Woodpeckers & Hydro Poles

The Complicated Relationship of Woody Woodpecker and Wooden Utility Poles

“Like a bluebird on the wing // I just wanna laugh and sing // I just wanna do my thing // Pecking holes in poles, yeah // Pecking holes in poles!”- Pecking Holes in Poles, Woody Woodpecker

Woody Woodpecker’s Pecking Holes in Poles is a timeless childhood classic for many. But while everyone’s favourite animated woodpecker may enjoy drilling its beak into utility poles, it’s a real problem with a result that isn’t so favourable for electrical and telecommunications companies.

On Saturday July 15, 2017, 37 members of a Hydro Ottawa crew set out for Hawthorne Road where 26 damaged wooden utility poles were strategically replaced with new, more durable composite ones. Where did the damage come from? Simple: Your friendly neighbourhood woodpecker.

The Problem

The woodpecker’s fixation with utility poles is a phenomenon that dates back to a severe attack in Texas documented in 1879, and subsequent occurrences in North America ever since, varying based on geographical region, size of the pole and type of woodpecker. For example, Hartford’s Northeast Utilities determined that it was the Pileated Woodpecker — yes, Mr. Woody Woodpecker himself — causing damage to their utility poles.

The damage caused by woodpeckers on utility poles can be extensive, carving holes inside poles as deep as four feet! Making things worse is that woodpeckers never use the same nest twice, meaning additional holes are sure to follow.  

Woody’s search for new nesting places (the cause of ‘nesting damage’) shortens the lifespan of wooden poles by welcoming unwanted water inside, thus increasing the rate at which the poles decay and weaken. In more unfortunate circumstances, the holes often reduce the bending strength of the poles, making them more vulnerable to collapse when weather conditions are severe.

Why Utility Poles?

In addition to nesting, woodpeckers often go in search of, and sometimes find, food inside their chosen utility pole. However, there’s one more fascinating reason why they peck away on the very infrastructure that holds our electricity and telephone lines in the sky: Defense of their own territory. 

To stave off competition, male woodpeckers often ‘drum’ on utility poles to mark their territory, encouraging other males to stay away during breeding season. However, woodpeckers that live in the same location year-round will often ‘drum’ on a chosen pole throughout all four seasons.

Why does our flying friend choose utility poles anyway? Dating back to 1964, it has been widely believed that modern forestry practices have forced woodpeckers to find alternative living and breeding locations.

Wood vs. decoys vs. composite

In an effort to scare the birds away, decoys were implemented as a modern solution to combat woodpeckers. However, intelligent woodpeckers are not fooled so easily and continued causing headaches for our crews.

To prevent our crews from banging their own heads against a wall or a pole, composite was a welcome alternative. The benefits of these composite poles are endless, including:

  • Lifespan: The average lifespan of a composite pole totals 80 years, compared to 40 years for a wooden pole in good condition. In addition to reducing costs, the considerably longer lifespan of composite makes pole replacement less frequent, particularly in difficult-to-access areas.
  • Sustainability: Wooden poles are typically filled with preservatives that increase their longevity. Composite poles, which also come with a smaller carbon footprint when being manufactured, eliminate the need for preservatives.
  • Flexibility: Composites can be prefabricated to fit uneven and rugged terrain.
  • Strength and durability: Composite poles are lighter, stronger and more durable than wooden poles, improving their reliability in inclement weather conditions.

While Woody Woodpecker may not agree, the replacement of wooden poles along Hawthorne Road with composite counterparts made sense. The next round of pole replacements along Hawthorne Road won’t likely occur until roughly 2097, when a new generation of powerline maintainers — and many new generations of woodpeckers — patrol our city.