A HEWER OF WOOD
NOT the least of the many benefits which birds confer upon man is the unceasing warfare which the majority of them wage upon insects. Insects may be said to dominate the earth; they fill every nook and cranny of it, preying upon all other living things which they outnumber. If this is the state of affairs when hundreds of millions of insects are devoured daily by their arch-foes, the fowls of the air, what would it be were there no birds ? The earth would certainly not be inhabited by men.
Most insectivorous birds specialise, that is to say, lay themselves out to catch a particular class of insect. Swifts, swallows, and flycatchers have developed phenomenal mastery over the air, so prey upon flying insects. Mynas, hoopoes, " blue jays," magpie-robins, and others feed upon the hexapod hosts that crawl on the ground. Not a few birds confine their attention to the creeping things that inhabit the bark of trees. Such are the wryneck, the tree-creeper, and the woodpecker. Of these the woodpecker is chief. A mighty insect hunter is he, one who tracks down his quarry and drags him out of his lair. How must the insects which lie hidden away in the crevices of the bark tremble as they hear this feathered Nimrod battering at the walls of their citadel!
No bird is better adapted than the woodpecker to the work which nature has given him. He is a perfect hunting machine, constructed for work in trees. Note the ease with which he moves over the upright trunk. His sharp claws can obtain a foothold on almost any surface. I have seen a golden-backed woodpecker hunt¬ing insects on a smooth well-wheel!
His tail, which is short and composed of very stiff feathers, acts almost like a third leg. The bristle-like feathers stick in the crevices of the bark and enable the bird to maintain his position while he hammers away with might and main. His head is his hammer and his beak his chisel. The chisel is fixed rigidly in the hammer so that none of the force of the blow is lost. It is exhilarating to watch a woodpecker at work. He stands with his legs wide apart, the tip of his tail pressed firmly against the bark, and puts all he knows into each stroke, drawing his head back as far as it will go and then letting drive. The manner in which his strokes follow one another puts me in mind of the clever way in which workmen drive an iron bar into a macadamised road by raining upon it blows with sledgehammers. Almost before the hammer of the first striker is off the head of the bar the second has struck it, this is immediately followed by the hammer of the third, then, without a pause, the first hammerer gets his second blow home, and so they continue until a halt is called. As a small boy I would stand for hours watching the operation. I am ashamed to do so now, so have to content myself with observing woodpeckers at work ! There are few things more fascinating to watch than an operation in which skill and brute force are deftly combined.
Even more useful than the beak as a weapon is the woodpecker's tongue. This is such an important organ that its owner is known in some parts of England as the tongue bird. It is so long that there is a special apparatus at the back of the bird's head for stowing it away. Its surface is studded with backwardly pointing bristles and the whole covered with sticky saliva. When the woodpecker espies a crack in the bark it inserts into it the long ribbon-like tongue. To this the luckless insects stick and are ruthlessly dragged out to their doom.
The commonest woodpecker in India is the beautiful golden-backed species (Brachypternus aurantius). The head and crest of the cock are bright crimson, the upper back is a beautiful golden yellow, hence the popular name of the bird. The lower back and tail are black; the wing feathers are black and golden yellow, spotted with white, and the sides of the head show a white background on which there is a network of black lines and streaks.
The hen- differs from the cock in having the top of the head black with small white triangular spots.
The golden-backed woodpecker is one of our noisiest birds. It constantly utters its loud screaming call, which is similar to that of the white-breasted kingfisher. Its flight, like that of most, if not all woodpeckers, is laborious and noisy, the whir of its wings being audible at a made cavity. It taps away at tree after tree until it comes upon a place in a trunk that sounds hollow; it then proceeds to excavate a neat, round passage leading to this hollow. In this ready-made cavity it deposits its white eggs, not troubling to add any lining to the nesting chamber.
Woodpeckers in England suffer much at the hands of rascally starlings. These latter nest in holes, but not of their own making. If they cannot find any ready-made hollow they listen for the hammering of a woodpecker. They wait until he has completed the nest, and then take possession while his back is turned. When the rightful owner returns the starling looks out of the entrance with finely simulated indignation and asks the woodpecker what he means by intruding. In vain does the latter expostulate. J'y suis, j'y reste is the attitude of the starling. The result is that our feathered carpenter, not being over-valorous, retires and proceeds to hew out another nest. Woodpeckers in India do not suffer such treatment, for starlings do not breed in this country. Their cousins, the mynas, are not so impudent. The only Indian birds which nest in holes, and have sufficient impudence to eject a woodpecker, are the green parrots; but these breed in January, so that their family cares for the year are over long before the woodpecker begins nest building.