• Kevin Burrell

Acorn Woodpecker: Words That Keep Record

My first sighting of Acorn Woodpeckers in action happened on a mission trip to Honduras. The wooden post of the basketball goal at the boys’ home we served was pock-marked with holes, top to bottom, and a small flock of intense pale-eyed birds busily swarmed around the court.

Acorn Woodpecker on granary tree with acorn in bill
© Greg Wilson/Shutterstock

Acorn Woodpeckers have been dubbed one of the busiest birds on the planet, and when you understand what they’re up to, it’s not surprising. A team of them work together to maintain their granary—a series of hundreds or even thousands of holes, each housing exactly one precisely-placed acorn. The woodpeckers are fastidious to the point of OCD as they hammer the acorns in. Too large a hole will give up the loose acorn to a squirrel, too small a hole will break the acorn, and Goldilocks-perfection is only achieved through plenty of trial and error. Oh, and did you know that acorns shrink over time? This means they have to be continually moved around and managed, placed and replaced.

A typical tree might have 4000 holes, taking eight years to create, an inter-generational effort beyond the typical lifespan of any one bird. A world-record granary held 50,000 acorns and likely had been in the family for over 100 years: a literal “family tree.”

The flock always keeps one scout on patrol to defend the granary, while the rest file away acorns like a team of hyperactive stock associates. Acorns are an oddity for a woodpecker diet; most of the world’s 230-plus woodpecker species eat insects of some sort or another. So one might expect that this unique diet would provide a great opportunity for seed dispersal, assuming the birds might forget a few acorns and give them a chance to grow. But this team is far too efficient for that. An Acorn Woodpecker never forgets.

As I mentioned in this series introduction, woodpeckers are an apt study in the power of the tongue, having a famously long one that’s coupled with a powerfully effective beak. How a woodpecker uses its mouth allows for reflection on how we use ours, with the warnings from James 3 that untamable danger lurks beneath. With that association in mind, staring at a woodpecker granary really causes you to consider what sorts of words you’re storing up. “Love keeps no record of wrongs,” says the Apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 13:5). And yet how often do we use our words to call forth filed-away “incident reports” of sins and slights against us? Every wrong gets carefully notated and filed away, ready to be retrieved at an opportune time.

You might say that this pettiness doesn’t apply to you, but consider for instance the ways in which you use the words “You always…” and “You never…” A marriage is ground zero for these tactics; we file away our acorns in groupings around common themes, supporting our assessments of our spouse’s character flaws. When the offending trait shows itself again, it’s met with a detailed history of past failures, complete with expert witnesses and a closing argument.

Or we say, “I’ll forgive but I won’t forget.” As a pastor, if I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that sentiment invoked in a counseling session, I could buy a really nice upgrade on my birding binoculars. It’s a common conviction, but I still haven’t found the chapter and verse it comes from. We would prefer to keep those nuts filed away, to maintain our vigilance and our upper hand. Notwithstanding the need for wisdom and setting boundaries, forgiveness is a heart issue and the unwillingness to forget can be part of the poison.


Acorn Woodpecker hoarding acorns granary tree
© Jean-Edouard Rozey/Shutterstock

I remember an extended family gathering years ago, sitting around the kitchen table as my aunt put the milk back in the refrigerator. “Oh no you don’t!” said another aunt, sweeping hurriedly into the room. “We all remember what happened last year when you spilled it everywhere!” Personally, I didn’t. But she did. The adage “Don’t cry over spilled milk” didn’t even need to be contextually translated, but she’d had that small offense filed away for a year. An Acorn Woodpecker never forgets.

So what should we store away, accumulate, and gather? Obviously something nobler than spilled dairy products. The Bible gives us some broad but wonderful categories in places like Philippians 4:8: “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” The memories that fall into these eight buckets should be pondered, treasured, stored away in the perfect granary hole for safekeeping. Think on these. But don’t just think them. Speak them. When we affirm the noble and admirable in another person, we encourage them to live into it. Imagine regularly vocalizing to our children the memories we have of them at their best. Or seasoning our marriage conversations with joyous observations of the character of Christ in our spouse. Or reminding a friend, “This is what I see in you, and this is who you are becoming by God’s grace.”

To simplify what I’m trying to say, consider this activity. Why not share with people now the sorts of things that we too often reserve for a funeral eulogy? I cherish the moments in a memorial service that give me a larger window on the full span of a person’s story, knowing that my vantage point has often been limited to their last season of life. I hear what they were good at, what memorable words they’re remembered for, what gave their life beautiful meaning, or how they impacted those around them. Death causes us to reflect on those stored-up acorn memories. But why can’t daily life do the same? When we speak those things into a person’s life, we allow the recipient to enjoy, reflect, and live more fully into them. After all, who wouldn’t want to live more deeply into the best things that others see in them? “You cared” spoken today makes me want to care tomorrow. “You’re good at that” spoken today makes me want to keep trying that tomorrow. Words shape. They have weight. Words encourage future realities.

This week, why not try sharing some treasured acorns from your tree for the sake of affirming others? Whom might the Lord be prompting you to speak to? It might not be the easiest person. This might stretch you. You might need to forgive and forget some bad-nut memories to make room for better ones. But you have a perfect model in Jesus, who casts your darker acorns as far as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:12), making it easier for you to “be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:32)