Woodpeckers attacked our house almost as soon as my father cut down the big black birch. The tree itself posed no threat, but it was dead and my dad was of the opinion dead trees draw termites who devour everything in sight including your house if you give them half a chance. The birch was apparently a haven for woodpeckers, and once homeless—with a chilly October in full-swing—they sought shelter close to their previous home. In our case, it was the south side of our house, the side just outside my parents' bedroom, the side with exposed cedar shingles which, I guess, reads to woodpeckers like an All-You-Can-Eat sign reads to truckers.
It was a Saturday afternoon and we were all at home when the tap-tap-tapping started. It was rapid, like the firing of an automatic weapon, and loud. I was in my room, where I was supposed to be reading Othello for English 221. In truth, I was composing a love note to David Antolini, which I hoped to slip into his pocket, and which I knew I would never have the courage to follow through on.
"Is that you?" my dad asked a few seconds later when he opened my door without even knocking.
"Uh, uh," I told him.
We found my mom outside, beautiful among the fallen leaves, staring straight up toward the eaves of the house.
"Woodpecker," she said with the smile of a woman who loves all creatures great and small. "You just missed it."
But we didn't. It made a second appearance shortly after we all returned inside, and this time I was stealthy enough to get a look at it. I was expecting something cartoonish, something like Woody Woodpecker, but the bird was small. Its stomach was white, its wings were black with flecks of white, its black and white head held a tiny spot of red like a blood stain on a tissue.
My father was out a moment later, struggling with the garden hose, hoping to shoot it off the house like it was an Alabama protestor and he was the police. But the bird was on to him. Before he could even get set, a flutter of wings carried it off the house and over the still-standing trees. He sent a spray of water in the general direction, but old dad wasn't even close.
"That should scare the little sucker," he said as water trickled from the hose down the front of his pants.
We were gone for most of Sunday. I played field hockey—left-middie for the St. Charles Rovers—and although most of our high school's parents were less than interested, mine stood on the sideline and screamed their heads off. After the game, the three of us ate at Chicken Patty's, the cheapest and best diner in the state of Connecticut. We returned home just after 6:30, just as the sun was dropping from sight, just as not one but a half-dozen woodpeckers zigzagged away, disturbed by the sound of our car pulling in.
"It's war," my father said.
On Monday, the battle started. My mom, a lover of books as well as animals, was at her job as circulation manager at our local public library. She didn't make much, but it helped. My father, a building contractor, hadn't had much work thanks to what many referred to as "a downturn in the economy." But he used the time at home creatively, sitting at the kitchen table, trying to ignore the pecking outside, utilizing my laptop to initiate his plan of attack.
"Woodpeckers are repelled by shiny objects," he told me as soon as I came in from school.
"Have you seen the side of the house?" I asked. "It's starting to look like the moon."
He ignored my comment, as true as it was. On the upper section of shingles numerous holes, the size of bottle caps, resembled the Anasazi cave dwellings we‘d seen slides of during an American Civilizations lecture.
"They're basically very stupid birds," he said. "They see reflections of themselves and they think it's a predator."
"Mom will freak out if you harm one feather," I warned.
"I'm just going to throw the fear of God into them," he said. "But all options remain on the table."
By the time my mother got home later that afternoon, the side of our house looked like a flapper dress from the "Roaring 20s." Dad had bought a roll of mylar foil from Home Depot, cut it into thin, four-foot long strips, and push-pinned them to the side of the house.
"It looks ridiculous," my mom said before she even had her jacket off.
"It's temporary," my dad told her. "Until the woodpeckers find someplace else to live." He added with a smile, "And listen. Silence."
The mylar strips waved and rattled in the breeze for a few days and life was good. But by Thursday the woodpeckers were back, at least ten of them, their combined drumming as loud as a jackhammer on a busy street.
My dad, referred back to the Internet, then added 24 magnifying hand mirrors which he nailed to the side of the house. When that didn't work, he included a plastic owl hanging from fishing line, then several phony spiders that dropped from the eaves when their sound-activated battery packs picked up the noise of the pecking. Finally he mounted something the size of a portable radio, which detected motion and let off some kind of avian distress signal sounding like a banshee in the night. People, hearing about our house, would come by, clap their hands and shout, then stand and watch the show as spiders would drop, distress signals would sound, and woodpeckers would fly off in formation.
"At least we're all set for Halloween," my mother said, and thus began the squabbling.
"I'm not sharing my home with wildlife," my dad would insist.
"We're the invading species," my mother would remind him. "Not them."
Personally, I just wanted things back the way they were before the big black birch came down.
My father was smart enough not to buy a gun and sit outside in a lawn chair. But what he did do, without the knowledge of my mother, was to find a product called Bird-No-More. It came in a tube which you loaded into a caulking gun, after which you ran rivulets of the stuff down the siding of your house. I was home when it arrived via UPS, six cylinders of it, each one with a picture of a frustrated blue jay on the label and a warning reading, EYE AND SKIN IRRITANT! FLAMMABLE! DO NOT USE IN THE VACINITY OF PETS WEIGHING UNDER TEN POUNDS!
"Sounds dangerous," I said.
"Nah," my father assured. "It's just really sticky. Birds hate the feel of it on their feet, so they find a place more to their liking."
"Like a tree," I said hopefully.
"Like a tree or some other poor bastard's house," he said.
My mother went nuts when she finally found out, but by then it was too late. Bird-No-More coated our house like petroleum jelly on a proctologist's finger. And it seemed to work. The birds no longer came around, their mass production of holes terminated, their pecking could only be heard in the distant trees.
"Bam," my victorious father said.
As Thanksgiving approached and we awaited the annual visit from my grandfather who traveled all the way down from New Hampshire, my dad decided it was time to denude the house and fill the holes with Plastic Wood. It was one more Saturday and I was enlisted to help him—to at least hold the ladder still as he balanced on it—and (at my mother's insistence) to make sure he didn't try anything "cute" without her knowing about it.
We hadn't even gotten the shed door open when we saw it. It was a woodpecker—we were as familiar with them by now as we were with our neighbors—but it was on the ground. It thrashed in the brown grass that months ago had been a lawn, unwilling or unable to fly, easy pickings for any of the neighborhood cats who probably, at this moment, watched it from warm window ledges.
"Whoa," my father said. "What's this?"
We approached the exhausted bird and stared down. She still flopped around a bit, but in truth, she'd given up the ghost. Finally, she lay on her side. Her plumage was dull, as if she'd flown through wall paper paste and it had dried on her, and one black, glassy eye looked up at us, terrified.
"Get your mother," he said.
Despite her best efforts, even my mother—healer of most everything—couldn't save the bird. Wearing leather gloves, she bathed it in warm water, using dish washing liquid the same way she'd seen rescue teams wash pelicans during an oil spill. But the thing was too small, or too weak, or just too far gone.
"Bird-No-More," she said to my father as she stood holding the dead woodpecker in her gloved hand. "And this is just the one you found," she added, grabbing her gardening spade in preparation for burial. "Who knows how many more are in the bushes, or on the road, or in other people's yards?"
She didn't talk to him for days despite his clowning, despite his kindness, despite his apologies. My heart went out to the big guy; he reminded me of a St. Bernard that shows up, tiny cask of whiskey around his neck, only to find the mountain climber he's just saved is a reformed alcoholic.
"Well, this is going to be a great Thanksgiving," he said to me a couple of days before the holiday. "Your mother sitting there not saying a word, your grandfather wondering how I screwed up this time, a turkey sitting in the middle of the table like a giant dead woodpecker, untouched."
"I have an idea," I said.
It wasn't cheap, it wasn't quick, and it wasn't easy. It involved hiring a guy to power wash the house and remove all traces of Bird-No-More. It involved suet and sunflower seeds, lumber and hardware, lots of tools, and the Internet. But together we somehow got it done, and on the morning of Thanksgiving we unveiled not one, but three nesting boxes set high on 16-foot poles and placed as far away from our house as was legally possible.
My mother, if not impressed, was moved. She broke her silence, asked my dad to bring some folding chairs up from the basement in case of unexpected company, and told him she hoped there was still time to make a mince pie, which, as it just so happened, was like heroin to him.
And when they finally did move in, it wasn't my mother but my father who helped nurture them. "Bungalow Number Two needs better drainage holes," he'd say to me during breakfast. Or, "I heard an owl last night. We'd better add some predator guards."
And he would listen now for their not-too-distant thumping. If we were in the same room he would look over and nod, like a man hearing a familiar voice, like someone who had not heard music in a long, long time.