Levin: College Reunion

May 4, 2016

Certain birds arrest my attention. A streaking peregrine falcon... a bittern standing stone still in a marsh … a scarlet tanager or indigo bunting doing anything, anywhere... the effervescent song of a winter wren. Red-headed woodpeckers make my list, as well.

They're flamboyant. As their name implies, adults have red heads, breathtakingly red, resembling hoods. Everything else is black and white: back and tail black; belly and rump white. When perching, large, rectangular white patches on the trailing edge of each wing make the birds’ lower back appear white. Males and females are indistinguishable, and juveniles are dusky-headed and streaked.

Unfortunately, I rarely see them in the Upper Valley. Only twice, in fact: once at a feeder in East Thetford, and once across the Connecticut River, on a floodplain elm in Haverhill; both events more than thirty years ago. Corroborating my own paltry sightings, the Second Atlas of Breeding Birds of Vermont, published in 2013, failed to document a single red-headed woodpecker nest.

But this wasn’t always the case.

In colonial times, they were almost domestic, and a century ago, they were numerous enough in New England to be considered a crop pest. Then, in the 1960s and 70s, after a sharp population decline, red-headed woodpeckers benefited for a while from the great Elm tree die-off. But their fortunes here changed again as regenerating forests choked off the open woodlands with little or no understory - which Red-headed woodpeckers prefer.

Then, recently, I visited my son Jordan in central Ohio, a freshman at Kenyon College, where the campus is typical of those found in the Midwest, landscaped with stately trees that tower above manicured lawns. There, on a slope between my son’s dorm and the athletic center, I spotted five pugnacious red-headed woodpeckers chasing each other from tree to tree, limb to limb, stopping occasionally to rap on a resonant branch or to snatch aerial insects – as would a flycatcher or waxwing.

Red-headed woodpeckers are one of only four woodpecker species (worldwide) that stores food, both scattered and in larders. It’s perhaps the most omnivorous woodpecker in North America. They eat wood-boring and aerial insects, grasshoppers, hapless mice, and bird eggs. And their reproduction rate is dependent on the multi-year cycle of beechnuts and acorns.

Standing there on Jordan’s campus, I recalled that nearly fifty years ago, I’d been a college freshman myself in Indiana, where I’d stood transfixed by the same gorgeous and spirited birds... old friends still, but now seldom seen.