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Totems: Woodpecker

by Cie Simurro, a.k.a. Thunderbird Starwoman

I AM WOODPECKER, the Shaman’s drum, tracker of rhythms, patterns and cycles. Yours may be different from others. Honor your own truth. I am your lifeline when you journey. Wake up! Wake up! Look around. Your world is changing so fast that much is obsolete. What hasn’t changed is the first Law: we are all of the same life force; therefore, One. That is why you were ordained a steward of my world. Tap open its wonders. Pierce through your alienation and protective shield. Pry open eyes shut-tight, in order to see truth. Be alert when opportunity knocks!

An Anishinabe story says the Pileated woodpecker got its red crest as a reward for helping a young warrior defeat the giant, Megissogwon. After his victory, the youth took some of the vanquished giant’s blood and placed it on the woodpecker’s head. In a Lakota story of how the first flute came to the people, a woodpecker came in a dream to a Lakota who was hunting elk. He was told to follow the red-headed bird. The woodpecker showed him how to make a flute and play it. He worked hard to replicate the sounds of nature with his flute. With his magical playing, he won the chief’s daughter.

When I was a drummer for my medicine circle, my deepest quest was to connect with the heartbeat of the Mother, learning to incorporate medicine rhythms. Having so deeply bonded with the Mother and my elk-hide drum, when that experience ended, I lamented whether I would be able to continue that part of my medicine. The Mother takes care of her own. Soon after, the Grandmothers (elders of the spirit world) began creating individual songs for those who came to me seeking healing. The drum accompanied these vocal reverberations. My drumming had transmuted into a new form of sound healing. Calling forth storm and rain spirits is part of Thunderbird medicine - no accident that I became a drummer. Woodpecker is the totem of drummers and those who work with rhythm. The elders tell us that woodpecker also calls forth the thunder spirits to make it rain, and was the one to teach humans to beat the drum to call for rain. The drum’s rhythmic beat leads one during shamanic journeying.

Most birds claim their territory by singing, but woodpeckers claim theirs by drumming that is more like thunder. Native people noticed how woodpecker drummed away with gusto, and they honored the drumming that is like a shaman’s drum, human heartbeat and the internal rhythm or heartbeat of Earth herself. Stop for a moment as you read this and listen for the rhythms around you. Car tires slapping the road – birdsong - music - your breathing and heartbeat - the plunk of rain hitting the pavement. People aligned with this totem’s energy have a drive to express themselves, especially through musical expression. Since they are highly emotional, this helps them to assimilate and integrate strong, raw feelings. They are passionate (red) about their lover/mate/family. Female woodpeckers choose the right mate by their red crests or patches.

Why don’t woodpeckers get a headache? How can they hold vertically to the tree trunk? Well, their skulls are stronger and thicker than most birds, and when they land and perch, sharp claws on strong opposing toes hold them in place, with additional propping from stiff tail feathers. Those with this totem are quite strong-minded, rarely changing course. Once a task is accepted, they will take it to completion. Very often children with this totem have had someone close to them taken away through death, divorce or abuse, thereby producing trauma. Later in life, if they have not healed, they may be clingy in relationships. Ah, the challenge of letting go – not easy for any of us, especially woodpecker people. In order to transcend neediness, a person must find a home within oneself, and then share his/her considerable qualities with others.

Woodpeckers don’t make nests per se; they excavate nurseries. Chambers are not lined. 4-5 pure white eggs (in a dark hole no camouflage is needed) lie on bark chips. Most woodpecker species do not seem overly wary of humans, but they are very protective of their young, as are their human counterparts. These parents should be careful not to smother-love their children. Both females and males are good parents and take turns protecting the nest and providing food. Folks in a woodpecker phase of life spend time and energy making a comfortable, well-engineered home, with children, to whom they are devoted.

Pileated woodpeckers appear at the same time as their favorite food, carpenter ants. They will peck up to 16 rectangular holes in each tree to allow escape routes from predators. By pecking the bark around the holes, they make the sap run, which keeps snakes and other predators from entering the tree. One could mistake its slow hammering for the sound of a human chopping down a tree, so loud are its whacks, as it digs the rectangle (always in trees infested with the ants). The Pileated is now the largest woodpecker in North America. Once the largest, the Ivory-billed woodpecker hasn’t been officially spotted since 1944. In 2005, a 4-second video emerged, possibly of an ivory-billed woodpecker in the swamps of Arkansas. This captured the attention of the naturalist community and launched a year-long search for the bird. Evidence remains inconclusive of this reclusive bird whose habitat of old-growth forest has largely disappeared. This brings up another quality of woodpecker energy: sensitivity. Careful not to set them off or hurt their feelings. They might retreat far away from you.

Downy and Acorn woodpeckers are very social, nesting in flocks. In behavior remarkable among birds, several pairs of Acorns may even share the same nest, as well as incubating each others’ eggs. People with this totem often live successfully in community or group housing. An Acorn community will store up to 50,000 acorns in a "granary" tree in perfectly round, funnel-shaped holes that they have been drilling all summer. Ripe acorns must fit the hole exactly. Too big, and they’ll fall out, or squirrels will pry them out; too small, damages the cap and it will rot. Even then, when the acorn shrinks, it must be re-housed again. After all that work, acorns are only an emergency food. They prefer to catch flying insects. Woodpecker people are the right ones to do any job that requires precision, patience or going deep into the heart of a subject. They keep pecking away until things feel right, or the truth has been uncovered. This totem is resourceful and tenacious.

Most woodpeckers eat nuts, fruit and seeds, flying out to catch insects or trap them in sap. The Yellow-bellied sapsucker cannot extract insects that have bored into a tree. Instead, they remove the nutritious inner bark from uniform rows of holes, later eating the sap that has run, trapping tiny insects. The Red-bellied woodpecker whose range is the east coast from Canada to Florida will spear its bill into oranges and suck orange juice. They also eat large quantities of destructive insects. Ladder-backed woodpeckers eat the larvae of the Agave beetle, protecting the plant from infestation. Gila woodpeckers perform the same service for cactus by removing larvae damaging to its tissues. Red-headed woodpeckers have a varied diet and store food. They stuff grasshoppers into crevices and nuts in knotholes and the cracks of buildings. Northern flickers are seen on the ground licking up ants with long, sticky, barbed tongues. What does a woodpecker do with its tongue when it’s not probing for grubs? The tongue wraps under the jaw, then around the back of the head, finally anchoring in the right nostril, which leaves the left for breathing. If you’re sighting woodpeckers at this time, consider taking some yoga or breath classes, especially using alternate nostril breathing for detoxification.

Most woodpeckers have four toes (4: foundation, earth energy). However, the Three-toed and Black-backed woodpeckers are the only ones with 3 toes (3: first stability; aspiration). Two point forward and one back. Both flake off sheets of bark from dead trees, feeding on wood-boring beetles (65% of their diet). They are helpful to humans because these are the beetles that cause Dutch elm disease. They are also distinguished by yellow (mental direction, clarity) head patches instead of red. Depending on which kind of woodpecker is your totem, your strong suit is either a strong physical constitution (red) or superior mental abilities (yellow). Folks with this medicine aren’t afraid to show their talents and abilities, just as woodpeckers stand out in the forest.

Has woodpecker come around to rat-a-tat-tat you into greater awakening? You can follow a woodpecker as it swoops from tree to tree, waiting for you to catch up, it seems. As a totem, it will lead you step by step on your path with its higher vision, as you stay grounded. During the course of the day, try dropping down into your body and becoming super-aware of every nuance of color, sound, texture, feeling and most of all, your body. The ego will tell you that the body is your prison. Not true. This is a time for reconciling with your body. Any thought patterns that made the body less significant than the spirit must now accept the truth: we find balance through the body’s partnership with our spirit.

Cie Simurro ~ Thunderbird Starwoman has been a healer and writer for 35 years. As an interfaith minister, advocate and steward for the natural world, Cie lives and works shamanically, offering healing for animals and humans. For healing in person or by phone, for you or your animal, a reading, spiritual training, or to purchase her book, Totems for Stewards of the Earth ($22 to PO 295, Shelburne Falls MA 01370), call 413 625-0385 or email: cie@ciesimurro.com


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