Monthly Archives: March 2016

A Tribute to the Dodo

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Photo by author of dodo replica at AMNH, March 2016.

In the midst of an enthralling exhibit about the evolutionary pathways that led to birds at the American Museum of Natural History, there was a tribute to the much-maligned dodo.

The placard was simply titled, “Not dumb.” After the species name, they continued, “This model depicts a bird, the Dodo, whose name has entered the popular culture as a symbol of stupidity. But many birds are intelligent, as–it seems–were many non-bird dinosaurs. Dodos were ill-equipped to escape introduced predators, but that doesn’t equal stupidity…Humans hunted dodos to extinction within about 90 years after the first Dutch ship made landfall [in Mauritius].” (American Museum of Natural History, Dinosaurs among Us exhibit, March 2016)

Wise words from a museum that also houses a letter from Teddy Roosevelt lamenting the loss of the passenger and the Carolina parakeet–two species that are not accused of being dumb but who were shoved into the black hole of extinction nonetheless.

It was a remarkable exhibit, and I hope the reproaching gaze of the dodo is noted by most visitors. Blaming a species for its own demise is a twisted way to rationalize all of the destruction engendered by human hands.

Tiny Ducks with Big Names

I know animals should be valued for more than their charisma and appeal to humans. Yet, I can’t resist enthusing to everyone about how adorable buffleheads are. I love the iridescent heads of the males and the understated white stripe on the females.

Yesterday was a gift of a warm, upper 50’s day, improved vastly by the fact that the water was so clear and the buffleheads so close to the edge that I could track the male underwater after his bob-and-dive, his webbed feet and propelling him through the water.

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Photo by author in Central Park, March 2016, of a male bufflehead duck motoring towards his mate, who’s out of sight. 

Kudos to my patient friend for letting me watch this guy and his mate hunt underwater for a while, and retroactive gratitude to Olmsted (among many) for planning such a beautiful park with all sorts of buoyant visitors.

Swallow-Tailed Kites

I’m usually not one for photos of wildlife, preferring instead just watch the animal. But this was my third swallow-tailed kite in just a few days in Florida, and I felt sure that my family would not believe that this gorgeous dark blue and white bird soared fifteen feet over my head on a jog, before circling above the field of horse trailers. I felt that definitive proof was required.

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Mostly clouds, but also a swallow-tailed kite in central Florida, March 2016.

I alternated between furiously snapping with my iPhone and trying to zoom in on the kinetic acrobatic of a bird in the midst of a bird nerd adrenaline rush and just watching it slice down to the ground, swoop up, and generally fly like an expertly-handled artificial kite in between bouts of soaring.

I jogged back to share my victory, enthusing, “I saw a kite!” Everyone but my dad stared at me blankly, probably wondering if I had a really weird hobby that my parents kept secret. “It’s a really rare bird! Come look!” No response.

Back I went, to watch the graceful wheeling and marvel at the gorgeous plumage. But, in the intervening minutes, a horde of small songbirds (at least a few were swallows) were haranguing the kite into abandoning its current hunting ground.

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Swallow-tailed Kite being harassed by a smaller bird, central Florida, March 2016.

A week later, I paid my respects to a very different swallow-tailed kite, perched regally in the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Not as much of a fist-pumping encounter, as I am still abuzz with the excitement of seeing a kite in action. But for me, seeing this bird in the same museum that houses passenger pigeons and Labrador ducks motivates me to do more.

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Photo by author, March 2016, at American Museum of Natural History.

Ducks in the Hudson

This winter has been terrific for seeing all sorts of ducks in the Hudson Bay–today I saw a red-throated loon (what a misnomer for winter identification), two mergansers, a bobbing male bufflehead about 20 feet from shore, and a flock of Brant geese. I can never get enough of watching their miniature parabolas upward before disappearing beneath the water.

This picture is of a different duck, the Labrador Duck, extinct from the New Jersey area since the late 1800’s. Presumably it also spent the winters bobbing along the coastline in between dives for mollusks.

Hopefully the diving and dabbling ducks we have now won’t be artistically posed in a display for their curtain call.

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Three Labrador ducks, front one presumably in breeding plumage, at the American Museum of Natural History. Photo by author, 2016.