Wednesday, February 01, 2006


There is a new noise in city Islington, a knocking, thwocking sound which echoes and carries through the tall trees in the park directly opposite where I live. It's the beating of beak upon bark, as distinctive and colourful as a cartoon. It is not a very loud sound but somehow it cuts through the rumble and grind of traffic and pedestrian turbulence, and it can be heard despite the regular human mania of rush hours, commerce and wage slavery.

The woodpecker is new. I have never heard that knocking sound in Nether Holloway before. I have heard it in Highgate Woods, in Hampstead, in Richmond, in Upper Norwood, but never here, in the shadow of the Arsenal, in the land of cafes and theatre bars and colleges and the eternal rivers of moving metal and glass. This sound joins the screeching of circular saws splitting pavements, drills tearing up road surfaces, and the ubiquitous high-pitched two-stroke churn of 125cc commuter bikes.

I hear the woodpecker every morning and every evening, making noise out of all proportion to its size, a vigorous, rapid, hollow, repeating rap. I always hear it at least twice. The first time, I listen expectantly for the second, which arrival fills me with pleasure. The noise has nothing of the variety and beauty of the blackbirds' songs, which I come to recognise each year, and enjoy like the songs of my youth, but it has one thing above all else - uniqueness.

At this time of year, with the daylight seeping back, slowly at first, unnoticed, like a washing machine flooding the downstairs neighbour, extending the days in miniscule amounts, the birds start to sing and preen and nest build, and in particular my friends the blackbirds, fiercely territorial beings who thrive in these city spaces, fanfare the imminence of Spring more effectively than snowdrops, crocusses or the annual tax return.

The avian population, like the human, is in constant flux. Birds come and go, driven out by population pressure, changes in the environment, or bigger birds.

There are the gulls, raucous, itinerant, flown in from the Thames estuary a mile or two away, enormous white birds with a wingspan large enough to scare you. In Brighton, there are tales of birds attacking humans for their food, as they potter down the seafront with a bag of chips. I have not witnessed that kind of avian mugging but gulls are quite capable of ganging up on an unruly rabble of pigeons to steal food. We have practically no sparrows now in London. This has been blamed on various things - loss of habitat, 21st century additives in food causing sterility. Interesting enough, the only place for miles I have heard their traditional cheep-cheep-cheep and seen their small, darting brown shapes is in the local city farm where they thrive in a hedgerow next to a chicken coop.

There are magpies, mostly in ones and twos and threes, but I have seen eighteen at once, all black and white in a single tree, hopping and chattering. Used to be a rare sight, now they flourish, confident, capable, cheeky, clever, successful birds, the yuppies of London, who move into an area, steal the best nesting sites, and displace the former population. The collective noun for magpies is variously, a tiding, a gulp, a charm or a murder, but they are less feared than the jay, an occasional sight, who although smaller is more deadly, and whose quiet appearance sends shivers of fright and cries of alarm throughout the entire manor.

Let us not be sentimental about this - Islington may be a Liberal borough, but to the birds, it is a jungle. Yesterday I saw a rook, a large, black, intelligent bird, part of a nearby colony of at least fifty, eating a pigeon alive from the head down, and each time it stabbed the dying bird with its sabre beak, there was still enough life in the pigeon to cause it to flap its wings. It reminded me of the time that I saw a video made in a safari park, where a foolish video camera-wielding tourist was casually slapped down and eaten by a huge lion - what he think, that his camera was protection? As the lion calmly surveyed its next meal and its surroundings prior to commencing course number one, one paw on the still moving body, the flailing arm of the man came up in the same spastic, useless movement.

Having heard it for a couple of weeks, I saw the woodpecker on Sunday morning, before the church bells started to peal, as I stared out of the window, thinking nothing. It is not Green, possibly therefore Lesser Spotted. A smallish body, no real crest that I could see, sharp beak, bark falling from the trunk of London plane where it found breakfast. I hope it stays, finds a Lesser Spotted friend, makes more woodpeckers. I hope the magpies don't take its nest, the jay doesn't eat its eggs, the pigeons don't give it some dread disease, the park rangers don't cut down the dead tree it now calls home. I hope it finds a plentiful supply of bugs in the churchyard. I hope its beak stays sharp.

AddThis Social Bookmark Button


At 1:16 PM, Blogger Indigobusiness quoth...

That's not a woodpecker...THIS is a woodpecker.

(Sorry, I'm feeling a little on the Crocodile Dundee side this morning.)

God I love birds, all birds.

Good post!

At 4:53 AM, Blogger Indigobusiness quoth...

Here is the ivory-bill woodpecker pic I should've linked to. What a spectacular bird! I hope all the hubbub about it returning from apparent extinction turns out well. It is magnificent.

I once watched a similarly marked woodpecker, though a much smaller species, fledge its young from a hole in a telephone pole. It was a fine thing to witness.

There are a few woodpeckers around here that have become fairly tame, but I haven't seen them in a while.

Cool birds, woodpeckers.

At 5:15 PM, Blogger dweller quoth...

the only bird I hear in the morning is a pidgeon making that pidgeon woo woo over and over as it sits on my window sill.
I wouldn't be able to hear a woodpecker over the cacophony of holloway rd traffic. I wear earplugs to sleep here and I do miss the dawn chorus. But it is nice to have my high pidgeone-eye view on the comings and goings below.

At 6:05 PM, Blogger Blog ho quoth...

i also recently heard a woodpecker. delightful.


Post a Comment

<< Home

Web pages referring to this page:
Link to this page and get a link back..