I have been reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s collection of stories and poems entitled Buffalo Gals and Other Animal Presences (1990) with the usual rapture that goes with reading her work. The following is from an introduction to a group of “Seven Bird and Beast Poems” followed by the relevant bird poem. Enjoy!
The first [poem] is a joke about one of my favorite kinds of bird, the acorn woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorus in Latin, boso in Kesh). They are handsome little woodpeckers, still common in Northern California, splendidly marked, with a red cap, and a white circle around the eye giving them a clown’s mad stare. They talk all the time—the loud yacka-yacka-yacka call, and all kinds of mutters, whirs, purrs, comments, criticisms, and gossip going on constantly among the foraging or housekeeping group. They are familial or tribal. Cousins and aunts help a mated pair feed and bring up the babies. Why they make holes and drop acorns into them when they can’t get the acorns back out of the holes is still a question (to ornithologists—not to acorn woodpeckers). When we removed the wasp- and woodpecker-riddled outer wall of an old California farmhouse last year, about a ton of acorns fell out, all worm-hollowed husks; they had never been accessible to the generations of Bosos who had been diligently dropping them since 1870 or so. But in the walls of the barn are neat rows of little holes, each one with a long Valley Oak acorn stuck in, a perfect fit, almost like rivets in sheet iron. These, presumably, are winter supply.On the other hand, they might be a woodpecker art form. Another funny thing they do is in spring, very early in the morning, when a male wants to assert the tribal territory and/or impress the hell out of some redhead. He finds a tree that makes a really loud sound, and drums on it. The loudest tree these days—a fine example of the interfacing of human and woodpecker cultures—is a metal chimney sticking up from a farmhouse roof. A woodpecker doing the kettledrum reveille on the stovepipe is a really good way to start the day at attention.
What Is Going On in the Oaks Around the Barn
The Acorn Woodpeckers
are constructing an Implacable
Pecking Machine to attack oaks
and whack holes to stack acorns in.
They have not perfected
it yet. They keep cranking
it up ratchet by ratchet
by ratchet each morning
till a Bluejay yells, “SCRAP!”
and it all collapses
into black-and-white flaps and flutters
and redheads muttering curses
in the big, protecting branches.
God, how I miss Ursula and her keen insights!