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The Woodpecker Tapping on the Hollow Oak Tree,

edited by Andrew Lang

Most children who were taught music forty or fifty years ago, learnt as one of their first tunes an air called ‘The Woodpecker Tapping on the Hollow Oak Tree.’ Oak trees are not the only ones that woodpeckers, and especially American woodpeckers, ‘tap’ on. There is hardly any old tree which they disdain to work upon, sometimes for food, sometimes for nesting purposes, sometimes it would seem merely for the sake of employment and of keeping their bills in order.

For the woodpecker’s bill is a very powerful instrument, and can get through a great deal of work. In the case of the ‘ivory-billed woodpecker,’ it is not only white, and hard, and strong, but it has a ribbed surface, which tends to prevent its breaking, and even if he does not form one of this class, the woodpecker is as clever in his own line as any carpenter, and more industrious than many. The moment that he notices symptoms of decay in any tree, he flies off to make a careful examination of it, and when he has decided on the best mode of attack, he loses no time, and has even been known to strip all the bark off a dead pine tree of thirty feet long in less than twenty minutes. And this not in little bits, but in sheets five or six feet long, and as whole as the fleece of a sheep when it is sheared.

Of course different varieties of woodpeckers have little differences in their habits, in the same way that habits  differ in different families; but certain customs and ways of digging are common to them all. Every woodpecker, for instance, when placed in a wooden cage, will instantly set to work to dig himself out of it, and to keep him safe, he needs to be surrounded by wire, against which his bill is utterly useless. In general the male and female work by turns at the hole, which is always begun by the male, and is as perfectly round as if it had been measured and drawn from one point to another. For a while the boring is quite straight, and then it takes a sloping direction, so as to provide a partial shelter against the rain. Sometimes the bird will begin by a slope, and end in a direct line, but the hole is never straight all through, and the depth varies from two to five feet, according to the kind of woodpecker that is digging. The inside of the nest and the passage to it are as smooth as if they had been polished with a plane, and the chips of wood are often thrown down in a careless manner, at some distance, in order that attention may not be attracted to the spot. Often the bird’s labours have to begin, especially in orchards, which are favourite nesting places with them, with having to turn out swarms of insects, nestling comfortably between the bark and the tree. These he either kills or eats; anyhow he never rests until they are safely got rid of.

The woodpecker is never still, and, in many respects, is like a mischievous boy; so, as can be imagined, he is not very easy to make a pet of. One adventurous person, however, captured a woodpecker in America, and has left us a history of its performances during the three days it lived in captivity. The poor bird was very miserable in its prison, and cried so like a child that many persons were completely taken in. Left alone for a short time in the room while his captor had gone to look after his horse, he examined the room carefully to see where lay his best chance of escape. His quick eye soon detected the plaster between the window and the ceiling,  and he began at once to attack the weak place. He worked so hard that when his master returned he had laid bare the laths, and had bored a hole bigger than his own head, while the bed was strewn with big fragments of plaster. A very little while longer and he would have been free, and what a pity that he was disturbed in his work! But his master was most anxious to keep him a little longer, to observe his ways, so he tied him to the leg of the table, and went off to get him some food. By the time the man came back the mahogany table was lying in bits about the floor, and the woodpecker was looking eagerly round to see what other mischief he could do. He would not eat food of any kind, and died in three days, to the great regret of his captor.