‘Tis the season: Right now cavity-dwelling species like this downy woodpecker are in the market for two things – food and shelter. (Photo courtesy of AcrylicArtist at morguefile.com)
Good Natured: Woodpeckers
December 13, 2019
With apologies to Edgar Allan Poe, I offer you the following recap of my Thanksgiving weekend:
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping near my chamber door.
“‘Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping near my chamber door-
Only this and nothing more.”
The exact location was the south side of my house, on the exterior wall of my bedroom-the space to which I’d retreated for a post-Turkey Day nap. Muttering, maybe even grumbling a bit, I put first one, then two pillows over my head. They muffled the repeated rapping, but also made it hard to breathe. Finally, my napping thwarted, I went outside to see who my visitor was.
Far from nothing, he was a delight to behold: a male downy woodpecker. That his tapping was to chisel out a winter roost in my cedar siding was another matter entirely.
If you live in a wood-sided or -shingled dwelling, you too might be hosting a gently rapping visitor, be it a downy, hairy or red-bellied woodpecker, or even a black-capped chickadee. Right now, these cavity-dwelling species are in the market for two things – food and shelter. By listening to their tapping, you can tell which of these objectives they’re after.
If what you’re hearing sounds like the random taps of a hunt-and-peck typist, and the tapping takes place over a fairly broad area, it’s likely your bird is, well, hunting and pecking. Its menu this time of year includes insects in diapause (a bug’s version of hibernation) as well as egg cases and pupae, with a few spider egg sacs thrown in for good measure. These morsels may be hiding out between the boards of your siding or underneath the cedar shingles. Either way, a hungry bird will sense and seek them out, leaving small nicks and dings as signs of its search.
If, on the other hand, the taps are more forceful in nature, and concentrated in one spot, your visitor is excavating a roost cavity. Although dead trees are the natural choice for such activity, they are in short supply in suburbia. Plus, some birds have discovered human homes offer several advantages. Siding is soft and easy to dig into; the insulation behind the siding improves heat retention; and sides of houses are relatively predator free. Like the realtors say, location, location, location …
As the seasons progress, woodpeckers may opt to use your home for a third important purpose – drumming. Even though January and February are still very much in the winter section of our human calendars, these months have increasingly longer day lengths – a sure sign that spring, and mating season, are on their way. Drumming is the way male woodpeckers declare territory, and they do so with gusto, banging their bills against a resonant surface in a rapid, staccato rhythm.
Many house parts make great drumming surfaces. Metal gutters and downspouts are highly prized for their reverberation; cedar-shingled mansard roofs for their rich timbre; and siding, for its solid tone and ready availability.
When spring does roll around, the birds may come knocking yet again, this time in search of a nest site. Nests differ from roosts in that two birds – the prospective parents – participate in the excavation, whereas a roost has just one excavator/occupant. And because nests are where young are reared, the birds are likely to become very protective of the area for a period of several weeks.
Are you experiencing a conflict with a cavity-roosting bird? It might be time for a little maintenance. Repair or replace aging siding or shingles, and cover existing holes with aluminum flashing or plug them with wood putty. (Make sure no birds are roosting inside!)
Other deterrent methods rely on the fact that birds want to feel safe. The more disturbance you can create, the less they’re going to want to make your house their home.
Start by making some noise. Rap on the inside wall that adjoins where the woodpecker is tapping. Head outside and shout and wave your arms. Shake a can filled with coins, or bang pots and pans together.
Visual disruptions can help too. Hang windsocks, pinwheels or strips of Mylar or foil. Their fluttering will create the sort of commotion birds view as suspicious.
Winter roost boxes are another option to consider. Unlike a nest box, a roost box is designed to keep heat in. It has fewer ventilation holes, and the entrance is near the bottom. Hang one of these in yard and you might be rewarded with a bevy of birds roosting together to share warmth.
You might be wondering which of these tactics worked on my little downy visitor. Well the short answer is, none. When I rapped and tapped on the inside wall, the bird flew away…but then returned when I wasn’t home and eventually completed his excavation.
The hole is up near the eave, so the bird, and my insulation, should stay pretty dry this winter. When spring comes and my little visitor moves on (downies don’t nest in roost cavities, and vice versa) I’ll fill it in and repaint. And maybe even hang a sign for future excavators: Nevermore!
Pam Otto is the outreach ambassador for the St. Charles Park District. She can be reached at 630-513-4346 or firstname.lastname@example.org.