Have you ever wondered why the woodpecker is so colourful and flies in an undulating way? And why does he keep on hammering on dead tree trunks? This all came of a power struggle which a king lost. Listen to this tale of witchery:
Long long ago there lived a king who dressed as befitted a king: with a cape of black fur on his shoulders, a white silk shirt and red satin trousers. His strikingly large strong feet were thrust deeply into high gray leather boots. On his head he wore a large dark crown with, strangely enough, a beautiful red stone placed at the back. If he were to pass you by, then every one knew at once: there goes the King!
As he was not yet familiar with every corner of his kingdom, the king would mount his horse and ride off to discover new areas whenever he had the time. One day he was galloping with his fine stallion in a wood where he had never been before. It was dark and even the king began to find it a little unnerving. This dark inhospitable wood was home to a strong and bold witch. She held sway over the wood. Put in other words: she was a real witch who worked with real magic. For instance, if she felt like it, she could change herself into a little girl or into a bear. But she could also choose to cast spells on other people. However, the witch did not know the king and had never even heard of his existence.
By chance the witch was walking along a path when in the distance she caught sight of the king approaching on horseback. She saw his black fur cape and his crown and at once realized it was the king. In a flash she turned herself into an aristocratic looking lady. The king stopped when he saw her and said: “Good day, madam.” The lady smiled in response and asked: “Good day to you too, sire. May I enquire though as to what brings you here?” “I have come to inspect my kingdom,” he answered in a tone which made it clear to all that he was a very important person. At these words, the witch’s eyes flashed with anger and she asked him straight out: “Pardon me. Your kingdom? What do you mean? This is my wood!” The king smiled at such naïvety and responded: “My dear madam, I am the king and all the land around here, far and wide, belongs to me.” Upon which she turned herself back into a witch and with her bright dark eyes fixed him with her gaze: “How dare you! You are standing now on my territory and it is I who rule over this land!” The king looked down at her from his horse with a haughty look in his eyes, which only enraged the witch still more. Without blinking an eyelid she changed the king into a bird.
From that day on a bird flies around the wood which – you will see this if you look carefully – wears a black cape with a white shirt under it. His white shirt sleeves stick out. Even his short red trousers are still visible, as are his strikingly large feet. Flying in an undulating manner, it is almost as if he is still galloping around on his horse. The king is still furious and is still planning to take revenge. That is why he hammers on dead trees: witches have been known to live in dead trees and he always hopes he might make the witch mad by hammering on her house.
In The Netherlands and Belgium the woodlands have been increasing and so has the forest bird population. The numbers of large spotted woodpeckers have slowly gone up and are now estimated to be at about 130,000. The woodpecker prefers to live in older woodland, as old trees have more deeply grooved bark which is home to many delicious larvae and insects. Together with certain seeds (pine cones) and berries, these form the woodpecker’s staple diet. Both the male and female of the species hammer on the bark of dead trees in the spring, because dead trees make more noise than living ones. A pair uses the hammering to mark their territory and as a means of communication.
© Els Baars, Natuurverhalen.nl