Still Life (with woodpecker)

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Deceased Golden-tailed Woodpecker (Campethera abingoni) – female – visited by Banded Blowfly (Chrysomya albiceps). October, 2013.

As a birdwatcher, one inevitably comes across a dead bird now and again. More often than not, these casualties are caused by windows or motor vehicles, and the statistics of how many birds are actually killed by collisions with glass or steel are horrendous.

However, as an artist, I make a point of collecting dead birds when it is feasible. Typically, they will be sealed in a bag and placed in the freezer compartment of our fridge – frozen until I have time to examine them closely and make a drawing or two. Over the years, this has caused some consternation for my wife Tracey as ice-cream and fish-fingers have jostled for space with deceased doves, cuckoos and trogons. Studying a lifeless bird is undoubtedly morbid, but always fascinating, as so many details of anatomy and plumage are revealed. The resultant drawings are then useful to me as references for painting or sculpting.

A couple of weeks ago, I was alerted (through an obscure electronic grapevine known as ‘facebook’) that a female Golden-tailed Woodpecker had been found dead outside a house at Raptor’s View in Hoedspruit. There was no murder mystery for Patrick Jane to unravel, it seemed a clear case of death by collision. The remarkable skull structure of the woodpecker (adapted to withstand impact from the bird’s habitual knocking and drumming on wood) could not prevent its demise so it must have been flying at great speed, perhaps being chased by a rival or predator. At any rate, resident naturalist Derek Solomon had picked up the unfortunate bird and kindly agreed to pass it on to me. As anyone who reads this blog will know, I have a particular fascination with woodpeckers and have tracked them down on five continents. As well as illustrating or painting pictures of them, I am busy with a protracted series of life-sized wood-carvings as well as miniature clay sculptures which will ultimately be part of framed dioramas.

So it was that I spent a hot Sunday afternoon producing these drawings, noticing details such as the finely spotted forecrown, the tiny bristles that cover the woodpecker’s nostrils (so that it does not inhale sawdust when excavating a nesting cavity), and the remarkable tail feathers with their stiff vanes that allow the woodpecker to brace itself against the trunk of a tree. As the hours went by, the frozen woodpecker became increasingly limp and the corpse was visited by a solitary blowfly who had intentions rather different to mine . . .

‘Turaco Wood’, Nelspruit, South Africa, October 2013

Note 1: Once a drawing is completed, the corpse should ideally be lodged with a natural history museum so that it can be added to their specimen collection, but this is not always practical in my case, as there is no such institution in our region. Often, I will simply hand the body over to the blowflies and carnivorous ants which ensure that the nutrients are recycled in the most efficient way.

Note 2: My title for this post has been unabashedly hijacked from Tom Robbins’ 1980 novel Still Life with Woodpecker (1980), concerning the love affair between an environmentalist princess and an outlaw.

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Golden-tailed Woodpecker (Campethera abingoni) – female. October, 2013

About Duncan Butchart

Duncan Butchart is interested in all aspects of the natural world, with a particular fascination for birds and their ecological relationships.
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3 Responses to Still Life (with woodpecker)

  1. graeme says:

    Great story as always. Woodpeckers are certainly intriguing birds. I rank them high on design and format. I am interested however, as to your role in this story, are you the environmentalist princess or the outlaw?

  2. Samantha Parsons says:

    Fascinating… but I can see you more as one of the Bones characters studying all things deceased!

  3. Peter says:

    A real naturalist. Linnaeus would be proud.

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