Woodpeckers out to lunch? attack siding Rocket science: NASA had a bird problem, too. An agency expert offers some advice.

Home Work

February 03, 1996|By Karol V. Menzie and Randy Johnson

It's nice to live close to nature; meadows and woods are part of the landscape of most people's dream homes. But sometimes nature can get a little too close.

"Do you have suggestions for preventing and repairing woodpecker damage to wooden siding?" asks a reader in an e-mail message. "I believe our siding, above our brick, is a composite material, which was painted and showed no damage or deterioration until woodpeckers started attacking early this past fall."

Woodpeckers are not only noisy and a nuisance, they can cause plenty of damage -- just ask NASA. Last spring one or maybe two yellow-shafted flickers, a type of woodpecker, pecked about 200 holes in the foam insulation covering the space shuttle Discovery's external fuel tank. The birds cost the space agency more than $2 million and caused a launch to be delayed by more than a month.

NASA got a lot of suggestions and launched a flurry of deterrent devices, including plastic owls, silver streamers, scary-eye-painted balloons, broadcast distress calls and humans armed with high- pressure hoses. Something worked, because the birds stopped excavating. But NASA has a new offshoot called the Bird Investigation Review and Deterrent (yes, it's BIRD) team, which will try to identify and prevent hazards to human endeavors from flying wildlife, and hazards to wildlife from human space flights. Earlier last year a nesting pair of great horned owls were killed by heat from a shuttle launch.

Ironically, the owls were part of what had kept woodpeckers from previously targeting the tank insulation, which just happens to be the exact color of the trunks of nearby palms. Since the owls were killed, the area has been invaded by starlings, which are also "cavity-nesting" birds that will usurp nests excavated by flickers.

For advice on handling what had become an ecological problem, NASA turned to Dr. Jerome A. Jackson, professor of biological science at Mississippi State University, and an authority on woodpeckers. Dr. Jackson is on the BIRD team.

He determined that the flickers were probably frantically trying to build a new nest in what looked like the tallest, biggest, safest tree around. Unfortunately, the insulation is only 4 inches to 6 inches thick, so the birds kept hitting metal underneath and moving to a new site on the fuel tank.

For the future, he recommended letting the grass around the launch pad grow a bit longer to make it less attractive to species that feed on the ground; trapping and relocating some starlings; encouraging owls to nest nearby; and using motion detectors to alert NASA workers when birds are busy at the pad.

Scare devices like the plastic owls work initially, Dr. Jackson said, but if they're left in place, the birds learn to ignore them.

Woodpeckers are a "common problem" for homeowners, too, Dr. Jackson said in a recent telephone interview, partly because "people like the rustic look" and use housing materials that are rough in texture -- exactly what woodpeckers like, too.

Woodpeckers that menace siding are usually looking for something to eat, he said. So a homeowner with woodpecker problems should eliminate any bug problems first.

"The best way to discourage woodpeckers is to use smooth siding," Dr. Jackson said, but few people are willing to change their siding to deal with a couple of feathered fiends.

In that case, Dr. Jackson said, the first solution a homeowner should try is to tack a painter's clear-plastic dropcloth over the area the birds favor. They won't be able to get a foothold on the slick plastic and should move on in a couple of weeks.

However, he said, "There's a possibility they'll just move to some other place on the house. Then you go to Plan B."

To execute Plan B, you go to a garden-supply store and buy bird netting, the type used to keep birds from eating fruit ripening on trees. Tack the netting about 4 inches out in the eaves. You can stake it at the bottom, but that's not necessary. "It's so difficult to see, it's not an eyesore," Dr. Jackson said.

NASA got some bird-unfriendly advice from people who suggested simply shooting the flickers. That wouldn't work, Dr. Jackson said. "There are lots of those woodpeckers. If you shoot one, more will come. It's better to let the local ones learn" they can't mess with your house, he said. "And then they'll keep the others away."

Of course, you can also adopt a suitable philosophy, best spelled out by our friend Steve Hammond, who for years watched his parents futilely try to keep squirrels out of the bird-feeder. "When you're battling nature," he said, "play for the tie."

Mr. Johnson is a Baltimore construction manager. Ms. Menzie is a feature writer for The Sun.

If you have questions, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, write to us c/o HOME WORK, The Sun, 501 N.

Calvert St. Baltimore, 21278. Send us e-mail at homeworop.kis.net. Questions of general interest will be answered in the column; comments, tips and experiences will be reported in occasional columns.

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