The telltale chips litter the snow; I look, then reach, up. The hole in the white pine swallows my finger; it bores all the way into the heartwood. A thumbnail gouge appears just above – the next boring, perhaps to be pursued when I leave. How powerful must a bird be to dig so in live wood? Later, I go in search of testimony that will detail this scatter of wood chips at the feet of this newly-opened tree.
The always-useful Cornell University Lab of Ornithology website http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/pileated_woodpecker/lifehistory offers satisfying summary of this large, colorful bird, who is also my neighbor. Masters of broad territory, every so often one or two pileated woodpeckers visit the small grove of white and pitch pines behind our house, though they don’t drill much into them. Instead, they laugh and leave. Our woodpeckers need deeper woods (more cover, I suspect) for their diggings. But not far off, on the trail to the Town Commons, it’s clear that they put in their hours uncovering the tunnels of carpenter ants, their favored food. What a long (and terrifying) knocking at the door the ants must hear when the pileated woodpecker comes calling.
All forests (and people?) need a totem bird. For me, the pileated woodpecker answers that need. Unlike our talky crows, who seem always and everywhere, our pileated appears at odd hours, though he or she tends toward morning. Weeks will pass without a visit, however; then, in space of a few days, I’ll hear his or her distinctive voice, a stuttering laugh of sorts, or see a flash of largeness with its thrill of bright red. The day looks up.
The Cornell website also points out that “the birds also use their long, barbed tongues to extract woodboring beetle larvae (which can be more than an inch long) or termites lying deep in the wood.” Who, aside from figuratively, has a barbed tongue, I think, as I add a little more wonder to my watching.
A little later on this day, and half-mile or so deeper into the woods, we see quick movement in my upper left periphery; we stop crunching along the snow and wait. Twenty seconds later, this large woodpecker flashes away, deeper into the trees. We see the dark wings and a glimpse of red. If we were to wait for some minutes, we might hear our bird resume knocking on a tree’s door. It is a hungry season. But we have our own appointments, our own knockings ahead, and we walk on deeper into our own days.