A woody problem

Hairy Woodpecker excavation into carpenter ant colony

The last couple of weeks, we’ve had a woodpecker drilling into the side of our house. The sound of pecking on the exterior walls isn’t particularly unusual for us; in fact, it’s nearly constant as nuthatches will fly up to the rough logs and crack open their sunflower seeds there. Also, a few birds, probably woodpeckers, have discovered that the white material used to chink the logs has a texture not entirely dissimilar to punky wood, and every now and then one of them will try excavating a bit to see if there’s anything inside the “rotten” area. After a while, the regular pecking gets tuned out, part of the background noise of the house.

So it took me a while to clue in that this pecking was different. This despite the fact that it was noticeably louder than the delicate tapping of the nuthatches or the slightly more forceful but still muted sound of the woodpeckers on the chinking. By the time I got around to actually going out and investigating, the bird had excavated quite a sizable hole in the side of the house.

Hairy Woodpecker excavation into carpenter ant colony

It was a Hairy Woodpecker, though I’m not sure whether male or female. It got so it could recognize the sound of me coming down the stairs, and it would stop hammering, and wait a moment. Sometimes I went into the kitchen to put on the kettle, or around to the living room to stoke the fire, and all was good. But once I’d discovered what it was doing, the majority of the time I’d go to the front door and peek my head out. It was sufficient to flush the bird from the house, and I hoped enough times of this and he’d get the idea.

I hadn’t counted on how stubborn he was. After seven or eight trips down to the front door to flush him away, I finally got a piece of plywood from the basement and propped it in front of the excavation. Ha! Problem solved! I thought.

Fifteen minutes later, the loud tapping resumes. But in a new spot this time, just to the side of the plywood.

Figuring the cause was lost, I decided to make the most of it and try for a photo of the bird at work. I put my camera on a tripod, set it to trigger by remote, and placed it on the porch pointing to the big hole in the wall. I could use my remote control to trigger the camera and take a photo without having to step outside. Brilliant!

Except the bird turned out to be camera-shy. He didn’t come back again. I left the camera out there for a few hours before finally giving up and bringing it in out of the cold.

The next day, the bird was back at it. His hammering woke me up, and I jumped out of bed, hurrying downstairs to put the camera out, hoping for another chance. And once again, the camera sat outside for a few hours, and the Hairy never returned. After four such attempts, I admitted the bird was smarter than I was, and I photoshopped in a Hairy Woodpecker from another photo I had.

Hairy Woodpecker excavation into carpenter ant colony

I figured for the woodpecker to be so persistent about it, there had to be something good going on there, and sure enough, when I peered closer I could see the distinctive honeycombing of a carpenter ant colony. This is not very good news, but perhaps an inevitability in a home built of logs a short distance from a forest.

In the “wild”, carpenter ants target fallen logs and dead trees, or living trees with heartrot (the inner core is dead, while the outer, younger layers still live). Just like every organism, they have their niche, and play their role in the food chain, helping in the decomposition process of dead trees. And they’re one of the primary food items of Pileated Woodpeckers (boring beetle larvae are usually shallow, while carpenter ants tend to occur deeper inside; the Pileated needs its massive bill and long, strong neck to be able to excavate large enough holes to reach the ants, while the smaller woodpeckers usually eat grubs closer to the surface of the snags).

I suppose I should be grateful it’s not a Pileated making holes in our house.

For all that I appreciate the role carpenter ants play in the ecosystem, I don’t think I’m ready to consign our house back to nature just yet. It was nice of the Hairy, giving us a heads-up… Now to figure out what to do about the ants.


Author: Seabrooke

Author of Peterson Field Guide to Moths. #WriteOnCon Mastermind. Writer of action/thriller SF/F YA. Story junkie. Nature nut. Tea addict. Mother. Finding happiness in the little things. Twitter: @SeabrookeN / @SeabrookeLeckie

7 thoughts on “A woody problem”

  1. I was playing with birds today, too. First a little Anna’s hummingbird flew into the window and fell to the porch floor. I protected him from the cats and took pictures of him while he got his bearings and eventually he flew off. Later I was trying to photograph hummers at the feeder, but, like your woodpecker, they didn’t trust the lady with the camera!

    1. Hummers! In winter, Zahara! Oh, how I envy you.
      We had a hummer a couple of summers ago who’d come right up to the feeder even if you were only a few feet away. Most of them are pretty skittish, though.

  2. Carpenter ants? So that’s what’s been eating the trim on the garage. I wonder now if the Downys and Hairys got them all last year, which would explain why I haven’t seen any this winter?

    1. Pretty good chance, Lavenderbay, if you’ve noticed the birds there. It’s unlikely they’d’ve cleared out the whole colony, though. Perhaps the woodpeckers just haven’t found it again this year yet (they’re unlikely to remember one year to the next).

  3. Uh oh. Not a good scene there at all! As for your bird, if the actual critter also has red on the crown like your photoshopped sub-in, it’s a male. And you’re right, you ARE lucky it’s not a piliated. It would likely be in your living room by now. :-P

    1. Unfortunately we never got a good enough look at the perpetrator to be able to tell, TGIQ. I was hoping a photo might provide a better look, but no luck.
      I wouldn’t mind the Pileated in my living room for the opportunity for a close look… but trying to catch it would be a nightmare as they can do damage with just a single strike of their bill (known from personal experience), and I can only imagine the state the pets would get into. ;)

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