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Home > Books > The Witchery of Archery > Chapter 3: Some notes on woodpecker shooting
Chapter III
Some notes on woodpecker shooting
Part 1 of 2

THE joy is great of him who strays
In shady woods on summer days,
With eyes alert and muscles steady,
His long-bow strung, his arrows ready.

At morn he hears the wood-thrush sing,
He sees the wild rose blossoming,
And on his senses soft and low
He feels the brook song ebb and flow.

Life is a charm, and all is good
To him who lives like Robin Hood,
Hearing ever, far and thin,
Hints of the tunes of Gamelyn.

His greatest grief, his sharpest pain,
Is (when the days are dark with rain)
That for a season he must lie
Inert while deer go bounding by;

Lounge in his lodge, and long and long
For Allen a Dale's delightful song,
Or smack his lips at thought of one
Drink from the friar's demijohn.

But when the sky is clear again,
He sloughs his grief, forgets his pain,
Hearing on gusts of charming weather
The low laugh of his arrow feather

Flying from the spicewood brake,
Or from the maze the brambles make,
Well-sent to where is hammering
The scarlet-crowned woodpecker king.

Of old, so runs a legend of the poets, a beautiful young, king of Latium, named Picus, went forth into the forests to enjoy his favorite pastime, hunting. We are told that he was dressed in a wonderful sporting garb, consisting of a splendid purple cloak, bound at the throat with a zone of gold. Through the dusky, pleasant aisles of the woods the young king saw flitting numberless beasts and birds, at which, no doubt, he hurled his whizzing cornet shafts, as a lusty sport-loving lord should. Circe, a woman of doubtful honesty, was, on this very day, going about in the woods hunting for certain herbs, known to grow thereabout, possessing rare properties of great value to dealers in sorcery. Discovering a tuft of the desired weed (I know not whether it was snakeroot or ginseng), Circe stooped and was on the point of sawing it off with a caseknife, when, just beyond a persimmon bush and munching a papaw, she beheld Picus standing up tall and beautiful, glorious in fine purple and sheeny with gold. It was, on the part of Circe, a case of love at first sight, and with her to love was to speak of it at once. It was leap year, too. So she stuck the case knife in the ground to mark the place where the ginseng grew (if it was not snake-root), and, stalking up to the king, proposed right off. He spurned her offered caresses indignantly, whereupon she slashed him across the head with a club she held in her hand, to such effect that forthwith he was transformed into a bird which to this day is called Picus-the woodpecker.

I have often wondered if the wand of Circe did not fetch the blood from the crown of the head of Picus, for how else can we explain the origin of the red spot, that ever-present and unmistakable mark of the real American woodpecker family? From the demure and quiet sap-sucker up through all the species to the great black woodpecker, this blotch of blood-red feathers is found. A mere dot in the case of the smallest species, it spreads all over the head of the white-tailed variety, and rises into a magnificent scarlet-plumed crown on that of the Hylotomits pilcatus.

To me the woodpeckers are the most interesting of all the American small birds. I never tire of studying them. Obtrusive, inquisitive, bellicose, knavish, self-important, dishonest, and noisy beyond compare, the white-tailed variety is, perhaps, the most versatile genius of the woods. He attempts everything with an air of the most presuming impertinence, and, in fact, the only thing he really cannot accomplish, in the way of attainments generally thought necessary to a well-educated and cultured bird, is, simply to sing a good song. Even his love-note is a sort of rasping squawk, sounding like "squeear, squeear, squeear," repeated indefinitely. I once saw a great horned owl perch itself on the stub of a broken limb of a decayed tree, just below a hole in which a wood-pecker had its nest. It was after nightfall, and the moon was directly behind the owl from me, bringing into bold relief the huge bird's outlines. Occasionally the woodpecker, doubtlessly afraid for its young, darted out of the hole to give the owl a peck, and retreated instantly within.

It must be a quick arrow that hits a white-tailed woodpecker. He is a consummate dodger, flipping himself round a tree or behind a fence-stake as quick as thought at the sound of your bow-string. See that one yonder on that slender stump. His back is fair. He looks as though a line had been drawn across his middle, and then he had been painted white below it and black above, with a dash of fiery red for a head! He is only twenty-five yards away. Try him with a light pewter-headed arrow. You pull very steadily and strong, loosing evenly and sharply. Away darts your shaft. Whack! What a blow on the stump exactly where the bird was! But too late to get him. He heard your bow-string, and quick as a flash he slid round behind the stump, and when the arrow struck he flew away! See, now he is on the horizontal bough of an oak situate about twenty feet up the trunk. I will take a shot at him. Watch now. Twang! His-s-s-s! See him swing round and hang, back downward, under the limb as the arrow darts above! Too quick for me. Wait a moment. We'll try him with this slender, narrow-feathered arrow which has the merest drop of hard solder for a head. You draw on him with great care and let drive. Ha! centre-shot, and down he comes! That shaft was a little too swift for his dodging! He is your bird.

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