In this, my 57th year, I realized that I had never seen a woodpecker. It didn't just hit me for no reason, and, now, it is no longer true. But it came about because each day, in these weeks leading up to spring, I could hear the woodpeckers out on a tree, their short, staccato bursts of beak work carrying across the yards whenever I was outside.
And then I realized that it was my tree, my yard, where the woodpecker was working.
Woodpeckers, I think I remember, like to hammer into dead bark and wood, looking for insects to feed upon. In my backyard sits a large, old Black Walnut tree that continues to bloom and produce nuts ( which will stain your hands something awful), but which has plenty of dead, rotting limbs, too.
For the longest time, I could hear them, but not see them. The tree reaches way above the roof of the house, and even with no leaves, its web of branches against the sky gave me a hundred different places to look. And the pecking, with its repeated stops and starts, didn't allow me to use my ears to locate the birds.
There were two of them, I thought, because one sounded like a wooden toc toc, and the other what I imagined to be a more classic, wood pecking sound--flatter, like knock on a door. And they took turns. Maybe one stood guard while the other one pecked.
Usually, though, if one has the patience to look long enough at something, he will see what he is looking for. I was looking for movement, because that was my only chance of finding the bird. And one time, I was staring close enough to where I needed to stare, noth through any system or zeroing in on the sounds. And there was the woodpecker.
It skipped nervously around a branch in the front of the tree (from where I stood, front and back often not applying to nature), a branch whose bark had mostly fallen off in those half-cylinders I'd find when cutting the grass. I could see at least its head, could see that piston-like beak dip and hammer nine times, by my count. Then again, and for as long as was apparently fruitful, and then it disappeared to the back side of the branch. And there the sound changed, hollowed. It had been just one bird, after all.
They are much smaller birds than I had expected. I had been thinking Cardinal-sized, not sparrow, especially to produce that deep sound that I had been hearing from some distance, a species with the constant twitches of smaller birds, ever vigilant, ever moving.
While I has assumed that their habitat has some exotic quality to it, it was really nothing more than an age-worn tree, too large and expensive to be pruned of its spent limbs.
Mostly, it was the seeing that has stuck with me. I hear the woodpeckers most mornings and afternoons, but I haven't been trying to locate them. It is as if I needed to find them once, to know their size and how they work, and to be able to fit that into my small understanding of the confines of my yard, to know what I needed of what and who is here with me.