A sign of spring:
Monday morning I blissfully sipped a steaming
mug of coffee (sweetener only, please) and watched the day unfold over
White River’s West Fork, thinking that this was as good as life would get.
But it wasn’t.
As most outdoors types know, this thing called
spring has many attributes, the least of which is not privity of the “goings-on”
of Mother Nature’s critters when the urge to reproduce comes to the wild.
Soon, with the help of my little binocs, I became
aware of the presence of not one or two red-bellied woodpeckers (as I had
been seeing), but some kind of congregation--at least three and possibly
more. They were so active that I did not feel all present met my gaze at
any one time. But, so far as I could tell, they were all males with the
exception of one chubby little beauty.
It was a wondrous thing to see, the somewhat aloof
female moving from limb-to-limb, and tree-to-tree while her suitors (their
minds seemingly in total disarray) jockeyed for position on nearby limbs.
Separating the sexes of the red-bellied is fairly
easy, even with the naked eye. The male shows bright red on both the top
of the head and the nape (back side) of the neck. The female displays red
only across the nape. But “red,” as such, does not seem to me to be of
the fire-engine quality of the red-headed woodpecker.
Furthermore, as this “birder” friend of mine once
told me: “The nomenclators must have been between a rock and a hard place
when they came up with the red-belly’s moniker. There’s no red on the belly.”
I begged to disagree, pointing out that the casual
observer may never see it, but occasionally--when birds are in full feather--a
tiny scarlet dot will appear at the middle of the breast of adult males,
maybe even adult females (though I have not observed this in a female).
The best of this experience was yet to come as
one-by-one the males found space on the same limb with the female (two
to three feet away) to display their wares, mostly spreading their wings.
The show didn’t last long, but it recalled similar
pre-mating exhibitions I had observed of other species of birds.
Wild turkey hunters say that nothing can compare
to the strut of a wild tom turkey when it is trying to impress a hen, but
I would have to doubt that it matches the pre-nuptials of the wood duck.
For one thing, at least in my mind, the male wood duck is considerably
more handsome than a tom turkey, and this ritual among woodies at times
involves more than one male. True, wood ducks are mated through life. But
occasionally the male has competition.
Incidentally, if of one is of the mind to observe
woodies in this situation, it may be accomplished by spending some time
sitting on the banks of a creek that is lined with big trees that offer
nesting cavities. You will have to sit quietly to see this.
One of the most interesting prenuptial shows I
have ever witnessed involved a pair of yellow hammers (yellow-shafted flicker).
It was back in the mid-‘50s days of one-car, two-jobs families. On my Mondays
off, I would (with fishing pole or shotgun) drop my wife at work on the
south side of Indy after listening to the dictum that I should be back
on time (4:30 p.m.), her quitting time. After all, I had to have fodder
for my fledgling outdoor column.
On this particular bright and warm day, I had
driven to a spot on the Big Blue River west of Shelbyville where I would
conduct a test on smallmouth bass, goggle-eyes or any other noteworthy
By noontide my grumbling tummy told me it was
time to dine. Chilled from wading in the cold water with chest waders,
I crawled up on a little island of white sand to scarf my sandwich and
In the process, I had been watching this pair
of strange-acting flickers as they flitted from one tree to another, finally
settling on a high, level limb of a tree (cottonwood, as I recall) on the
bank of the river.
For several minutes I watched the antics of the
male as he spread his wings and moved his head and neck from one side of
his body to he other. After trying to record the performance with camera,
and fighting sleep induced by the warm sun and sand, it seemed that I could
view the action just as well horizontally. I scooted down and soon
was in never-never land.
About 4:30 p.m. I awakened with a start to learn
that I should be picking up my wife at that very moment, and that I was
looking at an hour’s walk back to my car and an hour’s drive to the south
side of Indy. It had been a great experience, I told myself . . . but the
future did not seem bright.
We now have two cars and no jobs.