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Cornpecker

Source: Personal experience

Read this and other stories in the book, Noticing Nature, by Chuck Bonner. Also available in e-book format for Amazon Kindle.

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I once saw a downy woodpecker pecking away and looking for food inside an old, dry cornstalk!

This was many years ago, when I was in high school in Dover, Delaware. I was heading toward one of the back woodlots of the farm where I used to hang out. I walked along the dirt road listening to the bobwhites out in the stubble of the newly harvested oat fields, enjoying what might be the last warm, sunny Saturday that fall.

The small field of corn beside the woods had not been harvested yet. That's the way they grow feed-corn. Let it stand until it's thoroughly dry, then cut it and store it in the barn, still in the dry shucks until it's time to feed it to the chickens.

As I passed by the corn field, I began to hear a strange rattling sound. There wasn't a breath of wind, so what was shaking the dry stalks? It must be some kind of animal, but what?

I approached the sound carefully, to avoid scaring whatever it was. I maneuvered this way and that, trying to peek down the rows of dry, brown cornstalks.

There it was: a woodpecker! A tiny downy woodpecker was climbing on the stalk, just as he would climb the bark of a tree. He pecked into the stalk, just as he would peck into the dry bark of a dead tree to look for insects.

But this was not a tree that had been standing dead or dying for years, accumulating a vast population of wood-boring grubs. This was a cornstalk that had been green and vibrant only a week ago. I didn't think there would be any bugs inside it, but there was the woodpecker, pecking away.

You might think that the bird would be able to find insects within the ears of corn. Various grubs and caterpillars eat the kernels of corn, and an enterprising woodpecker might be able to dig through the shucks to get at the bugs. But this woodpecker was nowhere near the ears of corn. He was pecking on the stalks!

Each thrust of his powerful, sharp bill sank into the cornstalk right up to the "hilt." The bird couldn't peel off the bark, because there was none. He couldn't dig a hole, because the papery layers of the dry cornstalk were too flimsy.

He just kept pecking away, sinking his bill into the stalk, climbing up a few inches, and pecking again. Every now and then, he would fly to another cornstalk and start again.

I watched for quite a few minutes, and never saw the woodpecker catch anything. The bird's determination outlasted mine, and he was still pecking at the cornstalks when I resumed my walk to the woods.

Never saw a woodpecker pecking on cornstalks before or since.




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