Wild Neighbors: Woodpecker Wars: Free the Fort Collins Twenty!

By Joe Eaton
Thursday July 09, 2009 - 10:15:00 AM
A male acorn woodpecker near Groveland.
Steve Ryan
A male acorn woodpecker near Groveland.

Last fall in this space, I wrote about the Rossmoor acorn woodpecker controversy. Homeowners there complained that the birds were drilling acorn storage cavities in their houses, and the Homeowners’ Association (HOA) had obtained a depredation permit from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to kill 50 of the woodpeckers. The actual dirty work was farmed out to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services, an agency with a long and inglorious history of exterminating “nuisance” animals. 

The picture has changed somewhat since then. The Mount Diablo Audubon Society, which has members in Rossmoor, had been involved from the beginning in educational efforts on behalf of the birds. Audubon California organized a petition campaign at the state level. In apparent response to that, Fish and Wildlife Service suspended the killing after at least 22 woodpeckers had been shot. The depredation permit expired at the end of May. 

However, it seems that the Rossmoor HOA and the federal agencies have quietly executed an end run. Mount Diablo Audubon’s publication The Quail reports that FWS authorized Wildlife Services to collect 20 acorn woodpeckers from Rossmoor for research purposes. (For details, see the Mount Diablo Audubon Society’s July-August newsletter at 

The birds were captured in May and taken to the National Wildlife Research Center in Fort Collins, Colorado. According to a USDA response to California Audubon, the woodpeckers will be experimental subjects in a study “to evaluate the effectiveness of several deterrent calls for use in a nonlethal electronic deterrent device.” When the research is completed, they will be euthanized. 

There are so many things wrong with this that it’s hard to know where to begin. It’s not surprising that the Rossmoor residents were able to pull the necessary strings to have the woodpecker pogrom completed in the name of research. I’ve tried to avoid words like “arrogance” and “privilege” when writing about Rossmoor, but it’s getting harder. These are folks who were always good at getting things done, and they haven’t lost their touch in retirement. 

Bear in mind that these are your federal tax dollars at work. Wildlife Services is supposed to deal with economically significant wildlife damage: predation on livestock, aircraft collisions, water birds raiding fish farms, blackbirds feeding on sunflowers and grains. It’s hard to make the case that acorn woodpecker damage to residential structures merits federal attention. Is it considered a problem anywhere else, and if so what dollar amount are we talking about? Or is this just a favor to Rossmoor? 

It’s interesting to consider the evolution of Wildlife Services, previously called Animal Damage Control; I’m not sure when it was rebranded to sound more benign. Founded in 1886 to deal with house sparrows, it took on rodent and predator control missions in 1913-14. Under various titles, the agency killed wolves, coyotes, bears, and mountain lions and was responsible for a great deal of collateral damage, including the near-extinction of the black-footed ferret. Its Colorado research arm developed an arsenal of traps and poisons.  

Several outside review committees, including one chaired by the legendary UC wildlife biologist A. Starker Leopold, were harshly critical of the agency’s methods. Likewise the Government Accountability Office. But it has had powerful friends in the livestock industry, and has survived several Congressional attempts to give it the axe. According to the advocacy group Predator Defense, Wildlife Services “has recently been branching out to increase its programs to remove wildlife from urban areas…”  

But put that history aside for the moment and look at the woodpecker research on its own merits. If you’re working on nonlethal control technology, why not conduct field studies to see how the birds respond under normal—that is, non-laboratory—conditions? You’d think the Rossmoor residents would consider the recorded deterrent calls a small price to pay. 

The rationale for euthanizing the research subjects is equally flimsy. USDA says they can’t ensure the birds’ “isolation from other species or pathogens during the course of our study. Therefore releasing the birds back into the wild is not allowed under our permit.” The agency’s concern for the well-being of the wild woodpecker population is touching. There are well-established protocols for medical screening of rehabilitated wild birds before their release, but that must be more than Wildlife Services’ veterinarians can be bothered with. 

This isn’t really about research, of course. It’s lethal control with a thin veneer of science. And it reeks of blatant favoritism toward well-connected folks who are determined to have their way, environmental values and public opinion be damned.  

If you’d like to comment on the Rossmoor woodpecker atrocity, you can write to Gail Keirn, Public Affairs Specialist, U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service, Wildlife Services, National Wildlife Research Center, 4101 LaPorte Avenue, Fort Collins, Colorado, 80521-2154. Phone: (970) 266.6007. Fax: (970) 266.6010. E-mail: .