A flash of red catches my eye when I pass the window on the stairs. I turn to see one of the pileated woodpeckers that hang about our woods, her black wings wrap around her like a great cloak and she clings to the tree outside our front door, working steadily at the trunk of the large poplar. White chips fly away to the ground.
I run down the rest of the stairs to the kitchen and then down the final steps to the entryway, dash past the dogs, “Wait here,” I say, and burst out the front door.
“Hey!” I say to her, quick and fast, hoping to startle her from her task. Ten feet above my head she stops what she is doing, cocks her head sideways and peers down at me with her round, glassy eye.
“You can’t live there,” I say, eyeing up the hole she has started, a bright fresh wound on the side of the tree. “Pick another tree,” I tell her. “Like that one over there.” And I point to another poplar not too far away that already has a great hole in it, made a number of years ago by the pileateds and every year since has been home to new broods of yellow-shafted flickers.
I know she will not live in a used hole, but I suggest it anyway. The pileateds are amazing. I love to have the birds living right outside our home but I do not want to sacrifice every tree to them. There are others dotted about our property, older poplars with great caverns already hacked out inside.
“Go use one of the other holes,” I say to her and clap my hands loudly over my head. She continues to stare, her beak parted slightly as though considering, and then returns to her task, ripping great strips of wood from inside the tree.
I stomp my feet and cast about for something to throw. Pale chunks of wood freshly plucked from the inside of the tree litter the dark, weathered planks of the deck. I find a small grey stick, a twig really that has fallen from this very tree, I pull it from the receding ice and toss it up towards the bird. I don’t want to hit her, I don’t want to scare her away completely I just want her to stop building her nest here, in this tree, compromising its structure.
The twig bounces of the trunk a foot below the bird and she takes no notice. I find another and try again, and another. The pileated clearly does not see me as any kind of threat.
“Go!” I yell at her and clap my hands again and then turn and open the door. “Come on guys,” I say to the dogs, “Chase her away!” Murdoch and Molly pour out the door onto the deck. “Up there,” I say, pointing at the bird. “Come on guys. Bark!”
Molly skips off the deck and is immediately consumed by the task of finding a good fetching stick but Murdoch stands beside me. He is excited because I am excited, but he does not see the bird. He stands rigid, ready, and scans the forest immediately around the house.
“No, up there,” I say again. “Murds, up there.” And I wave my hands over my head. “Go away.”
Murdoch does not look up he does not see the bird that has paused again in her work to take in the dogs. ‘Yeah,’ I think, ‘See? Dogs, and people, and there’s cats too.’ I think that just having the dogs there and me clapping my hands, talking loudly would be enough for the bird to reconsider this spot. But the dogs and I do not concern her.
As the bird returns to shaping a home from the tree trunk, I cast about for more stuff to throw. I toss up another twig, and another, and then a bigger stick. They all bounce harmlessly off the silvered bark. Murdoch looks up then, he sees the bird, but he remains silent.
“Murds, come on,” I say. “Chase it away.” He watches it, but doesn’t say a word. The bird has stopped again, hopped sideways around the tree. Her eye focuses on us below.
I pick up a chunk of bark about the size of the palm of my hand. I am sure it is a piece she has torn from the tree and tossed away. It is heftier than the twigs and when I throw it, it makes a quiet ‘tock’ sound as it ricochets off the trunk.
The bird cocks her head one more time and then, finally, she leaves. She opens her great black wings, exposing the white beneath, and swoops over our heads, away across the clearing where our clothes line runs from the corner of the house to a towering tree.
I watch her go with some relief, even while I imagine her planning her return, as the red crest on her head glows brightly in a flash of sunlight before she disappears into the forest.