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  • J. Darris Mitchell

Acorn Woodpecker

My three year old son is obsessed with acorns. I have the beginnings of explanations. He likes the movie My Neighbor Totoro, which features anthropomorphic cat spirits that covet acorns like treasure. His brother is nature obsessed and loves nature walks, and acorns are an easy piece of nature to find and identify. We have an oak tree in our backyard, and it drops its acorns on a raised deck, where he loves to collect them.

Whatever the reason for the obsession, when he overheard me talking about an acorn woodpecker—the first acorn woodpecker ever seen in Travis county, in fact—he clued into to the conversation. When I asked if he and his brother would like to go out to try and spot said acorn woodpecker, he was more than eager. This was a treat for me, because unlike his older brother, Xander is not one for strolls. He will walk if there’s a destination, but the slow meandering pace of a ‘nature walk’ which is what I call birding with my boys, is not his scene. If we’re not going somewhere, then why go at all?

But he was here for this woodpecker, and rightly so.

The acorn woodpecker is a fascinating species of the American southwest. Like their name implies, they subsist of off acorns, but in a rather unusual way. Instead of dining on them where they lay or stashing them underground like a bluejay or squirrel, acorn woodpeckers bore hundreds of holes into a tree and fill each one with an acorn. A sort of gluten free larder, you could say. As if this behavior weren’t enough, they are also fantastic looking. The back of their head is bright red, their face is white, but each shockingly white eye as well as their bill is rimmed in black. They sort of look like a clown. Give them a jet black back and a black and white striped belly, and you’re looking at a quite striking bird.

Which meant it should have been easier to find than it was.

When we first went out to the western edge of Travis County, despite other birders being around, it was nowhwere to be seen. Well, that’s not quite true. I saw a black backed woodpecker with white wings patches take off across a field, past a barbed wire fence. That might have been enough to diagnose this bird in its normal habitat, but here, farther east than it normally ventured, I was going to need more than that. Plus, woodpeckers aren’t really that secretive. I was hoping to actually show this one to my kids. Seeing it fly away didn’t exactly count for that.

So when I went a second time, this time with another dad and his baby, I thought my chances would be better.

I was wrong.

I told myself that I didn’t need to see this bird, that even though I have looked for it in west Texas and new Mexico multiple times and never seen it, that I could let it go.

Turns out I couldn’t. When four birders reported hearing it but not seeing it, well, I had to go for it.

Xander and I arrived at Pace Bend park, an entire hour away from our house. Too far, to be sure. We got out, and saw nothing. Xander had gathered acorns for our friend, but even these did not seem to entice it over.

But then, I heard it’s strange bugling call.

“It’s over there, Xander!”

And Xander was ready.

“Let’s run as fast as we can, Daddy!” He said, and sprung into motion, pumping his little arms as he hoofed it down the road. I could not have been more enamored with my boy at this point. He is not one for walking, let alone running, and yet here he was, ready to meet another lover of acorns.

And we saw it. Sitting high in a live oak. The clown faced woodpecker was there. I’m not sure if Xander could really see it without binoculars, but when it flushed to another tree, I got a couple of pictures and was able to show him before it flew off across a field. Which means my three-year-old son was only the 4th person to ever see this bird in this part of the world. Pretty amazing stuff.

And all because of his love of acorns.

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