I have spent the last two months running experiments to figure out how to attract woodpeckers to feeders and thought some other folks would be interested in the results.
This was a massive case of making lemonade when life gives you lemons so if you find the article useful then it is a double bonus for me!
Attracting Woodpeckers to Your Bird Feeders
The general steps for getting woodpeckers to eat at your feeders are as follows:
- Make your yard hospitable for woodpeckers
- Understand which types of woodpecker are present
- Feed peanuts for larger woodpeckers
- Feed suet for smaller woodpeckers
- Consider Feeder Placement (Open vs Treeline)
- Feed Consistently
Let’s look at each of these steps in a little more detail.
Have a Woodpecker Friendly Yard
Quite simply, the more trees you have in your yard the more woodpeckers you can attract. Trees provide shelter from predators, nesting locations and food sources for all types of woodpeckers. I realize that the number of trees is not something that is easily changed in a yard so let’s move on to some other things you can do to bring these birds in.
Provide a source of water. This can be a birdbath, fountain or even a dish of water on your deck rail. A clean, safe water source is a great way to attract almost all species of birds, woodpeckers included.
Put up woodpecker nesting boxes. Woodpeckers are cavity nesters and compete hard for nesting spots. The loss of nesting spots is believed to be the reason for the vast decline in the population of red headed woodpeckers. If you can put up a few nesting boxes then that will greatly improve the odds of these birds hanging out in your yard.
Provide structure. If you can’t add more trees then consider adding “tree like” structures. These could be things like pergolas, arbors or tall shrubs.
Use bird feeders designed for woodpeckers. Woodpeckers will come to regular bird feeders and eat black oil sunflower seeds. However, they often have to compete with cardinals, titmice, etc at these feeders. I have had the most luck when I used feeders and food that was designed specifically for woodpecker usage. Here is my full list of recommendations for woodpecker feeders. (More on this below!)
Making Lemonade When Life Gives You Lemons
The reason I was able to do so many experiments and observations about getting woodpeckers to eat at my feeders is because the massive water oak in my backyard died this spring. The tree was infested with tree borers which woodpeckers love to eat. This tree has been an absolute nightmare and I am still trying to find a company that can take it down before it falls on my house during a tropical storm.
In the meantime, the tree is loaded with woodpeckers and has been a great testing ground.
Understand Which Types of Woodpeckers You Have
There are about 20 species of woodpecker in the US, if you go ahead and throw the sapsuckers into the mix, and they do not all behave the same.
I am in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and the primary varieties I get are red headed, red bellied and downy. I see a pileated every now and then but those sightings are few and far between.
What I found when I was doing the research is that the larger woodpeckers, the Red Headed and Red Bellied, had extremely different feeding preferences than the smaller Downy.
The large woodpeckers absolutely LOVED eating peanuts from an open platform feeder that was completely exposed on my deck rail. They would swarm this open feeder and eagerly get into fights with Blue Jays. They would sometimes try feeding from a conventional black oil sunflower feeder and would only go to a suet feeder if the peanuts had been empty for more than two days.
Both of these species are known to hoard food for later use and that is what they were doing with these peanuts. It was a blast to watch them fly away with a peanut, stash it in the crevice of a tree, and swoop back down for more!
Feed Peanuts for Large Woodpeckers
My deck rail feeder has dual compartments and I used them to test different food choices side by side. I tested peanuts against black oil sunflower seeds, dried mealworms, safflower seeds, suet balls and many other choices. The peanuts (shell on, unsalted) were always the massive favorite.
Feed Suet For Small Woodpeckers
During all of my testing with different feeds I never saw a small Downy woodpecker grab a peanut. In general, Downies tended to avoid this open platform feeder but when they did approach they grabbed the sunflower seeds or mealworms. That doesn’t mean that Downies wont eat peanuts…just that the ones in my yards preferred something different.
The feeder that the Downies really enjoyed was a simple suet feeder with a perch.
I tried multiple “flavors” of suet and it didn’t seem to matter which one I put out, the Downies liked them all. A lot of other birds were hitting on this feeder and I was going through suet pretty fast. I eventually switched over to an upside down suet feeder which let the Downies keep eating but it slowed down the cardinals considerably.
By and large the Red Headed and Red Bellied woodpeckers stayed away from the suet feeders as long as there were plenty of peanuts in the platform feeder.
Consider Feeder Placement
I think one reason the large woodpeckers stayed away from the suet feeders has to do with placement. I had the suet feeders tucked into the edge of the treeline under some branches. It was no problem for the Downies to dart through the brush and land on the feeder but the larger birds would have probably found it a harder task.
I think one reason the Red Headed and Red Bellied liked the peanut feeder was how easy it was for them to approach and land.
Again, the woodpeckers in your yard might have different preferences from mine but I strongly suggest putting up several different types of feeders, in different locations and with different foods to see what your woodpeckers like the most.
Woodpeckers will not magically show up in your yard and come to your feeders overnight. They have to already be in your area and only then can you attract them to your yard and feeders.
Go in for the long haul. Get some nest boxes up, give these guys some water and offer them a variety of feeding options. It takes a bit of work for most people to attract woodpeckers to their feeders but it is an effort worth making!