Birds are an integral part of the African scenery. When I think back over the many years I lived in Africa I recall many aural images. In my head I hear the piercing call of the African fish eagle, the raucous squawk of the Hadada ibis and the booming sound of the Kori bustard. But my favorite sound of all is the descending three notes of the red-chested cuckoo – Let it rain! Let it rain! Let it rain! However, my most vivid remembrance of birds comes from an incident that took place, not in Africa, but in the Amazon jungle. After finishing college I did a stint working in Colombia, South America.
I lived with the Carapano Indians who were located in a remote valley. My simple house was built of split palm trees and it faced a beautiful pool of clear water, tinted red by the tannic acid from the falling leaves. It was a great place to swim – as long as I kept a watch for hungry piranhas. My purpose in being there was to lengthen a dirt airstrip, a herculean job since most of the trees were over three feet in diameter and the largest tool I had was an axe. And then there were the buttressed stumps that had to be dug out of the ground. Every afternoon I came back to my house exhausted, took a swim, hung up my hammock and tried to sleep. Usually it was impossible since I was surrounded by noisy Carapano children who were intrigued by the big white man with a black beard. The Carapano Indians liked pets and their long house was full of them; howler monkeys, macaws, parrots, ocelots and peccaries. They carried these pets around and treated them like members of the family. I was the only person without my own pet. One day an old Indian grandmother with a deeply wrinkled face limped up to me and stated firmly that I needed a pet to keep me company. Otherwise I would get lonely. She then handed me a small covered nest. I took it gingerly and opened the top. Inside were four baby birds. They were young and incredibly ugly. Their naked skins were shiny black and when they saw me they raised their long beaks and started peeping pathetically. I was not impressed. The grandmother went on to say that they needed constant care and must be fed regularly. She tried to explain that the method of feeding was essential toward helping the baby birds bond with their owner – ME! She took a banana out of her blouse and took a small bite. She chewed it up into a pulpy mass, but kept it in her mouth. Reaching her gnarled hand into the nest she withdrew a baby bird. Then she opened her mouth and stuck the bird’s head inside. The bird stopped its peeping and starting grabbing pieces of the chewed banana from within her teeth. Within seconds it was satisfied. The old lady did this with the other three birds. She explained to me that the food was good for the baby birds, but more importantly the method of feeding would help the baby birds attach themselves to me. I would become their mother. I was dubious. But I kept the nest and a couple of hours later the baby birds starting peeping again. I chewed up a banana and fed the birds in the proscribed way – sticking each bird’s head into my mouth and letting it feed. I was a bit apprehensive of their long pointed beaks, but they were quite gentle as they explored around inside my mouth and picked up pieces of chewed banana. The baby birds grew quickly, soon growing coarse black quills over their naked skins. Their beaks grew longer and even more pointed and I noticed that their feet were divided into two toes up and two toes down. I suddenly realized I was the proud owner of four black woodpeckers. As they grew the birds became more active, leaving their nest and using their sharp feet to crawl up and down the wooden posts of my creaky house. I awoke one morning to find all four woodpeckers perched on my hammock rope – as close to my head as possible. This became their favorite sleeping spot. Each morning at first light I received a few not-so-gentle pecks on the head as my little friends notified me that they were ready for breakfast. Within weeks all four birds grew full primary feathers and became beautiful graceful birds. They flew around my house poking into everything and banging their heads on the wood walls looking for insects. Over time they cleaned my house of all vermin. Then they moved outside of the house and began to discover the trees in the neighboring jungle. My life was full of loud rhythmic rat-a-tat sounds as my birds bashed away on dead trees. When I picked up my axe to go work on the airstrip the woodpeckers went with me. I would whistle and all four woodpeckers would come gliding in and land on my shoulders. There they would sit – riding happily as I did the walking to the airstrip. Upon arriving I would off-load them on an old stump. As I worked in the hot sun they would fly around the surrounding trees – exploring and pounding holes in dead branches. At the end of the working day I would whistle again and the woodpeckers would return to my shoulders for the ride home. As the weeks went on the birds became more independent – only coming home at night. Then they started staying away for days at a time until eventually they stayed away completely. My house seemed very quiet without them. But in the following months I would occasionally hear a shrill whistle and a woodpecker would come soaring out of the sky and land on my shoulder. It would nibble on my ear and beg for a bite of pulped banana. Then it would fly off to join its wild companions in the vast jungle. The old Carapano grandmother was right – it was good to have the woodpeckers as my friends.