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
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 blue-bird box is an appropriate
For Hairys, Red-bellieds, and Red-headeds, a
box 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 arent so important as
long as theyre not too large -- the 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 isnt a
home without doing a bit of excavating. If youre lucky and your nest box is adopted,
the birds will toss out the chips or sawdust until theyve 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 youll find
that most are on the underside of a limb or leaning trunk, thus protected somewhat from
weather. If youve had trouble with woodpeckers excavating on your homes wood
siding, you might try nailing a nest box over their most recent efforts -- with luck
theyll claim the box as home and leave yours alone!
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
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 youve 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 seeds, 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, theyll 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
Ive described in their own unique ways, youll find that by providing for the
woodpeckers, youll also be attracting other birds. Im always willing to
forgive a Great Crested Flycatcher for moving into my
woodpecker houses -- and just put up another one nearby.