Saturday, March 3, 2018

Ed Zahniser: Woodpecker Wake-up Calls

downy woodpecker One morning early, as I slept in our mountain cabin Mateskared, a woodpecker landed on the cabin’s wood siding. Its profound rapid-fire pecking jerked me out of sound sleep.

Did we have robo-termites?

Not in the Adirondacks.

Evolutionary biologist George Constantz first told me woodpeckers assert territoriality with rapid, rhythmic blasts. Their feeding produces the random, erratic, and arythmical pecking that a John Cage composer might love. For maximum signal effect, in wild nature woodpeckers choose a hollow tree trunk. It acts like the resonant body of an acoustic guitar. What better sound chamber than an un-insulated cabin’s large enclosed space sided with wood?

An un-insulated bunkhouse’s wood siding, that’s what.

One summer my friend Cub Schaefer’s girlfriend worked at the Adirondack Mountain Club’s Adirondack Loj. It’s a base camp for Adirondack High Peaks hikers and climbers. Cub, his sister Monica, and I drove there from Schenectady, New York, for the weekend. Cub’s girlfriend got the staff to let Cub, Monica, and me sleep in the long, empty bunkhouse.

The wood-sided bunkhouse had two-by-four framing, but the upright studs were placed way too far apart, no doubt in an arcane cost-saving mode. About 4:30 am, a woodpecker started blasting the siding halfway between two studs. The entire bunkhouse — and each of our skulls — made its territorial boom box.

Imagine a guitar box the size of a triple-length garage. That’s the woodpecker’s wake-up call, with its stout beak and insulated brain, hammering wood siding that all but flapped between those cost-saving, spaced-out studs.

Many years later my wife Chris and I had wealthy landlords — we rented their nearby tenant house — whose woodpecker tale involved the siding of their manor house. They tried everything they knew, and several things other people knew, to discourage the woodpecker. Nothing worked. Finally someone advised them to spread Vaseline on the siding. They did, and the woodpecker quit, discouraged by his or her lack of purchase on the greasy siding.

Photo: Downy Woodpecker (photo by Evan Lipton, Macaulay Library).

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Ed Zahniser retired as the senior writer and editor with the National Park Service Publications Group in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. He writes and lectures frequently about wilderness, wildlands, and conservation history topics. He is the youngest child of Alice (1918-2014) and Howard Zahniser (1906–1964). Ed’s father was the principal author and chief lobbyist for the National Wilderness Preservation System Act of 1964. Ed edited his father’s Adirondack writings in Where Wilderness Preservation Began: Adirondack Writings of Howard Zahniser, and also edited Daisy Mavis Dalaba Allen’s Ranger Bowback: An Adirondack farmer - a memoir of Hillmount Farms (Bakers Mills).

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