Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Morning Duel

Last Saturday it snowed in my yard, as it did in many of your yards. Heavy wet snow slid off the metal roof through the day with the schlump, schlump, schlump sound that I am accustomed to hearing through the dark winter months. But this was the third week in April. Those schlumps of snow fell on yellow daffodils, and lavender and purple crocus.

The day was all wrong. The day should of been one of raking leaves from garden beds, cleaning yard debris, cutting back dry canes, and complaining about the aches caused by sudden muscular activity after months of winter idleness. I could not muster the old-timers’ philosophical resignation: “This is Vermont, after all. Got to expect weather like this any time.” I coped with the disconcerting, out-of-season snow by drawing the blinds.

I did made regular journeys to the kitchen for coffee and tea. The birds in the back seemed bedraggled as they scratched the fallen bird seed from between clods of snow. The business of eating was their only activity. Most appeared to have suspended their most important activity during a normal third week in April. They were not doing much singing and very little displaying. Occasionally a cowbird would posture, but nobody seemed to care much.

I may be projecting my mood onto the birds. Once their gonads begin to increase many fold sending hormones through their system, the life of birds is directed toward reproduction. It is a powerful force that controls their activity for several months during the year. A Spring snow is a mere bump in the road, one that may be a final natural selection which removes those who don’t really have the moxie to breed. These are the bird which just barely survived winter.

That said, I still feel like anthropomorphizing the birds during last Saturday’s snow. Some looked as though they were completely baffled by the weather. Chipping Sparrows had a nonplussed appearance. Three to five Chippys mingled on the platform feeder, occasionally pecking at a seed, but mostly milling around as though they were wondering what had happened to the party they had come for and what should they do next.

Chipping Sparrows winter in our southern states. They do not have nearly as long a migration as the tropical species (the warblers, for example). They arrive in mid-April. Probably the males come first, each with the compulsive intention of claiming the best territory, and then claiming the best female with whom to breed and raise young.

Having to scratch through snow to get the seed on the platform was not on their agenda. As one of the other columnists in this paper likes to ask, “What the hell’s up with that?”

But, it is time to move away from the rant. The snow is gone. Snow out in my yard was on Tuesday, the latest date since I have lived here. Spring has resumed its staggering journey toward full blossom.

The birds are back on track as well, if they ever really got off track. Those Chipping Sparrows did not continue long in bafflement. “Battle” better defines their activity in the Spring, and they are in full battle mode. I heard the end of one day’s battle on a drippy morning this week.

Edward Forbush, the Massachusetts ornithologist, was a remarkable observer and chronicler of New England bird life. I read his species accounts with pleasure. But this week I found a nit to pick with him. He describes the song of the Chipping Sparrow as a “simple monotonous series of dry ‘chips,’ rapidly repeated.”

That is not what I heard at 6:30 am. I heard four distinct songs from four different males. One produced clear, slowly-paced, distinct, whistled chips. Another produced slurred whistles. Another offered dry and mechanical chips. The clear whistler sang his song solo. A second male broke the brief silence. Two birds sang together, until silenced by the power of the clear whistler.

When I stir into my morning semi-consciousness, the first bird I hear singing is usually the robin. I have slept too late. Chipping Sparrows begin their musical duel before dawn and conclude the battle when most of us are just waking up.

Donald Kroodsma (The Singing Life of Birds, 2005) describes his study in a Massachusetts cemetery of the early morning song duels in which Chipping Sparrows engage. The study required that he be on the battle ground by 4:00 am. The sparring begins around 4:30. Here is a part of Kroodsma’s description:

“Bird D now sings from the cul-de-sac, also sputtering brief songs from the ground, but then I hear him just to my right, the bird in the cul-de-sac now silent. He’s moved. A is to my left, B in front of me, and D to my right, all three singing phantoms within five yards of me, all unseen, all on the ground or a gravestone, each sputtering his distinctive song. B delivers, but he’s cut off by D, whose song in turn is overlapped by A. Sometimes they alternate, sometimes overlap, but I cannot keep track of who plays what role in this game.”

Eventually the birds move from the ground to the trees. Paired males are mostly silent during the day. Bachelors keep singing. Kroodsma again: “If territories are widely disperse, it seems that the males still convene at a traditional location, sparring there even if some of the males don’t own territories that border that place. The older, dominant males begin the dawn singing on any given morning, and an older bird more often overlaps the songs of a submissive or younger neighbor, rather than the other way around. To interrupt a singer, to cut him off, is a strong, aggressive message.”

The Chipping Sparrow is one of those birds that many would describe as “sweet,” or even “cute.” It is a handsome little bird, especially in the Spring when it returns in crisp, fresh plumage: a clean, gray breast, rusty red cap, white stripe above the eye, black stripe behind the eye. It does not bully other birds. If anything, it is bullied by other birds. It is not noisy. It goes about its own business, and minds its own business.

The males on the snowy platform feeder were only momentarily quiet. The bafflement I saw in their postures was almost certainly my projection of my mental state unto them. During this time of the year, the Chipping Sparrow’s mental state is focused on one thing. Sex.

If the weather stays warm and I can finally get outdoors, the Chipping Sparrows’ mental state will mean one thing to me. Good birding!

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Sun and Love

There has been little sunshine, but in the bushes nearby, pieces of the sun are flashing and singing ...

Yellow Warbler
Nearby a young man serenaded a young lady in the next bush, though it must be said that our kind would not be much impressed with the weak peeps that he offered as song, but what do we know? ...

Tree Swallow
He tried his best to get her attention ...

Tree Swallow
Good birding!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Snow Out

Snow Out!

I photographed this last patch of snow behind the barn this afternoon at 3:45. At 5:00pm, it was gone. This is the latest date for snow out since I have lived here. Winter is over!

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Life of the Blue Jay

During the last week, I’ve had a couple of people tell me that they do not like Blue Jays. I responded that the reason so many people don’t like Blue Jays is because they are smarter than we are.

That Blue Jays are smarter than humans may not be strictly true - although I am not always very impressed by the intelligence exhibited among my species. What is true is that Blue Jays, as members of the Corvidae family, have one of the highest degrees of intelligence among the birds. The Corvids, which include crows, ravens, jays, and magpies, have astonishing memories and exhibit the ability to solve problems. Naturalists have recognized for years that members of this family have languages of their own. When we listen to Blue Jays, we hear a wide variety of calls, clucks, gurgles and bubbles. The variety and complexity of these sounds - noises we sometimes call them - is more correctly described as their “language” by which they communicate issues of concern among the Blue Jay population.

The Blue Jay has a reputation as a noisy bird, a characteristic shared with its closest relative, the Steller’s Jay of the western mountains. Both belong to the Genus, Cyanocitta, which comes from the Greek meaning “chattering blue bird.” The Blue Jay is Cyanocitta cristata; the species name means “crested” in Latin, hence, “crested chattering blue bird.”

The “jay” of the Blue Jay’s name probably derives ultimately from the attempt to imitate the sound that the “jay” birds make. As with many word derivations, there are alternatives. One alternative is that “jay” derives from the French, geai, so named for the gay (bright) plumage. Another suggests that it is a nickname, or short form, of Gaius - a common first name among the Romans, as in Gaius Julius Caesar.

In addition to its reputation for being noisy (a well-deserved reputation), the Blue Jay has been labeled a nest robber, a bird which consumes the eggs and nestlings of smaller song birds. John James Audubon established this reputation with his painting, showing three Blue Jays consuming eggs, and with his anecdotal observations and reports of the Blue Jay’s predations. This reputation has been sustained by many writers ever since.

But the evidence does not sustain the reputation. Arthur Bent in his life history of the Blue Jay, sites a study of the diet of the Blue Jay done in 1897. A researcher collected 292 stomachs in every month of the year from 22 states. He found that the Blue Jay’s diet “is composed of 24.3 percent animal matter and 75.7 percent vegetable matter .... The animal food is chiefly made up of insects, with a few spiders, myriapods, snails, and small vertebrates, such as fish, salamanders, tree frogs, mice and birds. Everything was carefully examined which might by any possibility indicate that birds or eggs had been eaten, but remains of birds were found in only 2, and the shells of small birds’ eggs in 3 of the 292 stomachs.”

The researcher concluded: “The most striking point in the study of the food of the blue jay is the discrepancy between the testimony of field observers concerning the bird’s nest robbing proclivities and the results of stomach examinations. The accusations of eating eggs and young birds are certainly not sustained ....”

Blue Jays begin their breeding sometime in mid-May when the adult pair begin building their nest, a cup made of twigs, bark, rootlets, grass and perhaps paper, rags, and feathers. It looks something like a robin’s nest, and there is at least one report of Blue Jays expropriating a robin’s nest, to the chagrin of the robins. The two and a half week incubation is done almost entirely by the female; the male feeds her, and on occasion may spell her on the eggs. When the naked and helpless hatch, feeding is done by both parents. Eyes open after five days; feathers begin to form after a week.

By the time they are three weeks old, the young leave the nest, and the period of Blue Jay quiet is at an end. Young noisily call for their parents and then chase their parents. This continues for about three weeks. When the young have learned to feed themselves, Forbush writes, “the family roams through the woods, reveling in the plenty that nature has provided for them; they are joined by others and it is a noisy rollicking crew.”

Blue Jays can be relatively long lived. Banding records have yielded ages up to 15 years, and there are many records of banded Blue Jays living 6-9 years.

Blue Jays migrate. I have been on Putney Mountain in the Fall and have watched as hundreds of Blue Jays flew across the opening on the crest of the ridge during early morning hours. But there is very little known about their migration. Banding records indicate the movement of Blue Jays from  (for example) Massachusetts to North Carolina and New York to Virginia. But Blue Jays are also found year-round throughout their breeding range. Are the birds which we see in the winter birds which bred in our area, or are they birds which have migrated from some other breeding area, presumably further to the north? We don’t know.

A few years ago a friend in Marlboro tried banding winter birds with color bands so that he could identify them by sight during Spring and Summer. He saw some of the winter birds as breeding season began. Unfortunately, he was not able to continue the study, and few Blue Jays were among his banded birds. So the answer is still unknown, although the means of doing the study is there for a future researcher.

Blue Jays, like their Corvid cousins, cache food for later use. They have wonderful memories, but not perfect memories. (Alas, who does?) They often store one of their favorite foods, acorns, in soft soil. Unretrieved, the acorns sprout. Nancy Henry of the Highlands Nature Sanctuary in Ohio discovered that this caching of acorns by Blue Jays made them welcome partners in her reforestation efforts: “When it comes to industry and ingenuity in our own backyard, there is no better forester among the animals than our boisterous friend of the deciduous forest, the bluer-than-blue blue jay of Eastern North America.”

I have attempted this week to keep most “human elements” out of this column - those things which lead to such descriptions as rogue, thief, lawless, haughty, and boisterous, and which make the Blue Jay such a welcome and entertaining habitue of my feeders. Just the facts, you might say.

But I can’t resist finishing with a quote from another Blue Jay fan: “There’s more to a jay than any other creature. You may call a jay a bird. Well, so he is, in a measure, ’cause he’s got feathers on him and he don’t belong to no church perhaps, but otherwise he’s just as much a human as you and me.” So wrote Mark Twain. Good birding!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Winter Tenacity - Spring Promise

In my Vermont neighborhood, winter is releasing its grip with great reluctance. On the north side of the barn, snow from the roof piles high, and melt slowly. The date for the last tiny patch to disappear is April 20. But this April 20, that final “snow out” is still several days away.

The tenacity with which winter holds on also provides the reason spring is such a special season.

Spring teems with the irrepressible urge to life. As the snow piles retreat, the pathways created by small creatures beneath the piles emerge from hiding. The landscape has never been barren and lifeless, except as seen on the surface and by my own narrow view. Hidden beneath the snow, life continued.

With the slightest warming, dormant bulbs burst with life. Snow drops bloom before the snow has disappeared. Urgently they push the all debris and litter out of the way.

The crocus do the same bringing color welcome color and the promise of more to come.

Spring is a promise of life. Birds return, or pass through on their way from more moderate climes to the south to the protein rich climes of northern woods.

American Tree Sparrow
Today is still gray and raw - but life awaits!

Good birding!

Saturday, April 16, 2011

In Defense of Blue Jays

Early this week, a neighbor complained to me about Blue Jays at her feeders. “They’re bullies. They’re noisy. They chase all smaller birds away. I don’t like them.” I hear this about Blue Jays often. Some birds are universally loved (chickadees); some are hated (cowbirds). And some birds are loved and hated. Many people do not like the Blue Jays.

Me? I love the rogues. This morning I was sitting at the kitchen table with my first cup of coffee, absorbing my caffeinated stimulant in preparation to starting the day. I had just put out the feeders (I take them in at night to remove temptation from the nocturnal mammals). It took only moments for the jays to arrive. Six flew in, followed by another three, then four more. They were on the platform feeder, the bulk feeder, the sunflower feeder, and the ground. Seed was being scattered everywhere. It was noisy. It was chaotic ... and pure fun. They went back and forth between the feeders and the protective apple tree branches. Then suddenly, moved, or spooked, they all flew toward the pines beyond the river.

I can think of no other bird which is anthropomorphized the way the Blue Jay is. When human attributes are given to the Blue Jay, the list is always long. Bent’s life history has a brief opening paragraph which includes these adjectives: strong, healthy-looking, noisy, boisterous, independent, lawless, haughty, impudent, disregard for neighbors’ rights and wishes. John James Audubon begins his opening paragraph by calling them rogues, thieves, knaves, resplendently attired and harboring mischief - “that selfishness, duplicity, and malice should form the moral accompaniments of so much physical perfection!”

The Blue Jay is an “engaging rascal” (Forbush). But, are any of these descriptions or reputations really appropriate? Audubon’s painting of the Blue Jay has three individuals, “each enjoying the fruits of knavery, sucking the egg which he has pilfered from the nest of some innocent Dove or harmless Patridge!”

Audubon’s painting and description settled the Blue Jay’s reputation as a predator of the weak and helpless. And it is true that the Blue Jay does occasionally take eggs and nestlings. So do crows, ravens, several hawks, raccoons, and snakes. Researchers have found a direct correlation between the size of the red squirrel population and the nesting success of songbirds. The natural world is a complex network of prey and predator, and the lines are never clearly drawn.

Through most of the year, the Blue Jay is more likely to be prey than predator. A Cooper’s Hawk is much more likely to fix its sight on a Blue Jay than on any of the smaller songbirds, for the simple reason that the hawk’s energy expense in taking a small bird (like a chickadee) versus a Blue Jay is the same, but the food earned is much greater with the jay.

The Blue Jay is noisy. On that I offer no debate. I hear them long before first light in the morning. I also hear the robin, the finches, the grackle, the phoebe, and a dozen others before dawn. The wing whirr of the Mourning Dove can be heard throughout the year. Chickadees are always talking to one another. Likewise the titmice. I’m not sure that the jays are any more loquacious than other species. Admittedly, they are louder, or seem so.

When the jays get especially loud and raucous, it is time to pay attention. They are often the first to spot danger in the form of a Sharp-shinned or Cooper’s Hawk which has come to perch, and sooner or later, to hunt. Their screaming alerts other birds to the danger and musters reenforcements. The jays turn all their energy to mobbing the hawk. I am not often successful in finding the object of their displeasure while perched, but eventually I glimpse the hawk when it is finally harassed into flight. Other smaller birds may join in the mobbing. It may even be that one of them, a chickadee perhaps, has first set up the alarm, but the jays gather quickly and take the angry lead.

There is a time when the Blue Jay is silent. I expect to hear, and eventually to see, Blue Jays whenever I am out-of-doors. One year during the early June I was walking on Oregon Mountain in Newfane and realized that something was missing. I did not hear Blue Jays. They were absent - or at least silent. Then a week later (it was June 12), I saw jays as they silently foraged in a beaver pond and then disappeared into the encircling spruce. As I worked my way through the trees to the pond edge, I chanced to look up. On a branch, two fledgling Blue Jays huddled together. They had just left their nest. Parents were no where to be seen. I “phished,” hoping to call in the adults. Any other time of the year, they would have appeared quickly and very noisily. But this time they came quietly and with uncharacteristic stealth. They did nothing to call attention to themselves ... or their young. When there are eggs or young in the nest, Blue Jays are silent. During this time, they are as vulnerable to the dangers of predators as are all other birds.

When a Blue Jay comes to a feeder, smaller birds take flight. This earns him the reputation of bully. But watch carefully and you will see that nearly every bird, regardless of size, will chase other birds off the feeder if it can. Blackbirds chase Blue Jays. Gentle doves mix it up with the Blue Jays. A chickadee will chase off a titmouse or another chickadee. Last evening I watched a male Evening Grosbeak dominate one of the feeders, chasing off every other bird which tried to land, including several jays. But only the Blue Jay is called a bully. That is not fair.

When I watch the Blue Jay on my feeder, I see him providing a service to dozens of other birds. He scatters feed from the feeder, pauses to eat one, scatters more seed, eats one. On the ground below, the ground feeders can’t keep up with the food deliveries. Only the squirrels and chipmunks, stuffing their cheek pouches with seed, keep the seed from accumulating in piles. I have heard this behavior by the jay described as greedy. Symbiotic is more accurate. The jay provides a service to dozens of other birds which prefer to stay on the ground.

The Blue Jay has adapted well to human presence, often nesting in our gardens and close to our buildings. It is very common and very familiar. Even the person with no interest in the natural world knows the Blue Jay. This very familiarity may cause us to forget how handsome a bird this is. I had visitors from England sitting at my kitchen table and watching the “bird table.” They were speechless when the Blue Jay flew in.

They had never seen such a strikingly beautiful bird - blue, black and white, pale gray underneath, a blue-black necklace, a trailing white trim on the wings and tail, and a crest which raises when alert or agitated. Even if we try not to apply human adjectives, it is difficult not to use “handsome” and “rakish” when speaking of the Blue Jay.

For those who just cannot overcome their dislike of the noisy and “bully” practices of the Blue Jay, I gently offer this observation from Audubon in The Birds of America. After listing what he considered the many moral shortcomings of the Blue Jay (quoted above), he concluded: “Yet so it is, and how like beings of a much higher order, are these gay deceivers! Aye, I could write you a whole chapter on this subject, were not my task of a different nature.”

Good birding!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011


Dreary skies have turned the few hints of spring color into monochromatic tones. Wisdom comes slowly, but it finally crept into the consciousness with the message: "Embrace."

Along the West River trail yesterday, I embraced what was given - images taken in monochrome. A few of those tentative trials ...

"Ice Out"
"Erector Set"
A pond along Middle Road hosted a pair of Hooded Mergansers and invited a "little sit" as they preened and fed. So I sat and took in the color they offered ....

Even on gray, rainy, spring days, there are blue skies to be seen, if we but look.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Vacationing Birds

Just like humans, when birds go on vacation they often behave very differently from when they are engaged in domestic duties. Two weeks ago I wrote about the Wood Thrush on its wintering grounds in Belize where its behavior is positively robin like. The thrush’s behavior is a sharp contrast to its behavior on its breeding grounds in Vermont where it is shy, secretive, and elusive.

Here are a few more examples of bird behavior on wintering grounds that is different from behavior on breeding grounds.

Northern Waterthrush (Belize)
When I was surveying for the Vermont Breeding Bird Atlas, I found a Northern Waterthrush in a beaver pond in Stratton. It was singing, and I listed it as a probable breeding bird. I have returned to the beaver pond during June every year since. I have circled through the forest to the back end of the pond where the water is shallow and still, the favored habitat for the Northern Waterthrush. By contrast, it cousin, the Louisiana Waterthrush, likes fast moving mountain streams. Both waterthrushes are are warblers which look like thrushes (Wood, or Hermit) - brown birds with spotted white breasts. They bob their tails, like a Spotted Sandpiper, as they walk along the ground.

One June, I saw the Northern Waterthrush in the beaver pond for an extended time. At the the shallow end of the pond, I sat on a log and fed the mosquitos. While the male sang somewhere in the swampy pond, the female bobbed along the muddy edges a couple dozen feet from me, feeding. Then I suppose she gathered nesting material, because she flew off with something in her beak.

Every quest I have made for this warbler during June has required patience and luck. In our  swampy forest neighborhoods, the Northern Waterthrush is shy, secretive, and elusive, like the Wood Thrush. It carefully balances the need to advertise its presence in order to attract a mate and warn off rivals against the need to protect its nest, eggs, and young from dangers.

Along the shallow edges of a small pond in Belize, I watched a pair of Northern Waterthrushes as they foraged through leaf debris. It was the dry season, and many trees dropped their leaves. Large brown leaves covered the forest floor and the muddy pond edge. The waterthrushes walked along, tails bobbing. Systematically they flipped over the large leaves looking for food. Walk, bob, flip, feed ... walk, bob, flip, feed. They were cautious about any movement in their direction on my part. After all, I was a huge intrusive presence. But they were not the shy and elusive birds I knew in Vermont.

Hooded Warbler (male - Belize)

For many years I lived in Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania. The sides of the mountain ridges were covered with rhododendron, prime nesting habitat for the Hooded Warbler. On many occasions, I sat along the trail for long periods trying to get a good look at the male. He is a bright yellow bird with a bold and striking black hood. A good look is worth the wait. He often chose a mid-level branch as his singing perch. Picking that tiny spot of yellow out of filtered sunlight in a forest always included a dollop of luck. If a second male sang nearby, fast flights in defense of territory might provide a glimpse.

The first day we were in Belize, I caught my breath and said, “Oh my, a Hooded Warbler.” Then it happened again ... and again ... and again. The Hooded Warbler’s frequent appearance never became humdrum, but it was not the breath-catching experience that I had been accustomed to.

Botanical gardens adjoined our jungle lodge in Belize. One morning in an open orchard section, I watched a male Hooded Warbler feeding. He went from tree to tree, working the branches and gleaning the leaves. While he never allowed me to get too close, he did not hide in thick foliage where he was a mere flitting and fleeting presence. Back and forth he went, pausing from time to time to pose and allow me to marvel at the black cowl framing his yellow face.

The Hooded Warblers I saw were all males. The females, which lack the prominent black hood, were absent. That typified the experience with the “northern” birds which I saw on their wintering grounds.

Black-throated Green Warbler (female - Belize)
Magnolia Warbler (female - Belize)

Where we were staying in Belize, I saw lots of Black-throated Green Warblers - all female. In a much different location, I saw males. The Black-and-White Warblers were male. The Magnolia Warblers were female.

Parenthetically, last year I struggled to get reasonable pictures of the Magnolia Warbler. They were high in tree branches, moved rapidly, and rarely presented a good photo opportunity. I had several good opportunities to photograph the female Magnolia Warbler in Belize and the male in Tikal, Guatemala.

Continuing. I saw lots of American Redstarts with the black and orange plumage of the male and the gray and yellow plumage of the female. But, one year old male redstarts look like the female; they do not acquire the adult male’s black and orange plumage until they are two years old. I suspect that the American Redstarts were all male.

You see the pattern. In addition to very different behavior from what we see when these birds are in our neighborhoods during their breeding season, the sexes also vacation separately. With many species, males and females occupy different habitats during the winter.

Another striking behavioral difference in these wintering birds was the lack of song. They did not sing. Bird song is such a key component to knowing what birds are present, but singing is an activity largely confined to the breeding season. Local guides relied on voice for identification, but that voice was not song, it was call - the chip notes that birds use to communicate with one another.

On the wintering grounds, there is no singing, no displaying, and no rivalry among the males. There is no need for such behavior until the birds begin their journey northward when they are driven by hormonal changes and the urgency of species propagation.

Gray Catbird (Belize)

The Gray Catbird presented something of an exception. I heard some catbird mimicry, though not nearly as much as I hear during the summer in my yard. Otherwise, the catbird on vacation behaved like the catbird I see in Vermont. It came to the feeder on the veranda for fruit. It picked berries from the ground and off branches. It hoped about with friendly curiosity, cocking its head when listening to my silly sounds or when some other movement caught its attention.

In summary, it was fun seeing old friends on vacation.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Pied-billed Grebe

Green Cay in West Palm Beach, Florida, is a treasure trove of photo opportunities. From late February, here are a few photos of the Pied-billed Grebe, a bird that is a fairly common breeding species in northern waters, but one that does not often give jaw dropping looks.

Perhaps you have probably seen movies of the courtship water dance of the Western Grebe. The Pied-billed Grebe has a similar dance along the water. It seems less dramatic, but that is probably a factor of size. This breeding adult was 1) trying to impressive and get the attention of a female, not yet into breeding attire, or 2) trying to intimidate a rival male, not yet into breeding attire, that this part of the marsh was his. Whatever, he did it with great energy ...

Whatever exactly was involved, when it was all over ... well, it was a ruffling experience ...

Good birding!

Wednesday, April 06, 2011


Evidence of the early migrant fallout being reported in the Northeast was evident in the backyard the last couple of days, with large numbers of juncos, Song Sparrows, and robins busy feeding on seeds and old fruit. Evening Grosbeaks have returned as regulars at the feeders as well, and hopefully will be nesting in the area again this year.

The turkey flock continues to scratch up the seeds scattered from the feeders through the winter. 15-20 hens visited this morning. By watching them through an upstairs window, I succeeded in not scaring them off.

The toms were close by, though they were more intent on feeding than strutting. I guess this gentleman figured his stunning good looks did not need any further efforts, at least for the moment.

When I returned to the kitchen, the hens were immediately aware of my presence, and moved down toward the river. The toms were close behind ...

I'm still trying to get a photograph of a displaying tom that will leave me breathless, though I doubt any of the toms care one wit what I might think. For the time being, the hens don't seem to care a great deal.

 Though not the photo I am in search of, I must say this guy is quite impressive ...

Saturday, April 02, 2011


Evelyn Nesbit
 Forty years ago I lived in Kittanning, Pennsylvania, an old river town on the Allegheny River about forty miles north of Pittsburgh. On Water Street facing the river, stood a gracious old home, built by one of the town’s founding families. A daughter of the family married a wealthy Pittsburgh industrialist. Her son, Harry Thaw, married the beautiful, though scandalous Evelyn Nesbit. Evelyn was a chorus girl and sought-after artist’s model whose image became the Gibson Girl of the 1890s. She became involved in an affair with the prominent architect, Stanford White. In 1906, Harry Thaw, in a passionate fit of jealously, murdered Stanford White.

The murder trial which followed was billed the “trial of the century.” In fact, there were two trials. The first ended with a hung jury. The second acquitted Harry Thaw for reasons of insanity. “Mother” Thaw worked tirelessly to insure that her son never went to jail. Old Kittanning residents loved to point out her family home and repeat the sordid and scandalous details. The affair was taken up by Hollywood in the mid-1950s as “The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing,”

Triangles and jealousies. Rivalries for affections. Challenges and violence. It is all so very human. For hundreds of years, theologians have been constructing the uniqueness of human beings in creation - the sublime heights and the abysmal depths. One can hear them through the centuries clucking with shock at the moment’s current jealousy-induced murder. We are unique, but fallen and depraved, a tragic mark of our humanity. One senses, though, that the theologians love to watch in shocked horror, along with all the rest of us.

But if the theologians want to find something unique about the human animal, they will need to find something other than a girl in a red velvet swing and two raging males.

Boat-tailed Grackles

I am writing on a sunny Monday morning. Outside I hear the blackbirds singing. The red-wings and the grackles are tuning up. Soon they will establish their turf. They will attract a harem and aggressively chase off any rivals trying to intrude. It will be great fun to watch.

A month ago, I was in Florida wetlands. The blackbirds in the marshes and ponds were beyond the tuning up stage. The Boat-tailed Grackles, in particular, were singing and displaying. Two, or three, or four males would perch in a bare snag and flare their long tails, spread and flutter their wings, and boast their grackle-ness with “jeeb, jeeb, jeeb.” Sometimes showing off was not enough. A threat was needed. So one male would threaten another by posturing with his bill pointed strait up.

For all of the displaying and posturing that goes on among the grackles, both the males and females are promiscuous. They mate whenever there is time (a few seconds) and with whomever is available. The assignations are lightning quick which allows for frequent and successful cheating on their presumed mate. Nevertheless, every male tries to obtain some exclusivity and some mating advantage. When the hormones kick in and the breeding season is underway, relations become very intense. Emotions not only run high; sometimes they reach a breaking point.

Boat-tailed Grackle clash

At Wakodahatchee Wetlands I watched the tension among the Boat-tailed Grackles reach the breaking point. In shallow water between small hillocks, two males locked beaks and fought. They fought vigorously, violently, and unrelentingly. One on top, and then the other. Had the tension between two males become too much and reached a breaking point? Had one thrown a verbal slur that set the other off? Had both vied for the same female, with fisticuffs as the final arbiter? Whatever it was, neither backed off and no quarter was given.

A third male watches the rivals fight

Like a barroom or street brawl, curious onlookers gathered. On the tiny hillock to the left, a third male grackle watched the fight. On a hillock to the right, a fourth male watched. Another male came to a shrub, displayed briefly, then apparently thought better. A female came to another bush and watched intently, then flew.

The fight between the grackles continued, and one was gaining the advantage of the other. The loser was trying to get away, but was being forced underwater. He thrashed up and struggled to get free. He moved to the hillock, but he had lost all advantage. He tried to put a small tree between himself and his assailant. Instead he became trapped among the trunks. The fight was not ending with the victory of one and the defeat of the other. The victor was intent on complete victory. Now on top of his victim, he violently drilled his long, pointed peak into the other bird.

Most of this final violence was hidden behind a tree trunk. The silent watchers on the nearby boardwalk could only see the up and down movements from the pounding of the victor, and the twitching of the long tail feathers from the victim, twitching which became slower and slower, and then ceased.

Common Moorhens curious about the outcome

While this was going on, the grackle spectators had moved to higher branches, but still followed events. No one dared intervene. Bystanders sought a good viewing vantage. Several Common Moorhens swam close. With obvious curiosity they strained their necks as they watched the fight. One climbed on the roots of the tree and peered through the trunks to see what was happening. Rubbing-necking was common. A Mottled Duck approached, as did a pair of Blue-winged Teals.

Murder. It may have started with tension between rivals that reached a breaking point, but it ended in murder. Murder with an audience clucking nearby - not unlike those long-time Kittanning residents who clucked at the Thaw-Nesbit-White triangle and murder a hundred years ago and still enjoyed telling the story with delightful shock seventy years later.

But I shouldn’t pick on the folks in Kittanning who told me about their connection to a high profile scandal and murder. When the crisis news network is not following the latest war with its mega-murdering, they will crowd the courtroom trial for the latest triangular murder.

I witnessed murder in a Florida swamp. Careful observers have witnessed murder among many species. The excessive degrees of murder and the efficiency of the murder practiced by my species has been proscribed by divine commandment. But we ignore that commandment as assuredly as the grackle ignored his clucking audience.

Evelyn Nesbit, Standford White, Harry Thaw
Some of the human audience in that Florida swamp were upset at what they saw. They like their nature sanitized, with no ugliest, just cuteness. Maybe they also recoiled at the thought that we, too, are nature. We have not risen all that far.

Evelyn Nesbit was not modestly clothed when Stanford White pushed her in the red velvet swing. Harry Thaw took exception. Like the Boat-tailed Grackle, he was enraged.  Both situations ended in murder.


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