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Boring in on a woodpecker controversy

Ridge-top residents of Rossmoor, Calif., tried everything to scare away acorn woodpeckers hammering on their walls. Now they're killing them, drawing protests from bird lovers and environmentalists.

February 16, 2009|Richard C. Paddock

WALNUT CREEK, CALIF. — To the woodpeckers, the ridge-top homes in Rossmoor are the perfect place to stash their food. For years, the energetic birds have bored holes in more than a dozen town houses and hidden acorns in the walls. The homes look as if they have been raked by machine-gun fire.

Residents of the retirement community have tried scaring them off with Mylar balloons that flap in the wind and giant battery-operated spiders that move toward the sound of a woodpecker hammering. They have erected screens and netting. They have blasted the birds with sonic devices. And they have painted the walls with chemical deterrents. But nothing works for long.

When they erected a wooden owl as a scarecrow, the woodpeckers landed on its head and pecked holes in it too.

And so the homeowners arranged to shoot them.

Under permits issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, two homeowners associations hired sharpshooters, who have killed 22 woodpeckers over the last year and a half. One association plans to shoot 18 more in the coming weeks.

The acorn woodpeckers are not endangered, but when word of the killings leaked out, it triggered protests from bird lovers and environmentalists, who are demanding an end to the extermination.

"It's always a serious proposition to kill native wildlife, and we have to exhaust other remedies first," said Dan Taylor, public policy director for Audubon California. "We don't believe Rossmoor has done that."

The clash over the woodpeckers is a variant on a familiar California story: Many people, like the retirees at Rossmoor, want to be close to nature. But they find that coyotes, deer or other wildlife encroach on their property, attack their pets, destroy their gardens or, as in the case of the woodpeckers, damage their homes.

"It's an attraction for most people, but it's a pain in the neck for some people," says Earl Orum, a 13-year Rossmoor resident who serves on a committee seeking to halt the woodpecker incursions.

Graham Chisholm, Audubon California's conservation director, put it this way: "It's not surprising that people want to live in an oak forest, but we need to find a way to live compatibly if that's where we choose to live."

Audubon California argues that shooting the woodpeckers will not solve the problem because others from nearby areas will simply move in.

In response to the outcry, the Fish and Wildlife Service has agreed to survey the area's woodpecker population and determine whether the killing of 50 birds authorized under the current one-year permit is appropriate.

The permit, which gives the two homeowners associations until May to kill the birds, is based on the retirement community's unscientific estimate that 500 woodpeckers live in the woods around Rossmoor.

Taylor calls that number a "gross exaggeration."

Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Alexandra Pitts said the agency accepted the community's estimate without doing its own count.

"We don't issue depredation permits lightly," she said. "We were given a number, but we have come to wonder about the validity of that number."

Rossmoor, about 20 miles east of San Francisco, is a gated enclave within the city of Walnut Creek, where the average age is 76 and two-thirds of the residents are women. Built in stages over the last 45 years, it has a population of 9,300. There are two golf courses, and more than half the community's 2,200 acres is open space.

Woodpeckers didn't pose a problem until about seven years ago, when the last homes were built on a ridge overlooking steep canyons with hundreds of oak trees.

The developer used Styrofoam covered by a thin layer of stucco for window frames and other decorative trim. The woodpeckers soon found that pecking holes in the trim was easier than boring into an oak.

The problem was compounded three years ago when Rossmoor began clearing dead wood from the canyons to minimize the risk of wildfires. That reduced the number of places where the birds could store their acorns.

Rossmoor estimates the woodpeckers have bored more than 3,000 holes in the buildings. Some days, the woodpeckers hammer for hours. The birds also have a habit of dropping acorns into roof gutters and vents.

The community has 16 homeowners associations, but the two plagued by the birds bear the cost of deterrence and repairs -- about $170,000 thus far. Replacing the window frames and trim could prove even more expensive.

Audubon California says one solution would be to build wooden "granaries" where the birds could store their acorns. The group offered to help the homeowners design and construct them.

One association agreed to stop killing the birds, but the other voted 3 to 2 last month to continue. In response, Audubon California withdrew its offer of help.

Fearing a deluge of critical e-mails and phone calls, the three board members declined interview requests. Orum said the board took its stand in part because it didn't like outsiders telling it what to do.

Some in the community believe the board made the wrong choice.

Diane Freeman lives in a unit overlooking the canyon, with giant oaks nearby.

Woodpeckers visit her house frequently, and there are dozens of holes in her walls. But she says she enjoys watching them and doesn't want them killed.

"I think it's ridiculous," she said. "It's not going to help. If you kill some, others will take their place. The board made the decision. They didn't ask anyone's opinion."

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richard.paddock@latimes.com

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