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  • Writer's pictureStaci-lee Sherwood

Woodpeckers & Sapsuckers: nature’s amazing natural pest control

Updated: Nov 21, 2022

By Staci-lee Sherwood

When people think of the most notable characteristic of woodpeckers it’s the hammering they do against trees, and sometimes against houses. Watching them one wonders how they manage to not get headaches from that fierce fast head banging. Another sign of woodpeckers are the telltale signs of holes and peeled bark on trees. Contrary to popular myth woodpeckers do not kill trees by making holes or nesting cavities. They have a symbiotic relationship with trees, much the way butterflies have a symbiotic relationship with their host plant.

Woodpeckers eat a variety of food. Their diet consists of fruit, seeds, nuts and insects which includes both adult insects and their eggs and larvae. Like humans these amazing birds will forage for whatever fruit and berries are in season. Some species consume tree sap like the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. For homeowners there is some good news since termites and ants are among the favorite food for many.

Having woodpeckers around can be noisy at times when they hammer to announce their territory. They can also be a great natural non toxic way to keep insect population down. When it comes to bugs most people would not miss cockroaches, termites or ants though they play an integral part in the ecosystem. These are among the many insects woodpeckers will consume. By keeping the land around your home natural and pesticide free you will attract a variety of species including woodpeckers. They in turn will keep the garden healthy and balanced without the use of chemicals which not only kill them and their food but can cause cancer in humans when exposed to them.

Little is known about prehistoric woodpeckers. Their fossils date back to the Oligocene period (33 - 23 million years ago) just after the dinosaurs, when mammals ruled the natural kingdom. Though woodpeckers have been around for millions of years we could lose them in the not so far off future. Unbridled development, logging and pesticide use could cause once abundant species to be in jeopardy. The best way to ensure these amazing animals have a chance at long term survival is to keep the wild areas we have now, limit development and stop using chemicals. Planting trees and plants will make your garden beautiful and attractive to both humans and animals.

The Red-bellied Woodpecker

This woodpecker is small in stature but large in appetite. Consuming insects, fruit, acorns and seeds they will also eat small fish, tree frogs, small bird’s eggs and even tree sap. They can be found in the eastern part of the US and considered to have a stable population. Named for their red belly this distinguishing mark is rarely seen. While they’ve been known to takeover nest cavities in trees from other birds they’ve also been squeezed out of their home by Starlings. The Starlings were brought here in the 1890s by Europeans and can be very aggressive. It’s thought nearly half of all Red-bellied woodpeckers lose their home to them.

Red-bellied male

The Downy Woodpecker

This woodpecker is the smallest in North America and has a striking pattern of black and white. The male is distinguished with a small red patch on the back of his head. They feast on many ‘pest’ insects like beetle larvae, ants, apple borers and tent caterpillars that live in the wood and tree bark. In warmer weather they enjoy berries, acorns and grains. Habitat ranges from open woodlands to parks and suburbs and can be found throughout the U.S. For those that live up north during the winter they can be found in mixed flocks. Their population is considered stable for now.

Downy female

The Pileated Woodpecker

This woodpecker is thought to be the inspiration for the Woody Woodpecker cartoon character made popular from the 1940s - 1960s. They’re the largest woodpecker in North America, roughly the size of a crow, and easily spotted when looking for their bright flaming red crest. Their primary food is carpenter ants followed by other ants, cockroaches, termites, flies and other insects. You can see how they would be beneficial for a homeowner. No need to resort to toxic chemicals as a pest control. When looking for natural ways to keep these pest insects away from your home just plant tall trees for the Pileated’s and avoid killing their food supply with pesticides. Nature will take care of the rest.

Pileated male

The Red-headed Woodpecker

Known for their striking beauty as adults the Red-headed woodpecker is a fierce little bird. Only one of three known species to store food in the U.S., the others are the Red-bellied and Acorn. Skillful at catching flying insects they mostly feast on fruit and seeds which make up 2/3 of their diet. They’re aggressive defenders of their territory going so far as removing eggs or nests of other birds. The circle of life often has them being a meal for a hungry hawk, fox or snake. Unlike most bird species they will reuse the same nest cavity for several years. Their population has been on a steady decline since the 1950s and are on the Yellow watch list which has them categorized as a species needing constant monitoring to prevent further decline.

Red-headed with a snack

The Northern Flicker (Yellow-shafted)

This woodpecker can be found throughout the lower 48 states. Unlike other woodpeckers this one prefers to hunt for their favorite food, ants, on the ground. They dig into the dirt to expose the ants then use their two inch long barded tongue to lap them up. Aside from ants they also eat beetles, flies, fruit and seeds. Even among other colorful woodpeckers this one stands out as the only brown woodpecker, instead of the common black and white coloring. They’re a unique bird in both coloration and behavior. Though widespread in some areas their overall population has declined about 47% since the 1960s.

Northern Flicker male

The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

This species has the distinction of being the only woodpecker in eastern North America that is completely migratory. They winter in the southeast and breed in the very northeast and throughout Canada. As their name suggests they feast on tree sap. They have been documented drilling sapwells from over 1,000 tree species but prefer Birch and Maple. These sapwells will also attract hummingbirds. In parts of Canada the Ruby-throated Hummingbird rely on this symbiotic relationship with the Sapsuckers and their sapwells, so they will time their spring migration with the arrival of Sapsuckers. Bats, who also consume a lot of insects, and Porcupines will also visit the sapwells. So far their population appears stable.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker female

To learn more click here

To help protect woodpeckers you can :

Go natural and skip the pesticides

Plant a variety of plants and flowers to attract insects for them to eat

Leave the trees, even the dead ones which is a favorite nesting site

Also published on Emagazine May 3, 2022

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