Caught Redheaded! Woodpeckers Dine and Dash

by Les Harrison

A clue, by inference, directs the viewer to a conclusion. The deduction which is based on the exhibited evidence may provide some insight into an activity occurring at some point in the past.

No matter how good the data, much depends on the effective detective work of the individual attempting to understand the situation. The famed yet fictional Sherlock Holmes was often noted for saying, “Elementary my dear Watson”, when he came to a conclusion about some obscure clue with his nearly perfect expertise at deciphering facts.

Unfortunately, not many are blessed with the deductive skills of a legendary sleuth. So when coming across a curious condition, all possibilities should be examined.

Even in the parts of Wakulla County where humans reside, interesting thing happen when nobody is looking. For example, the tree in the photograph has mysteriously sustained a severe shredding by an unknown arboreal assailant.

Woodpeckers Dead Tree Damage
The damage appears as if a large and aggressive creature used this tree as an excuse to blow off some steam. In reality a Pileated Woodpecker was seeking an easy meal. Photo by Les Harrison

The Culprit

While the culprit might initially appear to be Bigfoot with an attitude or an overly excited raccoon polishing its claws, as it turned out it was a hard-head with a need for a quick meal. A Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus ) was sifting through the rotting wood of a dying water oak in search of insect grubs.

All woodpeckers search along surfaces of tree trunks and branches for wood-boring beetles, carpenter ants and other insects or their larva. During this foraging activity, the bird will make a few pecks then explore the hole with its tongue and bill.

This behavior will continue until an insect is found or the woodpecker is convinced the drilling spot will not produce a meal. Usually they hop a few inches away and peck in another place.

Injury to a healthy tree is minimal and they commonly drill in horizontal lines which follow the tunnels made by the insects. The damage is far more evident on trees which are declining.

Dying trees attract opportunistic insects which use the dead wood as a site to lay eggs or take up residence. In short order the tree is infested and becomes a woodpecker’s buffet.

A feeding frenzy follows as the woodpecker will drill and eat in quick succession, not letting a morsel escape. The collateral damage from this food fight will be scattered on the forest floor.

As part of nature’s balance, it is understandable how an apex omnivore is employed to control the population of a quickly reproducing subordinate insect species. The problem for humans comes when the insects decide to homestead in the siding or post of structures.

Aside from the damage woodborers inflict on homes and outbuildings, when the local woodpecker realizes their target species is available the repair bill starts to rise radically. The resulting destruction has been compared to the effects of submachinegun target practice.

Other Considerations

It is worth noting there are other reasons pileated woodpeckers will drum on trees and buildings. One is to announce their presence and make a declaration of territorial possession, and the other is to hollow out a nesting cavity.

The solution for eliminating the potential for woodpecker damage is twofold. The first is to treat the structure for wood boring insects which is a major reason for woodpecker problems.

If the woodpeckers persist, netting suspended three or more inches from the target site is recommended. Eventually the woodpeckers will seek other dining opportunities.

While the mystery is solved, it is best to remain ever vigilant. There are hungry insects and woodpeckers everywhere, and spring will be here soon.

To learn more about Wakulla County’s woodpeckers, visit the UF/IFAS Wakulla County website at or call 850-926-3931.


Posted: February 15, 2018

Category: Forests, Natural Resources, UF/IFAS Extension, Wildlife
Tags: Clues, Home Protection, Les Harrison, Natural Wakulla, UF/IFAS Extension, Wakulla Extension, Woodpecker

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