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Indiana Department of Natural Resources

DNR Home > Divisions > Communications > Outdoor Indiana Magazine - Archives > Outdoor Indiana - January/February 2009 > Outdoor Indiana - January/February 2009 - Explore Your Environment Outdoor Indiana - January/February 2009 - Explore Your Environment


Wild About Woodpeckers

Rat-a-tat-tat, what bird is that?

By Michael Ellis

Two boys hold their finished woodpecker treatsWhen I saw a display in a DNR nature center on how to attract woodpeckers to your bird feeder, I asked the interpretive naturalist why anyone would want those noisy, wood-pounding things in their backyard.

His answer surprised me. He said woodpeckers are some of the most colorful and interesting groups of birds to watch.

He used a woodpecker mount to show me that their toes are designed differently from those of most other birds. Two toes point forward; two toes point backward. This enables the bird to walk upside-down on trees and to perch where most other birds can’t.

He also said that most species of woodpeckers eat insects as a large part of their diet. Usually, people are willing to share their backyard insects with the birds. Sapsuckers, which are a type of woodpecker, and redheaded woodpeckers, also enjoy eating berries.

Woodpeckers can be found just about anywhere that has trees. If you have a large tree in your yard or live near a park or wood lot, you may have already had one or more species of woodpeckers in your neighborhood.

I’ve read that old “snags” are great for attracting woodpeckers. What’s a snag, you ask? Just a dead tree. Woodpeckers seek insects in their decaying material. Since woodpeckers are cavity nesters, they use holes in such trees to lay their eggs and raise their young.

As long as dead or dying trees do not pose a hazard, you may want to leave them in your yard for birds to use. By doing so, you may even find the characteristic rectangular holes left by the state’s largest woodpecker, the pileated woodpecker, as it looked for ants.

Suet attracts a variety of birds. Suet feeders are available at most stores that sell birdseed. Some suet feeders look like cages. These hold pre-formed suet cakes. A simple, but effective feeder also can be made by an adult from an 18-inch long, 2-inch diameter log. Simply drill 1-inch holes, alternating on opposite sides along the length of the log. Put an eye screw in one end of the log, fill the holes with suet, and hang it outside on a tree.

For more information about woodpeckers and other birds, visit a DNR nature center near you. 

Above: Two boys prepare a winter treat to be placed on trees for woodpeckers. Members of the woodpecker family have strong bills for drilling and drumming on trees and long sticky tongues for extracting food.   

Before retiring, Michael Ellis was assistant editor for OI and senior communications specialist for the DNR.

Make your own woodpecker treat

Everything needed to make the woodpecker treatsAdding the ingredients to a bowlMixing up the ingredientsPutting the treat into the mesh bag
Smearing some of the treat onto the bark of a tree

The following recipe for homemade bird food called suet can be used in any season. It attracts woodpeckers, tufted titmice, nuthatches and chickadees.

Cornmeal or oatmeal
Vegetable shortening
Peanut butter (either crunchy or smooth)
Mesh bag (an onion bag works well)

Mix together in a bowl:
¼ c. vegetable shortening
¼ c. peanut butter (either crunchy or smooth)
¼ c. flour
1 c. either cornmeal or oatmeal

For more variety, add some millet, cracked corn or sunflower seeds.

Put the mixture in a small mesh bag and tie it either on a tree branch or around the trunk of a tree. You can also use a butter knife to spread some of the mixture on the rough bark of a tree. Don’t apply too much to the tree bark, as it can get messy. Two or three spoonfuls is all you need. In the summer, put the suet on the shady side of the tree so it won’t melt as much.

If you hang the suet bag from a branch, woodpeckers may not be able to get to it. Woodpeckers prefer something solid, such as a tree limb, to hang onto when they eat. Don’t be surprised if you also see chickadees and titmice eating from the suet bag, too.

Remember to involve an adult when you make this recipe. Adults enjoy helping you mix up all the ingredients.