For my first Boy Scout camp out I was equipped with a down sleeping bag left over from World War II. That long wheezy night led grownups to conclude I was allergic to feathers—but for me the difficult breathing was just part of the overall strangeness of sleeping on hard ground among kids I didn’t know.
At dawn I heard one of my new companions shuffle between the old-fashioned pup tents, pulling up the pegs, removing the tension necessary to give them their shape. Collapsing the tents was a faux-comic ritual with these fellows.
Lying under that canvas, contemplating the goofy behavior of my peers, sucking air into my constricted chest, I heard a sound I had never noticed before: an emphatic rat-a-tat-tat, nearby. Repeated. I puzzled over what would make such a cadence and realized it had to be a woodpecker.
I knew woodpeckers from television cartoons, and I had seen pictures of them in books, but this was a real living bird. To have spent the night in a wild place and to be awakened by a small creature hammering on a dead tree gave me a feeling that overcame all discomforts and presaged what the outdoor world would mean in my life.
At that time it did not occur to me that I would enjoy investigating natural history. It was years before I learned that the whole point of the woodpecker’s drumming was to make a racket. Digging insect larvae out of rotting wood doesn’t have to make much noise, nor does the chiseling of tree cavities in which woodpeckers lay eggs and raise their young. These holes are re-used by many creatures, including flying squirrels, that need such shelters but lack the ability to create them.
The deliberate beak-strokes for cavity excavation and foraging require the bird’s whole body. For drumming, mostly the head and neck muscles are involved. To make a sound loud enough to reverberate through the forest woodpeckers pound on something hard—usually a dry dead branch, but occasionally stove pipes or gutters serve these birds’ acoustical purposes.
Woodpeckers drum to proclaim their presence. They percuss for the same reasons other birds sing: to stake out turf and to project their vigor in a language that potential mates perceive as reproductive fitness.
Some of our Massachusetts drummers are here throughout the year: dainty Downy Woodpeckers, their sturdier look-alike cousins, Hairy Woodpeckers, and the crow-sized, scarlet-crested Pileated Woodpeckers. As spring ripens, Red-bellied Woodpeckers and Northern Flickers arrive to join the rhythm section in our woods. Flickers deviate from the black, white, and red color scheme worn by most American woodpeckers; they are tan and gray, with dark spots.
My interest in nature eventually led to its literature, both factual and thoughtful. Henry Thoreau wrote, “Morning is when I am awake and there is a dawn in me.” From what I know of Thoreau’s independent attitude, I doubt that he would have belonged to a Scout troop. But for me, Scouting experiences led to the very kind of awakening Thoreau urges on all of us.