Flickers in the House
My summer spent observing birds seemed to be winding down. Most of them had found mates, made nests, and incubated their eggs; feeding the young was now their main preoccupation. I had finished a marathon observation of a pair of tree swallows. My phoebe had this year not attracted a mate. The blue-headed vireos’ story was finished for the year: one nest I was watching in a balsam fir tree had fledged four young; the other had been abandoned after a gradual decline in the number of eggs in the nest. The sapsuckers with their “super drum” on the apple tree had stopped drumming and were now incubating or feeding young. I was starting to feel relaxed enough to sit and write. But there are always distractions.
Next to the window of my cabin is a paper birch tree. It had grown at the edge of the old cellar hole with collapsing stone foundations that I rebuilt to put my cabin on. Each year it hosts aphid colonies tended by red ants that live in the cabin’s roof space. A highway of ants up and down the white bark attracts a pair of yellow-bellied sapsuckers. Just three meters from me as I sit on the couch writing, these beautiful woodpeckers unobtrusively and silently lap up ants.
Hearing a woodpecker tapping from the cabin wall opposite the birch tree wasn’t particularly surprising to me; I assumed one of the sapsuckers was temporarily distracted from the ants and had started sampling wood. Strangely, though, on several occasions when I opened the door to look I saw instead another woodpecker fly off: the northern yellow-shafted flicker. After a time I noticed a suspicious rhythmicity to the tapping. Flickers feed on ants, but as far as I knew, they foraged for them on the ground.
A day later, on June 8, I got out of bed at 4:30 a.m. to write up some raven observations from the day before. A little later I heard the same rhythmic tap, tap, tap, tap, tap from the same cabin wall. Surely the noise would stop soon. At 6 a.m. it still had not let up, but my patience had, so I gently opened the door to peek around the corner, and again saw a flicker leave. This time I noticed a small hole almost through the wall’s outer pine boards: the flicker had apparently been making a nest hole. But the outer and inner cabin walls are separated by a ten-centimeter gap, so if the flickers (I assumed it would be a pair) penetrated the outer board they would meet a bottomless space, with no place to put their eggs.
The next morning at 5:10 a.m. I heard a rustle on the wall, then a light tapping changing to vigorous hammering, which continued nearly unabated for two hours, finally stopping when a second bird arrived. A period of silence was followed by five separate soft, second-long drumrolls, probably some sort of signal. Then total silence. Had the pair gotten through the outer board?
The hole was now nearly large enough for them to slip through, and I was afraid that when they discovered the empty space they would leave and make a nest hole elsewhere. The opportunity to have flickers nesting in my cabin was too good to pass up. I had to do something to help make it happen, and I had to do it without the birds noticing me, in the few minutes they were away.
The potential nest site was too high for me to reach from the outside, but I calculated where it would be on the upstairs bedroom wall. With my chainsaw I removed a section of the inside wall covering its anticipated location. I fixed boards to the bottom and sides below the entrance hole to create a possible nest cavity, cushioned its floor with sawdust and woodchips, and had barely swept the sawdust from floor, bedding, and clothes and settled in downstairs to wait when the tapping resumed.
By midmorning the flicker was in the house, or to be exact, in its east wall. By afternoon I heard scratchy noises there but no more tapping. The scratchy sounds plus occasional very light and brief tapping continued into the evening and resumed at 5:10 the next morning, and again continued for two hours and stopped when a second bird flew to the wall. As before, I heard the signal drumrolls, which sounded like fingers running over the teeth of a comb. Then all was quiet. I was happy: I knew now that the flickers would stay to nest.
At this point I was not yet living full-time at the cabin, and left it for a few days. Returning on June 16, I was eager to see if I could call it not just the Tree House, as I had until now, but the Bird House. It was the latter! As I walked toward the cabin, a flicker flew out of the hole in the wall. I rushed upstairs, removed the loose panel I had left over the cavity, and looked into the nest. To my joy, on the sawdust and wood chips lay a clutch of seven pearly white eggs.
Flickers normally take about two weeks to excavate their nest cavity, and the male does most of the work. However, the female “decides” when to lay and how many eggs. Apparently the time until egg laying is not measured from the beginning of nest-hole construction, because this pair had a suitable nest cavity in only three days and egg laying began then. The trigger for the physiological changes of egg production and laying thus appeared to be related to timing of nest-hole availability.
My flickers stopped at seven eggs, a normal clutch size. But that number is below what the species can produce. Flickers are, like chickens, indeterminate egg layers; removing one egg from the nest while leaving at least two in it induces the female (provided she has enough food) to replace the egg. In one case a flicker kept laying until she had produced a total of seventy-one eggs, all the time apparently “thinking” she only had about five — not yet a full clutch.
I found the flickers’ incubation time peaceful and satisfying. It was a comfort at night to think that a flicker was sitting on her seven eggs about three meters from me, sheltered from the weather. On nights when the pounding of the rain got louder and louder until it became a roar, I felt good that both of us were high and dry.
One early morning after the rain stopped I heard a soft rustling from within the woodpecker hole, then some brittle scratching sounds and several fluttery vibrations. Something was happening. Listening closely with my ear to the wall, I thought at times I was also hearing faint whispering and cheeping-churring voices.
At first light I looked into the nest and saw a heap of tiny naked pink bodies, with empty eggshells scattered among them. The babies made a scratchy-sounding purring noise, except one that made high-pitched peeps.
The sounds they made were the weirdest, most otherworldly I’ve ever heard, and the most improbable. If I had to describe them I’d say, “Just like you’d expect baby pterodactyls to sound, only cuter.” And for that matter, the little pink bodies with their tiny heads on long snake-like necks probably didn’t look much different from reptiles either.
In order to watch the birds from up close without their knowing, I covered all the windows to darken the bedroom and inserted a pane of glass into my viewing hole. Later I sometimes removed both the board and the glass and set up my camera in front of the nest to take pictures. At first the parents seemed not to notice that the back wall of their nest was missing, but then they inspected the cavity from top to bottom as though looking for something. They also hung by their feet from the lip of the cavity and looked around my room. I...