THE DAY THE WOODPECKERS CAME
(Nature Raw In Tooth and Claw)
In this piece, the person watching the birds is the narrator, the protagonist. However, as a bird watcher, he is unseen by the birds. This is written, deliberately, in the third person with no mention of ‘I’ or ‘me’, in keeping with the observation of the main actors, the birds.
The cottage in North Northumberland had a big garden. Big enough to have a small wood, a fertile, mature small orchard, a generous lawn and several outbuildings. There was sufficient justification to buy a lawn tractor. It kept the lawn trim. It was nimble enough to go around the little wood crunching leaves and twigs. It stopped the rough grass around the orchard from over growing. It and its trailer were very helpful moving logs around the place. The cottage had a wood burning stove and it was very necessary in the winter. There were Bramley apples to store for winter apple sauce. Victoria plums and greengage sufficient to gorge on when ripe and to make jam to last until next season. In the hedge, brambles grew in profusion. Bramble jelly was popular and more than enough were left over to marinade a joint of lean Northumbrian pork.
It was a tranquil and isolated spot. A minor road passed by, busy only when there was a major accident on the main road two miles away. Or at harvest time when huge combine harvesters frequently competed for road space. Two miles west to the nearest village, with church, shop, school and pub. Two miles east to the nearest bus stop. Half a mile north to the nearest farm.
Birds frequently visited. Buzzards screeched overhead, quartering the fields for prey or calling for a mate. Every year, swallows nested in the outbuilding that had lost its door to rot and not had it replaced. There was even the year when one pair of swallows nested in the garage, gaining access through a hole in the double door. Young swallows performed their circuits and bumps joyfully up and down the drive, while learning to catch the flying insects which could be a considerable nuisance in season. Wagtails took advantage of a wheelbarrow full of logs left out from winter, to build cunningly and rear their young there. No logs were disturbed when the family was at home.
There were nesting boxes all around the property. Strangely, although conditions were almost perfect, no birds ever took up residence. Until one year, blue tits were seen flying in and out excitedly. Later beaksful of moss and grass and bits of lamb’s wood were seen going in but not out. At last, a clutch of eggs could be seen, at least seven, possibly eight. It took great patience, not to disturb the brooding pair. Then one day, there was a constant flying in and out with mouthsful of food for the sitting bird, and later, mouthsful of food flying in and out from both parents to feed the newly hatch chicks.
Also in the vicinity, hanging apparently perilously upside down, was a nuthatch, an attractive bird. It enjoyed the peanuts and the seed feeder. Then the woodpeckers arrived. Three. A male in the splendour of its green and scarlet plumage, a female, almost as gaudy and what was probably a juvenile. They feasted regularly, on the bird table, hanging from the feeders, meaning that top ups for smaller birds had to be frequent. They were a sight for sore eyes. Welcome visitors from the mature wood on the other side of the road.
Until one day, a persistent knocking could be heard. Not a quiet sound coming from the distance of the wood beyond, but a close at hand knocking, echoing loudly through the cottage. It echoed all day. Then silence. Stillness. A return to tranquillity.
Next day was lawn trimming day. The lawn tractor never seemed to bother the birds. Nothing came to the bird table, of course, when grass mowing was going on. But it was a relatively brief interruption, that had not previously stopped swallows swooping for insects, nor the mewing of buzzards seeking carrion, nor the gentle nesting of the blue-tits. However, there was no sign of the blue-tits. No parents flying in and out of the nest box. No eager tweeting of the chicks. No chicks. Only a ruined bird box, nest exposed to the elements, entrance pecked wide, forced open by voracious woodpeckers to carry off and eat their young downie feathered relatives.
Which is why this piece has the cliche, ‘Raw in tooth and claw’, as its subtitle.