My next-door-neighbor has woodpecker-phobia. The official definition of this condition is “fear of a small bird that pecks wood.” I have known about his condition since shortly after I moved into my house seven years ago. Apparently a renegade gang of demon woodpeckers did significant and costly damage to a portion of the neighbors’ house once upon a time before I moved to the neighborhood. The neighbors have never recovered from this traumatic event and they remain forever on the hyper-alert for signs of woodpecker activity in the area. I suspect that they hired a woodpecker security alarm company to monitor avian movement and a red light flashes in their kitchen if a woodpecker is detected within a one-mile radius of their yard. It’s more the guy than his wife who is obsessed by this (she, however, appears to share his concern and wholeheartedly throws her support behind his anti-woodpecker efforts).
We discovered the severity of his condition when, shortly after we moved into our house, we discovered that he had shot a downy woodpecker perched in our ancient and magnificent oak tree with his BB gun. I can’t remember exactly how we found out that he had shot the bird; but I seem to recall that he announced the fact to us with pride, boasting that he had saved us from a horrific fate by eliminating this hapless bird. Shooting a woodpecker is illegal in California because it’s a protected species. We didn’t report him, but my husband told him not to do it again.
Last winter a large oak tree on our property fell. The inside of the tree had rotted out as a result of many years of drought combined with improper placement of soil around the base of the tree when the house was built. Even though there was no evidence of woodpecker activity on the tree, the neighbors were quick to commiserate with my husband by attributing the felling of the tree to “those woodpeckers.” Woodpeckers really can be quite destructive, but in a suburban neighborhood such as ours they are usually deterred by placing shiny objects, such as mylar strips or discarded compact discs, in the yard. Not all birds fear shiny objects, in fact ravens are attracted to them. But bling scares woodpeckers. Especially if the discarded discs are Michael Bolton recordings. Woodpeckers also do not like wind chimes and they can be frightened off with those fake owls (strategically placed). There are many ways to deter woodpeckers, but shooting one occasionally with a BB gun is not one of those ways. I suspect that after their traumatic experience with woodpeckers, the neighbors have arrived at a mindset where they blame everything on the woodpeckers. Leaf mold, locusts, aphids, toilet backed up, car accident, hurricane? Woodpeckers. Poison oak in the yard? Planted by woodpeckers. Brush fire on the ridgetop? Started by pyromaniac woodpeckers. Woodpeckers are everywhere and they are out to get us humans.
No one is more capable of going into battle with demon woodpeckers than my neighbor. He maintains a pristine yard and has dedicated his life to combatting nature’s chaos in every form in which it might encroach on his space. His yard is largely made up of lawn and rocks. He also has extraordinarily wonderful roses and a few fruit trees that he keeps in tip-top shape, although I have rarely seen any fruit on them (maybe he picks it off because it’s too messy). His hired yard maintenance crew arrives weekly to beat his (less than half an acre) domain into submission with an impressive collection of noisy power tools. The neighbor has a passion for noisy tools. For instance, he cut his discarded Christmas tree up into itty-bitty pieces with a large chainsaw last year. I think he cut individual pine needles in half with a saber saw. Whatever it took to subdue the dead yuletide tree, he spent a good half-an-hour at it. (Meanwhile, my husband chopped our tree in half with an axe and put it in the yard waste bin in under three minutes.)
Last week, the neighbor, ever vigilant and keenly alert, called to inform us that he had discovered carpenter ants walking on several branches of our ancient magnificent oak tree. These particular branches had encroached on his yard, so he took control of the situation by promptly cutting all these branches back to the property line. But he wanted us to know that we have carpenter ants. Fair enough. I’m not sure how much he knows about carpenter ants. It occurred to me that he might think they will dismantle his garage. (I was tempted to explain to him that they are just called “carpenter” ants and that they don’t actually have power tools, but I don’t want to make assumptions.) After his call, I went to look for carpenter ants, like a good and patient neighbor. I didn’t see any. The fact is that carpenter ants will not destroy a tree. They eat rotten and dead wood, not live wood. They are of concern when seen in or around a house because that means there is probably rotten wood in the structure of the house, which would need attention. But in the yard, they don’t do any damage to living wood. I relayed this information to my neighbor, who took it in stride, and explained that his concern is not so much about the carpenter ants per se but about the woodpeckers, because woodpeckers like to eat carpenter ants, as well as termites, worms, wood siding, shingles, porch railings, lamp posts, rocks, cars, and cities.
The neighbor suggested that we treat our trees with toxic chemicals to get rid of the carpenter ants before the woodpeckers spot them and ask for a menu. The neighbor is correct in his belief that one of the biggest problems that can arise from having carpenter ants in the yard is that woodpeckers turn up to feast and while they feel frisky from a good munch they can peck holes in houses and living trees (to get the sap flowing, to attract more edible beasties). It’s not likely that woodpeckers would bring down an ancient oak, but it’s possible if, over the course of many years, they peck a boatload of holes in the tree. They can do considerable more damage in much less time to a house. Rather than chase the little winged furies around with a rifle, I will opt to hang mylar strips, shiny mobiles, and wind chimes in my yard. I think my neighbor could deter the woodpeckers by strategically placing some of his shiny power tools in his yard, but I have not suggested this. I just hope he doesn’t start shooting carpenter ants in my ancient oak tree with his BB gun. They say good fences make good neighbors, so I hope the demon woodpeckers don’t eat the fence. I wouldn’t want any of my neighbors’ rocks migrating to my vegetable garden.