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Spring Woodpecker Drumming

March 17th, 2010 · 10 Comments ·

flicker_by_greg7In her book, Eating Stone: Imagination and the Loss of the Wild, the wonderful desert nature writer Ellen Meloy wrote, shortly before her sudden death  (a great loss to us all) about a flicker that had been incessantly drumming her house.  She had named him Stalin, and one morning she found him trapped in her screened porch.  “I feel wicked,” she wrote.  “Stalin, you ignorant slut.  You are trapped.  This bird batters the nest of our resident phoebes.  He drills the house as if it were a giant sugar cube.  He could peck away until only a roof on sticks remained.  Or I could let him die here.”  I love it when nature writers show malice toward wildlife–it makes them seem more human.

Meanwhile here we are, back in the spring flicker-drumming season.  “I’m going to blog about them,” I told Tom a few days ago.  “Um, honey,” he replied cautiously, “you already did blog about them.”  Good thing one of us has some brain cells left.  Tom was right–back when my only reader was my mother, I did blog about this raucous spring behavior.  Hope y’all don’t mind a timely reprise:

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!

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10 Comments so far ↓

  • andrea pratt

    We have several resident Flickers who never make noise on our house. Their call is fantastic and they are such beautiful birds. They can hang for ages on the suet basket, though!

  • Maggie

    What a lovely reminder that we share our space with others who have different habits, although males making noise for attention seems familiar. We are all on a continuum of habits! I am laughing about your love of malicious nature writing.

  • SagaciousHillbilly

    After you figure out how to deal with flickers, please tackle the mocking bird problem. It’ll be soon that they return to WV and begin raising hell at all hours of the night with their amorous repertoire of bird calls that includes every bird from the Canadian border to Amazon jungle.
    We’ll have about a month highly interrupted sleep.

    • lyanda

      Thanks, S.L. Alas, we have no mockingbirds in Seattle, so I’m afraid I can’t help you! Best of luck…

  • Sharon

    I just finished reading Crow Planet twice (which I never do). You inspired me to begin writing my wildlife observations down. I realize I have been a suburban naturalist all this time, but had never taken that step. We have lived on an untidy shy-acre just west of Bothell for 37 years. When our children were young, we had 12 Rhode Island Red chickens and a buff orpington banty hen named Charlotte who raised their babies. How we all loved her. There weren’t any houses around us then and we could keep a rooster. Almost every spring, we hear flickers pounding on the flashing on the roof of the loafing shed where we used to feed Patch, the small pinto horse we had then. The sound always brings a smile.

  • Sharon

    Heard the flicker pounding on the big maple tree in our side yard and calling loudly yesterday. There will be baby flickers somewhere in the neighborhood this year if he has his way!

  • Matthew

    Those must be red-shafted flickers. We have yellow-shafted here on the East Coast. They come in waves in the spring and fall. The sight of that white butt in bobbing, wavy flight always livens things up. Sorry to get misty here, but they were here long before we built wooden houses, and I hope they long survive us.

    • lyanda

      Lovely thoughts. Yes, the red-shafted and the yellow-shafted have at times been considered separate species, but now we beleive them to be the same species–Northern Flicker. Hybrids of the two color morphs are common.

  • Jacqueline

    I dealt with the Flicker which drummed on the side of our house by drumming back! From the inside wall of course. It worked. But I am curious if there is some biological reason for this, or just dumb luck on my part?

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