Downy Woodpecker in the Words of Naturist John Burroughs

Burroughs is the Authority About Backyard Nature

The Chickadee in the Words of Noted Naturist John Burroughs

John Burroughs is one is one of the most important nature writers in history, yet he’s not as widely known as fellow naturist Henry David Thoreau.

John Burroughs was one of the most famous writers in world
John Burroughs was one of the most famous writers in world

Perhaps it’s because his famous retreat was a cabin he built in the woods in West Park, New York and named it Slabsides.

While another famous naturist of the day, Henry David Thoreau chose a place with a more captivating name, Walden Pond.

Polar Opposites

At the time of his death in 1921, Burroughs was perhaps the most famous writer in the country, if not the world.

President Theodore Roosevelt, known as a voracious reader who read at least one book per day, considered Burroughs among his favorite authors.

When the two met in 1889, so began a 30-year friendship which only ended when Roosevelt died in 1919.

The two men were polar opposites.

President Roosevelt was a mercurial, animated and action-driven man of science, and hunted throughout his life.

Burroughs was an introspective, contemplative and poetic observer of nature and gave up hunting (except for fishing) as he grew older.

President Teddy Roosevelt and John Burroughs were friends for 30 years
President Teddy Roosevelt and John Burroughs were friends for 30 years

Sportsman and the Naturalist

But differences aside, both men developed a deep and abiding admiration for each other.

After meeting Burroughs, Roosevelt wrote, “I thought him very rigorous, alive all over, with a great variety of interests. … It was surprising how well he knew the birds and animals. He’s a rare combination of sportsman and the naturalist.”

Roosevelt dedicated his 1905 book, ‘Outdoor Pleasures of an American Outdoorsman,’ to Burroughs.

So, I’d like to end 2018 in tribute to one of my favorite writers, John Burroughs and share his delightful poem about the Downy Woodpecker.

He shared his thoughts about the Downy Woodpecker in the 1911 book, ‘Bird Stories from Burroughs.’

Burroughs valued Downy Woodpeckers as his neighbors
Burroughs valued Downy Woodpeckers as his neighbors

Burroughs Observation Still Ring True

I’m fortunate to own a very fragile original copy of this book and find myself continuously going back to it to read Burroughs’ tales about his interactions with birds and find myself sharing the same sentiments.

The Downy Woodpecker is a beloved backyard bird, and one of my favorite backyard guests that all bird watchers know quite well.

Burroughs observed that the Downy Woodpecker is a late riser, especially if it's cold or a disagreeable morning
Burroughs observed that the Downy Woodpecker is a late riser, especially if it’s cold or a disagreeable morning

No one wrote about backyard nature better than John Burroughs.

About the Downy Woodpecker, Burroughs says, “The bird that seems to consider he has the best right to my hospitality is the Downy Woodpecker, my favorite neighbor among the winter birds.”

The Downy Woodpecker by John Burroughs

Downy came and dwelt with me,
Taught me hermit lore;
Drilled his cell in oaken tree
Near my cabin door.

Architect of his own home
In the forest dim,
Carving its inverted dome
In a dozy limb.

Burroughs says: He lives all alone; in this respect I do not commend his example. Where his mate is, I should like to know
Burroughs says: He lives all alone; in this respect I do not commend his example. Where his mate is, I should like to know

Carved it deep and shaped it true
With his little bill;
Took no thought about the view,
Whether dale or hill.

Shook the chips upon the ground,
Careless who might see.
Hark! his hatchet’s muffled sound
Hewing in the tree.

Burroughs writes: It is a satisfaction during the cold or stormy inter nights to know he is warm and cozy in his retreat
Burroughs writes: It is a satisfaction during the cold or stormy inter nights to know he is warm and cozy in his retreat

Round his door as compass-mark,
True and smooth his wall;
Just a shadow on the bark
Points you to his hall.

Downy leads a hermit life
All the winter through;
Free his days from jar and strife,
And his cares are few.

Female Downy Woodpecker feeding a Male Downy Woodpecker
Female Downy Woodpecker feeding a Male Downy Woodpecker

Waking up the frozen woods,
Shaking down the snows;
Many trees of many moods
Echo to his blows.

When the storms of winter rage,
Be it night or day,
Then I know my little page
Sleeps the time away.

Burroughs writes: They are songless birds, and yet all are musicians; they make the dry limbs eloquent of the coming age
Burroughs writes: They are songless birds, and yet all are musicians; they make the dry limbs eloquent of the coming age

Downy’s stores are in the trees,
Egg and ant and grub;
Juicy tidbits, rich as cheese,
Hid in stump and stub.

Rat-tat-tat his chisel goes,
Cutting out his prey;
Every boring insect knows
When he comes its way.

Burroughs observed: Between his drummings he would preen his plumage and listen as if for the response of the female, or for the drum of some rival
Burroughs observed: Between his drummings he would preen his plumage and listen as if for the response of the female, or for the drum of some rival

Always rapping at their doors,
Never welcome he;
All his kind, they vote, are bores,
Whom they dread to see.

Why does Downy live alone
In his snug retreat?
Has he found that near the bone
Is the sweetest meat?

Burroughs says: I watch these woodpeckers daily to see if I can solve the mystery as to how they hop up and down the trunks and branches without falling away from them when they let go their hold
Burroughs says: I watch these woodpeckers daily to see if I can solve the mystery as to how they hop up and down the trunks and branches without falling away from them when they let go their hold

Birdie craved another fate
When the spring had come;
Advertised him for a mate
On his dry-limb drum.

Drummed her up and drew her near,
In the April morn,
Till she owned him for her dear
In his state forlorn.

Burroughs writes: They are held to it s steel to a magnet. Both tail and head are involved in the feat
Burroughs writes: They are held to it s steel to a magnet. Both tail and head are involved in the feat

Now he shirks all family cares,
This I must confess;
Quite absorbed in self affairs
In the season’s stress.

We are neighbors well agreed
Of a common lot;
Peace and love our only creed
In this charmèd spot.

-John Burroughs

IntoBirds Wishes everyone a Happy New Year!

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  1. Happy New Year! I just love John Burroughs; I used to own many of his books and spent many hours in his world….thanks for this wonderful reminder

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