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Yosemite Nature Notes 47(3) (1978)


THE BIRDS THINK THIS IS THEIR HOME

Bob Roney

woodpecker
[click to enlarge]

When we take something from nature and change it in form to suit our needs, is it still part of the natural scene? Most people would say that it isn’t. After all, if that were the case, we wouldn’t need wilderness areas: we could sit picnicking in our backyards, looking at telphone poles. “Isn’t nature grand!”

How does nature perceive our doings? Do animals make a distinction between telephone poles and dead trees; between people and nature? I think not.

Six years ago, when I was a fireguard, I planted barrier logs in Hodgdon Meadow campground to prevent visitors from driving their cars off the paved roads and destroying the vegetation. The logs have served their purpose. Ferns and young pines grow between the sites and wildlife is abundant. Foxes, coyotes, bears, deer and many uncommon birds have been seen in, or near, the campground.

One day, early this summer, as I was wandering through Hodgdon Meadow campground talking to visitors, I made an interesting discovery: a White-Headed Woodpecker had made a nest in one of the logs I had planted six years ago. I visited the nest nearly every day for the next several weeks as the young woodpeckers grew. Sitting on a boulder about fifty feet from the nest, I could hear the young peeping as the adults approached to feed them. By tossing pebbles at the log, the young could be fooled — thinking room service had arrived bringing their lunch, and would begin peeping.

It’s easy to become attached to wild animals watching them grow up over a period of weeks. I often wondered what chance these woodpeckers had for survival in their precarious nest. The log that housed their nest was rotting. A carelessly aimed car or a malicious kick could easily knock it over. Fortunately, that campsite was rarely used — that is, until the 4th of July weekend, 1977.

Hodgdon Meadow campground was not filled to capacity over that holiday weekend... it was filled far beyond capacity. Walking through the campground on Sunday, I saw that many of the barrier logs had been dug out and were being used for firewood. People had taken advantage of the openings to establish new campsites with their cars, campers and trailers. This once serene area had become a cacaphony of blaring radios, hollering kids, bellowing adults, barking dogs, humming generators, clanking dishes, hacking axes... one could barely hear the Steller’s jays!

In the midst of all this I saw two boys shooting at Robins with sling shots. “Hey, boys!,” I shouted. “You’d better put those sling shots away before a ranger confiscates them.” (I was not in uniform.) They ran away. I was beginning to feel anxious about the woodpecker family I’d been watching.

When I got to the nest site, I saw a boy standing beside the log with a sharp stick in his hand. He had been jabbing his stick into the hole where the woodpecker nest was. “Stop that!” Startled, he hid the stick behind his back. “Are there baby birds in there?,” I asked. Silently he stepped back and dropped the stick. “Those birds are defenseless; you shouldn’t hurt them. They have a right to live — this is their home!” I didn’t seem to be getting through to him, so I changed tactics. “Do you want to see something really neat? If you sit very quietly on that big rock over there and watch this hole, you may see these babies being fed by their parents. You might even get to see the young birds stick their heads out of the hole — wouldn’t that be exciting?” He was silent. I couldn’t think of anything else to say.

The following afternoon I returned. To my surprise, the campground was nearly deserted — only seven sites were occupied — but the transformation was astonishing. It appeared as though a war had been staged there. Saplings and ferns, conquered by tires, lay dying. The ground was decorated with empty cans, discarded wrappers and other garbage. A throw-away diaper hung from a bush. Corncobs scattered about contrasted with “cone cobs” left over from some squirrel’s lunch.

I sat down on the big boulder in this again unoccupied area of the campground. There were no adult birds to be seen, no sound to be heard from the nest. I tossed a few pebbles — still no sound. I walked to the stump and peered down the dark hole — nothing stirred. Pointed sticks were lying on the ground; the log was loose and could be wobbled six inches. Slowly, I returned to my tent to report the sad tidings to my friends. One woman, however — a more knowledgeable birder than I — said that she had visited woodpecker nests earlier, in the mid-afternoon, and the young had been completely silent.

That evening, with a glimmer of hope, I rushed back to the campground. HUZZAH!!!! Young woodpeckers, poking their heads out the hole in the log, were squeaking in their “I’m hungry” voice to their parents, who were feeding them supper. I was overjoyed! The birds had survived our celebration of independence.

The following week the young woodpeckers celebrated their own independence. They left their nest and flew off into the forest, to fend for themselves.

I wonder where they will make their nests when they mature?



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