As the temperatures drop, many Mainers have to deal with woodland critters finding their ways into their homes. Typically this might be a mouse that has found a hole to the inside, a bat looking for a place to hibernate for the winter, or one of several stinky insects (like Western conifer seed bugs) that are seeking shelter from the cold.

While most insects and animals tend to be noninvasive in our homes, we always have an uptick, in the fall, of people reporting one very destructive critter: woodpeckers. This week a question came in from Hugh Smith of Falmouth, asking how to stop a woodpecker doing damage to the side of a church. Perhaps the woodpecker didn’t know the difference between a holy site and a holey site! But a better answer digs into the reasons behind the woodpecker’s behavior in order to prevent it from continuing.

First, the time of the year plays a big role in a woodpecker’s actions. In the spring, as I’ve written about before, we hear from folks that woodpeckers are drumming on the sides of their houses, or elements on their houses, especially on metal surfaces like a downspout or a satellite dish. Those metallic substrates are great for amplifying their drums, which is the woodpecker equivalent of a song: a noise to attract a mate or defend a territory. However, the nesting season for woodpeckers wrapped up months ago, so we can rule out that reason for woodpeckers drumming now.

If the woodpecker is actually drilling into the house (or church), it might be that it is looking to excavate a site for nesting or roosting. As it is with drumming, it’s too late in the year for a nest site, but woodpeckers do carve out cavities to roost in. A roost is a protected site, guarded both from predators and the elements, where a woodpecker will be safe for the night. Typically, each woodpecker will have its own roost site, and it doesn’t need to be as big or deep as a nest site would be. New roost sites are typically excavated in the fall, so the timing is right. However, in most cases, the wood on the side of a building probably doesn’t have the right thickness for a woodpecker to make a roost site. So although it isn’t unheard of, it’s not the most likely explanation.

This brings us to the last reason a woodpecker might be destroying the side of a building: they are looking for food. It is worth noting here that different species of woodpeckers will have different foraging techniques. Our little downy woodpeckers, with their small bills, typically forage on the surface, or just below the surface, of bark; the larger hairy woodpeckers use their large chisel shaped bills to drill deeper into a tree, digging out wood-boring larva; Northern flickers are rarely seen on houses as they’re ant specialists and are more likely to be seen on the ground. Keep in mind that if you have a woodpecker foraging on the side of your home, that could mean you have a bigger problem than the woodpecker; it means you have some pests living in the wood that the woodpeckers are attracted to.

I do want to acknowledge that many of the calls I get about woodpeckers foraging on the side of buildings, especially in the fall, are from people who are adamant that they do not have ants, termites, or other insects in their walls that could be attracting the woodpeckers. I’m not sure if this is accurate or just wishful thinking, but it does make me wonder if perhaps these are just young woodpeckers that don’t know what they’re doing. Again, because this is fall and the nesting season is over, we are entering the period when many young woodpeckers, those born this summer, are now out on their own and foraging without the help of their parents. It is easy to assume that a young, inexperienced woodpecker would be thrilled to find some dead wood, in the form of the siding of a house, and start digging in and looking for food. That said, a disproportionate amount of people calling for help report that the woodpeckers are focused on cedar shingles, which are a common destination for carpenter bees to excavate their own holes (hence the name) to lay eggs. Those carpenter bee larvae are a favorite food of hairy woodpeckers, so it is perhaps worth getting a professional’s opinion on the presence, or hopefully absence, of pests.

No matter why a woodpecker is making a hole in your house, most people just want to know how to make it stop. There have actually been studies looking at the effectiveness of woodpecker deterrents, and while you can waste money on things like plastic owls, the most effective solution is usually getting something between the bird and the area where it wants to be. Reflective streamers were found to be the most effective, but I’ve also often recommended hanging a tin pie plate from a string, so it dangles in the area the woodpecker is working on. That lightweight plate will blow in the wind and the reflectiveness probably helps startle an incoming bird. If the area is too large for that, I’ve had a lot of success with using a sheet of tin foil. Unroll a sheet as large as you need, and tack it up over the area being targeted. It won’t look pretty, but I’ve never met a woodpecker that would peck through tin foil, let alone be able to land on it, and it should only need to be up for a week or two to convince the woodpecker to forage elsewhere.

Keep an eye out for wildlife trying to get into your house this fall. Most scenarios of birds, mammals, or insects getting in can be remedied with a nondestructive method. It might just take a little extra creativity.

Do you have a nature question for Doug? Email questions to and visit to learn more about birding, native plants, and programs and events focusing on Maine wildlife and habitat. Doug and other naturalists lead free bird walks on Thursday mornings, 7 to 9 a.m., at the Gilsland Farm Audubon Sanctuary in Falmouth.

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