Opinion: Feathered visitor evokes memories of father

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Commentary by Ward Degler

One of the visitors to our front yard bird feeder is a male pileated woodpecker. He’s as big as a crow with black and white plumage and an arrogant red head.

His mission, it seems, is to destroy the suet block hanging next to the feeder. We can hear him hammering away from inside the house.

I first saw this bird years ago when we had a dead tree in the yard. Apparently, a family of carpenter bees had set up housekeeping in the roots of the tree and the place was loaded with larvae. When the woodpecker went after them, it sounded like someone firing a machine gun.

We also have other woodpeckers showing up for suet. A pair of downy woodpeckers are regulars, and occasionally a hairy woodpecker drops by. We also have flickers and nuthatches that sometimes hang around.

The rest of our feathered population includes cardinals, finches, sparrows and – during the winter months – slate junkos, also known as snowbirds.

Every time I see my pileated friend, however, I think of my dad and one of his unsung achievements. It started in 1949 when he was cruising timber for the Missouri Conservation Commission in the boot heel region of southern Missouri, an area popularly known as Swampeast Missouri.

He was sitting on a log eating lunch when he saw an ivory billed woodpecker land in a nearby tree. At home that night, he did a detailed drawing of the bird and sent it to the state ornithologist.

The ornithologist wrote back saying the ivory bill was extinct and suggested what he had seen was a pileated woodpecker. Dad insisted it was an ivory bill and never changed his mind. He knew the difference. He knew what he saw. It was an ivory bill.

Several years after Dad died, the Ornithology Dept. of the University of Missouri made an astonishing announcement: Ivory bill woodpeckers had been discovered in Swampeast Missouri.

I doubt Dad got any credit for his original sighting. Except for when I see a pileated woodpecker on my feeder. Those times I offer a salute and whisper, “Way to go, Dad.”


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