5 DECEMBER 1952, Page 9

Fables of Today—III

Woodpecker Tragedy


THE pair of woodpeckers were easily the most splendid birds in the plantation. In spring and summer .their green plumage glinted with brassy lights, setting off to perfection the crimson crowns which were their proud insignia. No other birds on the island, except the kingfishers, had these tropical metallic feathers; when the sun's rays struck them they glowed and flashed as though he yaffies carried rubies on their brows.

The other birds took pride in this princely pair; in particular the garrulous nuthatches, who had been talking ceaselessly ever since they told Sigurd of the Treasure of the Volsungs, regarded themselves as the retainers of the larger birds whose habits and tastes their own resembled. Even the wrens liked to have them in the plantation', though often, when the yaffles flew laughing back into the wood, the cock would whizz from their ivy-covered stump and pour out more abuse than it seemed possible for his morsel of body to contain.

As for the nightingales, they were confident enough of their infinitely superior genius to feel an untroubled appreciation of the yaflles. Returning from the South where they had seen flamingoes, bee-eaters, hoopoes and many other birds far more powerful, handsome or brilliant, these musicians moving softly among the thorn-trees enjoyed the bold eye and arrogant carriage of the head, the showy plumage and even the strange harsh voices of the natural lords of the plantation. , All the birds admired the woodpeckers not only for their appearance and lordly ways, but also for their unique skill as carpenters. It was a commonplace ability to be deft in the weaving of twigs, moss, horsehair or cobwebs, even if it were performed with the virtuosity of the long-tailed tits, but it was a mark of extraordinary strength and cunning to be able to carve a shapely chamber in the heart of branch or trunk. The first year they came to the plantation the season had been already far advanced, and the woodpeckers had taken over an old, long-abandoned nesting-hole; cleaned out the cobwebs, made a small meal of the insect population, and succeeded in rearing a brood of four. Now, however, they were dissatisfied with this unworthy nest and resolved to cut a new one. The cock knew that some of his kind, aging or decadent birds, were ready to work in rotten Wood even though it inevitably resulted in a damp chamber and ragged, unsightly. hole. He would not imitate them; being at the height of his powers he decided to select the hardest wood which it was possible for any woodpecker to penetrate. He found an oak which, while it was outwardly quite sound, returned a note to his tapping that proved it to be slightly decayed at the core. The hen approved his choice, and they began their exacting task.

For several days the plantation echoed with their hammering, while a drift of chippings formed against the roots of the oak. When the work was finished, all the birds rejoiced with the woodpeckers; blackbirds, warblers and finches, as well as the faithful nuthatches, flew beside them as an escort when they went to the largest and most populous ant-hill and there cele- brated the end of their labour by devouring thousands of the piquant insects which swarmed on to their probing tongues. The nightingales did not join in this flight, but the cock sang one of his daylight songs, perched below the canopy of a young hazel-leaf and with his eye fixed on the perfectly round hole in the trunk above him.

It was while the hen woodpecker, now grown as serious and dedicated as a nun, was daily laying an egg on the sweet- smelling chips of her nest, that the starlings began to visit the plantation. They cartie from the direction where a housing- estate for humans was spreading out from a small industrial town. At first a single pair, then three or four pairs together, with a rift-raft of unmated birds, roosted in the line of elms bordering the road. They were sleek and shiny as though wearing brilliantine, and they were always chattering together and imitating other birds or the noises they heard when picking up scraps round the human houses. One of them had accurately mastered the whistle made by local youths at the sight of smartly-dressed young women. The woodpeckers ignored the newcomers, but they were aware that this particu- larly odious bird kept his loudest whistle for the occasions when they were flying past.

Their clutch was complete, and both the yaffles were as delighted and proud as the simplest-minded chiff-chaff. 'Each of them in turn looked in through the bole to enjoy the white eggs gleaming dully in the gloom, faintly touched by such light as could make its way round their peering heads. Again the plantation birds shared in the woodpeckers' satisfaction;, surely now all was auspicious for their own nesting.

That same day, when the cock passed tileir old nest, he noticed straw sticking out of the hole and a dirty apron of dropping below it. Alighting on a near-by branch, he could hear an unpleasant din coming from inside, and then, in response on his own angry cries, the squawking ceased, there was a scuffle and a dark head appeared in the opening. It was a starling., This bird looked into the fierce yellow eye of the woodpecker and made obsequious noises in his throat while at the same time uttering some shrill calls. Just as the wood- pecker was about to launch himself at the intruder and split open his papery skull, a little flock of starlings arrived and settled on twigs and branches all round the hole. They chattered, squawked and stuck out their upper breast-feathers in the fashion peculiar to starlings. Filled with disgust, the great bird judged he could not engage in a dispute with such a rabble, and flew away feeling both scorn and humiliation. Admittedly he did not need the old nest and the starlings were acutely short of accommodation. Nevertheless it was a defeat —a defeat by force of numbers. through the hole. When at last in place of the smooth con- vexities of the eggs she felt squirming soft bodies pressing through her breast-feathers, her vigil was over and her hardest work about to begin. From soon after the hour of the dawn- chorus until the owls began to call the woodpeckers were the slaves of their young—whose funnel-mouths supplied insatiable bellies. On all their food-hunting journeys they avoided the distasteful spectacle of their old nest, but they did not suspect further aggression, even though occasionally they noticed a starling or two hanging about near their oak-tree.

The cock-bird was weary and bored by the ceaseless hunt for food, by the monotonous to-and-fro; his plumage and his sacred crown were growing dull from too much toil. How could the other birds be strengthened and inspired by his presence if he allowed himself to become dowdy and jaded ? It was his duty to rest. He lingered for hours at the most appetising of the ant-hills, shaking out and combing his feathers, feasting, and assuring himself that the sun was renewing the fire of his crown.

The hen too was tired; the vigil in the dark chamber had been a strain, and since their young hatched she had worked even harder than her mate. Searching for insects in a planta- tion of firs, she found the sun hot, the air resinous and soothing; after One or two journeys 'she settled herself on a comfortable branch. There she was lulled into a day-dream, imagining the splendid future possible for their fledglings (their quills were sprouting already) and rehearsing scenes in which she saved them from hawks by her bravery and cunning. The pine-cones popped like passing minutes, but she did not count them.

The cock and the hen returned almost simultaneously to the plantation, which by now had lapsed into the disillusioned melancholy of a summer afternoon. It was not peaceful, how- ever. Both blackbirds from the nest in the hedge were flying up and down uttering their distraught ejaculations, the wrens were consuming themselves with angry song, and the whole wood sounded with the urgent speech of the nuthatches. With ntheesit.r heavy, looping flight the woodpeckers converged on their At their approach two starlings squeezed their heads out of the hole; a score of unmated loafers from the housing- estate stationed on 'neighbouring branches raised their usual hostile din. Scattered over the moss-grown roots of the oak were the bodies of the five fledglings, their hopeful feathers showing through the down as ugly black stumps. One, lying alittle apart from the rest, had been partly eaten, and the flies were already massing. All five of the beaks, whose gaping greed seemed now so dear, were open in death.

The cock-woodpecker hurled himself at the two silly heads in the opening, split one open.instantly with his bill, and killed the second bird after a moment's struggle inside the hole. Meanwhile the other starlings gathered round outside deter- mined to mob him as he came out. There was pandemonium. The blackbirds and wrens were still shrieking and swearing, several wood-pigeons dropped from the tree-tops clapping their wings, the nuthatches fearlessly attacked the starlings and found unexpected support from a pair of passing jackdaws hopeful of carrion. ,The hen-bird did nothing but leap up and down in agony on a branch, alternatively driving in and retract- ing her claws and uttering grotesque cries.

With the diversion made by the nuthatches and jackdaws the cock escaped and joined his mate, and the two great birds flew away together, their flight rising and falling in mournful unison. Their laughter, which sometimes had been mocking, sometimes triumphant, now, as it sounded through the wood for the last time, was harsh and despairing. Yet the clever whistling starlings sent after them ,a shrill imitation of their cry. The bloody bodies of the dead starlings now lay with those of the young woodpeckers, and three other pairs, egged on by the loafers, were fighting for the hole.

It cannot be said that anything was at once outwardly changed by the going of the woodpeckers', yet the other birds were aware of some lessening of enjoyment in their affairs, some sense of a falling apart, of the life of the plantation. The nuthatches, the most deeply affected, plastered more mud round their, hole for security and early fell silent. Even the starlings were annoyed when they realised that there was now nobody left who could make holes for their occupation. To justify themselves they babbled about equality and the evils of privilege. "What was there, after all, in the least remark- able in the yaffles ? They were large, and had bright feathers and red heads and a good deal of self-importance. All the rest was your imagination."

"Of course it was," replied the nightingale. "That was thp whole point." And he sang his last lament, for the next season he and his mate did not return to the plantation.