Attracting Woodpeckers in Winter

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

In Ontario, we are fortunate to have nine species of woodpecker call the province home for at least part of the year. Of those nine, just three are migratory, meaning we have six species who stay all year long. Four of the six species who stick around through the winter are commonly seen in Eastern and Southern Ontario, and will readily visit feeders in search of nourishment during the chilly weather. The nine species of woodpecker in Ontario are Red-headed, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Northern Flicker (all migratory), Black-backed, American Three-toed (both uncommon), Hairy, Pileated, and Red-bellied. The final four in that list are the species you can expect to see in your yard and at your feeders when trying to attract woodpeckers to your yard throughout the winter months. Read below to learn how to do it!

Northern Flicker feeding on Choice Plus Blend

Downy Woodpecker drinking from a WBU Heated Bird Bath

Creating woodpecker-friendly habitat
  • Landscape and garden with birds in mind.
    Even though we provide copious amounts of the highest quality foods to our backyard birds, nothing can beat the natural bounty that nature produces for them. Often times in the spring and summer months there is a drop in feeder activity due to nesting and the opportunity to forage for insects which makes up the majority of a woodpecker's diet, and is what they raise their young on. Growing native plants in your yard means that you can help support woodpeckers year round by providing shelter, nesting habitat, natural food sources like berries, seeds, and insects which depend on native plants to live on and reproduce. Plants ideal for woodpecker habitat include Staghorn Sumac, oaks, Eastern Red Cedar, Mountain Ash, and coneflowers. 

  • Let dead trees stand when possible.
    Dead trees, also known as snags, are used by woodpeckers for nesting, roosting, and storing food. While woodpeckers do have incredibly strong bills meant for chipping into wood, they prefer to do so in soft wood from dead or dying trees. This is not only because snags are easier to carve into, but because there are often large quantities of insects to be found within them. Leaving dead trees where they stand is one of the easiest ways to help support a healthy habitat for woodpeckers and countless other bird & wildlife species. 

  • Provide a heated bird bath.
    When it comes to backyard birding the first thing that comes to mind is feeding, but providing a consistent source of fresh water is equally as important as a reliable food source. In winter, woodpeckers and other birds rely on snow consumption and naturally open sources of water for hydration. Open water is harder to come by when the temperature gets below freezing, and snow takes a lot energy to convert to water, so having a reliable source of drinking water available can mean the difference between life or death for some birds when the weather gets particularly intolerable. Heated Bird Baths can be purchased as a single unit and are simple to attach to a pole system, deck railing, or on stand alone poles, and are kept just above freezing by an internal heater that is not exposed to the birds. Alternatively, heaters are available to add to existing baths that are large enough to accommodate them. Either are great options to ensure your backyard birds have a supply of fresh water all winter long. 

Downy Woodpecker feeding on peanuts and Bugs & Bits

Red-bellied Woodpecker feeding on Bark Butter and Choice Plus Blend

Foods to offer in winter
Seasonally-savvy bird feeding can not only help you attract a wider variety of species to your yard, but can actually provide great health benefits to the birds. In the winter, a woodpecker's diet switches from a mostly insectivorous diet, to an omnivorous one that consists of seeds from conifers, fruits including cedar berries, sumac, mountain ash, and more, as well as any insects they are able to dig out of trees or have previously cached in preparation for the winter. When given the opportunity - and offered their favourite foods - woodpeckers will eagerly visit feeders for a quick and easy meal. 

  • Mealworms
    Insects are a protein and nutrient dense food source that woodpeckers rely on as the main part of their diet. But in the fall and winter it's much more difficult for birds to find insects to eat than it is in the warmer months. Mealworms (particularly live) can help fill the void. What are mealworms? They are the larval stage of the Mealworm (Darkling) Beetle. Different Darkling Beetle species can be found across the globe. Backyard birds in Ontario forage on beetle larvae and quickly recognize mealworms as food. Offering live or freeze-dried mealworms through the winter can help birds fulfill their protein needs without having to deplete their energy stores foraging in the wild.

  • Suet
    Suet is a high-fat, high-protein substance that is invaluable to birds especially in times of stress like nesting season, while molting, during migration, and through cold & inclement weather. Suet cakes are available in a wide variety of mixtures and flavours, many of which include nuts & seeds, fruits, and sometimes insects. But not all suet cakes are made the same. If you read the ingredients on a run-of-the-mill suet cake from a big box or hardware store, you'll find that the main ingredient is often rendered beef fat - this is not the same as pure rendered beef suet which is found in all Wild Birds Unlimited Suet Cakes. What's the difference? Beef fat has less nutritional value and a less desirable texture than beef suet. Do the birds care? Yes! Pure rendered beef suet is more palatable and has the texture that birds prefer. The best suet cakes to offer woodpeckers this time of year are ones that are high in fat to help give them the energy boost they need to make it through the chilly days, and long, cold nights. The highest-quality and highest-energy suet to offer at this time is SuperSuet. SuperSuet is our top of the line suet cake, loaded with mealworms, peanuts, walnuts, pecans, almonds, and calcium, to help support woodpeckers' nutritional needs as the seasons change. 

  • Bark Butter
    Similar to suet, Bark Butter is a high-energy food that can help woodpeckers survive and thrive as the temperatures drop. Bark Butter is an easily spreadable suet that can be offered on Bark Butter feeders, trees, rocks, or virtually any bird safe surface. Bark Butter's versatility is especially useful in the fall and winter months, when weather can be unfavourable. Spreading Bark Butter directly on to the trunk of a tree provides birds with an extra food source without having to leave the shelter and safety of the tree to forage. The ability to use essentially any surface as a feeder and place it for your best viewing, can also allow for unique views of woodpecker species who are hesitant to visit feeders like Pileated, Sapsuckers, and Red-headed Woodpeckers.

  • Caching foods
    Beginning in the fall (now!), you may start to notice some woodpeckers, grabbing food from your feeders and heading to a nearby tree, and repeating this action over, and over, and over (over, and over, and over) - seemingly to no end. What they're doing is storing those seeds in nooks & crannies in trees, between deck boards, under shingles, and anywhere else they can find that looks like a good hiding spot. This behaviour is called caching, and these caches of food are vital to the birds' survival during bad weather and when other food sources are running low. Some foods that are ideal for caching include sunflower seed, safflower seed, peanuts, and tree nuts. These foods are quite hardy and won't break down in harsh weather. Something else to consider during this rainy, damp, and sometimes frosty season, is offering a shelled seed mix opposed to a no-mess food. If you have secure feeders that do well to keep rain or snow out, this is not usually an issue, but if you have open feeders like trays or fly-through style feeders, a no-mess food can become saturated and mold more quickly than seed that is protected by a hard shell. Some seed blends that are perfect for fall and winter include our Choice & Choice Plus Blends, Supreme Blend, Deluxe LM Blend, and Seed Cylinders.

    Downy Woodpecker feeding on Hot Pepper Bark Butter

    Happy Trails!
    - Shayna

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