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Woodpeckers

( Originally Published Ealry 1900's )



Mrs. Comstock has gained her knowledge of the birds from her close observation that the successful natural history artist must necessarily practice, and her work in many departments of Nature Study at Cornell University is an important feature of that institution.

IT is best to follow some definite line of bird study for an entire year. All of the observations that could be made in a single month on any bird would give but an inadequate idea of its habits. To know the life of a bird, one must study it month by month for at least one year.

The woodpeckers seem a most attractive group for our study. They are not only very interesting, but of great importance to the farmer, orchardist and forester. There are five common species in New York State that we all may learn to know, and then make observations of our own on their habits. These species are the downy, the hairy, the sapsucker, the flicker and the redhead. The way to begin our observations in winter is to tie a piece of suet to the branch of some tree easily observed from our windows. Such a bird feast as this is on a branch of a chestnut oak in front of my office window, and though I never have time to watch more than momentarily the birds that come there to eat, yet each glance tells me something of their ways, and my own day's work is much brighter and happier therefor. The " downy," as he is universally called, comes with his mate every day and they eat greedily of the suet; when they first arrive they are so absorbed in working this food mine that I sometimes stand directly beneath and watch them without frightening them. Perhaps they know that I am the friend who invited them to breakfast. Anyway, as soon as they leave the suet they hunt industriously over my tree, finding there all of the hidden in-sects, and thus they keep my oak clean and pay for their breakfast. Occasionally the hairy woodpecker comes, a self-invited guest to the suet banquet. To the untrained eye he looks very like an over-grown downy, as he is by two or three inches the longer; but his outer tail feathers are entirely white, while the downy's are barred with black; usually the red cap of the hairy is divided by a black stripe. The hairy is said to be a shy bird, but I have seen him several times this winter at a suet party near dwellings.

In April there is likely to appear in any region of New York State a bird which is often mistaken for the downy or hairy, although it is very different in both coloring and habits. This is the sapsucker, the only woodpecker of bad repute. However, I am sure its deeds are not nearly so black as they are painted. The male sapsucker has a bright red crown and chin and throat, his breast is yellow, and he is also yellowish on the back; while the males of the downy and hairy are red-capped and black and white with na yellow.

Downy, Sapsucker and Red-Head. This morning I was awakened by the beating of a drum over in the woods. My ear was not yet sufficiently trained so that I knew whether my drummer was Mr. Downy or Mr. Hairy, yet I strongly suspected the former. The tattoo of the Sapsucker (which does not nest here). James Whit-comb Riley has aptly characterized as " Weeding out the lonesomeness." This is exactly what the drumming of woodpeckers in the early spring means. The male selects some dried limb of hard wood and there beats out his well-known signal which advertises far and near, " Wanted, a wife." And after he wins her he keeps on drumming to cheer her, while she is busy with her family cares. The woodpecker has no voice for singing, like the robin or thrush, and realizing his deficiency, he does not insist on singing like the peacock, whether he can or no. He chooses rather to devote his voice to terse and business-like conversation, and when he is musically inclined he turns drummer. He is rather particular about his instrument, and, having found one that pleases him in tone, returns to it day after day.

In case the drumming I heard this morning was an advertisement for a wife, I am interested to know what has become of Mrs. Downy, who has been true to her mate all winter. Does, perhaps, the springtime bring divorce as well as marriage? Mr. Burroughs tells of a downy that was absolutely brutal in his treatment of his mate in winter, not allowing her to live in his neighborhood. Be this as it may, the downy and the hairy woodpeckers that have feasted upon my suet this winter have invariably come in pairs, and while only one at a time sits at meat, and the lord and master is somewhat " bossy," yet they seem to get along as well as most married pairs.

The sapsucker is a woodpecker that- has strayed from the paths of virtue ; he has fallen into temptation by the wayside, and instead of drilling a hole for the sake of the grub at the end of it he drills it for his own sake. He is a tippler and sap is his beverage. He is especially fond of the sap of the mountain ash, apple, thorn apple, canoe birch, red maple, red oak and white ash. He drills his holes in beautiful rows, and sometimes girdles a limb or tree, and for this he is pronounced a rascal by men who have themselves ruthlessly cut from our land millions of trees that should now be standing. However, the sapsucker does not live solely on sap and the soft cambium layer of the tree; he also feeds on insects wherever he finds them. When feeding their young, sapsuckers are true flycatchers, getting the insects while on the wing. If you find a sapsucker girdling a tree in your orchard or a birch on your lawn, just protect the trees with a wire netting, and let the sapsucker catch mosquitoes for you instead, and remember that he belongs to a good family and is entitled to some consideration, even if he has taken to drink.

The red-head is well named, for his helmet and visor show a vivid, glowing crimson that stirs the sensibilities of the color lover. He is readily distinguished from all other woodpeckers because his entire head and the bib under his chin are red. For the vest, he is a beautiful dark metallic blue and white. He is a most adept drummer, and his roll is a long one. One that I observed last spring selected a dead limb at the top of an oak tree and there he drummed merrily every morning. He is an adaptable fellow and has been known to drum on tin roofs and lightning rods, thus braving the dangers of civilization for the sake of better music. Though he can rattle so well when he is musically inclined, he is not, after all, much of a woodpecker, for he lives mostly on insects which he catches while they are crawling or on the wing, and he also likes nuts. He is especially fond of beech nuts, and, being a thrifty fellow as well as musical, in time of plenty he stores up food against time of need. He places his nuts in crevices and forks of branches, in holes in trees, and other hiding places.

The Flicker or Yellow Hammer. The first time I ever saw a flicker I said, " What a wonderful meadow lark, and what is it doing on that ant hill? " But an-other glance revealed to me a red spot on the back of the bird's neck, and as soon as I was sure that this was not a bloody gash I knew it belonged to no meadow lark. The golden brown plumage dotted with black, the under wings of luminous yellow, the white spot above the tail, the ashen gray back, and, above all, the oriental ornaments of crescents, one brilliant red across the back of the neck, one black across the breast, --all conduce to make the flicker one of our most showy and beautiful birds. The flicker has many names, such as golden-winged woodpecker, yellow hammer, highhole, and yarup or wake-up, and many others. It earned the name of highhole because of its way of excavating its nest high up in trees, usually between ten and twenty-five feet from the ground. It especially loves an old apple tree as a site for a nest, and most of our large, old orchards of New York State may boast of a pair of these handsome birds during the nesting season of May and June. How-ever, the flicker is not above renting any house he finds vacant which was made by other birds last year. The flicker earned his name of " yarup " or " wake-up " from his spring song, which is a rollicking jolly " wicka-wick-a-wick." As a business bird the flicker shines in the rather extraordinary line of eating ants. It has a tongue equipped almost exactly like the tongue of the animal called the ant eater, and it often may be seen using it with great effectiveness in catching the little communal laborers.

Those who have observed the flicker during the courting season declare him to be the most silly and vain of all the bird wooers. Mr. Baskett says, " When he wishes to charm his sweetheart he mounts a very small twig near her, and lifts his wings, spreads his tail, and begins to nod right and left as he exhibits his mustache to his charmer, and sets his jet locket first on one side of the twig and then the other. He may even go so far as to turn his head half around to show her the pretty spot on his ` back hair.' In doing all this he performs the most ludicrous antics, and has the silliest of expressions of face and voice as if in losing his heart, as some one phrases it, he had lost his head also."



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