In East Mendocino where I live we are known for our woodpeckers. East Mendocino is a quiet little community east of our famous neighbor Tourist Mendocino. We have a good number of woodpeckers including Downy, Hairy, Nuttall, flickers, sapsuckers and our famous Pileated. Their vibrant colors whites, blacks, reds and yellows are often seen among the mixed greens of the forest and the dull browns and grays of the limbs and trunks of the trees.
Let me be clear. The woodpeckers that put us on the map are not living flying birds. You can find those in many places. The woodpeckers that put us in the spotlight are preserved, stuffed and hang from trees all over the forest around Henry’s orchard. Henry was a bit of an eccentric.
All sorts of people came by to see Henry’s woodpeckers. Locals, tourists and, of course, kids. Kids especially loved them. I was enthralled by them when I was a kid. Working, breathing woodpeckers often showed up too. They were as curious as people. They weren’t fooled, at least not for long. They knew something was different about Henry’s woodpeckers. They didn’t fight. They didn’t move. They didn’t peck. But, they sure looked real.
The living woodpeckers soon noticed that Henry’s woodpeckers didn’t talk and didn’t fly in the characteristic undulating up and down way that woodpeckers fly. No knocking, tapping or drumming for them. No flap flap, flap flap, tuck, glide. It must have be a mystery to the living woodpeckers because all they do is talk. Drill. Hammer. And fly from tree to tree.
At times living woodpeckers can be very still and quiet. Whenever you see a colorful bird clinging to the side of a tree as if he had been thrown at it and stuck, it’s probably a woodpecker. So, a living woodpecker might look at one of Henry’s birds and think: “Ah, that dude’s listening for a tree borer. He’s looking for a tasty grub, that sneaky devil.”
But it soon becomes apparent that this idea is incorrect because “that dude” doesn’t drill, doesn’t even eat. That dude is DEAD. Woodpeckers have no more interest in a dead bird than they do in a rock. People are different. They have an interest in dead things especially Henry’s woodpeckers it seems.
Henry didn’t mind that people came to see his woodpeckers but he wasn’t friendly with anyone. He never engaged or talked with strangers. The locals knew very little about him. No one had ever been inside his house or in his barn except once. I’ll tell you about that in a minute. One day all Henry’s relatives disappeared. Henry’s wife and his in-laws and his parents and his two children were here one day and gone the next. The same with his dog and cat. Where they went to and why no one knows. Nor did anyone know if they would return some day. It was a great mystery around town for awhile. Eventually people got used to it and no one thought about it anymore. Henry didn’t speak to anyone about anything after that.
Henry had bird feeders to attract woodpeckers. Some liked suet, others liked seeds or fruit. The live birds never interacted with his stuffed collection. They seemed to know right away that Henry’s woodpeckers lacked all the interesting things. Like sex. A living woodpecker won’t try to mate with a dead one. Ducks, now that’s another story, but not woodpeckers.
An impressive pileated woodpecker still comes around every year to a tall redwood snag on the edge of Henry’s meadow. It is the largest woodpecker around here. Some people say seeing a woodpecker is a sign of death. Others say the woodpecker’s red head warns of a fire. Some native Americans believe woodpeckers symbolize mother nature’s heartbeat. They wear woodpecker feathers to communicate with spirits.
When a pileated woodpecker visits the snag it hooks its toes, two pointing forward, two pointing backward, and uses its tail as a brace to hop up and down the tree while it drums loudly. Kyuk, kyuk, kak kak, kyuk kyuk, kak kak. He doesn’t seem worried about death or fire or spirits. He’s interested in carpenter ants and other bugs and maybe finding a mate. He is an artisan, a plain, hard-working, useful creature spending his life hammering holes in anything that appears to need a hole in it. There is a pile of wood shards at the base of the snag and high above a line of rectangular holes some as long as a foot that he has made on his visits.
Woodpeckers will hammer on anything that makes an interesting noise. It’s how they talk to each other. Tin roofs, for example. Or rain gutters, down spouts, hollow walls but not glass. Henry made his house woodpecker resistant by avoiding the kinds of materials that attract them.
Woodpeckers like orchards and the edges of thickets. They hang out among tangles of wild grapes and in patches of the low, wild berries they feed on and in dead trees. The woodpeckers are good for the apple trees.
A woodpecker will scurry around the trunk and limbs of a tree to see what it can pick up. The whur-r-rp of the wings and the flash of a scarlet topknot are barely visible as it dashes past then strikes the limb solidly with both feet turning its head from side to side, inspecting every crevice, and picking up whatever looks appetizing. In the knots or seams of the bark moths and beetles lay their eggs. Little cocoons are snacks for a woodpecker. Large cocoons contain a feast.
Sometimes, on the fair bark of a smooth limb, a woodpecker stops, listens, taps, and begins to drill. He works with haste and energy, laying open a deep hole. For what? An apple-tree borer is there cutting out the life of the tree. The borer is not visible but the woodpecker hears the strong grub down in his little chamber gnawing to make it longer, or, frightened by the heavy footsteps on his roof, scrambling out of the way. The woodpecker drills faster than the borer chews until wham! The woodpecker harpoons the grub with his forked tongue and enjoys a fine meal. A woodpecker’s tongue can be up to four inches long and is wrapped around the skull when retracted. Woodpeckers save apple trees from deadly infestations by dining on borers and other bugs.
Most of the apples go to make cider. Henry took his cider to a local dealer who gave him money in exchange. Not a word was spoken. In this way Henry met his modest needs. Henry charged the visitors who came to his woodpecker display. This increased his income. It was strictly voluntary. He put a collection box next to the gate. There is no way to know how much he collected but most people probably paid something.
Henry had a guide next to the collection box where he provided information on all his woodpeckers. Henry’s orchard was designated a nature reserve. He had all the proper permits to have the birds preserved and mounted. How he got the permits is unclear. Henry claimed his birds usually died naturally or after they flew into a window or after they fought with another bird. Henry also found a large number of abandoned nests that that he put on display around his orchard.
Henry took a liking to some of the local school kids. We often came to the orchard to see his birds. He allowed us to run around the orchard unsupervised. Some of the more adventurous boys tried to sneak into his barn. I actually managed to do it. He found out but he didn’t do anything. Not then. We all left early that afternoon.
The next day no kids showed up after school. Nor the next day. Nor the next.
A few days later Henry got a visit from the sheriff and the deputy. Nobody knows what happened on that visit. I think it went something like this.
“Hey Henry, how have you been?”
Henry smiled and gave them each a cold apple juice.
“One of those kids who came by to see your birds told us a pretty fantastic story,” said the sheriff after sipping his juice. (That kid was me.)
Henry didn’t show any reaction at all.
“Mind if we take a look inside your barn?”
Henry shook his head and walked them to the barn.
When they entered the barn the officers first noticed the enormous number of birds hanging everywhere, all shapes and sizes. The colors were strikingly beautiful. Then their eyes turned to the back of the barn and they gasped out loud at what they saw.
The scene was one of domestic tranquility. There was Henry’s wife and children with her parents and his parents. The children were playing on the floor. Henry’s wife was busy making apple cider. The four parents were sitting at a square table playing cards. A cat and a dog watched from the side. All were exquisitely taxidermized and costumed. (This is what I saw, or think I saw when I sneaked into the barn. And it is what I told the sheriff.)
Henry waited patiently for the poison he’d put in the apple cider to kick in. Then he took the sheriff’s cell phone and texted the office secretary.
Myrna, nothing at Henry’s barn. Everything fine here. Sounds like a tall tale. You know how kids can be. We’re high tailing it to Comptche. Reports of an armed robbery in progress. Chief
Now, all that is just my guess about what happened. What happened next surprised and disturbed me.
When the sheriff and deputy did not return, a search was instigated but they were never found. They disappeared into thin air. Henry’s barn and property was searched but nothing out of the ordinary was discovered. The number of visitors that showed up to see the woodpeckers increased. Eventually everything returned to normal and the locals had to accept the fact that some things just can’t be explained.
I often think back on the time when I saw what I saw in Henry’s barn. Maybe it was a bad dream or a mirage or psychological break. That’s what everyone said to me. No one believed me. Not even my shrinks and I’ve gone through a lot of shrinks over the years since then. Whatever it was that happened, it really messed me up. I guess I’ll never know for sure.
Henry’s long gone but his stuffed woodpeckers still hang from those apple trees, old and knarly now. The new owner still makes cider and people still visit but not nearly as many as when I was a kid. From time to time people mention what happened back then. Me? I just try to forget.
I stopped going near Henry’s orchard because of the voices. I heard them come from the ground whenever I walked there. So, I stopped. I know Henry’s people and the sheriffs are under there somewhere. Maybe I’m crazy. The only ones who listen to me are Henry’s woodpeckers but they’re stoic and mute. Just like Henry was and is now and will be forever.