NR Digital

Country Life

Tap, Tap, Tap

by Richard Brookhiser

Winter is the Stasi of the animal world, stripping away privacy. Snow is a surveillance camera, tracking movement, taking notes: You have been here, and you, and you, and this is where you went and what you did. Leaflessness turns trees into interrogation centers: We see where you live, we watch you eat. I am not an active bird-watcher — I will not go out at odd hours, nor to remote or uncomfortable places to seek them — but when birds cross my path I will look at them. Winter makes it easy.

The stars of the ice capades are woodpeckers. They come in sizes, small, medium, and large, like underwear or lattes. The smallest are downy woodpeckers, maybe four or five inches long. They have speckled black and white backs and white fronts; the males wear a red patch on the backs of their round heads. They are pert little things, with jumpy movements and small bills; they have little fear, and they can’t do much damage. Their pecking recalls a woman’s prattle: amusing, unstoppable. The hairy woodpecker, though it has the same coloring, seems quite different. It is larger and simultaneously more cautious and more businesslike. Its bill resembles a tool, a screwdriver or a tattoo gun, and it wields it with purposeful strokes. When a hairy arrives, the downy departs. The red-bellied woodpecker is larger yet. He has the manners and the palette, both reserved and dapper, of an older gentleman of the sort that was once called “confirmed bachelor.” He is elusive and hesitant, and while he too favors black and white speckles for his back, he also sports a golden gray underside and a bright vermilion head.

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