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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 2 of 2

There are several kinds of woodpecker misnamed sap-suckers by our people. The speckled bird of the Southern pine forests, nearly allied to the Picus pubescens, or downy woodpecker, of our Northern States, is generally called sapsucker by the South-ern people, while two varieties of the hairy wood-pecker and the downy woodpecker, and the Centurus Carolinus, or true sap-sucker, all go by that one name -sap-sucker-in all the Northern States. These birds are quite tame, as a rule, and fall easy victims to the expert archer; but you will shoot a long while before you hit even the foolish little speckled fellow that bores the holes in your apple trees.

It is amusing to watch a sap-sucker, after he has made ring after ring of pits round an apple, a cedar, or a maple tree, go his rounds from one to another of these holes, sipping the nectar there-from, seeming to enjoy, in a most satisfactory way, this liquid fruit of his toil, meantime keeping a lively lookout for an enemy. He is a good mark; but as soon as you have learned to hit him I would advise you to seek nobler game, as he is a pretty little fellow and growing quite rare in many localities.

The yellow-bellied woodpecker is everywhere to be seen in our woods. He, together with the hairy and downy varieties, furnished me many days of rare sport before I could claim the right to be called an expert archer.

But by far the noblest bird of the Picus family in the United States is the great American black woodpecker (Hylotomus pileatus), which has disappeared already from the Western woods, and is becoming rare even in the vast forests of the South. When at rest, his body appears quite black. His head has whitish stripes about the eyes and is surmounted by a long tuft of brilliant scarlet feathers. When he takes to flight, which he does with great vigor at the least alarm, his wings show a sprinkling of white, which relieves the dusky hue of his body.

This bird is at present most numerous in the mixed forests of oak and pine in the hill country of East Tennessee, North Georgia, and North Alabama. It was in Gordon County, Georgia, while yet new-fledged archers from the school of the Hermit, that Will and I bagged our first specimens of the great woodpecker king. It was a most exciting bout in the woods of the hilly "divide" between the valley of the Oothcaloga and that of the Oostanaula, two streams whose confluence is a mile west of the town of Calhoun, on the Western and Atlantic Railroad, on which excursion we killed three specimens, the finest I ever saw.

It was in December, clear, cool weather, a little hazy, not unlike our Northern Indian summer, with scarcely a breath of wind.

Early in the morning we entered the woody out-skirts of the "divide," and were not long in finding two black woodpeckers, whose loud pounding reached our ears when several hundred yards distant. They were on an old log, the stem of a fallen pine tree, busily engaged in pecking holes in search of the larvae of ants or the white saw-worms which infest dead pine-wood. At that time we were armed with mulberry long-bows of our own make, and arrows too heavy and clumsy for first-rate shooting. But we were full of confidence and as enthusiastic as boys could be. We let fly from the cover of a pine thicket at forty yards, making a clear miss of it, but frightening the birds terribly. Their flight was short, however, and one of them, not knowing whence the arrows had come, lit on a post oak sapling scarcely twenty yards from our thicket. Will drew quickly and let him have a blunt arrow; but it struck too far back, only breaking one of his thighs, and sending him off on a crazy, winding flight. Securing our arrows we gave chase. And now the sport began in good earnest. The bird would belong to whichever could give him the death-shot. I fear, if I tell you that for two hours we raced after that bird, shooting at it somewhere near a dozen times each before, at last, Will bowled it over, you will smile at our archery; but you try it before your smile broadens into a laugh, will you? and report the result. It may seem to you an easy feat to hit a bird nearly as large as a crow at twenty or thirty yards, but I assure you it requires no little skill to do it, and you must remember we were beginners. I had the pleasure of bagging the second bird by a shot (no doubt somewhat of an accident) I have rarely equalled, striking it with a barbed arrow (the shaft of which was a slender reed or cane) at the distance of sixty yards. The third bird was knocked from a pine stump, at thirty yards, by Will. Of course, in the meantime, we missed a great many shots, our arrows flying surprisingly wide of or astonishingly close to our intended victims.

By at first being content with practising on woodpeckers and meadow larks, the beginner in wildwood archery will soon get by heart the primer of woodcraft. The half of successful bow-shooting at game depends upon the archer being able to approach to within easy range of his object without being discovered. Ile will soon take on all the cunning, caution, slyness, alertness, quickness, and silentness of an Indian or a cat. The following simple rules will be found, when mastered, to afford a perfect knowledge of small-bird shooting:

1. Use light, narrow-feathered arrows, with very blunt pewter heads. Pointed shafts will stick into the trees and remain out of reach. For a description of the method of making birding-arrows, see Appendix.
2. A birding-bow should be light, and of not over fifty pounds drawing power, as it must be handled quickly and under all sorts of difficulties, such as interfering brambles and brushwood, a wk-ward positions, etc.
3. The quiver (see Appendix) should be large enough to hold at least a dozen arrows, and should be so well secured to the belt that it will not rattle when you walk.
4. Shoot short distances at first, and pay strict attention to where your arrow goes, or it will be lost.
5. Glance over the ground between you and your bird before shooting, and in your mind measure the probable distance in yards. When you have shot, note whether you shot over, under, or beside the bird, so that you may rectify the fault with the next shot. 6. Use arrows of but one length and weight, and draw each one to the head thereof in shooting, whether the bird be near or far.
7. Do not grow discouraged if at first your arrows fly wide of the object. Keep trying. Creep closer to your birds and shoot coolly and deliberately. Never be nervous or excited. Remember that you are learning the alphabet now. Presently all will be easy.
8. Carry, in a convenient pocket, a note-book and pencil, with which to keep a record of your progress, and such naturalistic observations as may seem worthy of preserving.
9. When a bird is hit, note just how you drew, aimed, and loosed, and try to repeat the success.

It is only by intelligent watchfulness and perseverance that perfect shooting is reached.

Let us now have a bout after larger birds in one of the charming hunting-places of the far South.