Sam Cook column: 'Bear,' birds on the move

Winter eases its grip. These critters can’t be wrong.

Sam Cook
Sam Cook

Walking a familiar road in Duluth the other day, I came across two young parents pulling a bear in a plastic sled. The "bear" — a toddler-sized human in a brown-pile bear outfit complete with little ears — was reclined contentedly in the sled, propped up so as to better observe the scenery.

I chatted with the bear’s parents on this glorious February afternoon. Told them we had a grandchild across the ocean in France with a bear suit just like that. What I didn’t tell them was how much I missed our little bear and how much seeing their little bruin brightened my day.

We didn’t talk long. It is best, I know, to keep a contented young bear sliding along on the snowpack.

We were keeping an appointment with the sky.

I encountered a modest throng of trail walkers, runners and snow-bikers that day, Super Bowl Sunday. Yes, there were treats to prepare for the big game, but we all understand that in the North, you don’t squander a day like that in February.

The birds must sense that winter is easing its grip. On several recent outings, I’ve heard woodpeckers at work. At first, they were just using their beaks to remove bark, perhaps hoping to discover something to eat. Or maybe excavating a nesting cavity to which they could attract a mate, Duluth birding expert Laura Erickson told me.


How do you go from noticing some little bird in your yard to becoming a true birder?

But on subsequent ramblings, I heard a couple woodpeckers drumming on dead trees. The staccato tapping rang out at a surprisingly powerful decibel level, intended to convey the message: “I am here. I am claiming this territory.”

Yes, we still have a couple feet of snow on the ground. Most streams have not even begun to open up. Winter is not behind us. But when the woodpeckers start drumming, we know we’re going to make it.

These first drummings reminded me of a similar occurrence several years ago. I was running through the far western reaches of Duluth’s Hartley Park when I heard a rapid metallic pounding. I couldn’t figure out what would be making that noise in the woods. I left the trail and bushwhacked until I emerged on Howard Gnesen Road. That’s where I saw a pileated woodpecker clinging to a yellow “30 mph” road sign, banging away on the sign with his formidable beak.

If that won’t get you a partner, I don’t know what will.


Sam Cook is a freelance writer for the News Tribune. Reach him at or find his Facebook page at
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