Bird Watcher's General Store

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Flickers on Chimnies

Dear Bird Folks:


Every year at this time I’m visited by a male flicker that hammers at my metal chimney cap. Is he doing this to attract a mate or is he announcing his territory? Whatever it is, just don’t tell me that he is hacking at my steel cap to correct an iron deficiency.

-Marjorie, Yarmouth Port


Good One Marjorie,

“Iron deficiency”. Ha, I like that. I might use that line someday. If I do, I’ll send you a quarter. Like most birds and other living things, spring is the season that woodpeckers respond to the most. And flickers, as most of you know, are woodpeckers, big woodpeckers. They are the largest woodpeckers that we have here on Cape Cod, if you don’t count that Ivory-billed Woodpecker that mysteriously showed up in Sandwich on April Fools day.

You were right on both counts when you asked if the flicker was trying to attract a mate or announcing its territory, but there is more to it than that. It is thought that flickers mate for life, but not in the sense that the pair is together 24/7. It’s more a case of convenience, since they both return to the same breeding location each year. When the male bird returns from the south, he is likely to find the same female has also returned. The flicker that was drumming on your chimney was simply saying “Honey, I’m home”, but without offering any explanation as to what else he has been up to all winter.

Although they have a call, woodpeckers don’t have a true song, which is why they use loud drumming to announce their presence. Hollow trees work fine as sounding boards, but hollow, metal gutters or chimney caps work even better. Years ago I remember being woken up at dawn by a sound, that I thought was the telephone, only to discover that it was a flicker drumming on my neighbor’s aluminum boat. Most people would have been annoyed, but I thought it was pretty funny, though not nearly as funny as the sight of me racing through the house in my underwear, trying to answer a phone call from a mating flicker.

Flickers are fairly large birds, but their carpentry skills aren’t the best, so they look for softer wood to drill into. A rotting dead tree is a dream location to a flicker. Our fixation with park-like property, has made dead trees hard to find. The birds hate to give them up and return to them each year. I’m sure if you’ll look around Marjorie, you’ll find a fabulously rotting tree, surviving somewhere in your neighborhood. If you check it out, there is a good chance you’ll find your flickers nesting in it.

What about stopping woodpeckers from drumming? I know you didn’t specifically ask about this, but you are just about the only one who hasn’t lately. This time of year, twelve out of every ten questions (yes, I meant to write it like that) that we get are about woodpeckers and their drumming on buildings. Harmless drumming on metal is exactly that, harmless. However, woodpeckers that are drilling on wooden shingles can cause serious damage. Stopping them from drilling holes into your house isn’t easy. I have yet to find a sure fire solution, but here are a few ideas that have worked at least for some people in the past. You may want to remember some of these in case things turn ugly with your flicker.

Since woodpeckers are territorial, putting up mirrors can be effective. Since the birds aren’t able to drive off their own image, they move on. Hanging those flashy Mylar strips has also worked for some, as well as the plastic owls and fake rubber snakes. The rubber snake worked great for me, until a raccoon chewed off its head. Whatever you do it’s important to remember that it has to happen at the exact point of contact, which is usually at some impossible to reach location on your house. A fake snake on your back porch won’t do much good when the birds are drilling on the third floor peak.

The other thing to remember is that you don’t need to “get rid” of your woodpecker, but simply to discourage it from eating your house. Woodpeckers aren’t evil, they are interesting birds to watch. Although they are not nearly as interesting as seeing me racing to answer the phone in my underwear.