California Community Declares War On Woodpeckers

Broadcast on NPR – All Things Considered

Woody Woodpecker, the screwball cartoon character, is famous for his constant pecking. His creators modeled him on the real-life acorn woodpecker, and for good reason.

The residents of Rossmoor, an upscale retirement community east of San Francisco, have for years tried peaceful means to make the pesky birds go away. But now, it’s war.

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The woodpeckers are 8-inch birds with red-topped heads and are very industrious — and persistent — especially when it comes to storing their acorns for the winter. Duke Robinson says he watched swarms of the birds fill up the rain gutters on his condo.

“You know, we would sit at the breakfast table here, and through our window, they were like dive bombers,” he says. “Then they’d dive down … fly up and drop an acorn in and shewwoooooo.”

‘Drives You Crazy’

When the maintenance men finally cleaned the gutters, they removed 14 30-pound trash bags filled with acorns just from Robinson’s two-story building.

“Now, that really didn’t bother us. We could ignore them and watch — that was fine,” Robinson says. “But when they started that ba, ba, ba — that just drives you crazy.”

After filling the gutters, the birds began pecking holes in the building to store more acorns. They especially love the Styrofoam material used for the trim around doors and windows. Robinson says he counted 150 holes on the side of his house.

Once these woodpeckers stake out a place to store their acorns, little can be done to get rid of them. But no one can accuse the homeowners’ associations of not trying. Over the past 10 years, they spent $170,000 on repairs and deterrents: shiny flash tape, bird netting, paint additives, a real owl, a wooden owl that got its head pecked off, and sonic devices like the Bird-X Woodpecker Pro, which plays loops of woodpecker distress calls and the sounds of predators.

Maureen O’Rourke, a spokeswoman for Rossmoor, says they even checked into using a falconry, where someone could bring out a falcon and scare away the birds, but it was an expensive option.

Instead, “they put this big, ominous-looking spider on the edge of the building so that when a woodpecker came and peck, peck, peck — the spider would come down and scare the woodpecker away,” O’Rourke says.

Extreme Measures

But nothing really worked. So the homeowners decided enough pussyfooting. Two years ago, they got a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to bring in a sharpshooter. They have killed 22 woodpeckers so far near streets with names like Spotted Owl Court and Grey Eagle Drive. They have another permit to shoot 43 more by the end of May. The California Audubon Society says that it won’t work.

“It’s bad science,” says Jimm Edgar of the local Mount Diablo Audubon Society.

He says killing the birds would simply encourage other birds, and possibly even more birds, to replace them.

“If you kill them at noon, the breeding pairs will take their places by 1 o’ clock,” Edgar says.

In fact, one of the two affected homeowners’ associations is feeling some remorse and voted to suspend the executions until alternatives are exhausted. Despite reservations, the other group voted last month to forge ahead.

“They don’t know if it’s the right decision or not, but they’re going to try it,” O’Rourke says.

The Audubon Society has asked Fish and Wildlife to reassess the sharpshooter permit, saying that Rossmoor overestimated the number of woodpeckers harassing them. A decision is expected in the next few weeks.

Photo credit: LINDA TANNER

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