A PAIR OF WOODPECKERS
A PAIR OF WOODPECKERS, by an anonymous contributor, in The Atlantic Monthly magazine, Vol. CLII. No. 5, pp. 637, 638, November. 1933.
I had been reading in Hudson’s Green Mansions that very afternoon, and as I walked along the highway that stretched like a gray sword slash through the exuberant foliage with which a wet June had clothed the forest of broad-leaved maple, alder, willow, and ash that had taken possession of the logged-off land beyond my ranch, I recalled the graceful antics of a couple of birds that the mythical Abel observed during his flight with Rima to the land of her birth.
As if to continue my mind picture, I saw before me a pair of woodpeckers behaving in an extraordinary way. The male was clinging to the side of a dead alder stub, apparently making love in a most excited fashion to his mate, only the head and shoulders of whom were visible. Seeing me, he dipped away, woodpecker fashion, among the trees that rose like green thunderheads above the general level of the forest.
The female remained, still showing only the head and neck from behind the stub, and eyed me in that breathless, frozen stillness so characteristic of a frightened bird. Three automobiles roared past like huge demented beetles, but she did not stir.
Shouldering my way into the rank brake ferns, I came within twenty feet of her. She was still watching my every movement when the male returned and with much pomp and ceremony proffered her a fat white grub. The acceptance of the choice morsel was accompanied by so much chattering on both sides, and elaborate curtsying on the part of the male, that I concluded that “the sauce to meat is ceremony” among woodpeckers quite as much as among Scotch thanes.
Making my way still farther into the ferns, I discovered that the female was really on her nest, from which her head and neck projected, although I knew from the many holes in “punky” maples I had investigated as a boy that the excavation was a good six inches deep, and that she was occupying its mouth for some special reason. When on the job, she undoubtedly was incubating eggs.
I soon discovered why she was not sitting on those eggs. As in all well-regulated families, each member of the partnership had assumed certain duties. She was to hatch the eggs, and he, in vulgar phrase, was to “bring home the bacon.” Apparently he was not fulfilling his part of the agreement. He had scarcely disappeared into the forest when she began a rapid, high-keyed chatter, evidently begging for more grubs. She kept this up for several minutes, occasionally opening her mouth wide, as if gasping for breath. When, in spite of her coaxing, the male did not return, she changed her tactics. Pitching her voice on a much lower key, she kept up a staccato calling that reverberated through the forest.
Still her provider did not appear. Apparently the cold weather was not producing the usual crop of grubs. With her neck thrust far out of the hole, she called peremptorily again and again, occasionally tilting her head to listen. Disappointed, she flounced back into the nest, remained there for a few moments, and then, reappearing, began all over again the high-keyed coaxing. When at the end of a good twenty minutes the male did come bustling back with a grub, she snatched it from his beak, swallowed it whole, and before it was fairly down began to scold him like a fishwife.
Somewhat abashed, the male withdrew to a dead branch on the other side of the stub; but she sensed the fact that he was loafing there, and craning her head round as far as she could without falling out of the nest, resumed her recriminations.
Like most fathers when under fire, his woodpeckership assumed an indifferent air, as if to say, “I don’t mind your senseless chatter in the least”; but the head was no sooner withdrawn than he made off into the forest through a drizzle that had increased to a downpour. He had scarcely disappeared before out again came the head with the red crown and pale orange stripes above the eyes curved like Mephistophelean eyebrows, and the coaxing began all over again. I noticed that the opening was slightly V-shaped at the bottom, that it faced away from the prevailing storms but toward the sun.
Again Father Woodpecker did not return at the expected time （apparently at the end of every ten minutes）, and again Madam Woodpecker flounced about as is the immemorial custom of angry females. She snapped viciously at a long-legged fly that was unwise enough to light within reach of her sharp black beak; then in sheer vexation she tried to eat fragments of the punky wood about the edge of the nest. These she would taste for a little and then spit out disgustedly.
Suddenly her mood changed. She sat quite still, and, as if she had never seen me before, regarded me with gentle curiosity, occasionally winking her dark eyes in a most charming fashion. Then she cocked her head to one side and listened, and, although my dull ears could distinguish no sound different from the subdued and all-pervading murmur of the forest, began once more the high-keyed chatter. In a few moments a sadly bedraggled woodpecker came undulating through the rain, and once more clung to the stub at the side of the nest. But his spouse was now too angry to take the silver-gray fly proffered her. Raising her voice to something like a scream, she turned loose upon him a torrent of abuse before she swallowed it, and as soon as it was down resumed her tongue-lashing.
But masculine endurance has its limitations, even among woodpeckers. The faithful provider, dripping and bedraggled after a prolonged hunt for grubs in some cheerless corner of the forest, suddenly flicked his tail, and, flying up a few yards to the dead branch of a fire-blasted maple, began to “talk back.” He was drab, unlovely, smaller than his smartly decorated partner, and with the compact and thoroughly utilitarian body which characterizes an age-old serving class, from insects to men. What he said was short, crisp, and, I suspect, very much to the point.
And right there came an exhibition of the superior nature of female intelligence. Madam quickly withdrew into the nest, doubtless resolved to remain there until the storm should blow over. Father Woodpecker, perceiving that he lacked an audience, angrily jerked his wet wings a few times, apparently to convince himself that he really was of some importance, and then dipped into the woods again in search of more grubs.
Hudson’s “Green Mansions.” William Henry Hudson （1841-1922）, English naturalist and author, whose Green Mansions is his classic romance of the tropical forest.
sword slash, path as if made by the slash or cut of a sword.
exuberant foliage, abundant cluster of leaves, flowers, and branches.
logged-off land, land in which the trees have been logged-off or cut.
antics, grotesque postures, movements, or tricks.
woodpeckers， 啄木鸟，birds having spiny tail feathers used to aid in climbing, or resting on, tree trunks, and a hard chisel-like bill used to drill into trees for insects.
stub, tree stump; the short, blunt remnant of a tree.
dipped away. The flight of a woodpecker is a succession of dips and rises, a series of concave curves.
thunderheads, rounded masses of cumulus cloud, with shining edges, often seen before a thunderstorm.
demented, crazy or mad; deprived of reason.
beetles. The shape of automobiles is likened to that of beetles.
rank, luxuriant or coarse in growth; overgrown.
brake ferns, any of various ferns with remotely compound ferns;ferns growing close together.
proffered, offered for acceptance.
grub, larva of insect, caterpillar, maggot.
curtsying, feminine salutation by bending knees and lowering body.
“the sauce to meat is ceremony.” Ceremony adds relish to a meal. A certain amount of formality makes the meal more enjoyable.
Scotch thanes, in Scotland, members of a rank between ordinary freemen and hereditary nobles.
“punky, ” having rotten wood.
incubating eggs, hatching eggs by sitting on them.
“bring home the bacon, ” return home with the food that he has gone forth to seek; return home in victory.
staccato, abrupt and sharp.
her provider, her husband, the one who secures food for the family.
peremptorily, stubbornly; commandingly; dictatorially.
tilting, turning up at a sharp angle.
flounced, went with violent or agitated motion.
high-keyed coaxing, persuasion in a high tone of voice.
fishwife, woman selling fish, noted for her ability to scold.
loafing, spending time in idleness.
craning, stretching the neck forward like a crane.
woodpeckership, a humorous title given to the woodpecker, supposing him to be dignified and of high rank.
drizzle, fine, dense drops of rain.
downpour, heavy fall of rain.
Mephistophelean, like Mephistopheles, in the German Faust legend, the personification of the devil, to whom Faust sells his soul.
immemorial, ancient beyond memory, very old.
cocked, stuck up jauntily or defiantly.
sadly bedraggled, distressingly wet, with his feathers hanging down.
undulating, gently rising and falling; dipping and rising.
torrent of abuse, violent flow of rebuking or scolding language.
storm, violent disturbance; dispute.
- How does the author make this little sketch a commentary on human married life?
- Would it have been as good without the comparison?