Last Sunday morning while enjoying a leisurely breakfast, my husband, daughter and I heard a woodpecker-like tapping.
My husband stepped outside to locate the noise, which sounded like it came from our chimney. He saw nothing, so we assumed the bird had flown off.
As soon as we’d settled back to eating our scrambled eggs, the tapping returned. It appeared to come from the chimney of our Russian fireplace. This time my husband climbed the stairs to our second-floor tower room where he could see the chimney. Still, no bird presented itself to his view.
Again we continued with breakfast. Here I must explain about our Russian fireplace. It’s a large masonry structure designed to hold the heat from a wood fire and then radiate the warmth back into the room. To accomplish this, heat from the firebox goes through a series of S-shaped baffles before it reaches the chimney. We hadn’t started using the stove yet this fall.
Soon it became clear that the tapping was coming from inside the stove’s fire chamber. Next we heard a scurrying noise from the firebox and our breakfast discussion turned to chipmunks and rats.
I reached for the door to the firebox to peek inside.
Bill called, “Don’t open it!”
Our daughter, visiting from Virginia with her 15-month-old child, added with a nervous giggle, “We don’t want rats in the house!”
I cracked the door just enough to see that the critter was a bird and announced, “It’s just a little bird.”
Feeling confident that I could handle a small bird, I opened the door just enough to see inside. In a flash, the “little bird” turned into a very large flicker and darted out of the firebox. In a flurry of ash, soot and feathers, the 13-inch brown-and-grey bird flew toward a tall living room window, seeking escape. It smashed into the window with a soft thud; then dropped to the windowsill. I dashed to the flicker and grabbed it from behind, restraining its wings with my two hands.
I looked down at the long, sharp bill designed to probe deep into tree trunks to extract food and thought this was a really dumb move. I should have used a towel over the bird’s head to keep it subdued.
But I had my “bird in the hand” and wasn’t about to let go. I needed to act fast before it decided to attack the hand that was trying to help it.
Bill reached to open the outside door. I stepped out and released the bird.
Again, it flew up toward light. The bird slammed into the porch roof skylight. It again crashed down, this time clinging to the side of the house, somewhat protected behind the barbeque grill. It rested there for about 20 minutes before flying off without further incident.
Back at the breakfast table, Bill asked the obvious question, “What’s a big bird like that doing in our chimney? And how did it get down through all the baffles to the firebox?”
Our flicker was behaving as all birds do this time of year. It was looking for a place to roost during the long winter nights.
Contrary to popular belief, birds do not return to their nests to roost at night. Nests are only used during the breeding season to hold the younger birds.
Instead, birds seek nighttime protection deep in a thick evergreen tree or bush, under the eaves of a house, in a barn or other dry, protected spot. Some birds such as starlings and blackbirds roost in large groups for warmth and protection.
Once a bird finds a suitable roost, it may return night after night. For years, a rock pigeon roosted on top of the light fixture outside our back door. I’ve had reports of a wren that roosted under the eaves of a friend’s house, night after night, all winter.
Woodpeckers, like our flicker, typically roost in a hollow tree cavity. I suspect our flicker found what looked like a good night roost in our chimney, which is covered from the rain. Somehow, during Saturday night, it crawled or slipped deeper down the inside of the chimney, perhaps looking for warmth.
In the early morning, the flicker may have headed further down toward the light inside our house. At some point, the bird made it through the baffles and then into our firebox.
I have no idea if the flicker had used our chimney prior to its detour into our firebox.
So far, it has not returned to the roost he picked on Saturday night.
And I’m still cleaning up soot, feathers and ash from my living room carpet.
Frances Wood can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. She is author of “Brushed by Feathers: A Year of Birdwatching in the West” (Fulcrum Publishing, Golden, Colo.) available at local bookstores.