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If you haven’t yet heard the hammer of a woodpecker’s beak or seen one creeping around your garden’s trees, try the tips below to bring them a little closer to home.
Gluttons for high-calorie foods, woodpeckers are attracted by easy-to-reach fat sources. Hang a woodpecker suet cake or a ball of suet (the white, condensed animal fat you can find at a butchers or specialty foods store) from a high tree limb and watch woodpeckers come calling. The birds are equally fond of peanut butter too: Smear a few tablespoons on a pine cone and dangle from a branch in view of your house for easy bird watching.
Not only do oak trees produce nutrient-dense acorns (a favorite of woodpeckers), but this genus of trees is host to more kinds of insects than any other. Planting different kinds of trees besides oaks is a good idea, too, as plants are the underpinning of a healthy, diverse ecosystem. Maples and cherries have a high insect diversity index and will continue to attract wildlife of all shapes and sizes after they die. In general, the more plant diversity present, the more different kinds of insects present, and so on up the food chain. Goldenrod, a beautiful herbaceous autumn perennial (and one of the eight weeds you should actually let grow in your yard), is an excellent insect attractant and provides other woodpeckers like the smaller downy with feeding opportunities more their size.
Trees of different sizes and ages are an indicator of a healthy forest. Dead trees, also known as snags, provide nesting sites for owls, bats, and squirrels and offer a plethora of insect foods for woodpeckers. What’s more, the hollowed out or rotten trunks of old trees make the best instruments for woodpeckers’ territorial drumming. One of the best ways to see a woodpecker, whether it’s the enormous pileated or the little downy, is to preserve or create a snag in your woods. Woodpeckers like flickers will even forage on dead wood on the ground, peeling off old bark while mining for insects or an unlucky salamander. A good rule of thumb to attract wildlife, woodpeckers included, is to let nature clean up her own ‘mess’ and leave fallen branches and other forest detritus alone.
Across the eastern half of the United States it’s becoming easier and easier to sight woodpeckers. This is due to one insidious little insect known as the emerald ash borer (EAB). Arriving from China in packing material two decades ago, this wood boring beetle infests and rapidly kills all species of ash native to the U.S (whole forests in the Midwest are dead because of EAB). While scientists are working on a long-term solution, woodpeckers are busy rooting out the insect’s grubs, which bury themselves beneath the trees’ bark, feeding on cambium. It’s been purported a single woodpecker can eat as much as 85 percent of an infested tree’s EAB population, which could amount to hundreds of larvae a day. If you notice your ash trees showing signs of stress keep your eyes peeled for the ensuing woodpeckers. It may take a couple of weeks, months, or even a year but eventually these canny birds will find that rich, wriggling food source and make easy work of it.