When Good Woodpeckers Go Bad

flicker_by_greg7

This week I received two e-mails from friends who want to know what they can do about their “nemesis”–the woodpecker that is maniacally drumming their house at all hours. This is a frequent spring complaint about Northern Flickers, the most common urban-suburban woodpecker.  They are beautiful fawn-colored birds with black spots, long-ish bills, and pretty, dolphin-like faces.   Unlike many birds, woodpeckers don’t sing–instead, they drum to attract a mate in spring, and to proclaim a territory.  They rap their bills repeatedly and rhythmically on the loudest surface they can find–they love metal drainpipes, electrical transformers, AND the most resonant parts of our houses.  They drive many people completely nuts.

Remember that the flicker’s goal is not to destroy your house, and they usually don’t cause serious damage–they just have a hormone-driven need to make noise this time of year.  To deter them, you can tack something simple, like a length of cloth, over the bird’s favored drumming place.  Birds don’t like things that move randomly, so a windsock, or a trash bag cut into streamers and hung near the birds favorite spot will help discourage them.  My own tack:  run outside waving a broom, and yelling, “Bad woodpecker!  Go away!”

We can also try a gentle attitude shift.  I truly believe it is a privilege and a delight to live alongside native, wild animals, but allowing urban wildlife to thrive sometimes requires us to tolerate a little discomfort.  Woodpecker drumming usually doesn’t hurt anything (besides our nerves–oh, and of course the small matter of the 1995 Space Shuttle mission that was delayed when flickers tapped six little holes into the Discovery’s external fuel tank!).  These woodpecker rhythms are heralding the season of light and fertility, and the noise is temporary (once they get into nesting they stop drumming).  We can try to relax, and celebrate the role that our households play in the cycles of nature.  Think of the unseen cavity-nest full of fluffy little woodpecker babies that will be helped into existence by the resonant capacities of our very own dwellings!

p.s.  If flickers are drilling holes into your house, they may be seeking food rather than noise.  In this, they rarely err–check for termites or carpenter ants.

There’s an essay about the spring habits of urban woodpeckers in my first book, Rare Encounters with Ordinary Birds.

Nice photo by Flickr user Greg7 (no pun intended).  Thanks Greg7!

8 Comments

  1. Kate

    For our first couple of years in our house, we thought we had a plumbing or gas pipe that would occasionally rattle, making quite a racket. Every time I heard it I’d get worried. Eventually, we figured out it was just our neighbors, the flickers, coming to call. Now when I hear it it just makes me smile. “Gentle attitude shift”? : )

  2. Yes, I am glad to see someone making peace with the flicker. They can be very nerve wracking at times but they usually do not do a lot of damage. We all need to learn to live with our wildlife neighbors. As we move farther and farther out into the suburbs we force the wild creatures to either move too, or to try to live with their human neighbors.

  3. Maria

    What a timely post. I just heard two people complaining about this yesterday!”Dolphin-like” faces made me laugh. (And imagine if humans lived under water, how annoyed we’d be by the clicks and squeals of dolphins. It is amazing we can even hear the drumming flickers over the sound of jumbo jets, cars, leaf blowers, and lawnmowers.)

  4. Tara

    I’d just like to call attention to the “usually” don’t do damage. Last spring a flicker drilled a flicker-sized hole in the side of our house and appeared to be making itself at home. That very day (before a nest was built or anything) we boarded up the hole, and the next day a new hole was right beside it. The chickadees were even helping to remove the insulation. 🙂 It was quite a party. Metallic bird tape and a cover over the second hole seemed to deter them. No nests. We’ll see how it goes this year.

  5. lyanda

    Thanks Tara! Great point. I love that the chickadees joined in…I was referring to the current spring drumming behavior, which is more noise-making than damaging. But flickers can certainly do damage if they are looking for something–we have a few holes over our front porch to prove it (once we took care of our carpenter ants, this never happened again). Flickers are cavity-nesters, normally excavating dead trees/snags for nests, and these are getting harder to find–they sometimes explore a hollow-sounding part of wooden houses as a possible nest, but rarely find them suitable (though it’s not entirely unheard of). They do readily use woodpecker nest boxes. Good luck with your bird party this spring!

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