Dealing with Woodpecker Damage to Old Houses

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By Gordon Bock

woodpecker damage to old houses

The downy woodpecker is only one species that causes problems in houses; others include the northern flicker, red-headed woodpecker, and hairy woodpecker.

Among the animals that do damage to old houses, insects seem to get the most press. However, another class of winged creatures-woodpeckers-can be just as insidious as termites or bees and even harder to control. Left alone, one small woodpecker can perforate the outside of an old house with several holes in a week, ruining wood trim or siding and opening the door to water, decay, and other fauna in important architectural elements such as columns. Though there's no magic fix, here are some ideas about what to do if your neighborhood Woody comes tap, tap, tapping by your front door.

What Makes Peckers Wreckers

Woodpeckers are attracted to old houses for several reasons. Because most birds feed on wood-boring insects, they may find a source for lunch behind some soggy window trim or underneath shingle siding, and then start pecking to search for a second course. Or they may be drilling to excavate a nesting site. Wood columns, especially, might as well be hollow trees to a bird, and blowing a hole is an instinctive way to make a temporary home. Sometimes the pecking is merely a male drumming up a date with a prospective mate, but making a mess of your woodwork in the process.

In any event, understanding the appeal of antique lumber is useful for taking preventive action. Though scare tactics such as visual repellents, loud noises, and hawk effigies sometimes work, experts generally concur that the best strategy is to exclude the birds from their work site immediately. This tactic prevents them from becoming established, as well as doing more damage. If they've already begun boring, your best bet is to repair the holes quickly.

A Dutchman Solution

While small holes are often best mended with weather-resistant wood fillers, such as epoxy-based products, large holes call for more comprehensive carpentry. Here, a round Dutchman patch or plug can be effective. Start by buying two hole saws: one just large enough to round out the holes made by your feathered friend-say, 2 in diameter- and another, 1/8 larger in diameter, to cut some snug-fitting plugs. Next, choose the plug stock, such as some clear, tight-grained 2x4 scraps, and cut some plugs. You don't need to cut all the way through the 2x4; just keep running the hole saw until it bottoms out. Clean out the saw kerf at regular intervals, and then pry the plug out of the block.
vNow take the smaller hole saw and cut a nice neat hole where the woodpecker had been working. You can do this by inserting a backer block behind the hole as a ground to start the pilot bit. Or you can lay the hole saw at an angle in the bottom of the bird opening and then carefully begin cutting until the saw starts itself. (If you use the latter method, take pains to prevent the saw from skipping out of the hole and damaging the nearby area.) Once you have a clean hole, test-fit a plug (aligning the grain of new and old wood) and file or sandpaper any rough edges. Drive a screw a few turns into the plug as a removable handle, then apply an exterior-grade, gap-filling adhesive, such as polyurethane glue, to both hole and plug. As you insert the plug, maneuver it so a bit of the wood stands proud above the building surface. After the glue has dried, plane the plug flush with the trim or column, and when finished you and your pesky pecker will never know he was ever there.