Poems by Todd Outcalt

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The Pileated Woodpecker

by Todd Outcalt

From Canary Summer 2013

Todd lives on the White Lick Creek watershed in Brownsburg, Indiana, where he frequently kayaks to work and shares space with beavers, red fox, deer, and plush acreage filled with birds and flowers.

The Spotting

This past spring—on a cool morning with coffee cup in hand—I spied the pileated woodpecker through the dawn mist. Clinging to the trunk of the hackberry tree, the bird was magnificent—long, lean, and crested with a flaming-red plume that exploded against the earth-tone gray of the hackberry bark. Motionless, the bird remained in its vertical hold for long minutes, a kind of snapshot, a brush-stroke of color amid the ripe green leaves of spring. Suddenly, the bird released and, instead of falling, rose majestically through a canopy of maple, buckeye and oak until it disappeared against the backdrop of morning sky.

The Deck Feeder

Another morning, days later, I am reunited with the woodpecker as it perches on a rotting squirrel -feeder that the previous home owners had nailed to the trunk of the hackberry. This is an odd picture, as I have never seen a pileated searching for food in a feeder. But the bird pauses, as if studying the situation, and then offers a few faint-hearted taps upon the rotted wood. There are no grubs in the pores of the feeder and the bird’s attention is suddenly wrested away by a harsh gush of wind that stirs the leaves. As the bird wings away, I stand at the window and wonder: where does the woodpecker find comfort, and where does it go for solace from the storm?

The Siding

It is mid June. Striding along the path near the creek I hear the echo of a rap-rap-rap on the side of the house. I locate a clear vista and peer up onto the eastern face of our home. There, clinging to the house, is the pileated woodpecker drilling its bill into my wood siding. Even from my distance, I can see that the bird has culled a silver-dollar-sized hole in the pale, sun-bleached siding. I flinch at the thought, but am then suddenly moved by the awe of the hunt. The giant crest of the pileated bobs and shudders as it feeds on the miniscule. The waters of the creek slip silently along behind me and, for a moment, my attention is wrested away by a small yellow dot of flower that is peeking through the dirt along the hardened path where I am walking. When I look up again, the woodpecker is gone.

The Silence

I consider the woodpecker one afternoon in early July while I am mowing the yard. Days have passed without a sighting. Would anyone dare to assume a woodpecker’s joy?

The Return

Mid July, I am reunited with the pileated woodpecker. It clings, as before, to the bark of the hackberry on a summer morning. As the bird angles its head away from me, I can see that its beak is disproportionally long—a kind of curved straw. The beak is the lifeblood of the pileated. The beak is its hope. With wings flattened against its slender body, suddenly the woodpecker opens like a trap door and, after a moment’s descent, rises like a breath on the summer air and is gone.

The Last Sighting

As I amble up the lawn, firewood in hand, suddenly the woodpecker appears in a clearing—a kind of spark, a flame flush against the verdant background of the trees. Red against green, I cannot miss the bird as it steps, talon-prone, inch by inch up the side of a towering sycamore. Weak-armed, I stoop to deposit the firewood on the lawn and gaze up into the summer sky to study the bird again. It is toying with me. Showing off as children do. Or so it seems. The pileated shakes its plume at me—a wisp of blood-red feathers, fine as powder, and I can see the ends dancing in the early August heat. The woodpecker pauses. We stare at each other. Our meeting ends when the bird issues a guttural cry and sails across the creek into a deep morass of maple and walnut.

The Death

Carrying the morning newspaper under my arm, I discover the pileated woodpecker on the gravel driveway beneath the large bow window of my home office. It is dead. Perhaps in early morning or the night before, it had flown-into the reflection of the window and broken its neck. I kneel, set aside the newspaper, and cusp the bird in my hands. It is still warm. I marvel at the size of the bird, perhaps eighteen inches in length, and as the morning light crosshatches the trees I note that the bird’s feathers are a myriad of color, a rainbow embedded in the darker navy-black of the body, and the distinguishing red plume ripe with hints of white and yellow. The eyes are closed, and the rims dotted with curious dots of raised skin. The talons are coal black, sharp as needles. I wrap the bird in a section of newspaper classifieds and wonder how a woodpecker experiences its own color, its own existence? I carry the bird down to the creek accompanied by the dirge of songbirds and the rustling of mid-August leaves announcing the end of summer. I remove my shoes and wade into the creek. The water is effervescent. I bend over and hold out the section of newspaper containing the pileated woodpecker.

The Release

The hardest part is the letting go.




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