Sunday, August 12, 2007

Bulletin from the Farm: Woodpeckers & the Queen of Plums

Another in a series of engaging essays from Anthony Boutard, the Bard of Ayers Creek. And if you're interested in receiving his missives directly, you can e-mail him at the farm and ask to be added to the list.

"The owners of Hyla Woods, Pam and Peter Hayes, visited us early this summer. Upon seeing the oak savannah that occupies the heart of the farm, Peter asked whether we had any acorn woodpeckers nesting here. Alas, no, and suddenly the savannah looked impoverished, somehow deficient. Years of digging up blackberries and hauling away garbage, and no acorn woodpeckers. What did we do wrong, was it our fault? A pair of spurned savannah owners, we went to and ordered a pair of these birds. Amazing what you can do online.

"Actually, a week later, we were greeted by a striking pair of acorn woodpeckers headlong into the business of courtship and oblivious to our presence. Negotiating sexual activity is a raucous business with woodpeckers. The whoopee ended after a week or so, and then we only caught occasional glimpses of the birds as they foraged furtively. The sporadic flash of black and white comforted us with the assurance they were lingering, maybe increasing. This week, the issue of their union departed the nest. A young bird with an adult pattern of plumage is now flying around the savannah with its two parents close at hand. Its slighter body and the reedy, begging call betrays its youth. The parents are still feeding it, but it is already trying out its bill. It does a little tap, tap, tap routine and then opens its bill, submitting for sustenance.

"The acorn woodpecker and some other members of the clan, along with the unrelated Corvids (jays, crows and nutcrackers), create caches for the winter months. With the Corvids, the building of caches is done secretively by individuals. They will often rob from one another, remembering weeks later where a competitor placed its cache. Recent studies have shown Corvids keep a very detailed mental map of their caches, and what they contain. In contrast, the acorn woodpecker forms social groups and colonies that cache cooperatively. The woodpeckers create granaries by pecking holes in dead trees or limbs and wedging the acorns into the hole. Larger granaries may exceed 60,000 acorns. They cooperatively defend these granaries against other acorn-eating birds and animals.

"We are pleased the woodpeckers managed to pry loose a nesting site from all of the other cavity dwellers that live here. We hope this is a nascent colony, and not just a brief sojourn."

And this under Plums:

"Ah, to ken a queen. The cherries have their Dukes and Napoleon, the pears have their Doyenne du Comice and Josephine, the apples have their Duchess of Oldenburg, and then there are the plums. They have the Queen, the Reine Claude or green gage. Bestowed with a sharp sweetness and a gentle acidity, with tannins floating around pleasingly and unobtrusively, everything about a Reine Claude is sublime perfection.

"We planted our first 'gages' in 1999. We found the fruits insipid and cloying. We persisted, fueled by a dim memory of gages we had savored in the past. We planted over a half dozen gages from different nurseries. We found two real green gages. Both Bavay Gage and Cambridge Gage are ancient seedlings of the original type. The scion wood was imported from England by Washington State University. They met our expectations. The 'green gage' that is circulating among many US nurseries is, according to David Karp, the Great Maligner of Chester Blackberries (GMCB)*, probably 'Oullins Gage.' GMCB is trying to import scion wood for Reine Claude Dorée, the green gage standard bearer."

* Note: In a New York Times article, Mr. Karp referred to Mr. Boutard's favorite blackberry as having "mediocre flavor."

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