Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Meet the flickers

The woodpeckers have arrived for spring. They’ve made their presence known in a big way. “Cool!” you might say, "woodpeckers are so cool." They are indeed.

I remember when I first arrived in Colorado and saw a pair of large, speckled birds with bright red necks on the lawn. They were amazing and beautiful and fairly tame. “What are these wonderful creatures?” I wondered. I looked them up and found them to be “the common flicker,” a woodpecker that, in addition to pecking in trees, also browses on the ground. Though annoyed at the “common” designation (why do I only seem to see things labeled “common”?), I enjoyed seeing many of these birds.

Almost a year later I have become more familiar with their behavior. I have watched them in the trees in the back yard and watched them fly and perch up under the eaves of the house. They have a large curved beak, which is distinctive and could be considered either comical or noble depending on your point of view, and they make a throaty warbling sound that would not be out of place in the soundtrack of a cartoon. Their eyes, in contrast, are not comic, but piercing and wild. They are interesting, but also large and common, a bit clumsy seeming, and they don’t impress you with their intelligence. The magpies seem smart and feisty, but the flickers are a bit dumpy. I now think of them as the pigeons of the woodpecker family.

Two weeks ago, when we returned from a camping trip, we noticed some pink fluff all around the flower beds out back. I assumed the wind had deposited some insulation from a nearby construction site there. Then we heard the drill, the repeated pecking and jack-hammer-like rattle of the flickers on the siding. Did we have bugs? Did they not have enough trees?

A few days passed and Greg went out back to investigate. Two large, jar-sized holes now existed in the house. The pink fluff was from a construction site, but not a nearby one. It came from the flicker’s unauthorized nest construction on in our own house. After drilling through the siding, they would pick out the fiberglass with abandon.

Every morning at 6am we are awakened by their rat-a-tat-tat. This became much more disturbing now that we had the image of large holes being put in the side of the house. Our thoughts of the flickers became much less charitable. We would rouse ourselves, tiptoe out into the cold, and shoo them away. We could hear them laughing at our lame efforts, “ah-a-ah-a-ah!” a la Woody Woodpecker. We felt like the guy in Caddyshack haunted by the woodchuck.

We hung out the largest of the boy’s owl figurines. Rat-a-tat-tat. We filled the holes and nailed netting over them. Rat-a-tat-tat. We knocked on the inside walls in response. Pause. Rat-a-tat-tat. We covered the holes with metal patches. Rat-a-tat-tat.

Finally, we found some tips compiled by the neighborhood association for dealing with this problem. The only problem is, there is no sure-fire way to deal with this problem. There are many varied tips, which makes me think most of them don’t work. The tips range from ideas about deterring them to enjoying them, but not a few people were severely annoyed. One typical example says, “There are only two ways to handle the woodpecker problem. The first is to change the siding material…the second solution is to move.” Guns were mentioned several times along with the fact that flickers are considered endangered creatures and it is illegal to kill them or disturb their nests ($500 fine). Water guns were mentioned as an alternative, as was throwing old tennis balls at them.

The birds are beautiful but many people mentioned the Swiss cheese they had made of their siding and that these birds don’t seem too bright. They like to peck where they hear a hollow sound, whether there are bugs or not. They even like to peck on metal chimneys. Greg reminds me that their brains are very, very small and then they rattle them incessantly. What would you expect? Basically, they are Ot-nay Oo-tay Ight-bray.

I imagined the narrative to a nature documentary about the couple that is doggedly attempting to build their nest in our siding:
“The first hole proves to be too shallow.”
“They try again a few inches away.”
“Just as they feel they are making progress, a problem arises. The work is slowed as they are pelted by tennis balls, doused by squirt guns, and interrupted by screaming children.”
“Time is running out for this pair. What should they do? They might do better to pick another site for their nest, but they have come this far. Soon they must commit to a home for their coming family. If they abandon this site, will they have time to find another? Is the risk so bad here they should shoulder the risk of moving on?”

The idea that we liked the best from the compiled list is the one we have now tried. It is to buy a ready-made home for the flickers so they don’t have to make one in our siding. If they want a home, we will give them one. Then, since they are territorial birds, they will set up house and (theoretically) keep other woodpeckers away. We bought a flicker-sized birdhouse, stuffed it with pine shavings, and mounted it up on the side of the house near where they’ve drilled their holes. Will the familiar rattle wake us tomorrow morning, or will they be smart enough to find their new house? I am ever hopeful, but have little confidence in their rattled brains. Stay tuned….

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