This article was just published in East Cascades Audubon, Spring Calliope Newsletter.
This is part one of a three part series on Spring birds, boxes, and babies. Questions? Facebook us!
Bangers, Boxes, & Babies:
Spring Tips for Woodpeckers
By Elise Wolf, Native Bird Care, avian rescue
I always get asked what to do about Northern Flickers, or other head-bangers that visit our homes each spring announcing their presence with a tap tap tap or a loud machine gun dddddddd. My answer is always to joke and say – get up at 5 am. It brings a laugh, and some groans. But, in all seriousness, adaptation is one of the best solutions to this issue. When viewed as a puzzle, not a problem, bird’s relationships with us, our homes, and the altered environment we have created for them can be seen with a more congenial attitude.
Flickers nest in dead or dying trees, providing homes for other cavity-nesting species – small owls, kestrels, ducks, small mammals, and other songbirds. They are considered a ‘keystone’ species, meaning that their presence is key to the success of other species. According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “The loss or diminution of the Northern Flicker would likely have a large impact on most woodland ecosystems in North America.”
For decades there was a bounty on snags in our surrounding forests (and porcupines as well, which help by making dead trees). Logging protocols have historically allowed or even required removal of dead or dying trees. We continue to see these antiquated and tragic policies played out today in forest plans and decisions. In addition to habitat loss and lack of snags, starling cavity theft, pesticides, and window strikes take a toll on these wonderful birds. Only 40% of Flickers survive the winter according to researchers.
As predominately ant eaters, these birds have to work quite hard to find their foods. Last summer was noticeably short of insects, and that reality showed in our rescue as babies and adults came in low in weight and even emaciated. So, be thrilled that you have someone able and willing to take out carpenter ants on your property (wish they ate piss-ants, but can’t have it all). We can buy new trim; can’t buy Flickers.
Have I pulled at your heart-strings enough now? So what can you do regarding not just flickers, but all our little bangers?
Tip #1: Let them bang & get up early!
Hear me out – this is actually very effective. If they start on the gutters, that’s perfect. They are not going to hurt the gutter, but they get a loud, reverberating – and for them, satisfying – sound. If you relinquish the gutter, then they may leave the roof alone. This is exactly what ours have done. Once they have successfully established that your home and yard are ‘theirs’ – since this time of year banging is territorial – they may stop sooner. By the way, Flickers are only territorial regarding their nests sites, not their food resources. That sharp ach, ach, ach, ach, ach, ach that you hear all day is their trying to attract a girl, or after that, them declaring that their found nesting site in your yard is theirs. Sweet, huh!
Our flickers take about 2 weeks of gutter-banding to convince the others that our house is their house. What does not work, and can make them more persistent, is running outside and yelling at them. My husband has proven this repeatedly, he is now forbidden from this activity as I insist that I prefer the banging to his yelling and clapping. Our Pa Flicker is already done with this activity this year, and politely conducted all of it on the gutters.
Get up early. I can hear the groans. If you find their incessant pounding at first light irritating or waking you up, adapt by adjusting your schedule. Get a start on the day. It will only last a short time. Your reward will be adorable baby ones in another couple of months.
Tip #2: Give them a house!
Ok, not yours perhaps (he he), but one of their own. If Pa Flicker has decided to make a cavity in the wall of your garage or home, then give them an alternate. Flickers will use a bird box…if they want to. They physiologically and mentally need to excavate the cavity. So, pack the nest full of wood chips. Use aspen wood chips from a pet store (not mulch – splinters; not cedar – toxic; not pine – sappy).
Absolutely and always put grooves up all four sides of the inside of the box. Chose a box that opens (which you should do anyway). Remove the side opposite the opening. Use tool of choice to make 1/8th inch grooves. For Flickers, these grooves should be ½ inch apart, bottom to top of box. Flickers begin to perch on the sides of their cavities at about 17 days. Being gregarious, flicker babies need space, so make sure they have use of the entire inside of the box.
Place box a metal post, like you would a swallow or bluebird box, at 8’-12’ high. This prevents predators being able to climb up and get into the box. Place 10’ from nearest tree, in the shade, facing South or Southeast. Proper siting and location is paramount. Chose the most private, least stressful place to site your planet-mate’s new house. Base decisions on June activity levels and locations, not April’s. Ideally, not above a door, or social gathering areas. Younger birds may not have the experience to know they are making a housing faux pau until it’s too late (one way I get baby birds). Placing the box on the house might work best if you have a small yard and this is the safest, private place for your bird family. Or, if you want to exclude a current Flicker’s hole-building project on your own house, try putting up a box over that hole.
Flickers will tolerate activity and humans till fledgling stage (this is true of most our of urban nesting birds). However, all birds get stressed and once the fledglings are able to flap even a bit, they can get spooked from their nests/cavities before they are ready. Also, birds are territorial, not just among their own species, but sometimes with other species as well (like bluebirds attacking swallows; easily solved by doing back to back boxes). So, if this bird made an awful real estate decision, relocate by exclusion (see www.nativebirdcare.org for a long list of options) and put up the pole box if you want the birds.
House on a house placement, by the way, is excellent for your smaller tap-tappers, nuthatches and chickadees. These birds will readily take over a box, and you can often simply place a box right over the hole they have embarked on creating. Simply fill hole with a sealant, and place box over it. Put an inch of the aspen bark in the box. Placement and location are same as Flickers. Grooves are far more, spaced closer together, like 1/8th to 1/4th inch apart, just on the front of the box, below the hole. But, put them all the way across so babies can get alongside and push dominant and bigger babies away from the hole. Too few places to hang can lead to the largest baby dominating the hole and the others starving. (Never put perches on bird boxes, unless you want to feed our corvids).
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