Thursday, December 18, 2014

A Downy Woodpecker Christmas

When the weather starts to get cold we drain our fountain, cover it and move the bird feeder into the backyard in front it, where we can watch the birds better.  The bird feeder creates quite a spectacle, attracting not only the usual sparrows, but mourning doves, blue jays and pairs of cardinals.  They feed in groups from it, cluster around it on the ground and sit on top of the fountain before swooping in.  This year we bought suet with nuts embedded in it to put into the wire cages on the sides of the bird feeder, to see if we could attract woodpeckers.  We did.

A large red-bellied woodpecker (oddly named—they have a distinctive red head but their bellies are tan) is a regular customer, and just recently a downy woodpecker showed up.  I’ve been trying to get close enough to get a good photo of the bird feeder with the downy woodpecker on it, but they’re temperamental things, and every time I so much as step outside the little guy flies off.  I had to settle for the shot through the window at left.

The downy woodpecker, pictured in the stock photo at right, isn't considered a truly exotic bird, but I haven’t seen one in many years.  It was certainly exotic for me as a kid growing up in my small town of Mt. Tabor in New Jersey.  Mrs. Stickel, our second grade teacher, gave our class an art and nature project in the fall of that school year, in which we were charged with making the bird of our choice out of papier-mâché.

We were to use the cardboard center of a toilet paper roll as a form, so that meant the bird had to be fairly small.  (Although Neil Hutchinson settled upon a flicker, which is about the size of a small crow.  I have no idea what he used for the center of it because paper towel rolls weren’t that common back in the day.  Maybe he just used a ton of papier-mâché.)

Mrs. Stickel marched us down to the library where we scoured reference books of different birds.  Inside Audubon's The Birds of America I found a plate with the downy woodpecker.  I’d never see anything like it: a white back; checks and spots of black and white on its wings; a distinctive red dot on the back of a black cap atop its head; the sides of its head white with black ovals around its eyes like Petey, the dog on the Little Rascals; and a tiny beak the bird books call a “bark-sticker.”  The downy woodpecker was to be my fall project.

I seem to recall the project took us the better part of two months, working in the back of the school room for about an hour every other day, applying layers of papier-mâché and waiting the requisite time for it to dry before reapplying.  Then attaching the wings and beak, and finally painting.  By the time Thanksgiving rolled around, I was the proud owner of a decent replica of a downy woodpecker.

About two weeks before Christmas that year I woke up to an early snowfall.  I came downstairs and looked out a side window of 89 St. Johns Avenue, itching to get at six inches of wet snow, perfect for making snowballs.  And on mom’s bird feeder in the backyard, there it was in the flesh—my first downy woodpecker.

He perched on the suet, poking his beak into it, working with frenzied movements of his head as if he was afraid another bigger bird would run him off before he got enough to eat.  He pecked at a few sparrows to shoo them away and returned to jabbing at his food.  I ran into the kitchen to bring mom into the dining room to show her, but it had flown off by the time we got there.  I didn’t see it again that entire winter, but I’ve always remembered that first look at a downy.  Even today, seeing one reminds me of the beginning of the Christmas season.  Happy Holidays.