Oct 13, 2015 | Featured in: Watching Backyard Birds, October 2015

Helping My Pileated Woodpeckers: How to Add a Tail Prop to a Suet Cage

A pileated woodpecker visits a backyard suet feeder.

This story by Bob Heltman appears in the October 2015 issue of Watching Backyard Birds. See our digital edition for photos of the tail prop he devised. Want to read more articles like this? Subscribe today »

My wife and I get much joy from our two bird feeders, especially when housebound due to wintry weather. We live in the foothills of North Carolina and enjoy up to 30 varieties of birds. Most of the time there are many goldfinches, which alternate from drab in winter to bright yellow in summer. These finches cluster and flock around the seed feeder; I call such occasions a "finch flutter." We go through lots of black-oil sunflower seeds and shelled peanuts.

Other winter feeding birds often seen here are tufted titmice, cardinals, Carolina wrens, chickadees, nuthatches, and, in winter, dark-eyed juncos. A murder of crows dashes about in the background, and sometimes a hawk invades.

Of course, with suet in one feeder, woodpeckers come. We see downy, hairy, red-headed, and pileated woodpeckers. Two feeders hang out from the deck railing, giving us an extra-close view. We noted that the pileated woodpeckers would fold themselves into a "C" shape when landing and feeding on the suet cake in its metal mesh cage. It looked awkward and uncomfortable, and I fell to wondering if a board attached to the suet holder would give a more comfortable perch for these big birds. Woodpeckers have stiff tail feathers that they use for support while they're banging their heads into wood. Those feathers essentially give them the stability of a three-legged stool.

I used a one-inch-thick rough cut oak board from my scrap pile, and fastened the suet cage to it with a bunch (14) of ½-inch cap screws, which I had on hand. I put five screws on both sides to prevent lateral motion, and four screws in the center to prevent vertical sliding of the cage. A carabiner holds the unit together and provides a mechanism for hanging the feeder on a shepherd's hook.

This system worked well, but after several days I noticed that woodpeckers both large and small would perch on the sides of the wooden board, using their stiff tail feathers to steady their suet pecking. Why did they perch against the narrow side, rather than the wide, flat front?

I began to think that maybe some saw cuts across the face of the wood below the cage would provide better gripping for their claws. I took down the feeder, mounted it crosswise in my chop saw, and cut a series of nine somewhat evenly spaced grooves into the wood's wide surface.

I rehung the feeder, and finally a pileated woodpecker landed on the flat surface, holding onto the "ladder" grooves I cut—just what I intended! Then it climbed up onto the metal suet holder and clung from it, tail propped against the wide board below. Fine. It looked much more comfortable, just what I wanted for it. After a moment, darn if that woodpecker didn't hop to the side of feeder and continue strenuous pecking.

I give up. Do woodpeckers prefer to perch and peck from narrow surfaces, or are they using successful past experiences with this feeder in this yard to dine?

I'll continue to ponder this situation this winter. Even when using the narrow side of the feeder, it looks like it is in a more comfortable dining position. At least these large birds won't suffer from spinal strain and perhaps an early onset of bird osteoporosis.

What do you think? Tell us!

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  • I’ve been enjoying goldfinches eating coneflower/ echinacea seeds in my new pollinator garden! I will leave the plants out all winter for them if the seeds keep that long? Or should I deadhead and put them in a dry area? Im in CT and thought they migrated, but didn’t know they put in winter coats! What do they eat in winter without bird feeders?
    by Anne Sheffield, Sat, 04 Sep 2021
  • Hi Gary, I will pass your question along to Birdsquatch next time I see him. He knows infinitely more about nocturnal wildlife than I do. Where do you live? That's pretty important in figuring out the answer. But the thief could be raccoons, deer, or flying squirrels. Do you live in the woods? Are there trees near your feeder, or must the culprit climb a shepherd's hook or pole? Dawn Hewitt, Watching Backyard Birds
    by Dawn Hewitt, Mon, 30 Aug 2021
  • This breaks my heart. God strengthen your spirit and comfort your heart.I am fortunate to be taking a vacation next month, hopefully before sky high inflation hits and I can no longer afford it.
    by Ironweeds, Fri, 27 Aug 2021
  • What is emptying my jelly feeder overnight.
    by Gary Vandervest, Wed, 25 Aug 2021
  • Thank you, Dawn. I'm close enough to Ohio (Ann Arbor, Michigan) that I went ahead and took my tubes down and scoured clean all my bird baths. I won't put up my tubes this winter, just my trays and safflower only just to keep the bullies away for a while.
    by Pat Moore, Mon, 09 Aug 2021