insects isn’t always limited to dead trees. Sometimes, human dwellings are the target of their attempts to find food.
As a biologist and backyard birder, I’m always interested in how humans and wildlife can coexist. I’ve studied bird behavior for years and have published some papers on human-wildlife interactions. I’m always looking for ways to minimize conflict in a world where habitat is limited, and birds are declining globally.
Can woodpeckers cause damage? Yes. Can you deter them in safe ways? Also yes. Extreme responses aren’t necessary. Remember, it is illegal (and unethical) to harm woodpeckers, their nests, or their eggs.
Bottom Line Up Front
The best deterrent is the Bird Barrier Optical Gel. It is non-toxic, won’t harm woodpeckers or other critters, and seems very effective. However, I would recommend using alternative food sources first, and if these don’t work, see if you can change the siding on your house: replace grooved plywood with anything else, use unstained siding, and use non-neutral colors.
Why do woodpeckers peck wood?
Woodpeckers drum and peck for different reasons. They drum mainly in the spring to claim territories and communicate between mates, but some species drum year-round. Drumming doesn’t usually cause much damage unless they return to the same drumming spot, but it can be pretty loud.
They peck, or drill to be more precise, into dead wood to find insects. These holes can be shallow or deep, depending on the species. However, many woodpecker species also eat insects on the surface of bark or leaves. That means they’re also often consuming insects that may damage your wooden structures without causing damage.
They also excavate cavities to roost at night and to breed. Each pair usually only makes one nesting cavity, though each individual may have its own roosting cavity.
How to deter woodpeckers
First and foremost, don’t follow the strategy recommended by far too many websites and try to eliminate insects. Insects provide so many important ecosystem services, and most birds require insects to feed nestlings in the summer – even those tiny hummingbirds need insect protein to grow their babies. If you have a huge infestation of insects, such as termites, causing structural damage to your house, that’s a different story. Just don’t simply equate the presence of woodpeckers with the necessity of pest control or insecticides.
In my review, I chose not to include products with too many harmful side effects. These include some sticky gels and nets. Gels can leave sticky residues on bird feathers and affect non-target birds. Nets can trap many species and need constant monitoring to ensure animals don’t get caught inside, especially since nets can be easily damaged by weather.
Most woodpeckers eat more than just insects. Many species also favor seeds and fruits, so one strategy is to provide them with alternate foods. Planting native fruit trees increases this food’s availability to your feathered friends (many other species will benefit from this too).
You can also provide birdfeeders, especially in the winter. Woodpeckers often eat sunflower seeds, peanuts, sweet almonds, and cracked corn. Suet is also highly attractive to many species. If you want to give them a real treat, you can also provide store-bought mealworms on a platform feeder.
One counter-intuitive way to reduce one type of woodpecker damage is to provide them with a birdhouse. Woodpeckers are cavity nesters, so birdhouses appeal to their instinct to nest inside a hole. However, remember, if you’re giving them a birdhouse to nest in, that means you’re asking them to stay, and they’ll still need to feed! This solution makes sense if it appears woodpeckers are making large cavities in your structures because you’ll provide them with an alternative nesting location. The most effective birdhouse will be the one that fits the particular requirements of the species you’re targeting, so identify the woodpecker species and then pick the birdhouse that is made for their size.
A relatively simple fix is to paint the affected structure with a non-neutral color. Homes with siding in earth tones were more likely to have woodpecker damage than those with colors like white or pastels. Woodpeckers also cause more damage when the house siding is stained.
The type of siding also has an effect. Grooved plywood siding was the most likely to attract woodpeckers compared to all other types of siding.
Now we come to the nitty-gritty: you’ve given them food, a place to nest, and painted your house, but they’re still making a mess of your wooden structures. What else can you do?
Best woodpecker deterrents
- Safety of all animals
- Ease of installment
There are three categories of deterrents: visual, auditory, and physical. This is also the order in which I’d recommend trying them.
Bird repellent discs
The idea with these discs is that they reflect sunlight and spin around, and shiny moving objects generally scare birds. They need sunlight to be the most effective, but options for placement are versatile. Though they may break over time, they won’t harm any birds or other wildlife; most seem to be plastic, not metal. Whether or not you find them visually appealing is a matter of personal opinion.
The issue with visual deterrents like this is that birds will likely become used to them; birds are usually good at learning what constitute actual threats. You could get additional use from these if you move them around in different places every so often, so they appear more novel and scary.
- 24 discs that can be connected in multiple lengths
- High winds could wrap the chain around itself
- Birds may become acclimated
- Not durable
This is another version of having a bright visual stimulus to scare birds, and the plastic tape also flaps in the wind, creating an auditory component as well.
You can attach it using stakes or zipties or tie it to eaves or trees. Strips may need to be placed close together for full effectiveness, and most people probably won’t consider them an attractive backyard addition.
Surprisingly, compared to predator sounds (see here), the scare tape was more effective.
Note that these types of tapes, even though they are often advertised with claims that they’re ‘eco-friendly’ and ‘non-toxic,’ generally have chemicals that may cause reproductive harm and cancer.
- Versatile placement
- Easy to install
- Birds may become acclimated
- Contains cancer-causing agents
- Not attractive
According to the manufacturer, this device uses woodpecker distress calls and predator cries. As a biologist, I wonder which species of woodpeckers they used since most will only respond to calls of their own species, meaning this would only work on some species. I could not find species call information on the manufacturer’s website. Additionally, most species use a distress call to startle the predator, and often other birds are attracted to it, not scared by it. Hence, the design seems to lack a basic biological understanding of bird behavior.
The same issues go for predators – the species of predator used is not given, and woodpeckers should only respond to predators they would typically experience. Additionally, if these calls work against woodpeckers, you would also be scaring away almost all other birds, as any avian predator of woodpeckers would also be a predator of a wide range of species. Thus you may lose backyard bird diversity and abundance. It also may confuse the actual predator being mimicked, either attracting or repelling them, so mess up their biological interactions.
That being said, this device does seem to work for some people. The sound combination is customizable, as is the volume and frequency of calls. Perhaps there is a mixture of sounds that work best for woodpeckers but do not affect other species as much.
It also has the advantage of covering a large area, so if woodpeckers are busy drilling at high spots on your house that you can’t easily reach, this would be logical to try.
- No chemicals
- Covers large area
- Doesn’t need to be placed at the specific spot of concern
- Durable and waterproof
- Birds may become habituated
- May affect many species of birds
These spikes act as a physical barrier to woodpeckers landing on a surface; they do not harm birds or other wildlife. They come in stainless steel or plastic and are installed with adhesive, nails, or ties.
They are effective if woodpeckers are causing damage along one particular structure. They won’t work if larger areas are affected unless you want the entire side to look like a prickly alien.
- Does not harm wildlife
- Need access to install
- Only works on level, narrow surfaces
- Not really attractive
This is the only gel I chose to include. From what I understand, this particular gel is not sticky and does not melt in the summer heat, so it does not represent a hazard to bird feathers. Even insects seemed to avoid this product, and reducing harmful effects on other wildlife is good.
This gel is contained in dishes, and the dishes must be placed 6-8 inches apart for maximum coverage. It works in three stages: first, the birds appear to avoid the dishes by sight; second, the essential oils (citronella, peppermint) repel birds; third, if they do step on a dish, the sticky gel feels unpleasant on their feet.
Each dish is 2.5 inches in diameter, and they come in a 24-pack (though if you’re in Canada, there’s a different formulation that ships internationally, and it’s very expensive). These are attached by glue, though you can also get ones that have magnetics or use zip ties for attachment, depending on the surface you’re using.
- No habituation
- Long lasting
- Many dishes necessary for full coverage
- Need to access the area for placement
This is an interesting product. It’s an elastomeric acrylic paint that contains compounds that “communicate a warning signal to the birds”, according to the website. As a biologist, I’m a little skeptical about the wording; it seems more likely that it tastes bad (which is not a warning signal). It is also unclear whether it has both an odor and a taste component and whether it’s just unpleasant or irritating. But apart from the questionable wording, this seems like an innovative and effective product.
It claims it works on many types of siding, including aluminum, stucco, vinyl, fiber-cement, and wood. Most of these won’t contain insects, but the loud reverberations of surfaces like aluminum and vinyl make them attractive to drumming (signaling) woodpeckers. Their website claims testing showed a 70% reduction in building damage following application.
I am naturally wary of chemicals, and a little digging into the hazardous information sheet showed that the product has components that are toxic to fish and aquatic invertebrates and carcinogenic, and it contains antifreeze. I’d be more comfortable with this product if there were more information on the possible effects of birds or other animals ingesting bits of paint and the impact of paint flecks on the soil and water (the website does claim it does not harm woodpeckers). Whether it’s worse than other products we use is unclear.
This could be used as a last resort when all other methods have failed and you’re at your wit’s end.
- Seems to be effective
- Protects specific area
- Works on many surfaces
- Contains hazardous chemicals
- Labour intensive to repaint surfaces
Answer: No. Woodpeckers eat many different insects and may be searching for different types around your house – ants, spiders, beetles, true bugs, caterpillars, and snails are all dietary items, not to mention fruits and seeds.
Answer: You can try strong smells, such as peppermint or garlic, that are novel to woodpeckers. Hot pepper or tobacco products that contain capsaicin do not work on birds, as they can taste it, but it does not create the burning sensation that makes it a mammalian repellent.
Answer: In the spring. Territorial drumming may increase in the winter if the species are present year-round. New nesting cavities will also be excavated in the spring, though sometimes they’re reused. If you need to block the entrance to a nesting cavity excavated in your house, ensure there are no eggs or chicks; the best time to do this is in the fall. Remember, though, that other species, such as flying squirrels, may occupy the cavity in the winter, so check for critters thoroughly before closing the hole.
Woodpeckers are integral parts of functioning ecosystems, and with the loss of much of their natural habitat, interactions in human-occupied habitats will continue to increase. You have several options to try to keep woodpeckers away from your structures while still coexisting with them. You can always combine options as well; be creative!
There are still emerging technologies that may prove effective over time, such as lasers, but are still untested against woodpeckers specifically. It’s great to see more humane and less disruptive control methods are becoming the norm in dealing with these types of conflicts.
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