BOSTON — Alfred Hitchcock might only smile.
Echoing the plot in his classic movie "The Birds," woodpeckers in rural and semi-rural areas are chiseling big holes in thousands of wooden telephone and power poles from California to Massachusetts.
"At this point we don't know why there appears to be an increase," says Walter Crawford, executive director of the World Bird Sanctuary in St. Louis, an organization involved in a two-year study to try to find causes and solutions.
Woodpecker damage is now costing many utility companies millions of dollars each year, according to many utility companies and bird experts across the United States. The birds can ruin the structural integrity of poles by gouging out cavities the size of watermelons. When rain collects in the cavities, the wood rots.
More-urban utilities, like Bell South, report only minor problems with the pesky drillers. "The utilities that service major metropolitan areas don't have the problem that rural electric systems are seeing," says Jim Carter of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association in Arlington, Va.
"My linemen have seen a pileated woodpecker fly in one side of the pole and fly out the back side five feet lower," says Ted Macy, General Manager of the Salmon River Electric Co-Op in Challis, Idaho. "It's like an invasion around here."
The result of all this headlong drilling is that thousands of poles have to be replaced at a cost of anywhere from $400 to $10,000 each, depending on height, use, and location.
*After years of replacing wooden poles decimated by acorn woodpeckers along an eight-mile stretch of road in Madera County near Fresno, Calif., Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) last month put up 60 new steel poles at $2,500 a piece. The cost of the project, including labor, was $1 million. Power to the town of Oakhurst and surrounding areas, with a population of nearly 20,000, was shut down for a Sunday. "That's woodpecker power," says Francis Squire, a PG&E spokesman.
*In Challis, Idaho, the Salmon River Electric Co-op spent about $350 per customer in a section of the service area to repair woodpecker damage in l994. "Total cost was $180,000," Mr. Macy says. "In l994, we also had to replace six poles that were beyond repair."
*In Montana, a utility company is now literally wrapping poles with a fine mesh made of quarter-inch heavy wire.
*And in one particularly show-stopping attack, woodpeckers went after the foam covering on an external fuel tank of the space shuttle last year at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, delaying the launch. "The incident cost NASA $320,000," says Lisa Malone, a spokeswoman for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
Because woodpeckers are a federally protected species, wholesale extermination in troubled areas is out of the question, although some utilities have been given limited permission to shoot the birds. Many utilities are scrambling to discover inexpensive ways to deflect and chase the birds away.
Kenneth Rosenberg, a chief scientist at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., suggests utility companies should welcome the birds to the poles. "They could attract the bird to a portion of the pole that wouldn't damage it structurally," he suggests. "It might be cheaper that way, instead of using steel poles, and benefit the birds as well."
A convergence of forces may have led to the increase in damage, experts say, or perhaps there are some as yet undiscovered factors. With the decrease of chemical contaminants in the environment, such as DDT, the woodpecker population may have soared, some authorities suggest.
Add to this the possibility that there are more dead trees in forests today - and therefore more insects available - and woodpeckers are drilling everywhere to nest, dine, and store acorns and grain.
"The real problem is that man is moving into the woodpecker's habitat," Mr. Carter says. The birds do not have natural predators, except for occasional hawks, but humans are beginning to fit the bill.
Foraging habits and migratory patterns may also play a part. Some birds will live in an average of seven different roosts in a three- to 10-month period. Woodpeckers drum against hard surfaces to proclaim territory, and males do it to show off to females in the breeding season.
"We know that a woodpecker's brain is encased in an almost shock-absorber kind of mass that protects it," Mr. Crawford says. Even the creosote coating on most phone poles doesn't stop them. A pileated woodpecker with a red crested head can be 18 inches long.
Crawford, with his study funded by Union Electric Company in Missouri, is trapping and banding some of the young birds to determine if they are "imprinting" on the poles. "It's possible they see the poles as the place to nest because that's where they started," he says. "If that is so, somehow we have to help change this."
Another possibility is that power lines create a humming, sometimes crackling vibration known as a corona. The theory is that woodpeckers interpret this as the presence of insects in the wood. "But we're grasping at straws on this one," Crawford says.
Because the birds like to excavate their own holes, any artificial sites are usually snubbed. "The kind of wood [in the poles] doesn't seem to make a difference either," says Crawford. "Two kinds are used here. You can go for 10 miles on a route and find no holes, and then for three miles, with the same kind of wood, every pole has a hole."
After woodpeckers tackled the space shuttle, a Bird Investigation Review and Deterrent (BIRD) team was formed among scientists.
BIRD concluded that northern flicker woodpeckers may have lost their nests to pushy starlings before flicker females could lay their eggs. Scientists said the flickers then became desperate. The orange color and texture of the insulation on the tank is similar to the soft surface of palm trees often inhabited by flickers.
Deterrent tactics now include predatory bird calls over the public address system, plastic decoys, water hoses, TV surveillance, reflective mylar streamers, and observers blasting air horns.
At one point, NASA trained a video camera on the birds and timed one woodpecker hammering away for eight minutes straight.
Such determination can have dramatic effects on the life of a phone pole. Telephone poles usually last from 25 to 35 years in most areas. But near forests and semirural areas, woodpeckers can cut the lifespan down to five years or less.
Macy considered the mesh technique used in Montana, but rejected it as too impractical. "It takes two or three hours to do each pole," Macy says. "Our poles here in Idaho are from 55 to 80 feet tall, and some of them at the base you can't get your arms around. We couldn't afford to put mesh around each pole."
What Macy and other utility managers do now is pump epoxy resin into the cavities after they have been filled with small chunks of wood. Steel spikes are sometimes driven at angles through the pole to hold it together.
But one pole sometimes requires 70 to 80 tubes full of the epoxy at a cost of about $25 a tube. "The woodpeckers go around to the backside, drill again but hit the resin and stop," says Macy. "Then they go to another part of the pole."
Virginia Power spends about $15,000 a year on epoxy fillers, and has to replace about 200 poles a year because of woodpeckers.
In some areas, PG&E has turned to testing fiberglass poles costing almost $800 a piece that are just coming on the market. Wood poles in California, by comparison, can cost up to $400. But steel and fiberglass poles are much lighter than wood, less expensive to ship, and easier to install. Life expectancy is expected to be as high as 80 years. The poles don't need chemical treatments and will not burn. The woodpecker may have met his match.