Sounds of a Skyelark Spring

Posted by on Apr 23, 2013 in Skyelark Ranch

Shading the south side of our house from the California sun are two giant Sycamore trees. Not only do they provide shade in summer, a chicken’s paradise of leaf litter in the fall, and a handy set of posts between which we can hang our laundry, they are also home to a family of Acorn woodpeckers. I was alerted to this fact the other day as I was walking out to feed the pigs. Acorn woodpeckers are some of our most noisy neighbours, and can chatter, laugh, drum, and waka-waka enough to rival even the largest class in a chimpanzee kindergarten. I’m used to hearing them chatter and call as I go about the daily business of farming, however, rarely do I hear them making alarm calls other than an excited waka. It was so high pitched and shrilI I thought it to be the shriek of a mockingbird or starling, either way it was obviously a bird in distress so I turned from my chores and went to investigate.


I discovered the scene of the commotion to be about twelve feet up in one of the sycamores where our cat Scout was standing on a branch pawing at a hole in the trunk. As our cats aren’t trained to voice commands, and my requests for her to stop harassing whatever it was she was harassing fell on deaf ears, I resorted to throwing windfall walnuts at her in the hope it would distract her from her evil game of whack-a-bird. After the third or fourth well-aimed walnut she dutifully bounced down the tree koala-style and took off in the direction of the house in obvious shame. After a few seconds, a blur of black feathers came shooting out of the hole and flew in the direction of the arroyo that runs along the southern edge of the property. A couple of seconds later out shot another one, although this one was chatting loudly as it flew, betraying it’s identity as an Acorn or ‘clown-faced’ woodpecker as I have been known to call them.

As Scout was nowhere to be found, I couldn’t scold her for her misbehaviour or inflict on her a lecture on the appropriate behaviours of farm cats – mice Vs woodpeckers etc – much like I do to our dogs following a bout of chicken chasing or sheep poo-eating, and knowing Scout, she probably wouldn’t listen anyway. I have heard how every farm should have cats as they apparently keep down rodent populations, but for a bird lover/nerd like myself it’s pretty hard not to get upset at the occasional ‘take’ of a non-target species such as a songbird or lizard.


This is perhaps a slightly watered-down version of a larger issue for someone that is both farmer and wildlife enthusiast and one that will be an internal conflict for me for years to come. Yesterday morning, for example, I disturbed a Great horned owl from its perch in the orchard near where we brood our broiler chickens. Ordinarily I would be thrilled by such an encounter – one of the country’s largest raptors perched merely yards from my back door! Not on this occasion. After a brief stunned pause I switched back to farmer mode and mentally checked off everything that could possibly have provided the owl its breakfast. All our broilers and turkey poults are still tucked under their brooders, the ducks were all accounted for, and laying hens were still in their coop – wait, maybe it ate a cat, nope, that’d just be wishful thinking.

The woodpeckers were not the only creatures making noise that morning, and the necessities of the morning chores allow for very few moments of reflection in the early part of the day. Given the flurry of excitement and panic caused by Scout and her taste for mayhem, I took a moment to listen to what else was going on around the farm.


Normally the pigs are the last to be given their breakfast, as it turns out that pigs are late sleepers and unlike the other animals, rarely spend much time yelling at you for attention. They grunt and squeak at each other in their house as if being elbowed out of bed to make the coffee, testing the cold air first with a snout or a trotter before making the slow, grudging move to the water trough. As yet the pigs were still in the negotiation stage of their morning and were apparently unaware of the sunrise or my presence in the yard.

Not so for Fergus the ram and Moby the goat (and also recently the ducks). They seem to have a keen knack for knowing when it’s breakfast time and apparently they think it’s before I have my coffee, as no sooner have I put my trousers on they start their whining calls. I sometimes see how far across the yard I can get before any of them see me coming and start the chorus of morning.

Of course the roosters have started way before Scout even thought about climbing the tree to harass the woodpeckers. And the mocking bird? For the last few days we’ve had a particularly persistent male bird in the walnut tree at the back of the house, calling for a mate relentlessly through the night. I’ve thought about posting an ad for him in the Classifieds, but hopefully someone shows up soon that meets his criteria – I’d give him a glowing recommendation and praise his tenacity, his vocabulary, and his delightfully colourful singing voice.

Closer to the front of the house the chatter of the birds and beasts shifts to that of the highway and the farm fields opposite. The morning commute is two-directional with people heading South into Woodland, Davis, or further, to spend the day in an office. In the other direction farm workers head north to begin their day at one of the large farms further up the valley interspersed with the rural flow of trucks, tractors, and the occasional lost motorhome. The stream of variously sized, shaped and conditioned vehicles moves sleepily past the gate in the morning, in stark contrast to the festival of car horns, cheers, whistles, and music that thumps past signifying the end of the work week on a Saturday afternoon.

This morning the cars move past without fanfare, and already in the fields opposite there is the unmistakable tone of distant human voices as the planting, harvesting or weeding gets started for the day. There’s also the clatter of harvesters, tractors and lifts making their way progressively up and down the hay fields to the south like some giant mechanical contra dance. The put-put of a far-off ATV is a sure sign that someone else is out there getting started on their morning chores which served as a timely reminder of what I was supposed to be doing out there in the first place.

Picking up the scraps bucket I proceeded to the pigs to entice them out to face the day, quickly turning their sleepy sounds of complaint into squeals of delight at the contents of their food dish.