The phone wires between local bird lovers really hummed on the day the column appeared in which I admitted to killing the woodpecker that had been drilling holes in the side of my house last year.
In fact, I received a phone call that same evening from Ella Sorenson, who has written a book about the birds of Utah, informing me that she had reported me to the State's Division of Wildlife Resources and that I would probably receive a citation for violating both federal and state laws that pertain to non-game birds. She was not very happy with me.But her phone call was a blessing in disguise, because I was planning to write a follow-up story in which I give people plagued by woodpeckers any advice I might get from other readers on how to keep the birds away without killing them and Sorenson's phone call gave me a source I needed in order to get the right information. Also, it gave me a second reason to write a follow-up, namely, to be able to point out the laws that protect birds of which very few people are aware, including me, needless to say.
So I talked with others to whom she referred me, including Bob Walters, who is the non-game bird biologist for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, and Dale Gurley in Payson, who represents that agency in my locale and who would have been the man to have sent me up the river had my offense been more current.
According to the non-game bird proclamation, it is unlawful for any person to "shoot, shoot at, poison, kill, take, net, trap, ensnare, hunt or possess any birds or to rob or destroy any nest, egg or young of any bird." Under federal law, the penalty can be a fine of $500 and six months in the federal penitentiary. State laws result in fines determined on a case-by-case basis. There are a few birds, considered by some to be a nuisance, that do not fit under the ruling. They are the European starling, English sparrow and domestic pigeon. But like Jeanne Leber, a local member of the Audubon Society, pointed out to me, living in harmony with nature is to savor it. We teach our children something very special when we teach them to live with birds as friends rather than as prey. It is a fragile wilderness they represent.
So how, then, do you ward off destructive birds without killing them? On this question I got a lot of very positive responses. Several readers directed me to current gardening catalogs, most of which advertise fake birds of prey made of plastic or inflatable rubber.
Charlie Roberts, a reader in Lehi, says he's used a plastic owl in his garden for the past several years and that it works great - except for robins. Robins, he says, aren't afraid of anything.
I found my owl at a local nursery, an inflatable one that ties on the end of a stick. I bought an inflatable snake too - 6 feet long. Tomorrow I'll station the owl on the north side of the house and tack the snake to the south side. And we'll see what happens.
Walters and Gurley both mentioned the use of what they called "stringers," that is, something flashy waving in the air, like crepe paper or tinfoil pie plates cut into strips and hung on a string, which seem to work for less citified birds that haven't yet gotten used to the pizazz of city lights.
I can't help but wonder, though, is it better to scare the woodpeckers off if the trauma it might cause them is passed down to their offspring, affecting the stability of a whole generation of flickers who might shy away from the slightest snake-shaped stick and thereby starve because they don't dare land on anything?
But let me end on a different note. My whole point with this woodpecker thing has to do with something broader than killing birds. Killing birds and other small animals is generally the expression of an attitude that represents a much greater problem.
It seems that our egocentric spirit of manifest destiny, sparked in the 1800s with Western expansion but still alive far into the 20th century, has finally run its course. No longer can we approach the world with a "watch out, here I come" attitude. There's no longer room for it.
Like the indiscriminate killing of buffalo in its own time, there's no longer room in the world for killing birds, polluting water, disregarding acid rain and overfilling outmoded dump sites with nuclear wastes.
Even war, which has been with us from the beginning, has become outdated and run its course. The risk is too great. We must find new solutions.
The type of owl we try in our larger community garden may not be foolproof, but we've got to do something different, something new, something, hopefully, more effective than the policy of peace ironically described as mutually assured destruction. Because what we have now is a shooting gallery set up in a warehouse full of dynamite. And very few of us seem comfortable with the guys in charge of the guns.
In a larger sense, that's what I realized that day last winter when I turned over a fragile, bleeding flicker in the snow. I realized that in a too-quick moment of thoughtless self-perspective I had stilled a small, beautiful and breathing bit of the universe that could never be rekindled.