Four Things I Learned from a Woodpecker

Northern Flicker Woodpecker in my front yard (just on the edge of the shadow line)

Last month, at 6am every morning, I heard a woodpecker drumming into a telephone pole behind my house. Despite the early hour, I found it a pleasant way to wake up. It only lasted a few seconds so it didn’t get annoying. It was better than using my battery-powered beeping alarm. I felt like the bird was telling me, ‘Hey get up! I’m out here doing my work already.’

At first it was just pecking for bugs in the wood, but then I heard it making a rattling tin sound. Lying in bed, I would think, ‘oh little birdie. You’re hitting a metal plate, you little pea brain. Try a different spot.’

I talk to the birds. Sort of. Mostly I’m trying to listen. If a bird jets down in front of me and holds itself there in a too long way with its glossy black eyes staring straight at me, I think, what message are you bringing?

I wanted to identify the kind of woodpecker it was, so I did some research online. Turns out it’s a Northern Flicker Woodpecker. And it sometimes bangs on metal to communicate and mark its territory. So much for thinking the bird didn’t know what it was doing. Who’s the pea brain?

Nature Lesson #1 Sometimes you have to make some noise.

This is a great reminder as I learn how to market myself as a writer. Nobody is going to find me if I just quietly scribble in a notebook. Nobody will know to knock on my door. I have to bang on some metal.

Just a week or so ago, the woodpecker took up residence in a rotted out tree hole in front of my house. Every morning when I lift the shade, she’s there. Her sleek brown head pops out of the 3-inch hole revealing paint brush red markings on her neck. I sit at my kitchen table and watch her while I eat my breakfast. I wonder if she can see me. I’m kind of fascinated by her because I know I’m watching a process happen. It’s spring and I’m sure she’s sitting on some eggs. When I walk by the tree on the way to my car, she retracts her head back inside.

For a few mornings, I watched her spitting out beak-fulls of wood pulp. She was burrowing deeper into the tree to make her nest bigger. ‘Exhausting work, little birdie.’ I thought as I sipped my tea. Sometimes efforts feel like that: just a tiny beak-full of wood pulp against the gigantic tree of life.

Still, I could see she was making progress.

For one, she was an opportunist. When the trees got trimmed recently after a storm, some of the rotted branches left a cavernous hole. It would be a fixer-upper nest, but she moved in and got right to work.

Nature lesson #2 Don’t reinvent the wheel, when you have one.
Nature lesson #3 Don’t underestimate little efforts.

I have so many ways I can apply these two lessons in all areas of my life. In terms of writing, I have resources everywhere. It’s my job to scout them out. There are trail blazers who have gone before me who can share important information. I don’t have to drill my beak into solid wood, at least in some areas anyway. I know that birdie has carved out a perfect nest for herself and she did it one spit full of wood pulp at a time. Perseverance: A wise word my writing teacher imparted during class.

The other morning I saw a squirrel just above her nest on a tree branch. It seemed relatively disinterested in its spastic little run up and down the branch. But I worried, would the squirrel try to eat her or the eggs? Should I intervene and making noises if I saw it go too close? I could see the bird sensing and reacting to the squirrel’s presence. The bird popped out her head from the hole and twisted her neck all the way up to look up at the branch above her. She stayed that way for a while in a stare down with the squirrel. She looked like a lady perched in a window of a New York tenement looking up to a neighbor on a fire escape. It actually made me laugh.

Nature lesson #4  Protect your efforts.

I noticed the Northern Flicker Woodpecker doesn’t leave her nest for too long. I see her fly out for food or rendezvous with another Flicker briefly. I suppose there will be other times for her to cruise around the social circuit more when things are at a less precious and crucial time. But for now she goes back to that nest to sit with her eggs.

They’re incubating and she’s waiting for them to hatch.