Rushing out the door, I went over the list in my head: Shorts and a breathable tee—check. Running shoes—check. Baseball cap, sunglasses, and sunblock—check. Keys and ID—check. Workout playlist queued up on the smartphone in my pocket—check. Everything was in order as I stepped out of my building.
Or so I thought.
I took my time heading up Mississippi, allowing legs and lungs to warm up, but in five minutes time I passed through the historic gates at of Lafayette Park. My goal was several times around at a pace fast enough to raise my heart rate for 20-30 minutes… but as I as prepared to begin I realized with dismay I’d left behind a critical component—my earbuds!
The thought of a workout sans soundtrack, and with zero caffeine in my system to boot, was disheartening to say the least. I need the motivation of a musical pulse so I considered, briefly, heading back home to retrieve the missing piece of audio equipment. “No worries,” I rationalized. “The rushed retreat will count as cardio time!”
Then I considered the conversation waiting for me back home. I knew my dog, Dash, would demand to know why I was leaving him behind, again, and that guilt, extra treats, and a stern chewing out would be the price of my second solo departure. With that scenario in mind I started down the path, summoning the will to power through.
About 10 minutes later I noticed I was walking to a faint drumbeat. At first I thought someone who had NOT forgotten their audio equipment had the volume turned up to 11, but then I realized the thumping came from the woods themselves. It wasn’t too long before I spotted the drummer, dressed more appropriately for jazz than heavy metal in the stylish black-and-white houndstooth jacket and jaunty red cap of a male Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens).
In spite of the bird’s diminutive size—no more than 6” from head to tail-tip and weighing in at an ounce or less—his wardrobe set him apart on that overcast day from the silvery tree trunk backdrop.
Downys are capable of making a noise disproportionate to their size. When a woodpecker is looking for a mate or claiming a territory, the sound of drumming needs to carry; building a nursery cavity using a beak as a jackhammer isn’t quiet either. But if you’re in the woods and the beat is more bongo than boogie, hunger is probably the drummer’s muse. A gentle tap, tap, tap betrays hollow spots beneath the bark where wood-boring insect larvae wait.
Once dinner has been detected things get… interesting. That short chisel of a beak hardly prepares you for what’s inside—like many other woodpeckers, the Downy has a barbed, sticky, and flexible tongue so long it wraps around the skull when at rest. If ever there was a bird ready-made for rock ‘n roll, it’s the woodpecker. Gene Simmons got nothin’ on these headbangers.
The whole tone of my morning changed in an instant. It’s so easy to carry a personal soundtrack wherever I go and miss all the ambient sounds happening just beyond the technology plugged into my ears. As a result of my forgetfulness that morning, I suddenly had a standing-room-only ticket to a great live performance, one I would surely have missed had this excursion proceeded according to plan.
My walk could wait. I stayed for several encores and gave that Downy an enthusiastic round of applause as he flew off toward his next gig.
Kieran J. Lindsey, PhD, is an urban wildlife biologist, writer, and personal assistant to her wire-fox terrier, Dash.
Kieran is co-author of Urban Wildlife Management, the first textbook on the subject. Additional wildlife career experiences include: Executive Director of the TWRC wildlife rehabilitation and education center (1997-1999, Houston, TX); former columnist for the Houston Chronicle newspaper (The Urban Jungle, 1998-2001); producer, writer, and host of Wild Things Radio!on KUNM-FM (1999-2001, Albuquerque, NM); Emmy® award-winning documentary producer.
Currently, Kieran is Director of Virginia Tech's Online Master of Natural Resources program, Managing Editor of the peer-reviewed Journal of Wildlife Rehabilitation, and blogger at nextdoornature.org. She lives and works in Lafayette Square (because the Internet is amazing).