Schrödinger’s Woodpecker

by Carl Strang

On Saturday I led a group of teachers through Mayslake Forest Preserve. I was reviewing part of the Franciscan phase of the preserve’s history when suddenly a bird called, loudly, from the strip of woodland between the two lakes. Focused as I was on my audience and subject, I was delayed in attending that remarkable call until it was nearly over. My first impression was that it was the call of a pileated woodpecker.

To date this is the best photo I have taken of a pileated woodpecker.

A pair of these huge woodpeckers has been resident at Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve for years, now, but they would not have gone this far from home. One was reported at the Morton Arboretum not so long ago, however, and the species appears to be on the increase regionally. One relevant memory is of a duck hunting float trip with my brother on the Tippecanoe River when we were young men. I don’t remember if we got any ducks that day, but I vividly recall two pileated woodpeckers, the first I’d ever seen. They were using that snowy riparian corridor to wander far from their then nesting range.

Back to Saturday. I paused, hoping the bird would call again, but it did not. We were on a tight schedule, and I could not take my group on a side trip to seek it. During the lunch break, hours later, I went to the place from which the call had come. I didn’t really expect the bird to be there, but I hoped at least to hear another distant call. What I found instead is shown in the following photo.

The oblong hole is 4-5 inches in its longest dimension.

Pileated woodpeckers make holes like this, and there were a few fresh wood chips on the ground beneath. In my mind, though, doubts remain. Sounds were carrying better than usual that morning, and the northern flicker has a call with a similar pattern. A pair of red-bellied woodpeckers frequents the area where I saw that hole, and I can’t rule it out as their work.

I am reminded of Schrödinger’s cat. This is a famous thought experiment from quantum physics, an argument pointing out the apparent absurdity of certain theoretical implications. It creates a scenario in which a cat simultaneously is alive and dead. In my mind dwells Schrödinger’s woodpecker. The bird that called on Saturday simultaneously is a pileated woodpecker and some combination of a flicker and a red-bellied. That is where it must remain. I wish it had called just one more time.

1 Comment

  1. September 8, 2011 at 5:50 am

    […] I heard a pileated woodpecker calling. I didn’t believe it at first, which also was my reaction when I first heard one at Mayslake Forest Preserve last spring. A few minutes later it called again and I had to go out and see. Sure enough. It was shy, and I […]

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