A Mythical Bird
Oct 24, 2008 by Nancy Buschart | 0 Comments
This is a Pileated Woodpecker. You may not care or may consider it a waste of time to be introduced to this creature. But, I must.
When I was a child, my grandmother gave me my first bird book - Roger Tory Peterson's A Field Guide to the Birds. I loved this book and still have it on my shelf. I spent hours pondering the pictures of the birds and reading over and over the descriptions of each one. Size, description, habitat, and song. I loved going to the grove of trees near our farm to play "I spy" with her. Finding the birds in nature and matching them with the pictures in my book was pure joy and delight.
There were many birds in the book that I never saw, and probably will never see. One bird pictured that I wanted to see live was the Pileated Woodpecker. It's as large and black as a well-fed crow, has a magnificent red crest and streaks of white on the sides of its head, and large white wing patches that are visible only when it flies.
My young imagination was captivated by the sheer majesty of the bird pictured and its description: "17-19 ½ inches. A spectacular crow-sized Woodpecker with a conspicuous red crest...The great size, sweeping wing-beats, and flashing black-and-white coloration identify it at a distance."
The Pileated is a powerful bird. Where some woodpeckers drill holes in trees in search of bugs, the Pileated Woodpecker excavates the whole side of the tree like an avian chain saw impatient for its lunch. It's call is a one-of-a-kind, distinctive cry that pierces the air leaving no doubt to would-be birders that the "Pileated has landed."
One day, I wanted to see this spectacular bird! Until I saw it for myself, it remained mythical - reported by others but never personally experienced.
Pileated's don't live in central Illinois where I grew up so I had little hope of seeing it for myself. This was tamed farmland; the Pileated needs old, dense deciduous and pine forest.
Northern Wisconsin is a different kind of place and presented the possibility of seeing the Pileated Woodpecker. My first experience of northern Wisconsin came on my honeymoon. It was love at first sight - forest lined roads leading into stands of young and old trees, alive and dead, leaf canopy blocking the sky from view. This is the habitat of the Pileated Woodpecker.
The first Pileated Woodpecker sighting of my life came one summer morning a few years after my honeymoon. While the rest of the family thought I had lost my mind and didn't understand all the excitement, I grabbed binoculars and camera and ran out of the house, dressed in my robe and slippers, to catch a glimpse of this mythical bird. I saw it, sort of.
The truth is that Pileated Woodpeckers are not often seen. Their unmistakable call is heard. The evidence of their having been present can be spotted in the excavated trees. But, like many others in the Peterson Field Guide, these birds are elusive, shy.
I learned long ago that to see the shy ones, I need to respectfully place myself in their environment, assume a posture of patient waiting, be alert to movements and sounds, and maybe I will be honored with a visitation.
One can wait a long time for a Pileated sighting! This past July, I did not see a single one. More than once during my days at the cottage, I dropped what I was doing and ran out into the woods sure that I had heard the unmistakable call. Neighbors on the lake said that they saw them, knew they were there, but I was never in the right place at the right time.
My fortune changed this Fall. Up North, in October, I saw them. A gift. A pair of them hung around the cottage. They come, and just as quickly, they go. I even took a few blurry photos of them, paused in their passing, on trees.
A Bird and the Soul
What can my lifelong penchant for this mighty bird say about the life of the soul? John Stott, a life-long birder and renowned theologian, wrote a wonderful book titled, The Birds, Our Teachers: Essays in Orni-Theology. Stott reminds readers that Jesus himself told his followers to "Consider the birds of the air" [Matthew 6:26]. Consider, pay attention, turn your focus toward, look at them with eyes that see and perceive significance. "This will certainly include our study and appreciation of their plumage and behaviour. But the Bible tells us that birds have lessons to teach us as well."
Some Lessons from the Pileated Woodpecker
Lesson 1: Like the Pileated Woodpecker, the soul is shy, reclusive. Awake and aware to any danger, the soul will hide in the presence of any who may mock expression of need or heart's desire. If we want to engage the soul of a friend, we need to be patient while we respectfully place ourselves in an environment conducive to engagement. And yet, though we may be unaware, the soul emerges often. When a friend tells you that his prayer life is dry, do you stop to listen, ask a deeper question? Or, do you brush it off saying yours is too and move on to safer topics like the Bronco's game? If a friend mentions anxiety, do you stop to ask more and to pray, or do you rush on to the urgent?
Lesson 2: The bug-hunting excavations of the Pileated Woodpecker are evidence of its sometimes presence. Christian spirituality is a lived experience. What evidence of the transforming work of God in your life are you leaving behind? Does the love of God, His gracious mercy and compassion, linger in the lives you encounter like the sweet scent of the Presence of God?
Lesson 3: Pileated Woodpeckers are powerful birds. Their long, strong beak and mighty neck muscles give it the power to do its work and to sustain its life. What kind of power do you possess? Consider Paul's prayer for the Ephesians:
I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe. God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places [Ephesians 1:15-21].
The nature of this immeasurably great power is that it is the same power with which God raised and enthroned Jesus! Why, then, do we so often remain impotent and afraid?
Lesson 4: Stott credits his father with getting him started as a birder. "During the summer holidays, beginning when I was a boy of only five or six years old, he used to take me out for walks in the countryside, telling me to shut my mouth and open my eyes and ears. It was excellent training in observation." My grandmother and mother were instrumental in my own training in observation. Awakening, paying attention, is the prerequisite of spiritual growth. If we claim that God doesn't seem present, we are spiritual sleepwalkers.
Lesson 5: The Pileated Woodpecker remained for me a mythical bird until I had experienced it myself. I could read about it, I could listen to reports of others who saw it, but I had to experience the thrill of seeing with my own eyes before it became real to me. What is a "nominal Christian"? One who has heard about Jesus and may even have received a measure of the grace that He offers. But, in reality, He remains more myth than relationship. Reading about Him is good; experiencing the thrill of being loved by Him is better. Then, Jesus moves from being myth to being Savior. We are invited to "taste and see that the Lord is good" [Psalm 34:8]. Experience Him.
Asking The Three Questions
Who is God?
Present - "Bidden or not bidden, God is Present." At work in my life and in the lives of others.
Who am I?
Dependent upon God to reveal Himself.
How am I living?
Awake and Aware. Watching for God-sightings! "Lord, give me eyes to see."
©2008 Vine, Vision & Voice
Nancy R. Buschart
 Roger Tory Peterson, A Field Guide to the Birds (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Riverside Press, 1964), 142.
 John Stott, The Birds Our Teachers: Essays in Orni-Theology (London, England: Angus Hudson Ltd, 1999), 9.
 Ibid., 7.