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Peanutizing the Boudoir

Tuesday, January 31, 2012


Sitting out in the rain is one thing; poking food in every nook and cranny of your roost snag is another. I feel sometimes like I'm documenting some pretty maladaptive behavior on Garrett's part. I call it Peanutizing the Boudoir.

It's natural for a red-headed woodpecker to store food against a rainy (or icy or snowy) day. But really, Garrett--there are so many places to put it--do you really want to poke peanuts, Zick dough and sunflower hearts all over your bedroom tree?

I think about a mouse or opossum climbing up the tree. Or, on one of these rainy warm nights, gack! a raccoon. Snuffling around for food in the rotty wood and reaching in Garrett's cavity and...

I can't even think about it.

Garrett doesn't worry. He just keeps finding new places for roasted peanuts.  You can see one just above the sawn-off branch stub. He'll have to go around back to store the one he's got now.

Garrett is pretty bossy about peanuts and Zick dough. He lets the other woodpeckers eat them sometimes. Other times he chases them on merry flashing flights around the yard. Garrett tried suet when he first hit the yard almost two weeks ago and didn't much like it, so the hairy and downy woodpeckers (hairy on left, downy on right) resort to eating a lot more suet now, because Garrett will let them.

 I watch a downy woodpecker doing something I've seen hairy and red-bellied and now red-headed woodpeckers do. When they're processing a food item, and they're trying not to drop it, they'll extend the folded wings to try to contain it. It's a little like a hawk mantling its prey, but the wings are kept folded. It reminds me of someone trying to catch something between their knees when their hands are occupied. I was happy to get these shots of the behavior.

See how the wing is dropped to help contain the peanut? I'm reminded that birds do every amazing thing they do without the help of hands. Just a bill and feet, and sometimes wings standing in for hands.

Which includes excavation. Garrett continues to enlarge his bedroom every day.  


gak gak gak

It's easier for him to get in and out now.

and out he swings in one smooth motion.

He's not as vocal as he'd be were there other red-headed woodpeckers around to talk to, but occasionally I hear Garrett sounding off. The only call he's used is a rolling Kwirrrrr Kwirrrrr. I caught him in what looked like an advertising display yesterday.

He sat for a long time looking out of the cavity, then emerged and puffed his head feathers up until his head looked like a red rubber ball.

All puffed out, he swung side to side in exaggerated arcs, calling Kwirr Kwirr Kwirrr as he reached each side.

It really looked like cavity advertisement to me. Please, Garrett, if you're trying to attract a mate, not there. I'd have to put electric fencing around the dang tree. And you know I would.

Right after the display, I got my first and so far only nice flight shot. Mmmmm. It takes bright sunlight and a quick trigger finger to get that. Remember I'm standing atop my computer table with my elbows on the windowsill, shooting at an angle through double-pane glass. It's not ideal, but then neither am I.

I'm getting the most out of Garrett, because he's the Mostest Bird.**

**Anyone remember Man o' War, the "mostest hoss?" Well, Garrett's like that to me.

Wet Woodpecker

Sunday, January 29, 2012


Everybody's wet today. It's in the 40's and pouring, typical mid-Ohio Valley winter weather. I realize that I have gotten a bit too deeply involved in Garrett the red-headed woodpecker's life when my first thought on waking and hearing the rain is, "Oh, rats. Garrett's going to get himself soaked today."

And he does. A wild bird should have the sense to come in out of the rain, especially a woodpecker who has a nice snug little birch house he's made right in our backyard.

I have more reason to be concerned about rain than the average duck, because their first rainstorm can be a bad scene for the orphaned baby birds I care for. I've had some (a phoebe and a ruby-throated hummingbird come to mind) get absolutely soaked to the skin, which renders them unable to fly.  The hummingbird engaged in bathing behavior as the rain came down, and kept bathing and bathing until he was saturated. Not good. Big duh. (He didn't make the same mistake again; he migrated and came back the next spring). Not sure how to teach a baby bird to come in out of the rain...I think they have to learn by experience.

For whatever reason, Garrett sits for hours with rain beating down on his gorgeous plumage, staring morosely into his roost hole.

It drives me nuts. I keep putting food out for him as it gets soaked (Zick Dough doesn't do well in rain, and he won't use the plexi dome feeder that the rest of the birds use).

So everyone's getting soaked. Mrs. Bluebird is damp, her hair in a wet streak.

I keep putting out Zick Dough for Garrett, and he comes occasionally to get it, his feathers all saturated and streaky.

I put out a roost box in a nearby birch but except for one instance where he hammered at the entrance hole, he ignores it.

Then he goes back to mope by his cavity. When he gets completely soaked he shakes himself, doglike

 then climbs up to the top and holds his wings out like a tiny anhinga.

Another nasty rainy day comes, pouring and in the 40's, on the 26th of January. Garrett sits out all morning and then at about 11 AM-- glory be!! he pops into his cavity and passes the worst of the rain in comfort.

Whew. He's got sense enough to come in out of the rain.

Which he always had. He just chose to use it while I was watching.

Following Garrett

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Speaking of rarely-noticed things...

I mentioned in an earlier post that both the red-bellied woodpecker and red-headed woodpecker are in the genus Melanerpes. One of the hallmarks of the genus is a propensity to store food (think of the acorn woodpecker, infamous for pocking cabin siding with acorn-stuffed holes).

 Here's Garrett's golden midline. This is one of my favorite pictures of him. A bit penguiny, full of character. Many red-headeds show considerably more blush on the belly than Garrett; sometimes it is almost as rich a color as the red-bellied's. The first time I saw it was when examining museum skins. I never knew they had such colorful bellies! but then woodpeckers usually have their bellies up against tree trunks.

Here's the Melanerpes mark on the red-belly. 

I'm not the only one playing paparazzo to Garret's movie star. Phoebe caught these wonderful photos of him sipping from a rain puddle on the deck. 


and twisting a peanut from our feeder. I feed roasted cocktail peanuts. You used to be able to find them unsalted, but no more. The salt doesn't seem to hurt anyone.

Sometimes the outtakes are more fun than the best photos. Garrett plays peek-a-boo with me.

Who's there?

Give me a hint.

Oh, I get it. It's Garrett!

I knew it was you all along.

And I knew it was you, too. Good morning! 

Pensive Garrett, looking his handsomest on a dark day.

While I'm Shooting...

Tuesday, January 24, 2012


 Garrett the red-headed woodpecker is my muse. He lures me away from the drawing table and encourages me to enter bird time. I have to wait for him to show up at the Zick Dough log. And while I wait, all kinds of other beautiful things happen. This may be my favorite male cardinal shot yet. What if cardinals were as rare as red-headed woodpeckers? I'd be chasing this glorious bird all day. If I'm even tempted to take cardinals for granted, I have only to remember the Welsh birder who stayed a week with us who'd splutter "BRILLIANT! God! Look at THAT!!" every time a cardinal showed up in the yard.

I love this shot, too, of a female cardinal who is giving me the hairy eye for sitting just inside an open patio door. She knows the rules, and I'm breaking them. The door is supposed to be closed at all times.

She's all, "Really, Zick? You're shooting me through the open door? Where I can hear your shutter? And you're thinking that's just gonna be fine with me? Well, it's not. It's not fine. Good thing you make nice food, Missy."

Underlighting is a wonderful thing, especially if you're the color of a ripe bell pepper.

I was stunned to see one of my good old friends, Blondie the leucistic cardinal. She's been in our yard for at least three years, but she's always been on the north side of the house.  I'd never seen her in the backyard, and I'd never seen her sample Zick Dough before this beautiful sunny morning. See the white feathers in her crest? It seems she gets a few more every year. What a lovely thing she is. And a good mother. She had a couple of broods last summer. Not a good shot; she was suspicious and I was overexcited to see her,  and she vanished when she heard the shutter. But she'll be back. Zick Dough is like that.

I'm abashed and puzzled to say that only one eastern bluebird is eating Zick Dough with us this winter. I don't know why that is. Maybe there will be an influx when the weather really clamps down. (Nope, not even the weekend ice storm smoked more out). Maybe she's a loner. She has a male friend who occasionally comes in, but both of them are terribly shy--the most skittish bluebirds I've ever had. But she is very, very beautiful and graceful. Nothing dumpy about this gal! even though she eats lard and peanut butter all day. I love the harmonious color of the weeping willow in the background. Overcast is ever my favorite for bird portraiture.

She is so tight-feathered and lovely she looks like a Larry Barth carving to me.** Here, she shows the classic "hump back" of the bluebird. Roger Peterson said they look like they have poor posture. I think her posture is perfect.

**If you do not know who Larry Barth is, you owe it to yourself to click that link. If only to see him subdued by a six-year-old Liam in a Superman suit.

Another Melanerpes woodpecker, the red-bellied, M. carolinus.  (The red-headed is Melanerpes erythrocephalus). Most people never get close enough to see the ruby-red eye of a mature redbelly. I remember the first time I held one in  my hand...all I could look at was its beautiful fiery eye. I love my redbellies, too, and they know it. I still miss Ruby. Maybe there's another Ruby out there. I ask each redbelly who visits if they would like to try to fill her shoes. None yet seem up for the role of Zick Pet. A tame redbelly is a marvelous thing. They are suspicious birds by nature.

For now, I'll appreciate every minute with Garrett, for as long as he chooses to stay.  Bill had only a morning with our star bird before he had to leave for Las Vegas. Every time he called home I'd prattle on about Garrett. Garrett does this and Garrett did that and just today he...

Bill stopped me and said, "Do you realize you haven't said the words "red-headed woodpecker" once since I left?"

Hmm. Yeah. That's true. He's not a red-headed woodpecker any more. He's Garrett. Does that make me crazy? (The implication was there, hanging on the line between us).

Well.  Bill spent all day today (a Saturday with about 1/2" of ice coating everything) running from window to window trying to get shots of Garrett doing all the cool things a red-headed woodpecker does. And prattling on and on about the cute things Garrett was doing...

and I just smiled. Another one bites the dust.

Garrett Makes a Home

Sunday, January 22, 2012


I can't tell you how fabulous it is to be enjoying our fourth full day (by the time you read this, a full week) of Garrett. All I can do is show you. Every time I see him my heart leaps. It's like new love. There's something about his colors that make all my happy neurons fire at once. It's enough that he's beautiful, but he's so funny and cute, too, so inquisitive...I've been letting myself think that Charlie's come back to keep me company. 

It doesn't hurt to think that. I miss Charlie, my sweet little green goofball, every single day. And having a bird around again, even if he's flying free outside, helps fill that hole just a little bit.

Garrett is so bright, so cleanly marked, so outlandishly unexpected among the grays, browns, olives and occasional blues of winter.
I still think someone left a toy on the deck railing when I see him decorating it.

You know, one of those toys that squawks when you squeeze it.  The resemblance is rather apt. Garrett's  CHUBBEH.

  Zick being Zick, I began to worry the second night of Garrett's stay where he would sleep. I would gladly give him Charlie's climate-controlled aviary. I get so attached, I forget that woodpeckers are fully capable of making their own homes.  

So Garrett is sitting in the mulberry tree just outside the studio window on a gloomy afternoon and I'm staring at him and he launches off in a fanfare of black, white and red but I can tell by the way he's braking he's not going far. I run to the next window with my camera and get there just in time to see him do this:

He's taken up residence in a broken birch stub just off the back corner of our house! These were the first gray birches we planted on moving here in 1992. Of course, being birches and host to every insect and fungus on the planet, they're dead now. But we did not cut them down.  We let them naturally deliquesce. And if you are looking up that word right now, know it is one of my favorites. Ever.

One trunk bit now lies on the back deck railing, serving as Garrett's Zick Dough feeder. And the one still standing is his bedroom. Awwww!

I was not the only person who noticed him going into the cavity for the first time. Three Carolina chickadees began scolding like mad, their dee dee dee’s reaching a crescendo each time Garrett's head popped out of the hole.  Perhaps the night roost had changed hands and was now chickadee property. We have a surfeit of chickadees this year, probably thanks to the fact that our backyard pair fledged NINE from a faux birchbark Gilbertson house not 20 feet away. (With a little help from me; I fostered three orphans into an existing brood of six).

Tough tits, chickadees. This is my house now.

 Before long his crimson head popped out and then he disappeared again, coming back up with a bill full of punky birch wood!

Garrett was excavating, making himself a home. This cavity, I knew, had been the night roost for a downy woodpecker last fall. Nothing quite like having a downy woodpecker almost pith you when you peek into a mystery cavity right at eye level…you don’t forget that.

Ptoo!! The wind carried his sawdust away.

 Up and back he went, bringing the fill out and scattering it with a quick shake of his head.


I'm standing atop a desk in the studio, shooting through glass, loving every second of The Garrett Show. I spent the entire MLK day Monday, dawn to dark, documenting his every move. One could do worse than be a woodpecker documentarian; one could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

Finally, he was done. He squiggled out of the rather tight space.

Enh! Enh! Too much PB and lard...

and perched for a long time, looking fondly at his new house. Red-headed woodpeckers are at once the flashiest and most phlegmatic of woodpeckers, sitting for long periods in one spot. Garrett spends a good portion of his day in just this position, staring into his boudoir.

It is a fine house, and you are a fine bird. I see you feel welcome here. That was our intent.

Stick with people who let dead wood stand in the yard until it falls down by itself, who think it has its own beauty. Who know just what a woodpecker likes. 

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