Do Woodpeckers Kill Trees?

Woodpeckers are interesting creatures. They are tree bark feeding creatures that use their unique feet to cling to wood and their long tongues and beaks are specifically designed to help them locate and reach insects within tree trunks.  Once they locate their prey after tapping a few times with their beaks they whip their long tongues out to capture the insects from the inner and outer bark of the tree.

A woodpecker searches surfaces of tree trunks and branches for insects such as wood boring beetles, carpenter ants, termites and the like.  The pecking style they use for feeding is quite different then the drumming which they are known to do during spring months.  Only a few pecks are needed to help the bird explore around the resulting hole until its prey is found or the bird is satisfied to search elsewhere.  The damage from this feeding activity usually occurs in horizontal lines however it is important to know that in most cases woodpeckers prefer dead wood rather than sound wood when digging for food or excavating nest cavities.  Since most trees already contain some dead wood, the woodpecker’s activity during the feeding process does not necessarily mean the tree is being damaged in any way by the bird.  These birds are generally considered harmless to trees.

However, though most woodpeckers are known for collecting insects to feed off of, not all woodpeckers prefer this type of food source.  Some woodpeckers such as the sapsucker would rather feast upon tree sap or insects that are attracted to the sap.  These sapsuckers will attack and kill trees and seriously degrade wood.  They are a very serious tree pest and since they are migratory creatures the effects they have upon tress ranges throughout North America.  The United States Forest Service suggests that a sapsucker will kill red maple nearly 40% of the time it attacks where as it only kills hemlock at the rate of 1% or so.

Sapsuckers are also known to return to a tree to increase the size of the hole for fresh sap and may make repeated attacks on trees during breeding seasons.  These repeated attacks on the trees can kill branches or even the entire tree.  Insects, porcupines and/or squirrels may also be attracted the oozing sap.  This can cause even more damage to the tree.  Wood decay and/or stain fungi and bacteria may enter through the feeding wounds and will only make matters worse.

The good news is that there are a few ways one can discourage a sapsucker from feeding in or upon a tree.  One method that has been used includes wrapping a hardware cloth or burlap sack around the area of attack.  You can also smear on a sticky repellent that will discourage the sapsuckers from feeding here.  There are a few different brands that can be used.  One is known as Tanglefoot Bird Repellent.  There are also sprays and bird tapes for this type of thing.  Something to keep in mind when trying to discourage birds from feeding upon your trees is that if you cover one tree in repellent or burlap, they are likely to choose another tree nearby for future tapping.  In which case, it may just be better to sacrifice the already tapped and damaged tree in favor of the possible loss of another tree.

Most trees already harbor some sort of insect.  When combined with a woodpecker’s feeding activities, the tree’s life will just be diminished must quicker.  Inspecting trees for insects is just as important as insects such as carpenter ants and termites love to feast upon trees.  Treating the woodpecker’s food source by getting rid of the pests on the tree can often be a useful method when trying to deter the birds from ones yard.

Because woodpeckers are dependent upon trees for food and shelter, most times they are usually found within wooded areas or inside nest cavities that have been chiseled into trees.  They are also known to reside in tree trunks, braches, and sometimes even abandoned squirrel or bird nests.  Sometimes a woodpecker may even run another creature off to steal its nest.  Many species have been known to nest within human made structures and have extended their habitat to include wooden fences, old barns or sheds, utility poles and other buildings.

Most of the damage caused to trees by this species of bird occurs from February to June, which corresponds with their breeding months and a period of territorial establishment.  Among sapsuckers a few other woodpeckers that are known to cause the most damage to trees or structures are as follows:

  • Red-headed (Melanerpes erythrocephalus),
  • Acorn (Melanerpes formicivorus) ,
  • Golden-fronted (Melanerpes aurifrons),
  • Red-bellied (Melanerpes carolinus),
  • Ladder-backed (Picoides scalaris),
  • Downy (Picoides pubescens),
  • Hairy (Picoides villosus),
  • Red-cockaded (Picoides borealis),
  • Northern flicker (Colaptes auratus),
  • Pileated (Dryocopus pileatus).

Damage to buildings such as summer homes or barns may take one ne of several forms. Holes may be drilled into wood siding, eaves, window frames and even trim boards.  These birds prefer cedar and redwood siding but will not hesitate to damage pine, fir, cypress and others when choices are limited.  Natural or stained wood surfaces are preferred over painted wood and newer homes in an area are often primarily targets due to this fact.  Particularly vulnerable to damage are the rustic appearing plywoods that consist of grooves.  These grooves in the wood leave vertical layers of the wood exposed and may harbor insects that will attract the bird.  The woodpeckers often break out these core gaps in the wood and leave a characteristic narrow horizontal damage pattern in the wood as a result.

Sapsucking Woodpeckers are known to bore a series of parallel rows of ¼ to 3/8 inch (0.6- to 1.0-cm) closely spaced holes within the bark of tree limbs or trunks of healthy trees and then use their tongues to remove the sap.  These pesky birds usually feed on a few favorite ornamental or fruit trees where nearby trees of the same species may sometimes be left untouched. Holes may then be enlarged through continued pecking or limb growth, and large patches of bark may be removed. This in many cases as you can imagine, results in a dead tree.


  1. Maggie says

    I have one very old, tall, and otherwise healthy looking pine tree, that has holes about 6 inches apart up and down the tree. Both woodpeckers and squirrels love this tree…. The top is green and the tree is straight. I have about six other pines which seem fine. There was once a wire wrapped around the tree which has almost grown over. I hate to cut it down especially in light of your comments about movement to other trees, but if it fell it might wipe out half my neighborhood… please advise. Thank you in advance.

  2. Ray says

    We live in an area of northern California where there are a lot of tall trees. I have several acres of trees over 120 feet tall. For quite a number of years we have had 1 to 3 or more trees die each year. No one has had an answer but to say drought & bugs. I have always seen woodpeckers on the trees & primarily on our property. It has cost us a lot of money every year to take these trees down as they become a danger to our home after they die. I now feel quite certain after looking at pictures of the sap sucker woodpecker that this is what has been killing our trees. I took binoculars and looked at the hundreds of holes pecked into the trees that have girdled the trees & killed them. We had three more 120 foot to 140 foot tall fir trees die this year & taken down. Now we have another 4 trees that have recently died. We can not just put screen or anything else on a tree this high. We need help & do not know what to do. Our income is limited & this is hurting us. If anyone has answers or know who to turn to please help us.

  3. Bettee says

    I just found this site because I have a mountain ash tree that a woodpecker has chiselled quite a large hole. I hate to loose this tree so looked up info. Maybe this will help you too.

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