The Telephone Pole Melee

The Telephone Pole Melee
by Christopher Clunas

A pileated woodpecker hammers the telephone pole.

A flicker of black passing by the window caught my eye. Probably just a crow, I thought. But then a familiar sound—a loud kik kik kik kik kik—caused me to stop my work. A pileated woodpecker was nearby.

I stood up from my desk to look out the window. The visitor was across the street on a telephone pole

The woodpecker began tearing away bits of wood from the pole: a meal was apparently close at hand. As I set up my spotting scope for a better look, the woodpecker continued to hammer away, eager to dine on whatever it had found.

But I soon saw that I was not the only one interested in the woodpecker’s activity. A red squirrel lives in the small forested area behind the pole, and the sounds of the bird’s feeding had not gone unnoticed by the squirrel.

The squirrel leapt from tree to tree, trying to get a closer look at what was going on so close to its domain. The woodpecker was initially oblivious, dining on the cache of bugs it had found.

Squirrel wants a closer look.
I too wanted a closer look, so I grabbed my camera and rushed outside to get a ringside seat of the impending conflict.

The squirrel’s anxiety seemed to grow, and finally it leapt from the trees onto the reverse side of the pole and scurried upwards to the top. It then started its first attack. From above, the squirrel approached the bird in short lurches, chattering angrily. The bird continued to eat, but clearly became agitated.

When the squirrel came within about a metre, the bird had enough of the intruder. It raised its red crest in alarm and spread its wings in a striking sight. The squirrel backed off.

As the woodpecker resumed its dining, the squirrel tried another approach, this time coming from the side of the pole. It was sending the message that the bird was unwelcome—the bird was the intruder here. The woodpecker displayed its fearsome crest and plumage again and hopped towards the squirrel, sending it fleeing up and around the pole.

But the woodpecker had just resumed its meal when the squirrel charged again, its courage growing. This time the bird backed off, but then lunged back at its foe, sending the squirrel scurrying for safety once more.

The squirrel’s courage grows.
The battle ensued for a few more seconds when, abruptly, the woodpecker left the small excavation it had made and moved higher up the pole. It had decided it was done dining, whether or not any bugs remained.

As soon as the bird gave up its spot, the squirrel moved in and finished off whatever was left behind in the hole. Meanwhile, the woodpecker flew into the woods, no doubt searching for its next meal.

The melee had lasted only a few minutes, and there didn’t seem to be a clear victor. The woodpecker had a meal, the squirrel had a snack, and each combatant had shown its determination to win the day.

As I wandered back inside, I concluded that the only loser in this encounter was the cache of bugs. And perhaps the telephone pole, which bears the only scars of the melee.

** Originally published in the magazine, N.B. Naturalist, 33 (4) Winter 2006/2007.

Christopher Clunas is a writer living in Sackville, New Brunswick.