It was dawn when the woodpecker started hammering. I yanked open a bedroom window and screamed at the bird. I felt like Wally Walrus, the character Woody Woodpecker used to squabble with in Walter Lantz cartoons.
From a distance, this tango between my brain and a birdbrain might seem comical. But when a bird puts a hole in your house, it is not so funny, especially at 5:30 in the morning.
The bird, a woodpecker known as a Northern flicker, knocked a cavity about the size of a softball in the wooden siding of our small, weekend getaway house in Chincoteague, Va. Apparently, the structure had been under attack for a few days. When I arrived on Friday evening, I spotted pieces of insulation on the lawn. They seemed to have come from the opening on the back of the house. I looked around for a culprit, but none was in sight.
At first light, however, the flicker made its presence known, pecking away, sounding like a machine gun. I tried to scare the bird. I struck the wall. The bird took refuge in the nearby woods, then resumed the pounding a few minutes later.
I tried to sneak up on it, tiptoeing through the yard with the garden hose and spraying the bird with a stream of water. It fled, but not for long. As soon as I got back in bed and nodded off, the drumming resumed.
The hole in the house was about 20 feet off the ground, too far for me to reach with my 8-foot stepladder. I did have a long pole, though. So I put a smelly old towel on the end of this pole and stuffed the towel in the opening. That worked for about an hour or two, while I made a trip to the hardware store, searching for ammunition. When I got back to the house, the towel was on the ground, and the bird was pecking away.
Hardware stores are fonts of wisdom, especially in small towns. The two I visited provided me with some information - woodpeckers had recently been active in town, hammering away at several other houses - and some weaponry. I bought a bottle of pepper spray, a liquid normally used to repel squirrels. I also bought a tub of a gooey substance called Tanglefoot. I ended up applying these to the attacked portions of the house. My hope was that the pepper spray would spoil the taste of the wood siding for the bird and the goo would make it difficult for the bird to perch.
I made a number of phone calls to local workmen, who told me that in their view there was not much I could do other than replace the wood siding with metal. The usual rural remedy for getting rid of a troublesome creature, "buckshot," was not an option. I did not have a gun, and shooting woodpeckers is illegal anyway.
Instead, I borrowed a larger ladder from a neighbor and covered the large hole, and a few smaller ones, with pieces of plywood. Maybe I should have used sheet metal, because woodpeckers have trouble penetrating it. That is what a woodpecker-trouble Web site advised. On that and other sites, there were dispatches from embattled homeowners about how they had covered their houses with plastic netting, hung large streamers of aluminum foil from the eaves, and covered targeted areas with plastic sheeting, plywood or metal. I used plywood because I had some in my shed.
The flicker pecks away for several reasons, the Web sites said. One is to mark territory. Another is to feast on insects. Yet another is to make a nest. I think this bird was pecking away because it wanted to move in. After nailing the plywood patches in place, I covered them with the goo. Then I sprayed everything I could reach with the peppery liquid, which, I can attest, stings when it hits human skin.
Later, when I told Bruce Peterjohn about my pepper spray, he laughed. Peterjohn, a wildlife biologist at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, said the spray wouldn't work because the birds cannot taste it.
He said the flicker was attempting to move in because it was experiencing a housing shortage in the nearby woods. He suggested I buy a flicker box, a house designed for flickers and sold at wildlife stores, and install it on my house or on a tree near the targeted area.
His sister, who lives in Memphis, had a big problem with flickers attacking her house, he said. But after she installed several flicker boxes, the birds moved into the boxes and stopped bothering the house.
I finished nailing the plywood in place at about noon on Saturday and spent the rest of the day waiting for a bird attack. None came. I went to bed early that night, putting myself on the bird's schedule. I wanted to be well rested in case I got another dawn assault.
It did not come. Sunday morning was blessedly quiet. Later in the day, just before I headed back to Baltimore, there was no sign of the woodpecker. Maybe it had decided to go elsewhere. I suspect it simply waited for me to leave, then resumed drilling.
I will find out if it did when I return to Chincoteague for another "leisurely" weekend of communing with nature.
Then I will be toting a flicker box. Instead of battling the bird, I will give it a new home.