The problem started last November. We woke up to a muffled, steady tapping noise on our bedroom wall. It had that weird, rhythmic but irregular quality, one of those mysterious kinds of patterns where you’re not sure if it’s just the radiator coming on, or someone trying to tap out a message from the other side of the wall. As our brains started to come online, it was clear it wasn’t the radiator, or one of the kids tapping — the sound was coming from the exterior of the house. I stuck my head out the window to see a downy woodpecker sticking his head out of the hole he’d just drilled in the side of our house.
Having a woodpecker live inside the walls of your home is an unequivocally bad thing. It’s not just the noise (though it is a drag not being able to sleep in on the weekends). Even the downy, the smallest of our woodpeckers, can do serious damage to a home.
I reached out to Joan Walsh of Mass Audubon, who has become my indispensable consultant on woodpecker behavior, and she confirmed we had a problem.
“You really don't want a family of four woodpeckers in between your sheetrock inside your house and your exterior. It's going to smell, it's going to be bad for everybody,” she said.
And while my wife was kind enough not to bring it up every time we woke to the tapping, the woodpecker problem was entirely my fault. Our home faces conservation land in Lexington, and I love to feed and interact with the variety of wild birds that frequent our backyard. Some of these birds now recognize me by sight, and some individual relationships have evolved, as they’ve figured out they can fly up and “ask” for their favorite treats to be replenished. Chickadees and titmice politely request sunflower seeds, robins ask for mealworms, blue jays holler at me for peanuts. And this particular downy woodpecker would fly to the window by my desk to request sunflower seeds and for a supply of suet to be refilled — not far from where he would decide to drill a hole conveniently close to the bird smorgasbord.
Obviously I’m a bird lover, and I think woodpeckers are particularly wonderful — I mean, a lot of birds sing, but how many can sing and play drums? But no one wants to be housemates with a drummer, especially one who starts at 7 a.m.
Walsh explains that woodpeckers bang on wood for two distinct reasons: construction or communication.
“When they’re drumming to attract a mate, and declare their territory, it says two things: one, ‘I'm here!’ to another male. And to a female, it says [in a sexy, come-hither voice], ‘I'm here,'" Walsh said. "What happened to you was not a tweet that he was sending out, or a Tinder profile that he was sending out. It was it was more that he was building a home."
"We apologize for that behavior, but we'll will send him a memo,” she added with a laugh.
But in all seriousness, how do you send that memo to a woodpecker saying, “please move out?” It was crucial we convince the downy to do so before he started posting that Tinder profile and starting a family it would be illegal to evict. The standard first approach would be the scarecrow method — hanging objects that might frighten the bird, like flashy mylar streamers. But given his comfort level with my family, it was unlikely we could scare this bird.
“Now I think we've passed that point,” Walsh said. “I think that if we dangle some Mylar here, he's going to be unperturbed. He's got a nice house in a leafy suburb of Boston.”
Walsh suggested another option that wasn’t sure to work, but sounded intriguing: offer the woodpecker an upgrade. We would wait until the bird was out, cover the hole with metal, then hang a nesting box directly over the hole.
“Fill it with some wood shavings, and even some leaves and some natural stuff so it doesn't smell like something from Ikea, so it actually smells like the world out there," Walsh said. "He might buy it.”
This was an exciting prospect. The bird gets an awesome house, the bird lover gets to watch a woodpecker raise a family up close, without the inconvenience of them defecating inside of the walls. I followed all of Walsh's instructions, including painting the box to match the house (it turns out our house color, grey, happens to be a woodpecker favorite). I had dreams of putting in a camera to watch the babies.
But since we put it up, the woodpecker hasn’t been back. I went back to see Walsh, feeling rejected.
“So he didn't take to the renovation, to the ... upscaling of the neighborhood?” she asked.
I couldn’t believe he didn’t like my beautiful nesting box. “No, no, he moved on," I replied.
"Well, that’s the desired outcome for you,” Walsh reminded me.
“Yeah,” I said, sadly. “But it kinda hurts my feelings.”
Walsh reassured me it was a beautiful nesting box, and offered, by way of encouragement, her opinion that it was almost impossible some bird wouldn’t take advantage.
“Someone will move in. It's almost unheard of that you present a cavity in the leafy suburbs, beautifully formed, up high off the ground … really no danger, no cats going to get it. No raccoons going to climb up there. If this stays unoccupied for the whole summer, I'd be shocked," Walsh added.
Sure enough, within days of that conversation I saw a pair of house sparrows going in and out of the bird house, carrying twigs — an unmistakable sign of nesting.
My heart sank. It may sound strange that an avowed bird lover can’t stand sparrows, but I’m not alone.
“They're not native birds,” said Walsh. “They're European birds that were released about a hundred years ago in (New York's) Central Park. And so, you don't want them. We don't really don't want to encourage them.”
So after all that, I’m taking the nesting box down before the sparrows have a chance to get in the family way. But Walsh says this may not be the final chapter.
“I'm wondering if three months from, six months from now, we're going to be talking about the woodpecker who's using your house as a drumming tree, because he's found a great place to live and now he's making a lot of noise on your house," she said.
While my house may not be good enough to live in, it may still be useful for posting a woodpecker Tinder profile. I just wish they had a quieter way to swipe right.