The Bird Meme: Day 4

Day 4: Favorite bird of your favorite genus

Okay, I may have misled you. When I spoke about my fondness for the Melanerpes woodpeckers yesterday, I hinted that my favorite bird might lie outside that genus. I mentioned several birds that I dearly love, including the elegant Black Skimmer and the handsome Tricolored Heron, and I could have mentioned others that I consider wonderful, such as the Peregrine Falcon, Clark's Nutcracker, and Swallow-tailed Kite. But honestly, I knew where this entry was headed even as I wrote yesterday's: straight back into the Melanerpes.

When I was young, Red-headed Woodpeckers were fairly easy to see. There were wetlands all around the neighborhoods where I grew up, and RHWs weren't shy about venturing from them into the housing tracts nearby. I definitely saw them in the late 60s outside our house on Tinkerbell Road, way out east toward Durham. When we moved closer to the center of town, our house on Sugarberry Road backed directly up against a briar-festooned stream (known to us simply as "The Creek," though I've since seen it referred to as Battle Branch, a tributary of Bolin Creek). The water snaked around the kind of dead trees that RHWs and other woodpeckers found almost paradisiacal, and I naively assumed I'd always have them around for my enjoyment. 

But in 1976 we moved again, this time to the south side of town, closer to the central namesake of Chapel Hill, and the sight of a Redhead became something I had to travel for. Worse, I was moving into middle school and high school and there were a lot of things distracting me from birds. By the time I got re-introduced to the pleasures of birding, I was 25, and the Red-headed Woodpecker was in decline. Even after we moved to Fayetteville in 1991, I had better luck spotting the rare Red-cockaded Woodpecker than getting regular looks at the RHW. A few years later, I had brief hope that a pair might take up residence on the main quad at Woodberry Forest School; one of the students, an avid birder, helped me spot a couple of immatures in one of the great trees, but after that first year, they never returned.

In short, this is a bird of my childhood, now increasingly elusive, and that sense of loss makes its already stunning beauty almost aching in its purity. The boldness of its pied wings and back would startle in any case, but when they are set against that gorgeous, unmarked red head and neck, there's simply no bird to match it. 

I am occasionally reminded, when I see a common bird, that it's actually quite lovely--that the glossy green of the Mallard drake's head or the slaty blue of the Blue Jay would be treasured if they weren't so easy to see.

With the Red-headed Woodpecker, there's no reminder needed. This is a bird I don't just see; it's a bird I feel. And sometimes I miss it more than I can say.

RHW by Brian Small.jpg
(Photo by Brian Small at

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on September 13, 2017 4:52 PM.

The Bird Meme: Day 3 was the previous entry in this blog.

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