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.

All these come quite close to the back of my house; I can see them while I wash the dishes or brush my teeth. They come for the insects in the trees and for the suet I set out. (I know that bird-feeding is a point of debate in birding circles: Should we hand out bird welfare, or let nature take its course? If I am doing wrong, I do it only in winter; as soon as the bears wake up, down come my feeders.)

The pileated woodpecker, the largest, I see only by chance. This is the largest American woodpecker, over a foot long, with striking, flag-like colors — black back and wings, white neck and under-wings, black-and-white striped face, a red crest. It has a rocking, almost roller-coaster flight, and a strident call; the bird books generally render it cuck! cuck! cuck! but that doesn’t capture the tone of insistence. The story that the pileated was the model for Woody Woodpecker seems not to be true; the cartoonist Walter Lantz based Woody instead on the acorn woodpecker, a western species. So another bird made it in Hollywood; but the pileated could create the role on Broadway.

Surely a creature like the pileated woodpecker is made to be seen and heard. Not by men, though. If he sees you, he will generally flee, or slide to the far side of whatever tree he is on. John James Audubon described its evasive action. “It is at all times a shy bird. . . . When seen in a large field newly brought into tillage, and yet covered with girdled trees, it removes from one to another, cackling out its laughter-like notes, as if it found delight in leading you a wild-goose chase.”

Pileated woodpeckers were right to avoid Audubon: He wanted to shoot them, the better to draw them. Ars longa, vita brevis. They disliked captivity quite as much as being stalked. Audubon quoted a minister who tried to raise a pair he had taken from a nest. “Their whole employment consisted in attempting to escape from their [cage], regularly demolishing one every two days. . . . In the morning after receiving water, which they drank freely, they invariably upset the cup or saucer. . . . After this they attacked the trough which contained their food, and soon broke it to pieces, and when perchance I happened to approach them with my hand, they made passes at it with their powerful bills.” Finally, they saw their chance:

On opening the door of my study one morning, one of them dashed off by me, alighted on an apple-tree near the house, climbed some distance, and kept watching me from one side and then the other, as if to ask what my intentions were. I walked into my study: — the other was hammering at my books. They had broken one of the bars of the cage, and must have been at liberty for some hours, judging by the mischief they had done. Tired of my pets, I opened the door, and this last one hearing the voice of his brother, flew towards him and alighted on the same tree. They remained about half an hour, as if consulting each other, after which, taking to their wings together, they flew off . . . with much more ease than could have been expected from birds so long kept in captivity.

Ungrateful wretches; the nice minister was willing to feed you, so long as he could confine you.

There used to be an even larger American woodpecker, the ivory-billed. It never lived anywhere near my country house, and now it doesn’t live anywhere, though there have been unconfirmed sightings in Arkansas and Florida in the last decade. The ivory-billed woodpecker was just too particular: The bugs it ate lived in dead tupelo trees in swamps, whereas the pileated can dine throughout the eastern United States and Canada. Stay undiscriminating, and stay alert.

I was walking home through the snow at dusk just before the New Year when I saw the pileated — I think of it as one individual — flying in the opposite direction. He stayed at treetop level, where there was still sun, alighting on one, two, three trees, proclaiming his call. I was so dark and still and he so intent — on mating? on marking territory? on some other woodpecker exaltation? — that he paid me no mind.

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