What's behind the mysterious drumming noise perplexing some homeowners

With more people working from home these days, more Calgarians have noticed the loud pervasive drumming of woodpeckers — especially if they land on the metal chimney cap of a roof.

The spring mating ritual of woodpeckers in Calgary is raising a racket

A northern flicker sits atop the metal chimney cap of a Calgary home. (David Gray)

With more people working from home these days, more Calgarians have noticed the loud pervasive drumming of woodpeckers — especially if they land on the metal chimney cap of a roof.

For many residents, this relentless assault on the ears has punctuated their work-from-home peace. But bird expert Chris Fisher, author of Birds of Alberta, says it's part of the woodpecker's spring mating ritual.

And it's temporary.

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"It is the rattling and drumming season," Fisher told the Calgary Eyeopener. "I like to say that some birds are like John and Paul, and they sing for attention. Well, the northern flickers are like Ringo, and he rattles and drums." 

The northern flicker is southern Alberta's most common woodpecker. 

CBC's David Gray captured this closeup image of a woodpecker in West Hillhurst. (David Gray)

CBC's Danielle Nerman recorded the rat-a-tat-tat of a woodpecker that was reverberating all the way down into her home's furnace. She later played it for the Calgary Eyeopener. Nerman, like many other Calgarians, was baffled by the mysterious pounding in her home.

"The metal chimney caps are the perfect natural or artificial drums that northern flickers have in this part of the world. So the sound just echoes down the flue there and just resonates, not only in the house, but, of course, through the neighborhood," Fisher said. 

"Most neighbourhoods, particularly neighbourhoods that have mature vegetation and large trees, which would house these birds, are hearing this thing echoing across the streets and parks all spring long."

A northern flicker woodpecker sits atop the metal chimney cap of a Calgary home. According to bird expert Chris Fisher, the woodpeckers enjoy drumming on the metal as part of their mating ritual. (Erin Markusoff )

Nerman wasn't the only one living in Bowness and hearing mysterious reverberations.

Resident Doug Waite said he heard what he describes as a "water hammer" that he and his wife Rosemary thought was tied to the basement toilet. 

"We've been having a plumbing problem in our Bowness house for the past few weeks. Our plumber described it as a 'water hammer' — a sort of sporadic rattling of pipes due to a leaky toilet," Waite wrote to the Eyeopener.

They even replaced the toilet last weekend hoping to fix the problem, but kept hearing the baffling sound.

It wasn't until Doug tuned in to Eyeopener that he heard "water hammer sound" again, and had an epiphany.

He turned down the radio and right then, heard a woodpecker outside, pecking at a power pole in the lane. 

"Out of the blue, it occurs to me...could this be the sound we've been hearing all along?" he wrote.

He says his wife did see a woodpecker on the roof the same day they heard the sounds.

"I turn the radio back up, and I'm confused because I hear EXACTLY the same sound," he wrote. What he was hearing was the sound coming from Nerman's basment.

Doug has a hunch it might even have been the same bird.

Why they tippity-tap

Fisher says it's all about territory, and that it's typically male birds that do so. Robins and other songbirds do it with their voices. Woodpeckers do it with their drumming.

"By establishing the territory, it reinforces the male's vigour and the attractiveness to the females," Fisher said.

"I'd say it's all about courtship and reproduction and signifying one's strength. And instead of rattling on an old piece of bark down in the river valley, which is the natural thing that they would be doing well, these chimney caps and the tops of streetlights, they figured out these things make much more noise and are much more ideal for their spring drumming."

Fisher says the birds are not likely to cause too much damage to chimney caps beyond a few scratches. They can cause much more damage to siding, particularly new stucco siding or hollow wood siding.

Northern flickers love to do their drumming on metal chimney caps. (David Gray)

The good news, Fisher says, is the mating season is winding down soon.

"I know the flickers that I'm observing in our backyard, in our neighborhood, are already excavating homes," he said. "Once they've set up shop and the females lay eggs, there's really no need. They've already kind of, you know, fulfilled the promise of the drum."

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener.


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