This is a true story and the names have not been changed to protect the innocent or anyone else. Yes, it’s probably true that the woodpeckers will be able to maintain their anonymity whether I use their names or not. Still, it is a first for me to not protect the names and identities of those I write about.
Two days ago I was sitting at this same computer, trying to decide what I wanted to do next, when there was a loud and violent crash into the large bay window about 4 feet away from me. My very first thought, I will confess, was that my idiot neighbor (who name I will not use) had “missed” badly when throwing his dog’s ball across the street for the dog to chase. I have been expecting that since the weather got warm enough for him to sit in his lawn chair and launch the ball with whatever launcher he has purchased to let him work even less than he does.
I guess that I will still have to wait for that crash, because when I glanced out, he was not playing ball with the dog. It’s always good to have something to look forward to.
My second guess was that a bird had hit the window. That has happened before, though never with such force. I realized that, if a bird had hit with that much force, it might have been injured. So being the intrepid investigator that I am, I went to the front door and looked out.
My heart sank. There, in the flower bed directly below the window, was a female Downy Woodpecker face-planted in the dirt. I went out and looked more closely – she was breathing!! But as I approached she did not move. She looked so small and fragile. My heart continued its downward plunge. Thoughts started racing through my brain. If Ms Downy was hurt, what should I do? How would I know if she was seriously injured? What do you do with an injured woodpecker? I’m pretty good at first aid but usually for humans. What if she was too seriously injured to be helped? Would someone (I knew it would not be me) have to “put her out of her misery?” The idea of this creature being too injured to get food (thus starving to death) or to find safety if the neighborhood outdoor cats came prowling (thus becoming a cat toy) was totally abhorrent to me.
All those thoughts occurred in perhaps 2-3 minutes as I observed Ms Downy. The next thoughts were how can I reach her and check her out? How can I be sure to not hurt her more than she already is hurt? The flower bed is raised and she was at the back of the bed which I could not reach without climbing into it. Then I remember the bamboo rods I had purchased to stake some sunflowers later in the season.
I hurried to the back porch, retrieved one of the rods and returned to Ms Downy. She was still breathing. Good! The rod was just a little bigger in diameter than a #2 pencil and light. Very easily maneuverable. The first thing I did was to see what she would do if I put the tip of the rod near her. Nothing – not a good sign. I was not in a position to stabilize her neck, the way they do for athletes who are injured and unconscious. I very gently touched her back with the rod, stroking her feathers from neck to tail. Did I see an eye open? I did it a few more times and yes, she was definitely opening her eyes!!
I spoke to her soothingly as I pondered my next move. I decided to see if she would tolerate me lifting her face from the dirt. Gently sliding the rod under her throat, I lifted it a few millimeters. She opened her eyes and blinked – and kept her head up when I slid the rod out. We chatted for a time, but there wasn’t much more movement on her part.
I decided to see if raising up her chest a bit would make her think about using her wings. So I slid the rod carefully under her chest and lifted a bit. She did not flap or try to fly. I was slightly discouraged until I realized that, after I’d slid the rod out, she had kept herself up, braced a bit on her wings. I still had hope for Ms Downy flying away. She, however, did not seem inclined to move on her own.
I decided that perhaps a sip of water or a bit of food might be a good thing to put near her before I left her for a while. So I got a plastic cap from my last diet Snapple and filled it with water. Then using the rod, I pushed it slowly over the earth until it was next to her head. I got a bit of suet from the feeder she usually uses and placed it next to the water. Then I went in to make dinner since my husband would be home from work soon. I checked on her periodically, stroking her back and speaking to her. She seemed to be getting more lucid. And eventually she moved her wings some, though definitely not enough to fly. I hoped it was progress.
When my husband arrived home, I immediately took him out to the front flower bed. I asked him if he thought he could pick up Ms Downy and bring her to a tree in the back yard. He decided to try and stepped up into the flower bed. Ms Downy eyed him warily. When he lowered his hands to try to cup her in them, she tried to flap her wings and hopped away. I was very encouraged. After a few tries, he managed to pick her up and we brought her to the oak tree in the back yard. I hoped she would be able to get high enough to be out of cat-reach.
My husband placed Ms Downy at the base of the tree and stepped back. We watched as she seemed to tilt her head to one side and listen to the other birds who were tweeting quite a bit since we were disturbing their dinner. As we waited and watched, Ms Downy began to hop up the side of the tree. She took frequent rest breaks but made steady progress. With high hopes, we went in to eat our dinner.
When I went back out, she was back on the ground. Oh dear, had she fallen again or simply forgotten that the goal was to go UP and come back down instead. I walked over to where she was . . . and she began to hop away. I knew she was still recovering and knew more about potential threats (though I was certainly not a threat to her). I decided the best route would be to try to get her to move back to the tree on her own. So I did my best woodpecker herding moves and it worked!
She began to hop back up the tree and after she reached what I thought was a safe height, I went in. I didn’t want to stress her by my presence. But of course I kept checking on her — with the binoculars I have in the house. It was on one of those checks that I realized there was a second woodpecker on the tree, a male.
As I watched, he hopped along side of her, trying to get her to hop further up the tree. He would hop up a couple of feet, then return to her side and repeat the whole thing again and again. It was then I realized that Ms Downy was actually Mrs Downy. Apparently Mr Downy was concerned when she was away from the nest too long and came to look for her. Now he was trying to help her understand what she needed to do to return to the nest.
After a while Mr Downy began to flutter around her as well as hopping next to her, as if he were trying to remind her to fly. He fluttered and hopped and hopped and fluttered. Then he flew off.
Had Mr Downy abandoned Mrs Downy? Or were there eggs or chicks in the nest that needed attention? It is that time of year. He came back several more times, so it was not abandonment. Perhaps it was simply demonstrating how to fly. A sort of woodpecker rehab.
Then came the time when I looked and could not see either woodpecker. So I went outside to check. The oak is a huge, old tree at least 40 feet high. Finally, near the very top, I spotted the two woodpeckers. They were out on the end of the smaller branches at the edge of the canopy. As I watched, Mr Downy flew off to the north, which was the direction he had been flying to before. The nest must be in that direction.
Suddenly Mrs Downy left the branch and sailed down, over the house, landing in the front lawn. I ran around the house and there she was, settled into the grass like a jet that has made a perfect landing. Had it been too much? She wasn’t moving. I walked over to where she was and spoke to her. She looked at me for a few moments and I would like to think there was some recognition of my voice. Then she began to hop . . . toward the road!
No, I shouted in my head! It may be a dead-end that is a quiet road, but it’s also going to make you clear cat-bait if you stop to rest in the middle of the road. I went around so I was between the road and Mrs Downy. Mrs Downy was obviously getting a clearer head. She began to hop toward the dogwood tree in the front yard. I made sure she was up far enough to not attract cats, then went in. I could watch her from my computer desk again.
Before too long Mr Downy was back. He continued his efforts to get her to the top of the tree, then flew away. I watched her in top of the tree for a while then looked away to work on a project.
When I looked back, Mrs Downy was gone. I checked out the entire tree, the yard, the street and the neighbor’s yard. Mrs Downy was nowhere to be found. I have not seen her since, nor Mr Downy either.
I do not know for certain where Mrs Downy is or whether she made it home to her nest. So I will make up the ending of the story as I hope it played out.
Mrs Downy finally had recovered enough to really test her wings. She managed to fly to the trees behind the neighbor’s house. From there, she flew from tree to tree, with Mr Downy cheering her on the whole time. She finally arrived at her nest, where she has been spending time recovering from the physical and emotional trauma. Someday she will return to feed in my yard with her young.
Although I was able to find facts about Downy woodpeckers on various sites and did learn that both the male and female work at hatching the eggs, I could not find any reference to the kind of relationships they forge or the kind of behavior I observed.
If you would like to know more about Downy woodpeckers, here’s a nice site: http://www.sialis.org/dowobio.htm
It’s about 6 hours after I finished writing and there are 2 Downy woodpeckers at the oak tree and suet feeder. Based on the territory information I read, they are very likely the same birds that I wrote about. I am so very happy she is well.