This morning I watched a pileated woodpecker carefully but deliberately investigate a hole in a tree just outside my window. A forearm long, it wore its red cap with aplomb.
I consulted Mannahatta (2009), the great compendium of information on the natural world of Manhattan circa 1609. The authors designate the pileated woodpecker a “likely” resident, along with the ring-billed gull, the black-capped chickadee, the passenger pigeon and hundreds of other birds. Less is known about the numbers in which you would find these species if you were also a resident of the island at that time.
We do know, though, from observations in the 1600s, that the passenger pigeon flew in such massive whorls overhead as to blot out the light of the sun at times. The passenger pigeon famously became extinct in the early 20th century, disappearing due to overhunting and habitat destruction. It was overhunted as a cheap meat for slaves and the poor, shipped by the thousand from the hinterlands to Manhattan at the turn of century and selling for two cents a pop.
But how many woodpeckers would you see in the seventeenth century? I like to think of the woods around my cabin, each tree host to a husky, bug-seeking red-headed bird.