The Little Drummer Bird, A Writer Survives the Torments of Spring
Adirondack Life, May/June 1990 

      After an absence of three weeks (I had been in Peru, which seemed on the verge of plunging into chaos and anarchy), I reached my home -a small log cabin high in the Adirondacks -late in the night of last April 30. The deep, undisturbed sleep I immediately sank into, which I'd been looking forward to for days, was destined to last only a few hours. A little after five, as the sky and the woods outside were filling with weak light, there was a deafening tattoo on my metal roof, toward the front of the cabin. It sounded just like a short burst of machine-gun fire, and my first, disoriented thought, as I shot up from my bed, was, "My God! The coup!" But then the familiar interior of the cabin came into focus, and I realized I was no longer in Lima, and that there wasn't a soul for miles around except my neighbor down the hill, an old woman who wouldn't hurt a fly except people who were cruel to animals. So what on earth could that have been? I wondered. Whatever it was, it had stopped, and I lay back down and was soon dead to the world again.

      But no sooner had I dropped off than there was another staccato volley on the roof, this time right over the loft, where I was sleeping. The effect was someone smacking a metal bar on a metal helmet that you are wearing. The burst started out fast, like a maniacal drum roll, then it wound down until there were definite spaces between strikes, and it lasted in all no more than a few seconds. By the time I had wrapped my pillow around my head it was over. Fifteen minutes later there was another round of earsplitting, jackhammer stutters, this time back at the front of the roof, then after about the same interval they exploded over the loft again. I grabbed a shoe and banged the ceiling, and they stopped short. By now I had guessed what was making them -a woodpecker. It had to be a pileated, I figured -the gorgeous, red-crested species that gouges great oblong cavities out of rotten trees in search of carpenter ants. Only a pileated could make such an incredible din, and I'd seen one several times in the past few months lurking around the cabin. Furthermore, I knew from the small heaps of sawdust that I'd found on the floor below several of the exposed beams that I had a carpenter-ant problem. As soon as the next bout began I dashed down from the loft, out the sliding glass door to the deck and around to the back of the cabin in time to see a black bird swoop from the eaves over to a poplar tree perhaps fifty yards away. It was a woodpecker, all right, but not a pileated. Pileateds are around twenty inches long. This bird was more like eight. I looked over the woodpecker plates and texts in my Peterson's field guide and decided it was a hairy. The size was right, and there had been a flash of white as the bird flew off; Peterson describes the hairy as "our only woodpecker with a white back." The identification seemed even surer when my neighbor told me that she had been driven to distraction a few years back by a hairy excavating a nest under the eaves of her bedroom.

      The bird would start attacking my roof every morning punctually at daybreak and every fifteen minutes or so, until around 11:30, he would return for another session. The attacks would come less frequently during the after noon, and would pick up again toward evening. I was turning into a sleepless, shell-shocked wreck, becoming like a victim of water torture. I called my agent down in New York City and told him about the bird. "There's this bird that has a thing for my metal roof and it's driving me nuts, driving me back to the city," I said, and my agent said, without missing a beat, "Oh, you mean that woodpecker. We sent it up there to make sure you get up on time."

     A few days later I got my first look at the little bugger. I crept around to the back of the cabin and there it was, clinging to the eaves and bracing itself with its stiff, spiny tail. Too absorbed in what it was about to do to be spooked this time, it threw its head back and with wild abandon launched into another of its frenzied pecking sprees. It was amazing that it didn't split its bill because it wasn't drilling the wood, it was going at the edge of the galvanized metal sheet. I realized from its bright-red throat that it wasn't a hairy. It was a yellow-bellied sapsuckera shy, retiring member of the woodpecker tribe that frequents orchards; one sees the horizontal rows of oozing holes it bores in apple trees much more often than one sees the bird. Yellow-bellied is one of those unfortunate labels that animals often get stuck with; one hardly ever sees the sapsucker's belly. Its whitish back and white wing patches are far more conspicuous (hence my confusion about the white flash). That afternoon a builder came up from the valley to discuss a wing that I was planning to put on the cabin, and he saw and heard the sapsucker, too. Now there was a witness. It wasn't just me, wacking out up on the mountain. "Jesus! What a racket!" the builder exclaimed. "He's possessed. I can't believe he doesn't get a headache."

      There seemed to be a difference of opinion among the professionals as to what this strange behavior was all about. One of the many ornithologists whom I consulted in the stressed-out days that followed told me that woodpeckers are sometimes attracted to houses by the hum of their refrigerators, which they mistake for a sign of insect life. The majority, however, thought I was being subjected to a phenomenon known as "drumming." According to Peterson, "the drumming of the sapsucker is distinctive, several rapid thumps followed by several slow rhythmic ones"; but according to Chandler S. Robbins, Bertel Bruun and Herbert S. Zim, the authors of the Golden Guide to the Birds of North America, "sapsuckers tap in distinctive rhythms (two or three series/min) but do not drum." My friend Roger Pasquier, a crackerjack birder and the author of Watching Birds: An Introduction to Ornithology, who agreed with Peterson that sapsuckers drum, explained that it was something "which woodpeckers do in the breeding season to attract a mate and to stake out their territory. Often they choose man-made objects that reverberate. All I can say is that the drumming season isn't that long."

      So that's what it was: drumming. The expression "drumming up business" came to mind, and a few days later I happened to read in a biography of Sam Goldwyn, the Hollywood mogul, how soon after he arrived in the United States, a penniless Polish immigrant named Goldfish, he got a job as a "drummer," or a trctveling salesman, for a glove company. These cognitive exercises helped, psychologically. The first step in dealing with a situation is to get a handle on it.

     Pasquier recommended that I get in touch with Lester Short, the renowned woodpecker specialist at the American Museum of Natural History. My call to the museum's ornithology department was answered by a scientific assistant named Allison Andors, who told me that Dr. Short was in Kenya. I explained my problem and just then, serendipitously, the sapsucker made one of his assaults, which was so loud that Dr. Andors could hear it over the phone. "I suspect that what the bird is doing is drumming," he said cautiously. He explained that woodpeckers drum in late April though May and stop in June, when they nest. This was heartening news, because I had just seen the sapsucker drilling a hole the size of a fifty-cent piece in a dying birch next to the cabin. "So it won't be long now," I thought.

     A few days later a package from Dr. Andors arrived in the mail. Inside was a Xerox of the section on the yellow-bellied sapsucker in Dr. Short's monumental Woodpeckers of the World. According to Short, the drumming of this species is "complex," and takes "several forms," some bouts lasting up to eight seconds and having as many as ten double beats per second. The bird also emits a call note, “chee-aa” or “c-waan,” that “peaks initially at 1.3” kilohertz" (which I think I heard several times). It is not a permanent resident this far north, but is what is known in the local parlance as a "summer person." One of the first birds to arrive in the spring, it starts south again in late August and winters in the southern U.S., Central America and the West Indies.

     Dr. Andors also included an article by a man named Lawrence Kilham who logged many hours in the field between 1951 and 1960 observing the breeding behavior of yellow-bellied sapsuckers in New Hampshire and Maryland. Kilham reported that the drumming "begins rapidly but is drawn out like a slow, telegraphic code: drr:a-da, da-da, da." He had seen the birds do it on "a piece of metal, the hard, warped bark of a dead maple, or, most frequently, a stub that projects a few inches from the trunk of a dead pine or larch." In April 1960, when the woods around T amworth, New Hampshire, were still filled with snow, he watched a rival male drum on the glass insulators along a row of telephone poles. Females have also been known to drum, but rarely. (I only saw this one bird doing it. At least there was something to be grateful for.)

     The next question, now that I had all this knowledge under my belt, was what to do about the situation. Here again, I got a range of opinions. Pasquier suggested putting up a papier-mache' owl. Another source of questionable expertise recommended plastering the bird's drumming spots with Tabasco sauce. One of the guys in the bar down in the valley, where I was becoming a regular patron, said, "You know what we'd do, don't you," and offered to lend me his .22. But shooting the bird was definitely out. My inclination was to put up with it. As my neighbor, who had done nothing about the hairy excavating her bedroom eaves, argued, "Think of everything the animals have to put up with from us."
The only strategy left, now that I had decided to live with the situation, was to try to change my relationship to it. It was, after all, I told myself, a natural sound, no less natural than the drumming of a grouse who stands on a log and flails his wings, producing a sound like a distant motor. Try to get into it. Think of all the people who live near the el, I reminded myself. A friend came from Montreal for the weekend, and her take was, "Why should you mind the woodpecker? There are no cars, no other noises." These considerations made the drumming more tolerable.

     I suppose I could have rented a room in the valley for the duration of the drumming season, but so many things were happening on the mountain that I didn't want to miss. I began to see the sapsucker's taking its surging hormones out on my roof in context, as part of the surge of biological activity in which the North Woods progresses from dormancy to the lushness of summer. Drumming through the advance of spring, the sapsucker became like a choric figure. It drummed through the melting of the snow, when the only other sounds in the bare, empty woods were the piercing whistles of unmated chickadees. It drummed through mud-time, through the emergence of the black bears (late one night driving up to the cabin I caught one in my headlights lumbering across the road) and of the mourning cloak and Compton's tortoise-shell butterflies from their winter hibernacula, and later through the hatching of clouds of black flies. It drummed through the changing of the snowshoe hares' coats from white to brown, through the flowering of the trilliums and the poplars, whose fluff drifted through the woods for several days. It drummed in the arrival of the purple finches, the warblers and the wood thrushes, whose liquid fluting was soon resounding on the hillsides. It drummed through all kinds of weather -sundrenched days of crystalline clarity, days when it was drowned out by great gobs of rain pounding on the metal roof. It drummed through the leafing out of the hardwoods and the excavation of the foundation hole for the cabin's new wing by the builder's bulldozer and Caterpillar, which must have robbed it of a good chunk of its territory.

     The drumming didn't stop all at once: It slowly petered out. As May progressed, the visits to the roof became less frequent, less urgent, more desultory and perfunctory. On June 1right on schedule -there was not a drum. I knew the sapsucker was still around because a few days later it flew into the cabin through the open sliding glass door and it took several hours, resting on the cathedral ceiling between frantic swoops, to find its way back out.

     Apparently the sapsucker has gotten down to the next order of business raising a family -although I haven't seen its mate yet. The drumming has served its purpose. I kind of miss it.

Alex Shoumatoff is the author of African Madness, Russian Blood and a forthcoming book on Chico Mendes, The World is Burning (Little, Brown).

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