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Ways of Wood Folk by 


 

 

A FELLOW OF EXPEDIENTS

[152]

A MONG the birds there is one whose personal appearance is rapidly changing. He illustrates in his present life a process well known historically to all naturalists, viz., the modification of form resulting from changed environment. I refer to the golden-winged woodpecker, perhaps the most beautifully marked bird of the North, whose names are as varied as his habits and accomplishments.

Nature intended him to get his living, as do the other woodpeckers, by boring into old trees and stumps for the insects that live on the decaying wood. For this purpose she gave him the straight, sharp, wedge-shaped bill, just calculated for cutting out chips; the very long horn-tipped tongue for thrusting into the holes he makes; the peculiar arrangement of toes, two forward and two back; and the stiff, spiny tail-feathers for supporting himself against the side of a tree as he works. But getting his living so means hard work, and he has discovered [153] for himself a much easier way. One now frequently surprises him on the ground in old pastures and orchards, floundering about rather awkwardly (for his little feet were never intended for walking) after the crickets and grasshoppers that abound there. Still he finds the work of catching them much easier than boring into dry old trees, and the insects themselves much larger and more satisfactory.

A single glance will show how much this new way of living has changed him from the other woodpeckers. The bill is no longer straight, but has a decided curve, like the thrushes; and instead of the chisel-shaped edge there is a rounded point. The red tuft on the head, which marks all the woodpecker family, would be too conspicuous on the ground. In its place we find a red crescent well down on the neck, and partially hidden by the short gray feathers about it. The point of the tongue is less horny, and from the stiff points of the tail-feathers laminas are beginning to grow, making them more like other birds'. A future generation will undoubtedly wonder where this peculiar kind of thrush got his unusual tongue and tail, just as we wonder at the deformed little feet and strange ways of a cuckoo.

The habits of this bird are a curious compound of his old life in the woods and his new preference for the open fields and farms. Sometimes the nest is in [154] the very heart of the woods, where the bird glides in and out, silent as a crow in nesting time. His feeding place meanwhile may be an old pasture half a mile away, where he calls loudly, and frolics about as if he had never a care or a fear in the world. But the nest is now more frequently in a wild orchard, where the bird finds an old knot-hole and digs down through the soft wood, making a deep nest with very little trouble. When the knot-hole is not well situated, he finds a large decayed limb and drills through the outer hard shell, then digs down a foot or more through the soft wood, and makes a nest. In this nest the rain— never troubles him, for he very providently drills the entrance on the under side of the limb.

Like many other birds, he has discovered that the farmer is his friend. Occasionally, therefore, he neglects to build a deep nest, simply hollowing out an old knot-hole, and depending on the presence of man for protection from hawks and owls. At such times the bird very soon learns to recognize those who belong in the orchard, and loses the extreme shyness that characterizes him at all other times.

Once a farmer, knowing my interest in birds, invited me to come and see a golden-winged woodpecker, which in her confidence had built so shallow a nest that she could be seen sitting on the eggs like a robin.

[155] She was so tame, he said, that in going to his work he sometimes passed under the tree without disturbing her The moment we crossed the wall within sight of the nest, the bird slipped away out of the orchard Wishing to test her, we withdrew and waited till she returned. Then the farmer passed within a few feet without disturbing her in the least. Ten minutes later I followed him, and the bird flew away again as I crossed the wall.

The notes of the golden-wing— much more varied and musical than those of other woodpeckers— are probably the results of his new free life, and the modified tongue and bill. In the woods one seldom hears from him anything but the rattling rat-a-tat-tat, as he hammers away on a dry old pine stub. As a rule he seems to do this more for the noise it makes, and the exercise of his abilities, than because he expects to find insects inside; except in winter time, when he goes back to his old ways. But out in the fields he has a variety of notes. Sometimes it is a loud kee-uk, like the scream of a blue jay divided into two syllables with the accent on the last. Again it is a loud cheery whistling call, of very short notes run close together with accent on every other one. Again he teeters' up and down on the end of an old fence rail with a rollicking eekoo, eekoo, eekoo, that sounds more like a laugh than anything else among the birds. In most [156] of his musical efforts the golden-wing, instead of clinging to the side of a tree, sits across the limb, like other birds.

A curious habit which the bird has adopted with advancing civilization is that of providing himself with a sheltered sleeping place from the storms and cold of winter. Late in the fall he finds a deserted building, and after a great deal of shy inspection, to satisfy himself that no one is within, drills a hole through the side. He has then a comfortable place to sleep, and an abundance of decaying wood in which to hunt insects on stormy days. An ice-house is a favorite location for him, the warm sawdust furnishing a good burrowing place for a nest or sleeping room. When a building is used as a nesting place, the bird very cunningly drills the entrance close up under the eaves, where it is sheltered from storms, and at the same time out of sight of all prying eyes. During the winter several birds often occupy one building together. I know of one old deserted barn where last year five of the birds lived very peaceably; though what they were doing there in the daytime I could never quite make out. At almost any hour of the day, if one approached very cautiously and thumped the side of the barn, some of the birds would dash out in great alarm, never stopping to look behind them. At first there were but three entrances; but after I [157] had surprised them a few times, two more were added; whether to get out more quickly when all were inside, or simply for the sake of drilling the holes, I do not know. Sometimes a pair of birds will have five or six holes drilled, generally on the same side of the building.

Two things about my family in the old barn aroused my curiosity— what they were doing there by day, and how they got out so quickly when alarmed. The only way it seemed possible for them to dash out on the instant, as they did, was to fly straight through. But the holes were too small, and no bird— but a bank-swallow would have attempted such a thing.

One day I drove the birds out, then crawled in under a sill on the opposite side, and hid in a corner of the loft without disturbing anything inside. It was a long wait in the stuffy old place before one of the birds came back. I heard him light first on the roof; then his little head appeared at one of the holes as he sat just below, against the side of the barn, looking and listening before coming in. Quite satisfied after a minute or two that nobody was inside, he scrambled in and flew down to a corner in which was a lot of old hay and rubbish. Here he began a great rustle and stirring about, like a squirrel in autumn leaves, probably after insects, though it was too dark to see just what he was doing. It sounded part of the time [158] as if he were scratching aside the hay, much as a hen would have done. If so, his two little front toes must have made sad work of it, with the two hind ones always getting doubled up in the way. When I thumped suddenly against the side of the barn, he hurled himself like a shot at one of the holes, alighting just below it, and stuck there in a way that reminded me of the chewed-paper balls that boys used to throw against the blackboard in school. I could hear plainly the thump of his little feet as he struck. With the same movement, and without pausing an instant, he dived through headlong, aided by a spring from his tail, much as a jumping jack goes over the head of his stick, only much more rapidly. Hardly had he gone before another appeared, to go through the same program.

Though much shyer than other birds of the farm, he often ventures up close to the house and doorway in the early morning, before any one is stirring. One spring morning I was awakened by a strange little pattering sound, and, opening my eyes, was astonished to see one of these birds on the sash of the open window within five feet of my hand. Half closing my eyes, I kept very still and watched. Just in front of him, on the bureau, was a stuffed golden-wing, with wings and tail spread to show to best advantage the beautiful plumage. He had seen it in flying by, and [159] now stood hopping back and forth along the window sash, uncertain whether to come in or not. Sometimes he spread his wings as if on the point of flying in; then he would turn his head to look curiously at me and at the strange surroundings, and, afraid to venture in, endeavor to attract the attention of the stuffed bird, whose head was turned away. In the looking-glass he saw his own movements repeated. Twice he began his love call very softly, but cut it short, as if frightened. The echo of the small room made it seem so different from the same call in the open fields that I think he doubted even his own voice.


[Illustration]

Almost over his head, on a bracket against the wall, was another bird, a great hawk, pitched forward on his perch, with wings wide spread and fierce eyes glaring downward, in the intense attitude a hawk takes as he strikes his prey from some lofty watch tree. The golden-wing by this time was ready to venture in. He had leaned forward with wings spread, looking down at me to be quite sure I was harmless, when, turning his head for a final look round, he caught sight of the hawk just ready to pounce down on him. With a startled kee-uk he fairly tumbled back off the window sash, and I caught one glimpse of him as he dashed round the corner in full flight.

What were his impressions, I wonder, as he sat on a limb of the old apple tree and thought it all over?

[160] Do birds have romances? How much greater wonders had he seen than those of any romance! And do they have any means of communicating them, as they sing their love songs? What a wonderful story he could tell, a real story, of a magic palace full of strange wonders; of a glittering bit of air that made him see himself; of a giant, all in white, with only his head visible; of an enchanted beauty, stretching her wings in mute supplication for some brave knight to touch her and break the spell, while on high a fierce dragon-hawk kept watch, ready to eat up any one who should dare enter!

And of course none of the birds would believe him. He would have to spend the rest of his life explaining; and the others would only whistle, and call him lagoa, the lying woodpecker. On the whole, it would be better for a bird with such a very unusual experience to keep still about it.


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