A Hairy Woodpecker’s Visit on the Eve of an Ominous Time

After rain showers overnight, today was a softly cloudy, humid, spring-like day. Though I had no time to spend outside most of the day, early evening around the back yard felt soothing and peaceful – in striking contrast to the ominous news of the day and the changes that have now begun to affect us all. 

Mourning Doves cooed. American Robins, Carolina Wrens, Eastern Bluebirds, and Northern Cardinals sang. A Downy Woodpecker spilled a silvery cascade of notes. Carolina Chickadees and Tufted Titmice chattered and fussed. A White-breasted Nuthatch called a nasal ahnk-ahnk. A Pine Warbler sang a pretty, lyrical trill. 

This week the World Health Organization officially declared the spread of the Covid-19 virus a worldwide pandemic, confirming the news we began to learn about in early January, as the virus began in China. We have watched as it steadily became more and more apparent that it was likely to spread around the world. Following the WHO announcement, this week has brought to Americans a sudden (if belated) cascade of closings, event cancellations and social distancing measures by state and local governments, universities, schools and businesses – and the beginning of what may be a long period of staying and working at home, and profound changes in our lives that we can only begin to imagine now.

While it might seem out of place even to mention this in a blog about birds and birding, the effects of this pandemic on our lives will inevitably have an impact on the natural world and our relationship with it. So that has to be a part of what I observe and think and write about. It certainly was in my thoughts this strange and gentle evening.

A black and white woodpecker flew to a spot high on the trunk of a bare-limbed oak and called a strong, emphatic Peenk! Peenk! A Hairy Woodpecker. It repeated the calls several times as it checked out the trunk of the oak, and I had a few minutes to take a closer look, and watch. A Hairy Woodpecker is slightly larger and more slender than the Downy, which is much more common and familiar here. Its black and white pattern is very similar to a Downy’s, but its shape is taller, more erect, and the bill is noticeably longer and more powerful. Its peenk call is similar, too, but more emphatic. 

While Downy Woodpeckers visit our feeders very often, I’ve rarely seen a Hairy come to them – though I understand they are said to be easily attracted to feeders. So I’m probably just not offering the right food. I have mostly seen them on the trunks and large branches of tall trees, and I find them more often in areas where there are at least some standing dead and dying trees. Though it seems natural to call a Downy Woodpecker cute, I would never say that of a Hairy. There’s something about its bearing and its behavior that feels more dignified and aloof.

After a few minutes on the trunk of the oak, this Hairy Woodpecker flew deeper into the woods, toward the creek, calling its kingfisher-like rattle as it went.

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