Monday, May 7, 2012


May 3, 2012

Now that he's beaten back his opponents and is marching unhindered to the Republican convention, I guess it's time for me to write about Mitt Romney.

But hell, it's springtime, and the world is awash with color and newness. Who wants to write about Mitt Romney in the springtime? I'll write about woodpeckers instead.

For the last couple weeks, I've awakened at first light to the rattle-tap of a woodpecker on some nearby tree. It occurs in spurts, a couple seconds at a time followed by short breaks, consistently through the early morning, then stops for several hours, then resumes in late afternoon and goes on till dusk. The noise is so loud it successfully competes with the jackhammers of Con Edison workers, who have been tearing up the street to lay down new conduit.

On pleasant days I've ventured out with binoculars to search for the suspect bird, but of course, just when I think I'm close, the rattling stops and I'm unable to spot it. I'm a lousy birder.

The reputation of the South Bronx does not lend itself to images of nature's wonders, but there is in fact a forest ecology here. A full quarter of the Bronx is parkland, more than any of the other four boroughs of New York City. Much of it has been developed for human use — playgrounds and ball fields and golf courses (three of them) and lawns for picnicking — but even in the most utilitarian spaces, like 130-acre Crotona Park two blocks north of here, ancient tall trees abound, and there are still many hefty ones shading the streets, hardy survivors of the decades of urban devastation. It's an agreeable habitat for birds of every sort, including large predators like red-tailed hawks, which I often see peering down from low-hanging branches at potential prey — pigeons, rats, squirrels, and off-the-leash Chihuahuas.

The only two kinds of woodpeckers I've actually seen in the neighborhood are the downy, a red-headed little lovely about the size of a starling, and the northern flicker, a larger bird with striking gray-and-yellow plumage. Birders have sighted several other species in the Bronx, such as the mid-size red-bellied, the majestic top-knotted pileated, and the yellow-bellied sapsucker, though these have been found mostly in heavily-wooded areas in the New York Botanical Garden and Van Cortlandt Park, a few miles north of here. So I'd say my guy is either a downy or a flicker.

We all know why bees hum, but why do woodpeckers peck? Of course, they peck to eat, drilling into a tree's bark to expose tasty insects, grubs, and often whole colonies of ants living inside. They also peck to excavate cavities for nesting. But most of the pecking we hear in the spring — the rapid-fire tapping that wakes me up these days — is, say the ornithologists, their version of other birds' warbles and songs, their way of staking out territory and attracting mates. In the forest as in the concert-hall, every symphony needs a drummer.

And as with all drummers, the woodpecker's governing principle is "The louder, the better." They'll always select instruments with the best resonance — hollow trees mostly. Where humans dwell, however, they go for heavy metal — gutters and drainpipes — to produce a sound powerful enough to show who's boss in the neighborhood.

The bird people say that every species of woodpecker has a unique drumming pattern of precise rapidity, duration, and pauses between sets. The downy, for example, drums at 14 taps per second; other kinds do 20 or more. The Cornell University Ornithology website features audio clips of woodpecker drums to assist birders in identifying species by ear, offering these words of encouragement: "With practice, most drumming sounds can be recognized with a high level of confidence." I've listened to all those clips and can barely tell one from the other. I'm no birder.

Another very practical question is: Why don't woodpeckers beat their brains out? Boxers get punch-drunk from blows to the head; do woodpeckers grow dotty after a season or two of passionate drumming? The answer, expectedly, is no. As ever- trustworthy Wikipedia puts it: "Woodpeckers have evolved a number of adaptations to protect the brain," including "short duration of contact" with the wood, "the orientation of the brain within the skull" (a half-turn different from other birds, "which maximizes the area of contact between the brain and the skull"), and "small brain size."

How these creatures can get up day after day and beat out the same old message without variance and without brain-damage is amazing to me.

Don't you wonder the same thing about presidential candidates? Maybe it's for similar reasons.

I guess it's time for me to write about Mitt Romney.

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