Picoides scalaris

Ladder-backed woodpecker
Elisabeth Loya



I feel the sun rise and hear the world crackle to life as the still of night gives way to morning. In the desert, the nights are cold, the days are hot, and the time between them hums.


I shake my feathers within the confines of my home, a hole in the husk of a cactus that I carved with my own beak. I look at my mate - he helped, and now sits with me and our eggs in our home.


He worked late into the evening foraging for insects to keep us both healthy enough to care for our eggs, but the morning is mine. He will wait for me while I find all that I can for both of us. The light streams in and makes the bright red feathers covering his head shine like the setting sun, melting into the black and white feathers of his back and wings.


I sit on the lip of our hole, surveying the waking world below us.


"Peek! Peek! Peek!" I greet the world before stretching my wings and fluttering down to the branches of a nearby tree. It is a short trip, but the pangs of early morning hunger ache. My tail steadies me, resting on the branch behind me. My feet are a gift, sensitive to the motions of insects in the branch beneath them.


Ddddddddddddddd. Ddddddddddddddd. My beak splits the wood beneath me; the insects inside don't have a chance. They slip past my beak and down my throat.


Snap, gulp. Snap, gulp. Two more meet their fate in my stomach.


A slow, fat one tries to wriggle away, but I drag it out. It is heavy, but the energy from my breakfast allows me to fly back to our nest, where I offer it to my grateful mate.


I fly out again, further this time, to another tree. It stands beside an arroyo that is usually used as a path for rabbits, coyotes, lizards, and other land-bound animals.


Heavy thudding alerts me to this morning's trail users - a pack of humans, mostly their small young, with a few larger adults. There are many. Are they all from the same nest? Sometimes humans travel with one or two young, sometimes many more. They are a mystery to me, and I watch them pass as I hide in the branches.


I must not have hidden well enough, for one of the human young extends its featherless wing at me and squawks, drawing the attention of others. The group stops and looks, some tilting their heads this way and that, trying to see me under the camouflage of dappled shadows. They pull odd-shaped things out of their coverings - neither fur nor feathers - and hold them up to their faces, but do not throw them.


Hunger calls and energy from my breakfast wanes. I risk boring another hole into the branch beneath me, keeping one eye on the humans. One insect escapes, but I gulp down the second quickly in case the humans intend to steal my meal.


They make more noises and raise the odd shapes to their faces again. Strange. Didn't they eat? Why is watching me eat worth their attention?


I snap up another insect, eliciting more sounds from the human pack. Well, if they want to watch me eat, they can watch me eat. I lean on my tail, then hop from branch to branch, going about my business.


I'll admit that I showed off, shaking and preening my feathers. It isn't often that I get attention. My black crest and black and white feathers aren't as flashy as my mate's bright red crest contrasting with the black and white of his body, but that doesn't seem to bother the humans. They watch my every movement, but never come closer.


Thinking of my mate's crest reminds me that I need to take care of him and to check on our eggs. I eat more insects to regain my energy, then find a nice big one to take to my mate. I take off, and the calls of the humans below follow me. Some flap a featherless wing at me, as if they would like to follow but don't know how. I circle and fly toward the sun, unwilling to show them where our nest is by taking a direct route.


Back at the nest, my hungry mate makes a frustrated peek sound at me for taking so long. His irritation fades once I give him the insect. He shakes his feathers, mollified, and settles back onto our precious eggs. I check them over before bumping his head softly with mine and leaving the nest again.


The humans are far down the arroyo now, leaving me in peace. Behind them, the usual occupants come out of hiding to resume their morning activities. I, too, have a job to do.


As the sun climbs to its zenith I continue eating and making trips back to the nest to feed my mate. After my last trip, I check our eggs, moving them so I can warm them evenly, and take my mate's place over them. He bumps my black crest with his red one and takes off to start his afternoon and evening of hunting. I close my eyes and rest, enjoying the cool stillness.




Elisabeth Loya is the author of several short fiction stories including her most recent, Queen of Swords. She utilizes the natural and everyday world around her to spin fantastic tales of the magic and wonder hidden below the surface. Originally from Las Cruces, New Mexico, Elisabeth has drawn on the Organ Mountains and surrounding desert as a source of inspiration for stories from her childhood through the present day.