Why Do Woodpeckers Hammer?

“A woodpecker is hammering on my house. It’s damaging my siding and driving me nuts. What can I do?” asked a longtime friend.

Woodpeckers often hammer on buildings, and we’ve taken dozens of calls from homeowners seeking relief. There are ways to discourage the plucky birds.

Woodpeckers bang on wood for at least three reasons:

  1. Drumming. Drumming on wood or metal in a rapid burst announces the bird’s presence to others.  It is loud advertising.
  2. Nesting. Woodpeckers excavate cavities, usually in dead trees, to make a safe comfortable nest in the spring. A snug nest within an insulated wall is a great substitute for a tree.
  3. Food.  Woodpeckers make their living dining on insects lurking in wood.  Commonly this is a fall and winter activity, especially on home sided with rustic
    T 111 plywood.

We love woodpeckers, and so do most people. But, no one wants damage to their home. So, how can it be prevented?

Prevention

It’s tough to stop drumming, but the good news is that it is usually of short duration in the spring and rarely damages the home.

It is difficult to stop birds from excavating a nest, but fortunately this is relatively rare.  The long-term solution is to side the home with a durable hard material. Bricks are ideal.

Foraging may be the most common home damage. It can be extensive and comes with annoying noise as the bird removes wood to expose hidden bugs. Here are some solutions:

If building a new home, specify siding that lacks holes and cracks. If no insects can enter woodpeckers have no reason to try to extract them.

  • With a caulking gun and putty knife plug every possible hole in the home’s exterior in late winter or early spring. This prevents insects from entering.
  • If a woodpecker is foraging on a small section of the house draping light duty netting, the material sold to keep birds off cherry trees, will physically keep the birds away. Sometimes it can be stapled to an overhanging eve and to the siding below.
  • Luring a bird away from the home may work. Erect a suet feeder 40 or 50 feet away from the house. The woodpecker might prefer eating easy-to-get suet instead of digging bugs out of the home.

Perhaps the best strategy for enjoying woodpeckers but preventing damage is to protect nearby dead trees. If a tree poses no falling threat to a structure, car, or person, leaving it in place gives woodpeckers a place to drum, nest, and find tasty insect meals.

Woodpeckers are amazing and beautiful animals that bring us joy. We are fortunate to have hairy, downy, red-bellied, red-headed, pileated, flicker, and sapsucker at Winding Pathways. They enjoy our feeders and leave the house alone.

Lessons From the Bird Diva

What is a Bird Diva?

We’d only walked a short way when Bridget Butler stopped our small group. “Look at the top of that tree.  See the bird,” she asked.

We did, and from long experience knew its species, but Bridget’s coaching helped us become better birders.

“Notice its size. Is it bigger/smaller than a sparrow”?  (Bigger). Colors?  (reddish/brownish).

Bridget was teaching us her method of slow birding. It’s an effective way to spot birds and figure out the species.

Slow Birding

We were in Vermont to attend the conference of the Outdoor Writer’s Association of America at Jay Peak ski resort tucked up near Canada. The Peak’s ashes, maples, and aspens were in glorious full color on the early October morning. Up early, we had met Bridget and other conference attendees in the hotel lobby.

Bridget slowly led us just past the parking lot, eyes and ears open for the slightest movement or chirp. We spotted and heard birds that a hasty walk would have bypassed.

What to Look and Listen For

Bridget’s suggestions for identifying a bird include:

Listen carefully. Often, it’s easier to distinguish a species by sound rather than sight. Close your eyes to help focus on sound.

Observe size.   Compare the bird to common, landmark species. Is the bird bigger /smaller than a sparrow or robin or crow, for example?

Observe color/Patterns.   Where is the most color on the bird? Are there eyelines, streaking on the breast?

Observe activity. Is the bird perched high in a tree or scurrying around in bushes? Is it solitary or in a flock?

Observe the habitat.  Coniferous woods, hardwood forest, brush, grassy, marsh.

The bird we first spotted high in a spruce tree was a common American Robin, one of the most visible and recognizable of all birds.  It provided Bridget with an example of how to help birding newcomers to learn species. And, was a reminder to experienced birders to slow down and observe more and be concerned less with adding to “the list.”

Various Habitats

Our walk took us from a mowed lawn through a dense sugar maple wood and around to a delightful pond at Jay Peak’s base.  While in the woods a barred owl responded to Bridget’s call.

When we emerged from the woods to the open pond, we spotted a knot of ducks swimming on the far end. “Let’s walk slowly and see how close we can get,” she said. She suggested we avoid looking directly at the ducks – pretending that we didn’t know they were there. It worked! The ducks seemed unconcerned about our slow pace toward them yet instantly took flight when a jogger appeared on the other side of the pond.

Ring-Billed ducks!  A thrilling sight as the colorful and agile birds winged against the backdrop of Jay Peak’s autumn splendor.

Anyone heading for Vermont might want to join one of Bridget’s walks. If not, her slow birding technique works well anywhere.  Her business is called Bird Diva Consulting.  She leads bird walks, inventories birds, provides landowner assistance, and does presentations.   Her website is birddiva.com.  

 

Avian Fall Flurry

A flurry of movement caught our attention. Just outside the dining room window, a tiny scrap of a bird flitted around. It wasn’t a wren, goldfinch, or sparrow. They’re around all year. Just what was it?

For most birders, May is the month to live for. Orioles, grosbeaks, tanagers, and warblers arrive as if by magic. They’re colorful, sing with gusto, and are easy to spot. It’s an exciting time, but it’s not THE ONLY exciting time.

All the colorful migrating May birds en route to northern nesting sites and the ones that stick around to nest locally are now heading south to avoid winter’s harshness.   September is an outstanding birding month, but it’s also challenging.

September Birding

hummingbird on feeder

Birds stock up on high-calorie foods before their long migrations.

The birds are there but easy to miss. Many have gone through a late summer molt.  They’ve replaced gaudy spring feathers with drab ones that enable them to hide better. September is a business month for birds. In May they happily court mates, but four months later the priority is beefing up their bodies for the long flight south. They dart about, often out of sight, seeking tasty insects, spiders, and seeds to fuel migration.

 

 

 

 

September birding takes patience. We find the most effective way to see birds is to sit quietly and watch. While we may slowly walk trails spotting birds in May, by September we sit on our deck in comfortable chairs, binoculars handy, and bird books and apps at the ready. We don’t find the birds. They find us, but because they don’t sing much and often look different than in Spring, identification is challenging.

Our backyard birding is exciting because we’ve diversified vegetation and have brushy areas, a prairie, a small pond, and big trees close by. However, we don’t just look there for birds.   Sometimes we look upward to see soaring nighthawks, migrating raptors, and an occasional skein of Canada geese.

Identifying Fall Birds

To help with identification we use several printed bird books including the Peterson Guide and David Allen Sibley’s books. Increasingly we rely on Merlin.  It’s an outstanding app produced by the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology. Even better, it’s free. The app easily helps identify species and shows many photos of every bird in spring/fall/juvenile/gender plumages. It also has range maps and recordings of the birds’ calls and songs.  Merlin recently added a new function: sound identification.  Point the phone at a singing bird and the app will help identify it by sound.

After we tentatively identify a bird, we try to confirm it by an Internet search and by consulting our birding friends. Our definitive online source is the Lab of Ornithology’s website. The site contains a vast amount of information, including how to access and use Merlin and eBird.

Easy to Keep Records

eBird allows us to record all bird species we spot in a day. Then we email results to the Lab for analysis.  It’s great fun and helps the Lab research bird populations and movement.

There’s more to fall than football and leaf raking. It’s an excellent time to bird and the best birding is often the backyard.

What Happened to Mallory Mallard and her ducklings?

Report from the Montessori School duck hatch:  To review, the school saw a mallard sitting on an urban planter box.  So, the staff and children made a project of watching the duck, noting its behavior, drawing pictures, and journaling about this experience. When the ducklings hatched the children, parents and staff followed the mother duck and ducklings on their way to new adventures.

Mother Mallard on Urban Flowerbox

The Montessori children watched as the mallard duck sat on and hatched eggs

“The ducklings hatched last Sunday. On Monday, all 11 made it out of the planter and to the river.  It was a bit traumatic.  10 fell into the storm drain and were brought out with a bug net by a parent.”

Some resources and thoughts:

The Wildlife Center of Virginia

Reconnect With Nature

Ducks Unlimited

What Do You Do About City Ducks?

In mid-April, we got a call from a concerned Montessori teacher. Her school is in downtown Cedar Rapids amid office buildings, restaurants, and taverns. Cars constantly buzz by.

She’d spotted a hen mallard duck nesting in the school’s playground and asked what she could do to help it. She knew what a great teaching opportunity this was. Children and teachers have spent the past several weeks observing and documenting the mama Mallard. They even named her – Mallory. Her partner is dubbed Howard.

Over the years we’ve fielded many similar calls from people in urban areas spotting nesting mallards and Canada geese.

For years people have heard that transforming natural areas to cities and suburbs destroys wildlife habitat. It does, at least for wildlife that shun people. However, many wild animals increase as an area urbanizes. House sparrows, rats, and pigeons come to mind, but some other beneficiaries are more welcome.

Cedar Rapids is bisected by the Cedar River, and many ducks nest downtown. Often a hen duck will nest in a large raised concrete flower pot, or as the Montessori School discovered, in the kids’ playground.

Female mallard on nest

This female mallard is quite at home near the Montessori school.

Although this may seem odd, a city may be the safest nesting place. Mallards nest on the ground. Raccoons, dogs, opossums, and a slew of other predators love dining on eggs. Most duck nests out in the country get predated. All that’s left after a raccoon raid is eggshells. Fortunately, many waterfowl species renest, and usually enough nests are successful to maintain the population.

It may be that a nest in a raised concrete flower pot reduces the odds of a raccoon raid.

 

 

For many years a duck nested under a shrub near the front door of Washington High School. The hundreds of students who passed by the nest may have discouraged predators.

Canada geese also aren’t shy about people, factories, railroads, or even Interstate Highways. Many nest along Cedar Lake in an industrial area of Cedar Rapids.   Normally they hide their nest, but we found one goose nesting immediately adjacent to a busy trail in plain sight.

This bird is now so numerous in many cities that they’re considered a nuisance, although we love seeing and hearing them.

So, what should someone do if they find a nesting duck or goose in a seemingly unlikely and unsafe place? The answer is simple. Just like the Montessori classes, Leave it alone, take photos, and enjoy having a beautiful and interesting animal make its home near people.

How Did You Spend Pandemic Time Creatively?

Quilting and the Chesapeake Bay

Guest Blogger, Sigrid Reynolds

I have always loved the humble arts of unknown women who pieced quilts. My own attempts at the craft had resulted in exactly 10 squares in the 1980s when I had small children at home who took afternoon naps. At the same time, I started looking through the piles of quilts at antique stores in the Shenandoah Valley. It thrilled me to see the patterns, colors, and precise stitching of women from the past. So seduced was I by these piles, I knew collecting could get out of control. But then I found a Pennsylvania Dutch unquilted top in an original bold tulip design of blue, red, and yellow colors. I decided to seek and purchase only this color combination. That kept the lid on it since these colors are rare in combination.

COVID-19 Quilting

Taking up quilting again didn’t occur to me until Spring 2020 when I was asked to join a young friend’s virtual pandemic quilt circle. In a time when we all faced our own mortality and the uncertain path the pandemic and the nation would take, we needed something to calm ourselves. As a retired person, I had nothing filling my time and frankly, felt the need to leave some little part of me behind in the lives of my descendants.

The group chose a striking geometric pattern with many triangular pieces. I purchased material, cut a few triangles, and then I went rogue. My inclination was to go faster, larger and more personal since I’d found piecing tedious in those earlier tries. Besides, I am 30 years older than the members in my group so my “life” time is more limited. I found purpose in a multi-generational family vacation home on the Chesapeake Bay just begging for Aunt Sig artifacts for posterity.

A “Fishy” Quilting Inspiration

My first quilt was a re-interpretation of a fish painting that the family had owned for 90 years. The family has always asked guests to tell them how many fish they see in the painting. So, I added goldfish for a humorous twist and quilted in additional fish. In all, there are 40 fish in this quilt.

What came next was an urge to recognize the other birds and animals seen regularly on or near the Bay: herons in the morning and evening along with osprey all day. And then I was remembering sunning turtles in a nearby spring-fed pond. I added more goldfish and quilt fish to keep the puzzle going.

I next needed to represent the loblolly pines that line the shores of that estuary. And, of course, I needed additional visitors: raccoons, foxes, and box turtles. While quilting, I added one ghostly possum in the lower right-hand corner. And why not add some quilted poison ivy since that is always an island hazard? And yes, there are fish quilted into the water to count.

New Inspirations

Finally, as this quiet, worrisome time comes to an end, I realized that I needed to turn from nature to hail the Baltimore Light, a caisson lighthouse, that has defined the deep channel for ships going into Baltimore Harbor my entire life. Since it was winter, I recalled the two times that I had seen the Bay had frozen and decided that might be a good subject. And yes, there will be quilted fish to count under the ice floes.

Nature Continues to Inspire

I have pondered what prompts this late-in-life creativity and conclude that the pandemic opened up a fertile field in me that might have remained fallow. I, like many, turned to the nearby nature of our backyard and parks but memories of a barefoot childhood on the Bay persisted. Quilting allowed me to visit the nature of my memories.