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Woodpeckers aiming to make a lot of noise, switch from wood to metal

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now a story about a mysterious noise - our colleague Sacha Pfeiffer was about to go live with me a few weeks ago when she heard it. She is a reporter on NPR's investigative team, so you know she had to investigate. And this is what she found out.

SACHA PFEIFFER, BYLINE: It was about 6:45 in the morning. I was at home, waiting to talk on the air with MORNING EDITION host Michel Martin about a story I'd done. Suddenly, I heard this.

(SOUNDBITE OF WOODPECKER HAMMERING METAL)

PFEIFFER: A loud, metallic hammering. Then it happened again.

(SOUNDBITE OF WOODPECKER HAMMERING METAL)

PFEIFFER: I started taping it. It seemed to be coming from my basement utility closet. I wondered if my furnace was breaking or my water heater and what I would do if it happened when I was on the air. It stopped while I spoke with Michel but started again later. This time, I heard another sound, possibly inside my chimney.

(SOUNDBITE OF WOODPECKER CALLING)

PFEIFFER: Was there an animal in there? I ran outside, looked up at my roof, and there was a woodpecker, drilling away at my metal chimney cap.

(SOUNDBITE OF WOODPECKER HAMMERING METAL)

PFEIFFER: I've heard plenty of woodpeckers drill on trees, but never metal. So I called Kevin McGowan, an ornithologist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology who recently created a new course...

KEVIN MCGOWAN: ...Called The Wonderful World of Woodpeckers.

PFEIFFER: McGowan said woodpeckers hammer on wood for a few reasons - find food, make a home, mark territory and attract a mate. But when they bash away at metal...

MCGOWAN: What the birds are trying to do is make as big a noise as possible. And a number of these guys have found that - you know what? - if you hammer on metal, it's really loud.

PFEIFFER: He said they primarily do it this time of year, springtime breeding season. And that metallic racket has two purposes.

MCGOWAN: Basically summarized as - all other guys, stay away. All the girls, come to me. And the bigger the noise, the better.

PFEIFFER: And urban woodpeckers have learned that metal is more resonant and reverberant than wood and amplifies sound way more than trees do.

BRIAN SMITH: Chimney caps, vent pipes, gutters for sure.

PFEIFFER: Brian Smith works for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He said woodpeckers will also go for aluminum siding, TV antennas, drainpipes, power pole transformers and more.

SMITH: I had a water heater vent that produced a very loud booming sound across the neighborhood, and it can be pretty alarming. Like, what in the world is that?

PFEIFFER: Smith said he once lived in a Colorado neighborhood that had a woodpecker notorious for drilling on metal.

SMITH: I could hear him about 10 houses away. He worked his way down and hit various gutters and chimney caps. And boy, if they can make it louder, they sure will.

PFEIFFER: The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has a whole audio collection of woodpeckers hammering at metal. Here's a traffic sign...

(SOUNDBITE OF WOODPECKER HAMMERING METAL)

PFEIFFER: ...A metal ladder...

(SOUNDBITE OF WOODPECKER HAMMERING METAL)

PFEIFFER: ...A metal roof...

(SOUNDBITE OF WOODPECKER HAMMERING METAL)

PFEIFFER: ...Even a metal windmill.

(SOUNDBITE OF WOODPECKER HAMMERING METAL)

PFEIFFER: You may be wondering if there's a way to stop this. Yes, but there's a legal catch. Here's Dan Master, owner of Critter Control of Greater Boston.

DAN MASTER: If you wanted to remove the bird itself, you'd have to get a special permit.

PFEIFFER: Woodpeckers are covered by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, so capturing them requires federal permission. But you're allowed to scare them off with noise deterrents, like a recording of a screeching hawk, or physical deterrents, like a windsock or pinwheel or balloon. That's what Dan Master's company does.

MASTER: Usually, it's just simple mylar ribbons. They're red on one side and silver shiny on the other, and they don't like the way they move and make a little bit of noise when they flap in the wind.

PFEIFFER: Woodpeckers can dent your gutters and aluminum siding, but they're unlikely to do as much damage to metal as they can to wood siding. At my house, my metal chimney cap seems fine. And once the woodpecker left my roof, he flew two houses down and began hammering away at my neighbor's satellite dish.

Sacha Pfeiffer, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.