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We explained why woodpeckers hammer on metal — which struck a chord with listeners


I recently did a story that got more listener comments than any other I've done in a while. It was about this mysterious noise I heard at my house early one recent morning.


PFEIFFER: A loud, metallic hammering over and over.


PFEIFFER: It turned out to be a woodpecker hammering on my rooftop metal chimney cap. So I decided to find out why a bird would do that. And my story explaining that animal behavior got a lot of responses from people who had the same startling experience.

VAL MINA: My wife and I - we were looking at each other like, what the heck is happening? Like, there was a time of short panic. And it was a bird hammering away at the side of our chimney, making this super-mechanical sound.

NICK ONAITIS: If you take a garbage can lid and screwdriver and just rap on the garbage can lid rapidly - you know, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang - it's kind of like that.

JUSTINE MATHURIN: It did not sound like a beak hitting wood. It sounded like really loud metal tapping.

THOMAS GRILLO: I guess it would be like if you were banging a nail into metal. And my neighbor came out and said, what is that noise?

PFEIFFER: Those were NPR listeners Val Mina (ph), Nick Onaitis, Justine Mathurin and Thomas Grillo. I also heard from a very familiar voice to this show.

MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: This is Melissa Block. I'm a longtime NPR correspondent and former ALL THINGS CONSIDERED host.

PFEIFFER: Melissa told me she's had this happen at her house, too.

BLOCK: It was so loud. It felt almost like the whole house was shaking, like, metallic, jackhammer-like, prolonged period of time.

PFEIFFER: And I heard from 84-year-old Jon Stott. He said my story answered a question he's had since the late 1980s. Back then, he was at his cabin in Michigan when he was jarred out of sleep.

JON STOTT: It was about 6 o'clock in the morning, and then rat-tat-tat-tat-tat started occurring just as daybreak came along. And I didn't know what was happening.

PFEIFFER: His metal stovepipe seemed to be reverberating. So...

STOTT: I went outside, and there was this darn woodpecker, not being a woodpecker but being a metal chimney pecker, as it were.

PFEIFFER: He shooed the bird away by tossing a pine cone at it and later told his neighbors what had happened.

STOTT: One of them wondered if I'd had too many beers before I went to bed the night before. And others said, oh, well, that's the way they clean their beaks or sharpen their bills.

PFEIFFER: But that is not why woodpeckers hammer on metal. I know that because I asked Kevin McGowan of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. He said woodpeckers hammer on wood to find food, make a home, mark territory and attract mates. But when they bash away at metal...

KEVIN MCGOWAN: What the birds are trying to do is make as big a noise as possible, and a number of these guys have found that - you know what? - if you hammer on metal, it's really loud.

PFEIFFER: So they'll drill on chimney caps, vent pipes, gutters, aluminum siding, traffic signs, even satellite dishes. And that metallic racket sends two messages.

MCGOWAN: All other guys, stay away. All the girls, come to me.

PFEIFFER: When Jon Stott heard my story, he finally had an explanation for something he'd been wondering for 35 years.

STOTT: This was an unsolved mystery, and nobody knew what it was about, and there you were for me.

PFEIFFER: That's what we try to do at NPR because, after all, we are ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

(SOUNDBITE OF KACEY MUSGRAVES SONG, "OH, WHAT A WORLD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Megan Lim
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Linah Mohammad
Prior to joining NPR in 2022, Mohammad was a producer on The Washington Post's daily flagship podcast Post Reports, where her work was recognized by multiple awards. She was honored with a Peabody award for her work on an episode on the life of George Floyd.
Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.