THERE are said to have been five mass extinction events throughout history, caused by pesky natural phenomena such as volcanoes and asteroids.
The sixth, we are told, will be the first to be caused by humans, as we destroy the planet, wreck the climate, and wipe out untold species of animals.
But lookit - it’s early January, we’re all a bit down in the dumps, and we’re two days away from what experts have dubbed ‘Blue Monday’ - the most depressing day of the year. A bit of positivity and optimism won’t go amiss, will it?
So, let me tell you about a little walk I had the other day, during which I recorded what I am pretty sure was an animal not seen (or heard) around these parts for perhaps 500 years. Sort of the opposite of a mass extinction!
Woodpeckers were once a common sight and sound on this island, not surprising given you could barely swing a sabre-toothed tiger without it hitting a tree.
The femurs of two woodpeckers found in a cave in Ennis in Clare in the early 1900s were subsequently carbon-dated to the Bronze Age.
But, over many centuries, a mass clearing of Irish forestry and woodland took place, a trend brilliantly documented in Cork author Eoghan Daltun’s book, An Irish Atlantic Rainforest.
The upshot was that a lot of animals that needed trees for their natural habitat, such as the woodpecker, died out.
So, when I was out walking in my local village of Carrigadrohid in mid-Cork recently, the last thing I should have expected to hear was the drum roll of a woodpecker’s beak on a tree.
But, have a listen to the video accompanying this article - you might need full volume for best effect - and you will hear what I am pretty sure is the sound of a Great Spotted Woodpecker hammering against the bark of a tree, searching for tiny grubs to eat.
Thrillingly, this may have been the first time a human heard such a sound in that woodland since Oliver Cromwell was a lad.
And the sighting checks out, because, over the past 18 years, the Great Spotted Woodpecker has indeed been returning to Ireland in ever greater numbers, starting off in the north and on the east coast, and gradually moving westward.
Just about every county on the island has now registered at least one sighting - there have been four in Kerry, all in 2021 - but thus far, there have been very few in Cork. The first sighting here may have been in the Doneraile estate in the north of the county in October, 2021 - so I felt privileged to hear its distinctive drumming in mid-Cork.
My sighting took place in an oak woodland, which is the favoured tree type for this species of woodpecker. Indeed, there have also been reports of them being seen in the nearby Gearagh, near Macroom - which has also recently become home to another rare bird sighting - the Penduline Tit.
About the size of a blackbird, the Great Spotted Woodpecker does not actually damage trees with its drumming, although it can make them more susceptible to diseases and pests.
They can peck at up to 20 times a second, but extra muscles in their necks ensure they do not get concussion or headaches.
Curiously, the Great Spotted Woodpecker is known in Irish as Mórchnagaire Breac. The latter word means ‘trout’ but can also mean ‘dappled’ or ‘spotted’, which makes sense. However, I have no idea where the Mórchnagaire comes in, as it translates as ‘Major Pharmacist’ on Google! It also appears that ‘cnocaire’ is the actual Irish word for woodpecker.
Anyway, having compared my recording to sounds of the bird drumming online, I am claiming this as a sighting (well, sounding, really) of the Great Spotted Woodpecker, and a very welcome blow-in to Cork it is too.
You might wonder why this particular species has bucked the global trend and is returning to its old habitats. Modern science has found an answer for that.
Using feathers shed by these Irish woodpeckers from vacated nest holes, scientists found their DNA was a close match to those of their cousins in the UK.
The Great Spotted Woodpecker, which is common on the continent too, has seen a dramatic increase in its population in the UK over the last 40 years.
Despite an inherent reluctance to travel, sheer pressure of numbers may well have forced young woodpeckers on the UK’s west coast to make the relatively short hop across the Irish Sea in search of new breeding territories.
The first Irish sightings took place around 2006, and they are clearly thriving here, as they have spread out across the island.
What’s really gratifying for ornithologists is that these birds are breeding here and becoming resident Irish citizens, rather than just passing through as so many other unusual species do.
There are more than 450 bird species on the official Irish list, and we can now add the Great Spotted Woodpecker to that.
Most sightings of it are in the months March to July, but that distinctive drumming sound can often be heard early in the year, as happened with me.
This is yet another reason to pursue the re-forestation and rewilding of our island, because usually the news on nature is unremittingly bad.
For instance, we heard just this week that the curlew is in danger of vanishing from Irish waters because of deforestation.
A good news story on Irish nature - surely a reason to cheer.
If you see a Great Spotted Woodpecker, submit details to Biodiversity Ireland’s Citizen Science Portal, to allow it to continue to track its spread in Ireland.
You can also volunteer to take part in the Birdwatch Ireland Irish Garden Bird Survey, which is currently taking place, and runs from the first week of December to the last week of February every year.
It is sponsored by Ballymaloe House, Ballymaloe Cookery School and Ballymaloe Foods, in memory of its founder Ivan Allen - Myrtle Allen’s husband. Ivan loved the birdlife in and around Ballymaloe House and farmed considerately and sustainably, ensuring their natural habitat was undisturbed.