Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Downy Woodpecker

     An iPhone 8 suits all my photographic needs. 
     Except one.
     It's lousy for photographing birds.
     Birds are too small, too far away and move too fast. 
     Birds do not pose, never mind in silhouette. 
     Which is why I almost gasped, looking up to see this woodpecker, not five feet away, going at a crabapple tree on First Street. 
      I dropped Kitty's leash and stepped on it to keep her from bolting after any passing squirrel, whipped out my cellphone and fired off a few photos.
      Not good photos. I understand that. But good enough that I could at least ID the bird with a degree of certainty—I believe it is a female Downy Woodpecker, female because it has no red on its head. Though it could be a Hairy Woodpecker; the two are very close. But this seems a little smaller, its beak a little shorter.
      The Downy Woodpecker is the smallest of North America's 25 species of woodpeckers. Its Latin name, picoides pubescent, is slightly risqué, because Carl Linnaeus thought the downy plumage resembled that of a human in early puberty.  Hmmm...not a crisp enough photo to make any kind of judgment there. 
    Though if the bird seems a little, well, smudged it might not all be the photo's fault: Downy Woodpeckers molt in late August and early September, and that process might be underway.
     Notice how this woodpecker's tail is braced against the tree bark—a characteristic behavior, to take the strain off their legs as they peck. They also have very little cerebral fluid in their skulls, so their brains don't slosh back and forth as they peck, sometimes up to 20 times a second.
      One drawback of all that pecking is it makes it hard for the woodpecker to watch out for predators—so these woodpeckers tend to hang out among other birds, relying on their warning calls to tip them off to danger. This particular woodpecker, I noticed, was tucked under the canopy of the tree, shielding it from any passing Cooper's Hawk, which our neighborhood has in abundance. 
      I've always had a particular fondness for woodpeckers. Maybe because they tend to be solitary birds. They also are sedentary: they don't migrate, typically, but stick around their home range. They also have a certain dignity that others have remarked upon.
     "With their often black-and-white plumage and stiff, jerky movements, woodpeckers have a formal persona many find appealing," wrote Henry T. Armistead, a Philadelphia librarian and "birder extraordinaire."
     I am not an extraordinary birder, and can't flatter myself that any special quality of stealth allowed me to get close to this woodpecker. That's just how Downy Woodpecker's fly, a quality noted nearly two centuries before I and my iPhone happened along.
     "The bird is by no means shy or suspicious, and scarcely pays any attention to man, even when standing close to the tree on which it is at work," John James Audubon notes in his 1831 "The Birds of America." Which, now that I think of it, brings our essay to a full circle. Technology is a marvelous thing, but compare the effort above to what a man with a sable-hair paintbrush and a box of watercolors could do:



  1. A bit OT, I once had a hummingbird sipping nectar in my window box flowers. By the time I got out the camera it was gone. Fascinating to watch it just hovering there. That was the first & only time I've ever seen one in Chicago.

    1. I only saw a hummingbird twice in Chicago, but I've seen them a few times in northern Ohio. Sighting one is extremely rare. I suppose those who study birds would know just how rare.

      And I believe they prefer to be known as the rather pretentious-sounding "birders"--"birdwatchers" is a term that often provokes ridicule. Similar to being asked: "Are you Jewish?" If someone hears "You a Jew?" instead, they need to be prepared for possible negativity.

    2. I believe there is a distinction between "birders" (who keep life lists of bird sightings and will travel to add to said list) and "birdwatchers" (who enjoy watching birds in general, and who are often scorned by birders).

      I proudly place myself in the latter category, having enjoyed watching bird behavior for my entire life. Woodpeckers are definitely an entertaining group; flickers and red-headed woodpeckers were common visitors to my childhood back yard in Wisconsin. Downy sightings were infrequent, and always celebrated.

      Hummingbirds are attracted to red blossoms, and easily mistaken for bumblebees. I've only seen one once in Chicago; it was quite a thrill!

  2. I thought that was a very good photo. You could tell right away from its stance that it was a woodpecker, whereas if I'd taken the picture, you'd probably find it hard to distinguish it from a moth. Here in West Lawn, I've heard woodpeckers from time to time, hardly ever in the same exact location, but have never actually seen one, much less photographed it. The one really memorable scene I witnessed and wished that I'd been able to record was a black bird (a crow? a raven?) chasing a squirrel across my front yard and into the bushes. We lead a pretty sedate life out here on the Southwest Side, even though most of my neighbors speak English as a 2nd language.


  3. I have always been fascinated by birds, and loved picking out the different kind that would frequent my more rural home. Now that I'm in a significantly more urban setting, my winged visitors are far fewer.

    But I have to admit that hearing pecking on the wooden siding of my old house took away much of the enjoyment at the time.


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