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Woodpecker Helper

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Though he worked on it all day, I never saw Garrett go inside the roost box I'd provided, and I got worried that he couldn't fit in the hole. A quick Internet search indicated that a red-headed woodpecker box should have a hole from 2" to 2 1/2" across. I ran outside with a ruler. This one measured 1 3/4." Eek! I had thought it looked big enough to admit him, but it was apparently not.

Garrett was still pecking at the entry hole as darkness came on. He had worked on the right and left lower edges of the hole, to little avail. You can see the pale worked edges in this photo. He barely stopped to eat, he was working so hard all day.

Not that I was worried or anything.

 I hated to do it, but I didn't have much time. I asked Garrett to leave for a little while, took the box down and carried it inside to the workbench where I attacked the hole with a chisel and a big rattail file my dad called Rasputin. Oh, I love using my dad's old tools.

Especially to help my favorite birdie du jour.

As I worked on the box, I remembered my mom's poor big toenail, that ever since she spent a day shopping in pointy-toed dress shoes in downtown Minneapolis in 19 fifty-who-knows-when, has grown up instead of out. When it would get to bothering her Dad would clomp downstairs and come up brandishing Rasputin, with an evil grin on his face, take Mom's foot between his knees blacksmith style, and rasp away at the overgrown toenail. There were always blacksmith and horse jokes and wincing and giggling from us kids. Poor Mom. But oh, I loved remembering that scene.

The wood was cedar and surprisingly hard. I realized that it would take Garrett days to do what I'd done in a few minutes. I wound up using a chisel and mallet to chip away chunks around the entry hole, then smoothing the jagged edges away with Rasputin. Only the best for Garrett!

Hoping Garrett would be able to enlarge it himself, I'd waited until the last minute to intervene, and darkness was gathering as I hung it back up. Woodpeckers like to go to roost when there's still plenty of light. Poor Garrett would probably have to spend the night somewhere else.

Yes, I worried about him in the night. It was raining, of course.

Come morning, he was nowhere to be found. Bill went so far as to speculate he might have quit the place altogether since his snag had fallen down. And I'd swiped his roost box just as darkness was falling. Ack ack ack. But I still felt him around. I knew he was out there somewhere.

I went out to check the box--no sign of him. I put a few handfuls of hamster litter in the box to give Garrett something to excavate. That's important, if you're going to put up a box for woodpeckers, to make them feel they're cleaning out a cavity.

Finally I spotted him sitting in the willow, which seems to be his retreat when things aren't going so well for him. I know how he feels. Everybody needs a tree friend.

And the next time I looked at the roost box, he appeared. He cast a look at me, sitting in the studio window, and I had to think it was an approving glance. The hole was now about 2 1/8, and should be large enough to admit him. It looked a lot better to me, at least.

The next thing that happened had the whole family crowing. Garrett stuck his head in the newly enlarged hole

went a little further

almost disappeared

and backed back out 

with a billfull of hamster litter!

Whooping, dancing, crowing with Bill and the kids--he was in! And he was cleaning out his new home!

It wasn't long before he was all the way inside and popping out just to spit litter.

With a quick shake of his head, he'd ptoo it out.

Repeat until litter is gone

and ground beneath the box is littered with gray paper snow.

Yes, it's a comfy fit. No problem now for a broad-shouldered bird. Big, big grin. Thanks, Dad. Thanks, Rasputin.

That bird was on the box the rest of the day. It started raining hard again in the afternoon. I could barely see him through the rain-spattered window. But this time Garrett knew what to do.

I've been storing up blogposts for awhile now, trying to get enough to see me through a big trip in February (!), the release of The Bluebird Effect in early March, the release of The Rain Crows' first CD  and a CD release party in early March, and two big family events, also in March. I feel the hounds of Hell at my heels. I'm working from dawn until bedtime trying to make it all happen and keep the blog going, too.

And I cannot tear myself away from this woodpecker's story. Every time I think I can wrap up the Garrett posts and move on to The Wilds in winter and North Dakota in summer, something else happens in his life. Which makes something else happen in my life.

And I realize that I'm entirely too wrapped up in this little bird, and probably he's too wrapped up in me. 

which, as you know by now, is exactly how I like it.

Because when you can look out any window and see something like this, all you can do is share it.


On the morning of January 30, 2012, I went for my run. It was a pearly partly cloudy morning with promise of a little rare sun. I came up the driveway toward home around 8:45 AM and Garrett flew out to meet me. I couldn't believe he was coming on a straight line toward me. He perched in the old pear tree right over my head, holding a peanut in his bill. I spoke to him and told him what a fine, fine bird he was, and how glad I was to see him. I thanked him for coming out to say hello.  I told him I'd enjoyed having him here since the 15th of January and I hoped he liked all the things we'd done to make him feel welcome. He bobbed a couple of times and flew to the southeast, landing briefly in a willow. I headed up the sidewalk to start my morning, musing about how odd it was that he'd fly up to me, perch right over my head, stop to chat...

That was the last time I saw Garrett.  All day long, I told myself I just wasn't looking in the right places at the right time. By 3 pm I knew that Garrett had flown straight to me to say good bye. And, maybe, thank you.  
The floodgates opened then.

I'm sitting at my desk, watching a pair of red-bellied woodpeckers sharing suet. A pair of white-breasted nuthatches, two downies, a crow. All wonderful, none of them Garrett. Better, though, to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.


I haven't seen a Red-Headded in years. Thank you for sharing Garrett. Sorry he couldn't stay.

I have to say I have thoroughly enjoyed reading about Garrett and about how deep you've allowed yourself to get into his day to day life. Your postscript at the end brought a tear to my eye and also a fair bit of regret. I did so love coming here each time to read about his adventures!

Man, can you tell a story!!!!! :-)

What cyberthrush said.

I was about to leave my favorite woodpecker poem here for you, then I read the postscript. It is better to have loved but still, the ache at the end doesn't seem to justify it until a good way down the road. Perhaps he will come back. Some loves do...

I loved reading about Garrett and seeing the beautiful photos. This would make a lovely book!

I feel a bit like crying myself, now. Also, it means a lot to me to know that others "get" what I feel about birds, trees, and all the beautiful wonders outside. Cyberthrush is right "Man, can you tell a story!!!!"

Thank you once again for sharing your wonderful Garrett stories with us. I'm sure wherever he is, he's better off as a result of the time he spent with you.

Hi Julie. I am so glad to have found your blog, and I look forward to each new post. The Garrett saga has been a wonderful read. You have such a talent for drawing us in to an emotional place as you narrate the day to day lives of birds. Thank you for sharing.

Oh, what a tale. Love it. Love you and Garrett. Hope to see you both sometime, red-headed ones.xxoom.

Posted by Anonymous February 5, 2012 at 1:17 PM

Is it possible that Garrett has gone off to woo a mate and will bring her back now that he has found such great digs?

Wayne, PA

Posted by Anonymous February 5, 2012 at 1:22 PM


Why do you think he left, when he seemed to be settling in so nicely and you provided him with such good stuff?

Thanks for sharing

Great photos, being a photographer myself I know how hard it is to get those photos. Great work

Posted by Anonymous February 5, 2012 at 5:22 PM

He'll be back now that he knows you are there...great accommodations are hard to pass up. Are redheaded woodpeckers like other birds , where the male scouts out places before females come on the scene? Hm-mm...I wonder.

I'm sorry he's gone...I was so enjoying the posts.

Oh no! I'm so sorry he decided not to start a family in your 'villa'. Or maybe he's gone to another place to find a nice girl and will come back to your place when he does. Fingers crossed ;-)

Julie, have heart, I bet he shows back up again. Mine have been coming for 5 years, they disappear during the winter but show up again like clockwork and I'm sure we're down several generations since I've seen juveniles almost every year. Keep your roost box up and keep putting out the food he liked; I certainly hope he makes it back because I have LOVED your photos which are so much better than mine!

cPlease let us know when he comes back!!

When I read about Garrett's mysterious departing gift to you, I, too, felt the floodgates open. Like the Little Prince's rose, Garrett was all the more beautiful because you loved him. And he, like all of us, is ephemeral. Thank you, Julie, for sharing Garrett.

What a beautifully written story. I've enjoyed all of the posts on Garrett. Belated congratulations to you on your new book!

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