Saturday, 23 Jan 2021

A History of Birds. Woodpecker

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Woodpeckers are colourful birds with unique wood-chiselling behaviour, and this seems to have suggested to our ancient ancestors that they were in some way special. Maybe they were even linked with the gods themselves. The Romans called the woodpecker by the name picus, and held it in particular reverence. The historian Plutarch gives three explanations for this elite status:

Why do the Latins revere the woodpecker and all strictly abstain from [eating] it?
Is it because, as they tell the tale, Picus the son of Saturn, transformed by his wife’s magic potions, became a woodpecker and in that form gave oracles and prophecies to those who consulted him?

Or is this wholly incredible and monstrous, and is another tale more credible that relates that when Romulus and Remus [the founders of Rome] were abandoned, not only did a she-wolf suckle them, but also a certain woodpecker came continually to visit them and bring them scraps of food? For generally, even to this day, in foothills and thickly wooded places where the woodpecker is found, there also is found the wolf, as Nigidius records.

A History of Birds. Woodpecker - photo 1
woodpecker in a Tudor text

Great spotted woodpecker in a Tudor text.

Or is it rather because they regard this bird as sacred to Mars, even as other birds to other gods? For it is a courageous and spirited bird and has a beak so strong that it can overturn oaks by pecking them until it has reached the inmost part of the tree.
The natural historian Pliny confirms Plutarch’s assertion that the woodpecker was especially associated with the Roman god of war and thunder, Mars. The drumming sound of the woodpecker’s hammering on a tree is perhaps reminiscent of thunder and a number of other ancient religions connect the bird to ‘thunder gods’. The Greeks, for example, associated the woodpecker with the king of the gods, Zeus, who is often portrayed clutching a lightning bolt, and the mighty Norse god of thunder, Thor, was also represented by this bird. Pliny stresses that the woodpecker was considered especially important in Roman augury – the art of predicting the future by observing the behaviour of animals. He gives a startling example:

These birds have held the first rank in auguries, in Latium, since the time of the king [Picus] who gave them their name. One of the portents that was given by them, I cannot pass over in silence. A woodpecker came and lighted upon the head of Aelius Tubero, the city praetor [magistrate], when sitting on his tribunal dispensing justice in the Forum, and showed such tameness as to allow itself to be taken with the hand; upon which the augurs declared that if it was let go, the state would be menaced with danger, but if killed, disaster would befall the praetor. In an instant he tore the bird to pieces, and before long the omen was fulfilled.

Roman commentators note that the unfortunate Tubero did pay a high price for destroying the woodpecker and saving the city of Rome – shortly afterwards, seventeen members of his family were killed by Hannibal’s army at the Battle of Cannae.
If a woodpecker made its home in a tree it was thought to bestow magical protection upon it. One medieval bestiary asserts that ‘if a woodpecker nests in a tree, a nail or anything inserted into the trunk will not rest there for long, but will fall out as soon as the bird sits on its nest.’ Some believed that the woodpecker had access to a magical herb that it used for this and other purposes.

A History of Birds. Woodpecker - photo 2
woodpecker in a flight

Woodpecker in a flight

There is a wide variety of general regional names for woodpeckers that describe their chiselling activity, including tree-jobber, pick-a-tree, and hew-hole. The green woodpecker has many names, including woodspite, nick-a-pepper, awl bird, and speck. Many of them are imitative of the bird’s loud laughing call, such as heyhoe, ecle, yaffle, and hickwall, but a personal favourite is ‘Laughing Betsy’, which originates from the West Midlands. Yet the bird’s characteristic call has another important association: it was believed to be an attempt to call forth rain. Around the world, a number of birds have been designated the rainbird or rainfowl – usually because their voice or behaviour is said to herald a downpour. In the UK, these titles have been most consistently applied to the green woodpecker, which has also been known as the storm cock or storm bird. These latter names have been applied to the mistle thrush as well, since it has a habit of continuing to call even during bad weather.

Woodpecker, spare that spire

A peculiar modern phenomenon is that of woodpeckers attacking British churches. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, they seem to have become particularly attracted to wooden spires. It may be that the wood of older buildings conceal grubs that the birds seek out, but there may be another explanation. The tall, hollow, dry timber of spires may also make an especially fine ‘sounding board’ for the drumming that male woodpeckers engage in with their bills to attract a mate. The birds don’t seem to nest in the holes they create, but may roost there. Perhaps the loss of native forests and the enticing of woodland birds into town gardens has encouraged this behaviour. Either way, the ravages of determined woodpeckers can be very serious – often leading to repair bills of many tens of thousands of pounds, and some churches even face closure because of the damage. The problem became so acute at one Norwegian church that the minister was given permission to call in a marksman to shoot the birds responsible.

A History of Birds. Woodpecker - photo 3


The woodpecker’s association with rain is not unique to the UK – other European countries bestow similar attributes – and Christian legend gives an explanation for the link. It tells how God asked all the birds to help dig out the oceans and rivers before he filled them with water, but the woodpeckers refused. So God cursed them by allowing them only to drink rainwater, and now the birds constantly cry for rain because they are always thirsty.

Given their attractive plumage, it’s not too surprising that people in the past tried to keep woodpeckers as pets, since attempts were made to tame almost every other sort of bird. However, for once, even the most ardent bird keepers generally admitted defeat. One early nineteenth-century expert wrote of the green woodpecker:

The beauty of its plumage is all that can be said of it; for it is so fierce, quick, and stubborn, that it can only be kept by means of a chain. I know no instance in which every kind of attention has rendered it more docile and agreeable: it is always untractable. One or two of these chained birds, however, do not look bad as a variety. It is curious to see them crack the nuts.

Many of the regional names for the other major species of woodpecker in the UK, the great spotted woodpecker, utilise the word ‘pie’ to reflect its primarily black and white colouration. Examples include wood pie and pied woodpecker. One old name, ‘French pie’, probably reflects the fact that green woodpeckers were once much more numerous and so considered the native species, with the great spotted variety viewed as an invader from the Continent.

Inspired animation

One of the most famous cartoon birds in history is the zany and eccentric Woody Woodpecker. Walter Lantz was the US animator who created Woody, but his artistic inspiration came at a rather unexpected time. While on honeymoon with his wife Grace in a forest cabin, the couple were constantly distracted by an overly attentive woodpecker who perpetually poked nuts under the eaves, pecked at the roof, and uttered its screaming call. It was Grace who suggested that this crazy bird would make a great cartoon character, and this led to Woody’s first appearance in 1940. Grace herself later voiced Woody and his famous laugh.

A History of Birds. Woodpecker - photo 4
green woodpecker

Green woodpecker

A History of Birds by Simon Wills

Twitter @WriterWillsy

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