Woodpeckers, including sapsuckers and flickers, are widely distributed throughout the United States. The most common species are the downy woodpecker (P. pubescens), the hairy woodpecker (Picoides villous), and the yellow-bellied sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius). Sapsuckers are likely to wreak the most havoc on the wood of your fruit trees because sweet tree sap is the first and biggest item on the menu. Other species are on the prowl for boring insects and grubs, but often prefer trees that we don‘t cultivate for fruit. However, most woodpeckers also enjoy your berries, fruits, nuts and seeds. The good news is that while in almost all cases it’s illegal to harm, injure, poison or kill these creatures, you certainly don’t have to put up with damage to your property.
Examine the bark of healthy fruit tree trunk and limbs from early February through June, when woodpeckers breed and establish nesting territories. Sapsuckers drill parallel rows of holes spaced closely together, and extract sap with long tongues. They typically choose a few favorite trees, leaving identical nearby specimens untouched. Continued pecking can enlarge the holes, and sizable bark patches can be chipped away. Severe attacks of trunks or large limbs can kill the tree.
Check the tree for insect infestation. If this is the case, consult your local Extension agent. There are usually regional ordinances regarding the use of pesticides, particularly when wildlife will be affected. Follow the Extension service’s advice for treating the tree, if appropriate.
Check developing fruits for deep holes indicative of woodpecker damage. Watch the foliage for frequent bird visitations. Even woodpeckers that don’t prefer the wood of these trees will drop by for tasty fruit meals.
Cover the tree’s canopy completely with ¾- inch plastic or nylon mesh bird netting to protect developing fruit . Envelope all the foliage and secure the ends of the net around the trunk with wire or twine. Don’t leave any gaps that woodpeckers might wriggle through.
Encircle the trunk with a sheet of the bird netting, and leave 4 to 6 inches between the net and the bark so the birds can’t reach through it to attack the tree. Attach it to a few branches with twine or wire and secure the bottom to the ground with stakes or pegs.
Construct a metal barrier around the tree’s trunk if netting doesn’t work or isn’t practical to use. Effective materials include ¼-inch hardware cloth and aluminum flashing.
Wrap injured tree trunks with multiple layers of plastic mesh, hardware cloth or burlap to protect them from further sapsucker damage. Note that sapsuckers are particularly persistent about accessing favored fruit trees. When successfully excluded, these birds will immediately seek out other fruit trees.
Frighten, Annoy, Distract
Affix visual objects which can frighten woodpeckers to affected areas of your fruit trees. Attach them loosely with wire or twine so that breezes can move them easily. Aluminum pie tins, strips of foil or brightly colored plastic reflect and move, and have all been used with varying measures of success.
Annoy and frighten woodpeckers repeatedly and persistently with loud noises. Banging on metal cans and lids, loud hand-clapping and discharging toy cap guns can harass the birds enough to send them in search of more peaceful surroundings.
Enlist the assistance of your dog. When you hear the woodpecker, take the dog with you and call his attention to the bird. Direct a noisy, angry fuss at the bird, and the dog will catch on immediately even if the woodpecker flies away for the moment. Dogs can be highly territorial and will gladly torment an invading woodpecker once they know what you want.
Apply sticky repellents to affected areas of the tree. Smear it around wherever sapsuckers are dining on limbs and trunk. Products such as 4-The-Birds, Tanglefoot and Roost-No-More don’t really stick the bird to the tree. They just feel tacky to the bird’s feet, and wild avians instinctively dislike anything that may hang onto them.
Offer the woodpeckers alternatives to distract them from your fruit trees. Situate the alternatives well away from the trees they’ve been feeding on. Many species love suet feeders, and some will even visit bird feeders stocked with seeds. Provide nest boxes appropriate to the pest species. Nesting woodpeckers will defend their territories and drive others away.