The View from Sapsucker Woods

John W. Fitzpatrick

Boarding a charter flight to Havana, Cuba, in early September, I expected memorable experiences and more than a few surprises. I was bound for the famed Zapata Swamp, accompanying three long-time colleagues from Chicago's Field Museum. With a team of Cuban counterparts we would conduct biological inventories in concert with the Cuban agency in charge of natural areas. For 30 years I had looked longingly at Cuba on maps of the Caribbean. Now at last, by setting foot on the island, I hoped to launch mutually beneficial partnerships with several scientific labs on this beleaguered island-nation.

Southern Cuba is drenched with rains almost every afternoon during late summer, and sure enough I stepped from the bus into a full tropical deluge to greet Greg Budney, Jessica Eberhard, and Eduardo Iñigo-Elias-three biologists from the Lab of Ornithology who had just finished teaching two sound-recording workshops at opposite ends of the country. We shared a joyful lunch with ecstatic workshop participants before they returned to Havana. Three weary (and wet!) mentors flew home to Ithaca, leaving behind 12 recording rigs for permanent use by our newfound colleagues throughout Cuba.

Through the next week we arose before dawn to explore the vast marshes and forests of the Zapata Swamp, Cuba's most significant remaining wilderness area and home to several birds found nowhere else in the world. Guided by Arturo Kirkconnell, author of the recently published Field Guide to the Birds of Cuba (Cornell University Press, 2000), we documented some new breeding areas for the rare Zapata Wren. We saw Zapata Sparrows and Red-shouldered Blackbirds in the vast sawgrass marshes and small flocks of the severely endangered Cuban Parakeet flying over the forests. We even saw the big, zebra-striped Fernandina's Flicker, now among the world's rarest woodpeckers.

But perhaps the most intriguing moment of my trip was provided by two Northern Flickers, the same species that breeds in my backyard in Ithaca, New York. A resident subspecies of this handsome woodpecker (it lacks the white rump) is quite common where dense forest remains in Cuba.

Four of us were exploring by boat the mangrove-lined tributaries draining Zapata into the Hatiguanico River. With freshly honed bird-recording skills, Arturo and herpetologist Luis Diaz had focused on a flicker calling high in the mangroves. Suddenly, two female flickers alit just a few feet over our heads and began feverishly displaying at one another with their namesake flicka-wicka-wicka calls. Each bird intensely rocked left and right on the branch like a clockwork toy, bill pointed skyward, chest thrust toward its rival, tail and wings spread. Then both birds froze, utterly motionless and silent, their bills pointing opposite directions from one another. After 15-20 seconds they began anew, only to freeze again after another few seconds of displaying. And so they continued for 20 minutes at least, alternating between intense action and frozen stiffness. Finally, one of the females thrust toward the other with a much louder and more forceful call, and the two flew off in a chase. Dominance had been established.

Long, ritualized freezes in mid-action seemed surprisingly more important than the more obvious physical and vocal movements in this curious display. What is communicated by these games of "statue?" Do our flickers play this same game in their displays, or are the behaviors of Cuban and North American flickers drifting apart along with their plumages? My quick review of the literature failed to answer these questions so they remain to be explored. Fortunately, every vocal detail was preserved for study; Luis recorded the entire episode.

I've been fascinated by flickers for decades, but their intrigue is now enhanced thanks to this lucky close encounter in Cuba, and I have two gifted and curious naturalists to thank. What a joy it is to know that they'll still have the recorders with them the next time they go exploring together.

-John W. Fitzpatrick
Louis Agassiz Fuertes Director

Suggested citation: Fitzpatrick, John W. The View from Sapsucker Woods. Birdscope, newsletter of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Autumn 2002. <>

For permission to reprint all or part of this article, please contact Miyoko Chu, Editor, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, 159 Sapsucker Woods Rd., Ithaca, New York. Phone (607) 254-2451. Email