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Mixed-up bird attacking cars

Thursday, June 12, 2003


The prime suspect in a vandalism spree in Bloomingdale has red hair, a prominent nose, and stands about a foot tall. Police haven't been able to catch him because he flies away so quickly after committing his crimes.

He's a woodpecker, and he has ruined the side-view mirrors on at least four cars since Saturday.

At first, police thought it was the work of kids. But then some residents came forth to identify the culprit.

Apparently, the bird thinks he's pecking away at a rival woodpecker. But it's his own reflection that sends him into a fury. And that's making his human neighbors furious, too.

"For a woodpecker to actually do something like that ... to make pockmarks in my car is off the wall," said Reeve Avenue resident Gary Gaudreau, who lost one mirror completely and had another cracked. "This is going to cost me 100 bucks because of the ... woodpecker."

The villain is a male pileated woodpecker, which, at 12 to 19 inches, is about the size of a crow.

"It was the largest woodpecker I ever saw," said Pleasantview Drive resident Kelly Luke, who saw the bird peck at her husband's truck without inflicting damage. "We were staring at it because it was just so big."

Apparently, the woodpecker sees himself in windows and car mirrors - but isn't bright enough to know he's looking at himself.

He has pluck, though. The woodpecker is ready to peck to death any male who dares to encroach upon his territory, which he methodically carves out in spring and makes ready for mating and supporting a new family. He claims all the food - carpenter ants are his favorite snack - in his territory.

"He is seeing his competition for the territory he's in," said Sandy Komito of Fair Lawn, a veteran birder of statewide renown. "He can recognize it as being a male and doesn't want any other male in his territory. The bird sees his own image, but is not smart enough to understand anything about the word reflection."

Komito figures it has been the same bird at each crime scene because the black-breasted, red-crested pileated woodpecker - or Dryocopus pileatus, in scientific terms - usually claims a wide area. Komito said the female is not territorial and is all black.

The males "need fairly good-sized territories in order to be able to feed themselves," Komito said. "I would have to think that it's probably the same guy."

Gaudreau woke up Sunday to find his red 2003 Chevrolet Malibu defaced. The glass from the driver's side mirror was all over the ground. The passenger-side mirror was twisted, and the door was damaged. Later, the mirror fell off.

Gaudreau thought at first that a neighborhood youth had taken a bat to his car - until police told his roommate, Edward Quinn, that several residents had seen a large woodpecker flying from the scene.

"Of course you think it might be kids, someone acting up," said Patrolman Dan Fletcher. "But there was no sign of attempted entry." A couple of the cars, in fact, were unlocked - but nothing was stolen.- Gaudreau was dumbfounded when he discovered the vandal's identity.

"This is ridiculous," said Gaudreau, used to hearing the pecking of woodpeckers in his back yard, which is next to thick woods. "Every May, June, just about the same time of year, they used to peck the heck out of the trees. It sounded like a jackhammer."

Close calls with wildlife are old hat for Bloomingdale residents. On Wednesday, police received six calls before 11 a.m. about a 200-pound bear lumbering through the streets. The day before, the same bear wandered into a back yard, joining 15 children at a birthday party. Ignoring the children, he found what he was looking for - a bag of trash - and retreated into the woods to feast.

But spotting the pileated woodpecker, one of the largest woodpeckers, is a rare event. The male is typically shy, preferring to stay in forests, where he can stake his territory and start a family each spring.

The pileated woodpecker and the black bear have one thing in common: Each year, there is less of their woodsy home and more concrete, brick, and mortar.

"The pileated generally prefers areas where there isn't any human encroachment," Komito said. "Unfortunately, over the years all of our forests have been removed. The pileated have had to adapt to areas where trees are cleared out and homes are built."

Animal control officer Lisa Perry urged locals not to harm the bird, no matter how frustrated they get. (Police dispatcher Pattie Monsaert said one resident told her that he would kill the next woodpecker he saw.) But they don't have to passively accept the damage. "A brown bag makes great sense, just to cover the mirrors," Perry said.

Copyright 2003 North Jersey Media Group Inc.

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