Birds of Nebraska: Newspaper Accounts, 1854-1923

January 16, 1921. Omaha Sunday World-Herald 56(15): 15-N.

Little Feud of the Woods; Downy and Sparrows

One of the Comedies in the Lives of Our Bird Neighbors.

By Sandy Griswold.

Across the way from my window, in Turner court, just on the edge of Turner park, there is a huge old elm, with one big limb in an advanced state of decay, slanting up from the bole until its brittle tips intermingle wit the branches of a neighboring tree, and from the innumberable small orifices along its top and sides, I know it is a favorite place for the downy woodpecker's feeding these wintry days, and in the springtime his trysting rendezvous. It is a well known fact that the hammering of this peculiar little bird on a resonant limb or post is on of the ways of luring his sweetheart, and of serenading her after she has become his bride, as well as contributing to his own love of music.

The downy depends little on his vocal ability for entertainment, for while he has a sort of squeaking, creaking little trill of notes for a song, besides a sharp, vibrant "wenk! wenk." which he indulges in almost constantly when at his foraging and at the down slide of his every undulation of his flight, but does not attempt to bead these notes into a continuous rhapsody only when just starting on a long voyage, say from one end of the woods to the other.

I have sen downy sweep in through the gray branches of the elms many times during these early winter days and slide, with that graceful little upward curve of his, to a position on this old dead limb, and just as often have I seen him assaulted by a blustering English sparrow, who, if unsuccessful in making downy take to his wings again, would summon, in a shrill termagant chirping, several of his dirty little ruffianly companions to help him assert his fancied rights. Just what these rights are, however, I cannot for the life of me see. But the fact remains that no sparrow, single handed, has ever, to my knowledge, made him bulge a single inch, but under the attack of four or five, and sometimes I have seen a dozen of them fluttering and chattering vituperatively about him, be is always forced to beat a hasty retreat out of the neighborhood.

And then again, whenever a sparrow presumes to appropriate this particular limb to his own wants or whims just as sure is he beset by downy, but always alone. No sooner does one of these sutty little aliens alight upon the corrugated surface, than he begins to cast furtive and suspicious glances about him, but for that matter, an English sparrow is always suspicious, but especially so, I think, when in the vicinity of this old elm, and well he may be, for it isn't many seconds till a tiny, svelte and torpedo-shaped form is shooting headon toward him. It is the irate downy, and with his precipitous swoop he all but sweeps the sparrow from his perch. But this is only the signal for a resumption of hostilities, and in a breath back comes the sparrow with a number of his beggarly companions at his back, and downy cannot vamoose too quickly.

The truth of the matter is that this is but one of those little bird feuds so common between the members of different species who have their daily avocations in the same vicinage.

I have seen the same thing many a time during my explorations in the woods and fields, and oftenest between the bluebirds and the gold finches, who never seem to get along together with the same amiability that either does with the robin, the oriole, grosbeak or catbird, and others of the kind.

While the little yellow and black beauty always makes a great show at combativeness as the start of one of these musses, it is but evanescent, and the bluebird is always the exultant and haughty victor.

I have never seen either actually harmed by the other, and only once or twice a bit of misplaced feathery fluff, but they row and scold with every evidence of the direct wrath, which all ends in a few mad dashes, a few curvetings in the air about each other, and then the yellowbird hiking precipitously for more congenial climes.

Be it known there is much belligerency in the make up of the bluebird, lovable plaintive and inoffensive as he always seems, and it requires a formidable and plucky adversary to make him give ground. Dear as all birds are in the lover of nature, none is so welcomed in the early spring time as the bluebird, always the avant courier of the legion of warblers, and whose appearance is always hailed as direct testimony that the war of the elements is over. He is a messenger of peace, and as near the celestial, to most minds, as a bird can be, and yet he can and will fight - especially a gold finch.

The robin, big and bold and full chested as he is, holds the bluebird in mortal dread, and yet, generally they get along together in perfect accord and tranquility, the mother robin often building her crude nest of mud and sticks in the very crotch of the tree, but a foot or two above the hole in which the bluebird has her snug little domicilium.

But I am wandering. I set out to tell you about the feud out at Turner park between the downy woodpeckers and the sparrows, and will resume by declaring that neither of these birds will allow the other to enjoy the delightful airiness of that old elm, nor to remain longer than it takes to get at him, upon that particular dead limb I have spoken of, or even in any part of the big tree itself. It seems to be their common battle ground for elsewhere, I have seen them commingling with all the sweet harmony and reasonableness that marks the habits of most of our little woodland denizens.

Sometimes I think that on the part of the sparrows, it is simply the effervescence of their perverse and tantalizing dispositions, but with downy more the matter of imaginary proprietorship, engendered by the fact that in the past he pecked and poked into its cracks and interstices in ann the undisturbed abandon of actual ownership. Whether it is simply one downy implicated, or all his kind, I do not know and have no way of finding out. Sometimes I have taken him for my own little "Wenk-Wenk," the one that comes at my call, but on close inspection I have invariably found that he lacks the unusually wide white dash over the eye which distinguishes my particular bird, and then I know it is not him.

Sometimes I see him approaching cautiously, in fact with great stealth, flitting from tree bole to tree bole, until within an easy swing of the elm, when, with a string of squeaking invective he swoops up among the leafless branches, and plumps himself squarely on the dead limb, as if that settled it, and there he intended to remain. Clinging defiantly to the perforated bark, twisting his crimson crescented head, this way, than that, as if looking for trouble, and then set to hammering with his strong little chisel of a beak on the dead wood until the vacant aisles fairly rattled with the melodious sound.

Then the inevitable alarm. With a perfect volley of angry chirps a sparrow comes rushing pellmell to accept the challenge, a rush that was meant to carry disaster with it, but when downy upends, and lifts his little head to the highest altitude and darts savage glances at him, he slacks up, wavers and begins to squawk for help. It speedily arrives. Out of the very air, up from the earth, or any old place, a half score of his besmirched tribesmen come bristling to the call.

Downy makes one more show, and his final one, at courageousness, as if he would give battle to the entire war party, but he suffers a sudden revulsion of sensations, and he is soon on the run, the entire band of sparrows at his silvery heels. He takes refuge up high in a big cottonwood, but they again route him, and then, to little squeaks and creaks, he is chivied out of the neighborhood.

The sparrows immediately come straggling back, until full of pomp and bluster, but strange as it is, not one of them pretends to assume guardianship of that old dead limb, but all avoid it, for the time being, as a sort of a peace offering to their routed foe. They can flutter and flirt, and bicker and quarrel and twitter as arrogantly as they please in or near any other tree, or on the ground close by, and make all the clutter and fuss their insatiable natures crave, and there is no protest from downy or any of his kin. But let one of them venture into the disputed territory, and back comes that ubiquitous little woodpecker, just as aggressive as before his late flogging, and like a wealth of wrath, he swoops the usurper from out that forbidden involucre, only to hastily retreat again before superior numbers.

Oh, yes, I like to tell of this little comedies and tragedies of the woods and fields, better, I guess, than you like to read them, but the instigation comes from an unsubduable source, the love inculcated during my rovings in the silent places in earliest youth, and while new revelations are of almost daily occurrence, most of what I have learned of the birds was by long years of experience and observation - studies of these mystic creatures, pure, simple and real, gathering nothing from hearsay or imagination, borrowing nothing from fable or romance.