Wednesday, May 6, 2009
How do you measure trust? When it’s between you and a red-bellied woodpecker, it’s quite literally a scale of the distance allowable between yourself and the bird—a mark always assented to or not by the woodpecker. You have no say whatsoever in the matter. When I first moved into this modest stone cottage beside the river, I hung a bird feeder and suet cage in the box elder near the entry door, and scattered handsful of cracked corn round about. Red-bellied woodpeckers were among the first birds to check out the proffered free eats. I was thrilled. Though I’d certainly seen plenty of red-bellied woodpeckers over the years, never before had I lived in a place where they were such regular visitors. For me, they were a new and colorful dooryard species. One thing I learned immediately was that unlike the rather tame downy, the red-bellies were easily spooked. It wasn’t a question of how close you could get to them outside; just moving around inside the house, near to the big window with the best view of the feeder, was enough to send them fleeing. On a scale of vigilance, the red-bellied woodpeckers were almost as wary as the flickers and pileateds. However, this winter, I began to notice a certain acceptance on the bird’s part, a willingness to grant me a modicum of trespass into heretofore forbidden space. So long as I exited the cottage by the back door rather than the one near the feeding area, I could now move about the yard—work around the woodpile, for example—and the woodpecker would remain in the tree; watching, but not flying off. As winter turned to spring, the allowable distance decreased. I was earning the bird’s trust. Eventually I could come and go by the door near the feeder and, at the most, the woodpecker would simply hide on the back-side of the hackberry. Now even that precaution is a thing of the past. I sit in the rocking chair on the side deck, less than a dozen feet from the various feeders, and the red-bellied putters about—sampling the suet in the wire cage, grabbing a few sunflower seeds from the hanging basket, pecking at cracked corn on the ground. Every so often it will glance my way—actually make eye contact—but I’m apparently deemed tolerable. I can move legs and arms, twist around, drink a glass of iced tea, pick up binoculars or camera, and the woodpecker stays put. I can even stand, walk to the door, go inside, come back out…and at most the red-headed bird simply pauses, making sure I stay on my side of the prescribed boundary; if the woodpecker happens to be on the ground, it might or might not fly onto a low limb nearby until I've again settled. I should say that this trustful tolerance is only extended me by the male red-bellied; the female is more cautious—though she will occasionally work up and down the main trunk of the hackberry when I’m on the porch. And neither woodpecker will come this close when someone else joins me, though the male is surprisingly permissive when it comes to Moon the dog; her trust circle’s perimeter is farther out than mine, but not by all that much. Will I some day be able to have a woodpecker perch on my knee or shoulder? Probably not. Besides, having watched how the bird whacks so enthusiastically at bugs and seeds with its dagger-like beak, I'm not altogether sure I trust it that close to my ear. Nope. I’m happy just to be allowed this close. I consider such red-bellied trust an honer. It isn’t every day a fellow gains the confidence of a woodpecker.