Home Repair Notes

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nov 26, 2009; updated dec 15, 2013

How To Get Rid of Woodpeckers

W oodpeckers may be cute, but they make lots of noise and drill large, ugly holes in your wood siding. I moved into a house with cedar siding without realizing that the previous owner had done nothing to protect it from woodpeckers. I have learned from experience that you need to take care of woodpeckers as soon as they appear, before it becomes a habit for them. This means prevention. In practical terms, it means that you must continue to take precautions after they've been driven off, or they will eventually return.

Shooting them

Shooting the little f*ckers is probably the most obvious way to get rid of them, but aside from being not very nice, it suffers from two practical disadvantages: one, it's illegal, and two, it creates even more holes in your wood siding, which rather defeats the purpose. Standing outside your house with a shotgun for hours at a time looking up at the roof is also a good way to get arrested in many areas.

Likewise, poison and trapping are illegal in most places. Exterminators will generally refuse to do anything except spray for insects. Spraying is done in the spring, after they hatch.

Reflector tape

Reflector tape Reflector tape

Reflector tape frightens the birds and is highly effective. The 2-inch wide type is better because it makes noise and doesn't get tangled up when it gets windy. If you've ever been 40 feet up on a ladder trying to work while this tape is dangling near your head, you will understand why it frightens them. It's noisy and disorienting. In fact, most things that make humans nervous will generally frighten birds. However, there are limits. Telling birds their property taxes are going up or their credit card has been canceled generally has little or no effect.

The reflector tape should be cut into 2-foot long strips and attached to a piece of screen frame about two feet apart with a 2-inch piece of spline. Attach the screen frame about a foot down and one foot out from the wall so the wind can't blow it up onto the roof. Don't use duct tape—it will leave a residue on your gutter or soffit.

Does it work?
Yes—it looks tacky, so woodpeckers, sophisticated connoisseurs that they are, will generally stay at least six feet away from it to avoid being associated with such a tacky display. Unfortunately, if your house is more than 8 feet high, this means parts of it will still be unprotected.

Update Make sure the reflector tape is not directly under the edge of your eaves where dripping water can reach it. I had one reflector tape frame that started growing icicles and was pulled off the wall by the weight.

Bird glue / spikes

Speaking of tacky... There is a form of glue that is sold to repel birds. It's not strong enough to entrap them, but they dislike the sensation and avoid it. However, you can't cover your entire wall with it. This stuff is better for pigeons, who typically land on a narrow balcony. Same with bird spikes.

You can also apply an invisible Teflon spray. This causes the birds to slip off your siding when they try to peck. Unfortunately, it's expensive, and it's not really invisible.

Non-animated Plastic owls

Plastic great horned owl covered in snow This plastic great horned owl, available in hardware stores, should ideally be placed on the wall, at least 15 feet up

Woodpeckers are easily frightened and plastic owls sometimes deter them from approaching your house. The two most common mistakes people make with plastic owls are not placing them high enough so the birds can clearly see them, and not moving them around. If the bird can predict where the plastic owl is located, it loses all of its shock value and the bird will ignore it. A woodpecker's desire for food is often stronger then its fear of a static owl effigy.

Plastic owls are less effective against other types of birds. I had a cardinal that bashed itself against my window every day, frequently knocking itself unconscious. Evidently it had decided that its reflection in my window was an extremely ugly enemy bird, and it was trying to kill it.

I can understand why it would feel that way. But birds are unlikely to be killed doing this, because the brain of a bird is made of a hard rock-like material composed of a mixture of aluminum and magnesium silicates and pyroxene ((Mg, Fe)SiO3). No wonder their ancestors the dinosaurs died out. If there had been windows 65 million years ago, it would explain why there are no dinosaurs around today.

Placing an owl in the window had no effect until I placed it on top of a small cylinder lamp. The light shone upward and made the owl appear even more menacing. This caused the cardinal to fly over to the other side of the house and bash itself against the side window instead.

Plastic owls disappear from hardware stores around the beginning of October, when they start their annual migration from urban to rural environments.

Does it work?
Non-animated plastic owls can act as a physical barrier, but they can only protect an area of a few square inches. Since they aren't flat, woodpeckers can sometimes reach around behind them.

However, the neighborhood stray cats find them fascinating. Whenever I put a plastic owl in the window, I always see cat tracks in front of it the next day. Anything that attracts cats is good, but getting the cats up to where the woodpeckers are can be a challenge.

Animated Plastic owls

Plastic animated owl Plastic animated owl and speaker. This particular model of owl is no longer made.

Owls are universal symbols of wisdom ... and of the lack of woodpeckers.

Animated plastic owls that have photosensors built into their base are more effective at frightening away woodpeckers. Whenever there is a bird-like disturbance, these animated owls make a hooting sound and rotate their head toward it. Unfortunately, they're made in China, which means you have to take them apart and rebuild them before they're useful.

When I did that I was surprised to discover that the circuit board was simply glued in place with a drop of hot-melt glue, and the speaker was held in place by melting the plastic in three spots with a soldering iron. The plastic is so cheap that once you open the bottom, the screw holes are permanently stripped. To save shipping costs, they are so light that a faint breeze will knock them over—if you can get them to stand up in the first place.

So I got to work. I removed the battery and switch, and ran a long cable indoors to a larger set of D cells. I purchased a Yamaha NS-AW190BL outdoor speaker and mounted it on the platform next to the owl. If neighbors complain about the noise from the owl, I could put a resistor in series with the speaker.

These owls have to be bolted down to keep them from blowing away. I drilled two holes in the back and inserted a ¼-inch thick steel L-bracket inside the owl. I attached the bracket to the owl with two ¼-20 bolts and large washers to keep the cheap plastic from breaking apart.

The sensors, of course, cannot really detect birds, but they will be set off by moving leaves and, especially, by reflector tape. Most of the time, these owls just sit there and do nothing. But when the sun hits the reflector tape, the electronic owl goes crazy, hooting continuously and spinning its head around in endless circles. This convinces the birds that a crazy person lives in the house, and they will avoid it.

Here's how that works: The sensor is a simple photoresistor. When light hits it, the resistance decreases, discharging a capacitor, which triggers a playback. Unfortunately, a bird would have to be less than one foot away and in direct sunlight for this to work. But it's possible to build a simple circuit to make the owl hoot more frequently, if you know the optimum interval for scaring away the birds.

Since the construction was so flimsy, I first removed the circuit board and made a diagram of where each wire was attached. This is essential, because the wiring is extremely shoddy and the wires would fall off. I threw away the junk speaker, mounted the circuit board on a big piece of wood, re-soldered all the wires, and ran them to a terminal strip.

Then I disconnected the photoresistor and substituted an Altronix 6062 multi-purpose timer, which can be programmed to send a momentary contact closure to trigger the sound at adjustable intervals between 1 second and 60 minutes. These timers are great, and they can be run off a 9-volt battery. I then sealed everything in a watertight plastic box, ran wires from the box to the plastic owl, and bundled the wires together with cable ties.

This was all very effective, but I realized it would actually be less work to just set up my computer to play .WAV files of screech owl sounds at random intervals through an outside speaker. This gives a wider variety of owl sounds, and a much more realistic sound quality as well. And, if you get tired of the hooting, you can annoy the neighbors even more by playing that '60s tune Tern, Tern, Tern by The Byrds over and over and over and over.

What I ended up with was an owl that hooted once every hour: a cuckoo owl.

Does it work?
Usually not, unless used in conjunction with reflector tape. The problem is that owls are nocturnal and woodpeckers are diurnal. But it increases the effective range of tape. The owls have to be moved around frequently, and they are only effective against species that are afraid of owls, so they won't work against large birds like pigeons and crows. The best place is a platform in the middle or preferably the upper part of the wall, at least fifteen feet above the ground. If it's too low, or if it's too hard to see, it will not register in their brain as a real owl.

Update: (9/26/2010) The animated plastic owl actually turned out to be extremely effective at keeping new woodpeckers away from a house that doesn't already have them. If they hear the hooting sound, they will stop drumming and abandon the area almost immediately. However, after only one year the electric motor that turns the head on my owl is starting to make a grinding sound. This product was obviously not made to last long.

Update: (12/07/2013) Despite being bolted and clamped down, the animated plastic owl was destroyed by a windstorm. Unfortunately, the model that works is no longer available, so I bought a different one. This was more expensive, but it only lasted two days.

Bird Distress Call Generators

Blurry photo of woodpecker Woodpeckers can be tough to photograph

Birds make distinctive noises when injured, or when there are snakes or other hazards around. Bird distress call generators like the BirdXPeller Pro from Bird-X play recorded distress calls from a variety of species. The theory is that birds will be frightened, or at least lose their appetite. They're expensive, but a couple hundred bucks is a small price to pay to protect your wood siding. Unlike those animated plastic owls, Bird-X's are very well made, and they make very realistic sounds which are recordings of a variety of distress calls and predator sounds.

I installed the WP version, which is designed for woodpeckers. It has four predators (none of which are owls) and a woodpecker distress call. I don't know about woodpeckers, but my oh my, did the neighborhood birds go quiet when I first turned it on.

Some of the distress calls might be distressing to bird lovers. For instance, in one recording the woodpecker sounds like it is being eaten. But no woodpeckers were actually harmed in the making of this recording.

The manual says the sound is on a random timer, but there is also a photocell that can be set to turn the sound off at night. In fact, the intervals are only random within a short interval. What they mean by random is the order in which the sounds are played. For example, every 6−8 minutes, my unit plays all the sounds in random order, one after the other. You can select the time interval and which sounds to play using the little DIP switches.

It has a 1/8-inch mini phone connector for an external speaker, but when I attached a regular outdoor speaker to it, the sound was much fainter. It seems to require a special $82 75Ω speaker.

Does it work?
I located a Bird-X five feet away from where the woodpeckers were drilling. Even at full volume it had no effect on them. But after a few days, they stopped coming back. However, by then they had drilled so many holes that it had clearly failed in its task.

The Bird-X is extremely loud. At full volume, peak sound pressure levels can reach 100 dBA. I suspect this is an underestimate, and that much of the sound is in the ultrasonic range. So it's not clear whether the effect is due to the distress calls, or whether it's just hurting their ears. Whatever it's doing, it seems that, decibel for decibel, it seems that a distress call is much less effective than an owl sound.

Real owls

What about a real owl? If you live in a rural area with lots of trees, you could set up an owl box. It should be set up some distance away from your house, because owls will not hunt right next to their nest box.

Plastic Hawk Effigies

Plastic hawk effigies are hard to find in this country, but are sold in Australia and England. The hawk effigy must move and must cast a moving shadow on the ground in order to be effective. Another possibility is to spread fake dead plastic woodpeckers around on the ground to make it look like something is killing them.

This is not as far-fetched as it may sound. Farmers save the heads of cows that have died and place the skulls in areas where it's too difficult to build a fence. Cows will not travel past an area that contains a cow skull. So why wouldn't it work for birds?

Anything that would make you nervous at the top of a 40-foot ladder will also frighten away a woodpecker. Giant plastic rattlesnakes that automatically spring out come to mind. Birds hate snakes as much as humans do—maybe more.

Lasers

If you're a guy, you gotta have lasers. Green diode lasers are available that create a beam that spreads into a line. Aligned parallel to the wall and pointed up toward the eaves of your house, the laser creates an invisible plane of light. Because it's a line and not a point, it's not bright enough to harm the bird's vision, but it annoys the heck out of them because as soon as they move their head toward your wall, their eye moves into the path of the beam.

Obviously, even though they're relatively safe, you would not want to use lasers if you have children. Be absolutely certain the beam is stopped by your roof eaves, or you could interfere with overflying aircraft. If your roof has a peak shape, you could mount the laser near the peak and point it down instead of up. The disadvantage in this case is that it's harder to replace the batteries.

Birds have excellent color vision, superior to that of humans. Their retinas have four cone pigments: longwave ultraviolet, blue, blue-green, and yellow-orange (370, 445, 508, and 565 nanometers) compared to only three for humans (blue-violet, green, yellow) (424, 530, and 560 nm), and they can see red slightly better than humans can. However, red lasers range from 635-690 nm, so green (530) is still more visible than red for both humans and birds. Moreover, the effectiveness of red varies with different species.

Don't forget to put a resistor (at least 10Ω) in series with the laser, or it will pull too much current and burn itself up.

Does it work?
I have not yet tested it.

Bird / Deer Netting

Deer netting is fine plastic netting that is draped over bushes to keep deer from eating them. From a distance, it's impossible to see. Similar netting can also be suspended near the roof, a few inches out from the wall, to prevent birds from gaining access. However, I have seen birds get tangled up in deer netting. When it happens they make an awful noise, and you have to climb up and cut down the net to release them. Not good if it happens to be raining and they're forty feet up. A better alternative is heavier netting or wire mesh, but this is more conspicuous. The mesh does not need to be fine enough to be impenetrable. Birds are generally unwilling to endanger their own escape route, but of course the mesh should not be so wide that they can use it as a perch.

Does it work?
It serves as a physical barrier, so it's 100% efficient at protecting the area that it covers, but you can't cover your entire wall. There is nothing to stop the birds from drilling a few feet lower.

Decoys

The theory here is, build a sacrificial shed and stock it with bugs, or you fill a bird feeder with suet so the woodpeckers will attack it instead of your house. This could backfire because you might attract other species, like crows. However, this is not necessarily a bad thing. If you get crows, they will scare away (and maybe even eat) your woodpeckers. If suet doesn't work, and you're really desperate, gather up some road kill and place it around your house to attract crows.

Electrified fence

I haven't tried this, but an electric fence might also be a good way to get rid of woodpeckers. If they associate your house with an occasional mild shock, they might go elsewhere. Since birds are not big enough to remain grounded when they contact your fence, you would need to intersperse some ground wires next to the electrified wire, or it won't shock anything. Be sure to turn it off when you hire someone to power-wash your siding.

Update: These are now commercially available.

Wiring your bushes with 35,000 volts of electricity is a great way of getting rid of deer as well. Hmmm ... on second thought, maybe that's not such a great idea.

Woodpecker repellent

Spraying woodpecker repellent over a repair is supposed to create a bad odor that deters them from re-drilling the hole again. These sprays have mostly been taken off the market because they don't work. In my experience, if you spray the hole with insecticide before repairing it, woodpeckers never return to the same spot. I had a bad experience with a similar product called Liquid Fence that is supposed to act as a dog repellent. Despite its claims, the odor was easily detected by humans. It took a month before the revolting smell on my yard disappeared. (It did seem to stop the neighborhood dogs from urinating on my grass and creating brown spots; however, that became academic a few months later when Verizon showed up with an excavator to install FiOS and converted my entire front yard into a mud pit.)

Update: Deer Out
Speaking of deer, there's a new product called Deer Out that works well for keeping deer away from your plants. It's a mixture of Italian food spices and mint. To the deer, it turns your plants into a speecy-spicy meatball. They also hate the mint taste. It turns out that deer not only hate Italian food, they're also homophobic. Who knew? Guess that's why there are so few deer hanging around gay Italian restaurants.

Summary

The only thing that ever worked was the hooting animated owl in combination with the reflector strips. Once the animated owl got broken, the hooting stopped, and the woodpeckers returned. Unfortunately, the best animated owls are no longer available and the new models are so badly made they don't actually make any noise until you modify the circuitry.

Prevention tips

  1. Spray your siding for insects annually. Woodpeckers are searching for insects like carpenter bees or termites. Spray inside any small holes and seal them up. Bees hover in front of your wall searching visually for holes to enter, so every hole must be sealed.
  2. Pounding on the wall from the inside, surprisingly, works well, because woodpeckers are very sensitive to vibration. But they will return 5-10 minutes later. The more strongly you manage to frighten them, the longer they will remember it.
  3. Woodpeckers are seasonal. In this part of the country, the peak time is from early fall to mid-winter (October to December). In some parts of the northern U.S., there is a period of about two weeks in the fall when woodpeckers suddenly appear by the hundreds. If you're prepared for them, they will continue migrating and go elsewhere. If not, they might stick around for months.
  4. Spray woodpecker holes with insecticide, then fill with naphthalene mothballs before sealing with putty.
  5. Get rid of any bird feeders and sources of open water. Keep your gutters clean so there is no standing water inside, and put bad-tasting stuff inside (detergent, not salt or Clorox, which will corrode them).
  6. If all else fails, paint your siding. Woodpeckers will not generally attack a painted surface. If they do, it's a sure sign of insects.

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