Rite of spring

A red-bellied woodpecker looks on as the pileated woodpecker 'ants' in the pine needles. All photos by Fran Palmeri

“Cuk cuk cuk cuk cuk”! The pileated woodpecker announces herself loudly as she scrabbles in the pine needles in my back yard. It’s a yearly ritual.

Last April, I photographed her doing the same thing in the same place. I thought this activity might be part of the “mating game” of the cardinals, blue jays, mockingbirds and other birds which at this time of year goes full-tilt around me, but environmentalist Allan Horton, a third-generation Floridian, says she’s “anting.”

Birds use ants which secret pesticide-like chemicals to rid themselves of mites and other parasites.

Palmeri's slash pine, as it looks in the summer.

If it weren’t for the slash pines which stand like sentinels in my yard, these birds wouldn’t be here. Long-lived and hurricane-resistant, the trees are beautiful to behold, with rectangular scaled bark in rich earth tones of red and brown. They provide shade for me through the long months of heat, and they clean the air.

Over the years, I’ve used the needles to mulch my flowerbeds. Woodpeckers probe their chunky bark for insects and nest in cavities. Migratory birds rest and feed in the canopy. The pines’ height and strong upper branches can support the huge nests of eagles.

The red-shouldered hawk rests on a grapefruit tree branch in Palmeri's neighbor's yard.

Sadly, these once common evergreens are disappearing as new houses are built.

I’m lucky to have a neighbor who has kept his.

So far there are no eagles, but, between us, we house woodpeckers plus a red-shouldered hawk, who rules by day, and a great horned owl, the nighttime predator.

To me, the pines symbolize the Real Florida.