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.
© 2011 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author (I’d love for you to share my work , just ask first). Thanks to these photographers for making their work available through a Creative Commons license (from top to bottom): CheepShot, ehpien, and Florida Center for Instructional Technology.