It was one of those damp, warmish evenings so common to Puget Sound in spring. I was sitting on the deck of our still new-ish house, only now emerging from my little family’s first winter in her. I had been contemplating the mold on the railing over the far edge of a martini glass when I heard what sounded like rapid gunfire.
I sat up somewhat straighter and listened to the booming echo in the surrounding woods—or was it the ringing in my ears?The occasional gunshot on the rural peninsula where we live is not uncommon, especially at cocktail hour, but machine-gunning the gathering dusk seemed a bit much even for our sparsely populated neighborhood.
I heard it again: two or three quick, penetrating bursts. Seemed to be coming from the front of the house, near the road. That’s it, I thought. Roadwork. Must be a jackhammer. I forgot all about it.
Before sunrise the next morning, our three-year-old boy kicked open the bedroom door and announced, “I AM AWAKE.” I heard the jackhammer again. A rapid, relent-less pounding that seemed both to be in my head and wrapped around it. Of course, I thought, that’s what woke him. Damn early though. I’d speak to the work crew up on the road.
But there was no work crew.
I heard it again that evening. And again. I walked down our long gravel driveway to the road. The sound tore open the evening quiet: BDDDDDDTH! BDDDDDDTH! BDDDDDDTH!
My God, I thought. It’s coming from our house!
I crept back up the driveway, concealing myself in the rhododendrons. BDDDDDDDDTH! I slinked behind the house. BDDDDDDDTH! A bright flash rocketed down from the eaves and smashed into the suet basket hanging on our deck. There it was, a tan and speckled woodpecker, shining orange under the wings, talons sunk deep into the suet, twirling at the end of the basket’s chain. It sensed my gawking and turned its evil gaze on me. It took off in a blur and vanished into the tree line, violently beating the air with flashes of banded gold.
Dawn next morning. BDDDDTH! BDDDDTH! BDDDTH! The walls pulsated. The windows rattled. Our boy kicked open the door. “WOO’PECKER,” he said. We lay there, my wife and boy and I, innocents in the dark, listening to this twelve-inch tall bird produce a sound like all the jackhammers of hell destroying the Devil’s own driveway.
I crept downstairs and silently opened the back door. BDDDDTH! The very air was rent. I looked up to the eaves. He was near the apex of the roof, below the chimney, attacking a piece of flashing. His evil little head snapped back and forth with military precision. He aimed his beak at some secret confluence of roof, flashing and gutter and BDDDTH! BDDDTH! BDDDDTH! The sound it produced was stunning, and it was directly above our three-year-old’s room. It seemed an honor, in a way, to be thus embraced by the natural world, as if the arrival of the woodpecker was a sublime gift offered with outstretched arm by the open hand of nature.
Four weeks later, neither my wife nor my son nor I had slept past dawn. Five in the morning. BDDTH! Five in the evening. BDDDDDDTH! Any time in between. BDDDDDDDDTH! The boy started to have bad dreams. My wife demanded action. I searched for an answer in vain until one evening, while sitting on our deck, a small piece of freshly gouged wooden siding floated down and came to rest near my martini glass. The siege of the woodpecker was no longer just mental torture.
Our nemesis had a name—Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus)—and we were not his first victims. The broad migration range of the flicker spills across North America like so much blood, seeping all the way into the deserts of the southwest down to Central America and even Cuba. The male will “drum,” as the rapid fire hammering of his beak is called, to proclaim his territory, but principally he drums to attract a mate. If decibels were any measure of desire, we had one lonely woodpecker on our hands. Once paired, however, flickers are monogamous. Ensconced in their choice locale, they may remain for a decade. They will defend their territory to the death.
Ordinarily, flickers seek out dead trees for nest excavation but ignore the well-seasoned wood of older homes. In the absence of appropriate dead wood, they will readily apply their skills to any structure for “drumming,” as the bird books modestly call this 20-beat-per-second head banging. Cedar shingles, metal gutters, roof flashing, an-tennae, chimney caps, highway signs—all are ripe targets for drumming. And the louder the better, for drumming is not a search for food, it is a declaration: “THIS LAND IS MINE. LOVE ME OR LEAVE IT.”
It must be said that the Northern Flicker is not only tough, adaptable and fearless—as anyone who has battled it will admit—it is a keystone species. The cavities it creates provide homes for numerous other animals. It is also, ironically, a mostly terrestrial feeder, scouring the ground for ants and termites and other insects potentially harmful to the very same houses it would happily chisel into oblivion by its hammering. “Ant bird” is one of the two hundred or so monikers that have been hung on this terrible creature since our colonial times. Other attractive handles include: Big Sapsucker, Carpintero, Cotton-back, Golden Winged Woodcock, High Holer, Little Wood Chuck, Pecker Wood, Shadspirit, Yellowhammer and, most fitting of all, the Blackhearted Woodpecker for the heart shaped mark emblazoned on its chest, Superman style.
The books urged us to cover up the damage with an array of anti-woodpecker paraphernalia. We took down our suet baskets and bird feeders, enraging the local jay population. We bought a battery-powered motion detecting plastic owl that turned its head and hooted whenever one of our dogs drew near. More extreme measures, such as attaching mirrors near the damage, applying foul tasting muck or stapling strips of Mylar along the roofline were impractical. Our roof, where the flicker chose to drum, is over thirty feet off the ground and too steep to stand on. The idea of renting an extension ladder long enough to reach it and risk plunging to my death while trying to scare away a bird was laughable. For a while.
By April, blood was in the air. None of our simple tricks had worked. The owl batteries had long since died. Friends who had laughed at our troubles now offered sympathy and firearms. I still resisted the idea of attaching anything to our roof, strictly out of concern for my own safety. I was not going to risk my life staple-gunning plastic ribbons to the gutter. Even if it worked, I’d have to go back up there and rip it all down. Or would I? Would we have to leave it there indefinitely? We needed a better answer.
One of the less helpful sympathy gifts we had received was a stuffed animal version of a Northern Flicker Woodpecker. We were encouraged to “try some voodoo on this guy and see what happens!”
Our son commandeered the toy and incorporated it into the menagerie of stuffed monkeys, bears and other exotics that accompanied him to bed each night. He carefully propped each one up among the pillows at the head of his bed, to watch over him as he slept. “We love you all the time, but now it’s time to go to sleep,” he intoned, which was exactly what we said to him each night.
As I tucked the boy in and observed the woodpecker in his burrow of pillows, I realized we were going about this whole thing the wrong way.
What if we welcomed this bird instead of fighting it? What if we installed a woodpecker house on our roof, right at his drumming spot? Perhaps he would move in and stop drumming there?
I went to a local tool store to rent the dreaded extension ladder. The aging owner behind the counter demanded to know what I was about. I found it difficult to say out loud, but admitted that I planned to nail a birdhouse to my roof to keep a woodpecker from hammering my home to pieces. He stared at me. “Is it a Flicker?” he whispered, as if one might be listening. “Had one on ah house ah mine once.”
My heart quickened. Here was a survivor of woodpecker battle, full of knowledge to share. “What did you do?”
Somehow I managed to climb the ladder, carrying a two-foot tall, six-by-six inch woodpecker house stuffed full of cedar sawdust (to give the flicker something to excavate), a cordless drill, and a bunch of screws. Cheating death, I installed this new totem, and waited for the silence to begin.
The hammering went on. The woodpecker house failed to attract, discourage, or even interest the woodpecker in any way. It occurred to me that this bird was obviously a veteran of many conflicts with humans. And there was that arresting phrase I’d read: “Will defend their territory to the death.” It began to hit home.
I am not ordinarily bloodthirsty and am a sincere believer that nature is best left to its own devices. But after more than two months this living hammer had still not attracted a mate despite its singular, incessant and spectacular hammering. After all, I too am part of the evolutionary circle of life. Sometime in May I decided that if he didn’t find a date soon, this woodpecker was going to be selected against.
Like all migratory birds, the Northern Flicker is a protected species. However, the federal government has kindly provided, in its familiar tortured fashion, a process by which one may obtain a permit to kill a woodpecker that is damaging property or driving a young family insane. My years in uniform had made me a competent rifleman—and I have been known to trim lofty tree branches with a shotgun—but I was not eager to start blasting holes in the side of my house to kill a bird. I took the decision seriously. With the grim and disciplined patience appropriate for such a measure, I began the tedious filing and phone calling necessary to obtain the two permits that would become my license to kill.
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Genre – Fiction / Short Stories
Rating – PG13
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