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I have a really old Apple tree in the yard that seems to only produce every other year. (Anybody know what's up with that?)

The woodpeckers have done such a number on the trunk's bark, that it looks like a sieve.

Questions:

  1. How do I keep the woodpeckers away?

  2. Should I treat the bark with something like tar to fill in the holes?

  3. I'm assuming there are some sort of bugs or something under the bark that the woodpeckers like. Is there some sort of pesticide or something I should spray on the trunk?

  • 2
    Can you add some photos to your question please - preferably of the tree overall plus close ups of the trunk and bark – Bamboo Feb 7 '17 at 21:23
  • I edited out the part about fertilizer because it's a separate question from the ones about the woodpeckers. Please use the Ask Question link at the top of the page to post it as a new question. Welcome to the site! – Niall C. Feb 7 '17 at 22:34
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Since woodpeckers don't eat wood, concentrate on killing the insects that the woodpeckers are actually eating (rather than "keeping the woodpeckers away" by some means other than removing their food source.) Though if the tree is as described, I'd also suggest taking scions to graft to new rootstocks as it may be in serious trouble and at least that way you'd have the same variety grafted onto some healthy rootstock if it just up and dies. Very old apple trees do die, normally. The occasional one that lives to an exceedingly old age is an outlier.

It's not the woodpeckers that are killing your tree - they are just the visible manifestation if the insects that are killing it.

Biennial bearing is a common habit and can be broken with aggressive fruit thinning in "good" years, so the tree is not overtaxed. Otherwise the tree puts on a lot of fruit, expends a lot of energy on the fruit, gets to the next year "exhausted" and puts on little to no fruit. With aggressive thinning, you reduce the load on the tree so it's not so "exhausted" and has some resources to put on fruit again - weather permitting (all my blossoms got froze off last spring - too warm, too early, then cold...)

Please don't put tar on trees. That is a discredited practice, unfortunately wide-spread enough that the idea persists long after it has been proven to be a bad idea. Tar is also known as "wound dressing": Should I seal the wounds where limbs were removed on a crape myrtle?

As for how to control your insects, first, you need to identify them.

  • Had a warm day here (above freezing) so I just grabbed scions from 2 trees that are in a pretty dire way to graft elsewhere in a couple of months. Some sort of green russet and a red dessert apple I have had no luck ID-ing yet, but it's great and the tree is in poor shape, so I'd better get some replacements on-line to save it. – Ecnerwal Feb 9 '17 at 0:22
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There is some good advice from the previous posters. However, it sounds to me that you could be dealing with a sapsucker, which is a type of woodpecker.

As Ecnerwal pointed out, it can be a bit of a bad sign if a woodpecker is drilling into your tree to get insects. That means your tree is likely infested with some sort of boring beetle, termite etc. and will subsequently become filled with fungi, which is not good. Given the fact that you describe this as an old tree, this is a possible scenario for sure. You can do what you can to preserve it, but really you will probably just slow the demise of the tree (not to sound negative).

It would be helpful if you posted a picture of the trunk. If your trunk is literally like a grid of little holes that have been drilled, this woodpecker is probably going after the trees sap and not insects under the bark. Hence the name "sapsucker". If this is the case, you might be able to discourage it by wrapping the trunk in burlap, landscape fabric, hardware cloth or something that will discourage the bird from drilling. Another option could be coating the trunk with something like tangletrap, which is a sticky substance. Honestly though - if I were you, I would just plant another apple tree, let nature take its course and enjoy the ride. =] It can be sad to watch something like a favorite old tree die, but alas! It is super easy to continue its legacy by grafting a scion onto a new rootstock, just as Ecnerwal said.

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Woodpeckers are crazy birds. Often on summer mornings they will wake me up with their hammering on a nearby tin roof. Now why would a woodpecker be hammering on a tin roof, I ask you? Maybe they think it sounds harmonic. Maybe they like the feel of it, or perhaps they think they see grubs moving about in the wood it is nailed to, or even woodpecker dental floss. I have a pear tree that is riddled with systematically lined up peck holes about a centimetre apart. As you say it looks like a sieve. The tree is fine; the holes have all healed over, but the small ring remains in the outer bark. It looks a lot worse than it is. The tree is vegetatively vigorous and does not seem to care that the woodpeckers spend so much time there. I almost never hear them on the pear tree, I think they just like the way it feels when their beak plunges into the soft bark. No action.

As @Ecnerwal points out, might need to find out why the tree is not vigorous. It is likely not due to the woodpeckers, enjoy them. Maybe look for other factors impeding the flow of nutrients into the tree canopy, like borers. And don't forget that apple trees do not live all that long in a productive state (max 25-30 years?), and should be readily replaced as and when required.

  • 1
    Male woodpeckers "drum" on things to attract female woodpeckers. – zeta-band Feb 14 '17 at 23:27

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