Uncle Merlin called in from the Cape this morning to report he’s having woodpecker trouble. Judging by his description, a female downy has punched a hole in the eave of his house. He wanted to know how to drive her away.
“I can’t have her building a nest in there and having babies.”
I assured him that’s not what was happening. Downies don’t nest until the spring. What she’s doing is building a little apartment for herself for the winter.
Uncle Merlin was not mollified. “Well, I don’t want her banging away up there all winter either.”
She won’t be doing any banging.
“I heard her!”
“I don’t know. Last time I was down here. Two weeks ago?”
That might not have been her.
“Of course it was her. It’s her hole!”
It didn’t take her two weeks to make that hole. A day, tops, and she did it quietly. Lots of poking and pecking with her beak. But no banging. That’s not how they work. The banging you heard was probably a male woodpecker showing off. Might not have been a downy either. You have flickers in your neighborhood too. But don’t worry. Whatever it was, the banging’s all done for a while. Woodpeckers only bang during courtship. And it’s not banging, it’s drumming. It’s what they do instead of sing. They’re percussionists, not song stylists. They drum to establish territory and attract mates. The rest of the time they peck. That’s why they’re called woodpeckers, not woodjackhammerers. They use their beaks to peck and poke and dig for bugs and to drill nest holes.
“Ah ha! So she is building a nest!”
Downies pair up in the fall but they wait till spring to nest and lay eggs, I repeated.
“That means I’m going to have two of them up there banging away?”
No. Likely just the one. They mate but they don’t move in together right away. They stay close by each other but keep separate apartments. And, once again, one, it’s not banging, it’s drumming, and, two, the drumming’s over for now because there’s no more reason to drum. The courtship’s over. Now they’re going to wait out the winter, she in her place, he in his, both quietly pecking when it’s time to eat. Come spring they'll go house hunting together.
Actually, male and female downies do go searching for suitable nest sites together. And they argue about it as they flit from spot to spot. The way one of my guide books describes it, they sound like city-dwelling human couples who’ve reluctantly decided to take the next step but are each keeping their own apartments for now, you know, just in case? The dominant member of the pair makes the final choice, and also as with many human couples, gender does not decide dominance. They work it out between them.
So, I told Uncle Merlin, she’ll be gone in the spring.
“I still don’t want a hole in my house all winter. How do I get rid of her?
She still out there, I asked.
“No, she flew off when I went out there and yelled at her. I haven’t seen her since. That was two hours ago. Do you think I scared her off?”
I don’t think she’d be that scared of you if you’re just standing there on the ground yelling up at her. Downies are used to people. In fact, they’re fairly comfortable around us. She probably flew off because she had something she felt she had to do.
“Then she'll be back! How do I get rid of her for good? Come on, bird boy. You’re supposed to know all this ornithological stuff.”
Odds are she got rid of herself. Once she opened up the hole and found it was hollow inside, she probably decided to go looking for a nice solid tree. Too much space. She wants something snug and safe. She’s looking for a studio. That’s a loft in back of there.
“So she’s gone?”
Maybe. Probably. Unless…
Unless she was after something else.
She might have discovered your house is a woodpecker restaurant.
“Don’t go there,” Uncle Merlin warned, “Don’t go anywhere near there.”
Photo by Uncle Merlin. Chatham, Massachusetts. Around 9:30 this morning. Sunday. October 20, 2013.