It always gives me a little pleasurable emotion when I see in the autumn woods where the downy woodpecker has just been excavating his winter quarters in a dead limb or tree-trunk. I am walking along a trail or wood-road when I see something like coarse new sawdust scattered on the ground. I know at once what carpenter has been at work in the trees overhead, and I proceed to scrutinize the trunks and branches. Presently I am sure to detect a new round hole about an inch and a half in diameter on the under side of a dead limb, or in a small tree-trunk. This is Downy’s cabin, where he expects to spend the winter nights, and a part of the stormy days, too.
When he excavates it in an upright tree-trunk, he usually chooses a spot beneath a limb; the limb forms a sort of rude hood, and prevents the rainwater from running down into it. It is a snug and pretty retreat, and a very safe one, I think. I doubt whether the driving snow ever reaches him, and no predatory owl could hook him out with its claw. Near town or in town the English sparrow would probably drive him out; but in the woods, I think, he is rarely molested, though in one instance I knew him to be dispossessed by a flying squirrel.
On stormy days I have known Downy to return to his chamber in mid-afternoon, and to lie abed there till ten in the morning.
I have no knowledge that any other species of our woodpeckers excavate these winter quarters, but they probably do. The chickadee has too slender a beak for such work, and usually spends the winter nights in natural cavities or in the abandoned holes of Downy.
As I am writing here in my study these November days, a downy woodpecker is excavating a chamber in the top of a chestnut post in the vineyard a few yards below me, or rather, he is enlarging a chamber which he or one of his fellows excavated last fall; he is making it ready for his winter quarters. A few days ago I saw him enlarging the entrance and making it a more complete circle. Now he is in the chamber itself working away like a carpenter. I hear his muffled hammering as I approach cautiously on the grass. I make no sound and the hammering continues till I have stood for a moment beside the post, then it suddenly stops and Downy’s head appears at the door. He glances at me suspiciously and then hurries away in much excitement.
How did he know there was some one so near? As birds have no sense of smell it must have been by some other means. I return to my study and in about fifteen minutes Downy is back at work. Again I cautiously and silently approach, but he is now more alert, and when I am the width of three grape rows from him he rushes out of his den and lets off his sharp, metallic cry as he hurries away to some trees below the hill.
He does not return to his work again that afternoon. But I feel certain that he will pass the night there and every night all winter unless he is disturbed. So when my son and I are passing along the path by his post with a lantern about eight o’clock in the evening, I pause and say, “Let’s see if Downy is at home.” A slight tap on the post and we hear Downy jump out of bed, as it were, and his head quickly fills the doorway. We pass hurriedly on and he does not take flight.
A few days later, just at sundown, as I am walking on the terrace above, I see Downy come sweeping swiftly down through the air on that long galloping flight of his, and alight on the big maple on the brink of the hill above his retreat. He sits perfectly still for a few moments, surveying the surroundings, and, seeing that the coast is clear, drops quickly and silently down and disappears in the interior of his chestnut lodge. He will do this all winter long, coming home, when the days are stormy, by four o’clock, and not stirring out in the morning till nine or ten o’clock. Some very cold, blustering days he will probably not leave his retreat at all.