Where you have trees, you have woodpeckers. Western Washington has a good woodpecker population. Their numbers are large and there are several different species. Sometimes this is confusing when "woodpecker" isn't part of the bird's name. Despite their names, flickers and sapsuckers are woodpeckers.
A heavily forested area has a good woodpecker population because the trees, mostly the dead or dying ones, attract them. They hunt for grubs and bugs in decaying wood and hollow out nesting cavities in dead trees. Woodpeckers also are attracted to feeders containing the lard/oatmeal mixture or the commercial bird cakes.
Those who feed hummingbirds tell stories that credit these tiny birds with human characteristics. They describe how they show up where feeders once hung, looking for what had been a source of food. Some relate how the birds appear at their windows when a feeder is empty, as if complaining that their human benefactor is neglecting their needs.
Two downy woodpeckers recently added a new dimension to these tales. I was starting to make the morning coffee when they caught my eye. I’m convinced that was their intention. The woodpecker feeder was empty.
It’s unusual enough to have two males around without some arguing going on. To have them creeping up the same branch (the one near the window) also was unusual. It was apparent they were looking in the window and looking at their feeder. If getting our attention was their intent, it worked. My uncomplaining spouse took care of their needs and we had our breakfast.
Woodpeckers may be attracted to dead and dying trees but a well-tended feeder filled with a favorite food sees even more traffic. It’s almost nonstop among the pileated and downy woodpeckers and the flickers. If we were in a more rural area, the hairy woodpeckers would join the crowd.
Sapsuckers, both the red-breasted and the red-naped are the exception when it comes to feeders. They feed by drilling through a tree’s bark and cambium layer to create sap “wells.” The small holes they make fill up with liquid the birds drink. This also attracts insects that are eaten by other birds as well as the woodpeckers. So far, I don’t know of anyone attracting sapsuckers to a feeder even though some serious efforts have been made in this area.
When it comes to attracting woodpeckers to your yard, a popular suggestion has been the preservation of dead or dying trees. This column always has encouraged that, but no more. If you have a forested area where trees can do their own thing, that’s great. Leave the dead snags or rotting alders. It’s very different when it comes to the trees in your yard. After two incidents that could have been fatal or responsible for serious injury, I can only recommend that dead or dying trees be taken down. I still grieve over the loss of a favorite old apple tree, but the dent it left in the garage roof is a grim reminder that dead trees and snags belong in the forest. They eventually come down without warning.
Woodpeckers that call our yard home will have to live with healthy trees and enjoy what we offer in the feeder. They appear content to do just that and even tell us to keep those feeders filled.
Write to Joan Carson, PO Box 217, Poulsbo, WA 98370. Include a self-addressed, stamped envelope for a reply.