The Five Days of the Woodpecker
(Exactly like the movie “The Three Days of the Condor”, though with more days and without Robert Redford.)
Day One: The Woodpecker Model Father
That’s a male, Tim and I decide after consulting our Audubon guide. The male Northern Flicker, a species of woodpecker, is a handsome bird, its white breast spotted with cute black polka dots. His wings are grey- and brown-striped. Rakish red streaks sweep back from his beak on either side like war paint.
The flicker hogs the bird feeder, scaring off little birds with an aggressive flutter of red-tipped wings. He stuffs himself with black-oil sunflower seeds. Below on the balcony railing perches a clumsy, fluffier bird almost identical to the male, except it lacks the red stripes on the face. A baby female flicker, we determine.
Dad flies down to the chick and pokes his long, sharp beak so far south down the chick’s gullet that Dad must be able to see Florida. Dad barfs his booty from the feeder into the chick’s tummy. We know what you are thinking: what a remarkable adaptation, what a miracle of nature, that an adult bird can nourish the fledging without poking it full of holes! What we are thinking is: yuck.
Even with Dad’s head wedged in her digestive tract, the chick happily screeches, “…mrrmphhhYUMdad…mrrmphhhYUMdad…”
There is no end to the chick’s screaming, “…dad!…dad!…dad!…dad!…DAD!…DAD!…DADDADDAD!!!” Though she is the same size as Dad, her feathers are fluffed into adorable scruffiness, and she hunkers down. Her parent looks comparatively thin and, frankly, a little unwell. Dad believes that she’s small and helpless, though. When we tiptoe onto the balcony, Dad soars off the feeder with a distinctive cry that warns the baby to “Fly away!! Fly away!”
Day Two: Perfect Domesticity
This scene of domestic bliss (assuming bird domestic bliss is throwing up into your kid’s mouth) is so endearing, we excuse the fact that woodpeckers, being the size of wild turkeys, have a prodigious output. Our balcony look like the work of a demented modern artist who paints solely with splotchy white paint. All right, so they’re not the size of turkeys–woodpeckers, we mean, not modern artists.
Woodpeckers are the size of overfed chickens…wait, we’re still exaggerating. Truthfully–we’re being serious now–they are the size of very well-fed robins with beaks as long and sharp as the awl that Sir Isaac Newton stuck into his eyeball. Wait, this isn’t about Sir Isaac Newton! That’s another story.
Day Three: Something Goes Terribly Wrong
Per usual, Dad loads up at the feeder, joins the chick and upchucks his meal. The baby escalates her demands by crowding Dad every second, even when he has just fed her.
Dad steals a moment’s respite. He crumples on the railing, wings spread unsymmetrically, neck canted to one side. He looks like roadkill. His daughter perkily jumps nearby, piping in her soft poor-baby-hungry-DAD voice, hunkered down so that her anemic father won’t notice that she is as big and fat as…well…as a wild turkey.
Dad shakes himself back together, heaves a sigh, feeds her, then considers his hopping, screaming offspring for several long moments. Then Dad rears back and beans the baby with his beak. Jab! Jab! Jabjabjab!
Tim and I stare at each other in horror. The chick shrieks bloody murder: OW! OW! OW! She flutters off the railing and plops onto the deck, crying piteously. Dad grumbles, flies up to the bird feeder and stuffs himself full of seeds.
Dad rejoins the chick, who brainlessly chirps, “…dad!…dad!…dad!” Dad jams his beak down chick’s throat. The chick gargles with delight. Dad hops away. The chick yells and follows, relentless, and Dad feeds her again. Maybe the attack was a fluke. Then Dad rears back and, like a jack hammer, stabs the baby with his beak. Stab! Stab! Stabstabstab!
The pattern repeats like that Twilight Zone episode where the astronauts keep crash-landing because they don’t know they’re dead. From inside the house, we warn the baby flicker: don’t tick off Dad, he has barfed up all seeds he can for now, stop pestering him, careful, can’t you see that crazed glint in his eyes…yikes!
Can a woodpecker have a nervous breakdown?
DAY 4: The Gang of Four
We are afraid to leave the house. Two more Northern Flickers showed up and now there are four, all scrabbling and screeching and flying at one another like debating politicians. The chick getting pecked screams like a chimpanzee on acid. In front of the house, Tim gets dive-bombed by woodpeckers. I play soothing harp music within hearing range, but chaos reigns.
It’s a scene out of Hitchcock’s “The Birds.” We hide in the basement.
Day 5: And Then There Are None
The woodpeckers are gone. For all we know, the woodpecker chick could be lying stone cold and dead somewhere, cursed by her own implacable sense of entitlement, her little legs pointing stiffly skyward. Or maybe the Gang of Four found a better-stocked feeder. Or…we eye the tiny finches and buntings now chowing down at the feeder. Hmmmmm. Never underestimate the little guys.
So what did we learn from our wildlife observations? We had thought the Bad Birds of Pinebrook were magpies, which eat flat squirrels and doggie doo-doo. Sorry for those images, but complain to the magpies. In the courageous manner of investigative naturalists who like their tequila neat, we have a responsibility to expose the truth.
So here is the Major Truth illuminated by this experience: never stick an awl in your eye.
No, wait…that can’t be right.
We’re too exhausted to think straight. We will go lie down and put damp washcloths on our foreheads.
Tune in later for the truth about squirrels.