During the winter months, the woodpeckers do not fly south. They stay with us in the frigid cold, eking out a rough living. Their main diet is the larva of insects they work from the trunks of trees with their long, chisel beaks. In the winter larval activity is minimal, so I’m not sure what these birds do for food besides suet feeders provided by some bird lovers.
We usually get half a beef critter for the freezer and ask the butcher to save the suet for us. The suet is for the birds. Chickadees and even blue jays will eat suet, but it is mostly meant for the woodpeckers. I place a half-pound block of raw suet in the sort of mesh bag that comes with onions and hang it on a protected branch of the blue spruce in the front yard. The cold keeps the fat frozen and prevents rancidity.
The woodpeckers must have some sort of birdy telegraph system because they show up to eat within a day of the first placement of the suet. Then every day, several woodpeckers take turns at the bag. They cling to the mesh, balancing with their tails, swinging and turning with the wind, to work bits of cow fat through the holes of the mesh.
The two main visitors are the hairy and, the slightly smaller, downy woodpecker. These are the common woodpeckers for our area. The very large pileated is around and can be seen and heard all winter, but never frequents the feeder. Too wary.
Hairy wood peckers, being larger, are dominant. The downys always wait their turn and fly to a safe branch if a hairy wants to eat. Chickadees don’t care. They will horn in on anybody and happily share the suet feeder.
Keeping the suet bag full is important if you value your surrounding trees. When there is no suet to eat, the woodpeckers start ripping bark off nearby trunks and drilling small holes in decorative trees. The birds will even light on the window sill and knock for your attention. For these hungry birds, a half-pound of suet lasts about two weeks. I try not to let it run out.
We very much enjoy the visits from the woodpeckers. Over the winter they become quite tame and can be closely approached without their leaving the suet. Once spring arrives with the flush of insect activity in tree trunks, woodpeckers stop visiting the feeder.