The Day the Woodpecker Landed on Me

By: Isabel Nee

It was a scorchingly hot summer day in June when I walked up toward the house from the barn, heading toward the old cedar tree near the house. The tree had bird feeders hanging on it, and probably I was going to check the feeders to see how much seed they had in them. There were still some hungry birds around, devouring the food we put out for them. A few feet away from the tree, I paused for a moment, house on my right, tree ahead and to my left. At least, I think I paused—it is what happened next that really stays with me.

As I stood there, a shape swooped past the house and toward me. My brain had barely registered the movement, and its direction, when I felt something heavy thump into my leg, its weight pulling down on my dress. My arms were crossed over my chest (I have a tendency to do that), and I peered over them, down the length of my dress. Then I froze. Clinging to the fabric of my skirt, beak open and tongue lolling out in a pant, was a Red-bellied Woodpecker.

For a few moments, I just stared, unable to do anything else as I processed what had just happened—was still happening. Then I got enough of my wits back to look the bird over critically. It was a big bird, probably about nine inches long from beak to tail tip, but not unusually sized for its kind. Its back and tops of its wings were banded with the usual black and white stripes. Its chest and belly were buff-colored, with a tiny patch of pink on its breast. I couldn’t see its feet, though I could feel the sharp tips of its claws digging into my skin where they pierced through the light fabric of my dress. The bird’s neck and head were the same creamy buff as its belly. A thick red stripe ran from the crown of its head to the nape of its neck. A female, then, I thought. I knew male Red-bellies have a red stripe running from the top of their beak to their neck.

I continued to gaze at her, and she tilted her head, looking up at me with interest, but no fear. Her eyes were a deep orangey color, the pupils dark, black, and round. I gazed at her in wonder and amazement. I could still hardly believe this was happening—how many times had I wondered at the birds as they flitted to and fro? How many times had I wished I could hold or touch one just once? True, I was not touching those smooth, soft-looking feathers at the moment; but still, there she clung looking at me with her bright eyes. I could feel her weight dragging on my skirt, and feel her sharp claws just touching my skin. A real, live, breathing, woodpecker was perching—or more, hanging—from my dress, and not seeming the least bit concerned about her close proximity to a human.

I looked her over again, trying to commit to memory every detail of her before she flew away. She had stopped panting for a moment, but started up again. Her dark gray beak was long, at least two inches, and tough looking. It was sharply pointed on the end, no doubt for drilling into tree trunks to extract insects. Then I noticed something else I had never in my life seen before.

Her tongue, exposed by her gap-beaked panting was a soft red color for most of its length, but about three quarters of the way toward the tip it changed to a dark purplish color. The texture looked different too, not soft and wet like the rest of her tongue, but hard, the tip as sharp as her beak. And all along the length of this part were vicious, bristly barbs. I felt a tiny thrill of fear cut through my excitement. I had previously been worried that my visitor might realize my dress, blue with pink flowers, looked (and felt) very unlike the bark of a tree where she would normally perch. Now, I hoped she did notice the difference because that thick sharp beak and pointy, barbed tongue (most likely used for hooking insects and grubs out of their tree trunk hideouts) could do some very serious damage to my soft, human leg.

She didn’t seem to notice my sudden uncertainty though. She continued to cling unperturbed to my skirt, observing the surrounding area, me, and whatever else took her fancy. My fear dissipated, overcome by wonder and excitement again. I stood, hardly daring to breathe lest I frighten her off. I still couldn’t really believe this was happening to me. I wished my mother was there to take a picture, or even just to witness this.

“Mom?” I whispered, hoping she would somehow hear me, even though she was nowhere nearby. No response. I called again, a little louder. My mother still couldn’t hear me, but the woodpecker glanced up at me, her eyes impossibly intelligent as she watched me warily. I froze again, and stared back at her. She considered me for a minute, then seemed to decide I wasn’t terribly dangerous. She went back to looking around, her little chest still rising and falling with rapid pants due to the heat.

I don’t remember how long I stood there in the blazing afternoon heat, rendered completely still by wonder and excitement, but at the time it seemed like an eternity. In truth it was probably only a few minutes that the woodpecker clung to my dress before she stopped panting and launched herself into the air, moving with a suddenness and grace that took my breath away. Yet despite the shortness of those few moments with her, to this day they remain one of the most precious and surreal moments of my life.