Tag Archives: birds

Days of Birds

When I first moved to New York City, fresh from the open air and mountain views of Colorado, the best part of my week was grocery shopping. First thing Saturday morning, exhausted from a week of crying during and after work, I would head to the Union Square Farmers’ Market or Trader Joe’s and relish the feeling of coming home with a full hiking backpack of groceries. Then, it was back to work.

If only I’d had a bird feeder near a park during that time, I would have had a more consistent source of joy, at least on the weekends.

I could have tapped away diligently at my computer and been able to look up and see flashes of red house finches, goldfinches transitioning into their namesake color, bluejays screeching their superiority, the splashy mohawk of a red-bellied woodpecker, and upside-down nuthatches snagging a seed and heading to safer perches to feast.

It’s unlikely I would have seen the orange streak of a fox unsuccessfully hunting squirrels, though stranger things have happened in Manhattan.

The snowstorm has brought a plethora of hungry birds to my backyard feeder, and a lot more joy to my daily tasks than I would have thought. Washing dishes, filing papers, and folding laundry is much more interesting, not with YouTube in the background, but with squabbling and tumbling birds going about getting a meal.


Blue Jay, 2017

Can a Bird do that?

I think I’m being pranked.

Yet another thing that humans had reserved for themselves – intentional use of fire, seems to be falling by the wayside.

Black kites and brown falcons in Australia have been documented dropping burning twigs in areas outside of the fire’s reach in order to flush out tasty bits of protein-lizards, insects, mice.

Competition is fierce at the fires, as the prey animals basically escape the flames just to meet their end in the talons of raptors.

So an arsonist streak gives these birds the chance to have the animals fleeing immolation all to themselves.

Don’t believe me? Here’s a second source. In the meantime, hats off to inventive and bold birds.

Common Birds

Keeping common birds common is a mantra I’ve been hearing lately, as conservation often waits until something is closer to the abyss of extinction to act.  A lot of common birds have been declining–tree swallows and Northern flickers among others.


Red-bellied woodpecker, blurry.

So I’ve been thrilled to see a red-bellied woodpecker hanging out at the local bird feeder. They do have a red belly, but it is the bold red stripe down their head and the black and white back that makes them unmistakable. (I had a professor tell me once that birds were often named after they’d been shot for collection, so the names often don’t reflect what you can actually see about a bird going about its bird business. Case in point.) Ordinary Eastern America birds are worth looking for and they deserve our active support in a world often hostile to birds.

Looking forward to a winter watching noisy chickadees, acrobatic nuthatches, and any other common birds that show up around my neighborhood, and hoping that they will remain common for millennia to come.

Up Close & Animal

This weekend was a nature whirlwind, from the Jersey shore to Delaware’s National Park to  New York State parks.

Friday we drove down to Sandy Hook and took a great walk with the American Littoral Society to see the horseshoe crabs coming ashore for their mating season. The females are impressive and agile even with their bulk. The naturalist showed us the oodles of slippershells that attach to their bodies–a miniature ecosystem filled with reproductive dramas hitching a ride on a stoic horseshoe crab.

While the highlight for me was seeing a tree filled with ten or so cedar waxwings, there was also a personal reminder of how different viewing wildlife on our terms, from a safe and controlled experience, is from encountering them unbidden. Two raccoons were eager to share a delicious dinner with us. I heard crackling and saw shaking bushes while I was preparing to cook, as the raccoon believed she/he was invited to dinner. Feeling like a fool, but also being raised in a place where raccoons could be rabid and definitely attacked chickens and rabbits, I shouted and beat the bushes with a piece of firewood. I was only intimidating enough to make the raccoon go a whole six feet further into the trees. They continued to make forays, even with our food closely guarded during the cooking process. I was twitchy the whole time while eating and packing up food. As it turned out, the bear boxes were really meant to keep raccoons out of food; although, based on their behavior, I’m guessing they are successful in snatching sustenance more often than not. While we were packing up for the night, the bold critter hopped up on the picnic table to helpfully ensure that our clean plates and utensils really were clean. This time, he/she was scared off with a shout and the sweep of the flashlight.

The next morning was a rainy BioBlitz in the First State National Historical Park, my first. From sweeping the vegetation with nets–and being scolded for being too gentle with the invertebrates we collected!–I identified my first orchard orb weavers, nearly stepped on a leopard frog, and learned about wetlands identification. The real highlight was stumbling upon a nook in the river, with tree swallows winging around like fighter jets. They were so unconcerned with our appearance that they continued to streak by, so fast that you barely tell if the metallic color was purple blue green, the white breast just a blur. They fought over spots on the branches, but not over the insects rising off the stream.


A fuzzy iPhoto in Delaware, on a magical portion of the Brandywine. Tree swallows barely visible on the branches. Photo by author, 2016.

Lastly, the weekend ended with a game of inches. Pulling invasive species out of a state park, hoping to remove a barely-established invasive in order to be able to later on remove a thriving invasive. Raises the question of where to draw the line, what baseline we want to use for a native ecosystem, what the best use of resources is, which are all lovely questions to ponder but really what you end up thinking about is how badly your office worker back and quads are going to hurt the next day from actually engaging in honest physical labor. Later all you are thinking about is how to remove that diminutive tick from the underside of your knee, but in the meantime, you did something to ameliorate the human tendency to upend the order of things that allows biodiversity to thrive.

Review of Wild Ones by Jon Mooallem (Part Two)

This book asks uncomfortable, troubling questions. It made me wonder, when is it worth saving a species from the gaping maw of extinction? What is the actual goal? Is the goal just to have the species exist so that we don’t have to add another name to the long roll call of human-caused exile? Is the goal to prop them up long enough for us to figure out a way to make the populations self-sustaining again? Is the goal to restore them to a level where they can function as a key player in the ecosystem? It also strikes me that this is a very anthropocentric view, where we decide what species is important and what is not, often based on completely random (to say nothing of incomplete) criteria. Taking a species by species view seems futile in a large sense. We attempt to fix one piece in isolation of an entire structure. But people rally behind an icon, not an ecosystem.

There are monumental, cumulative forces that drive extinction. It takes heroic, relentless, painstaking acts to prevent a species slipping over into the abyss. At one point, in the 1950s, there were only twenty-one whooping cranes on Earth (Mooallem, 200). “The situation looked hopeless. The New York Times blamed the species’ looming extinction on its own ‘lack of cooperation.’ ” (Ibid) At that point, humans seemed to have little nostalgia for rare species. I am always puzzled by the fact that we idolize rare species, while resenting species that thrive in the environments we have created. It is only when a situation is bleak that we seem to get interested. Canadian geese, deer, pigeons–I find it remarkable that they have become ubiquitous (at least where I live). As Mooallem says, “It’s a thin and erratic line we draw between the wilderness that awes us and the wilderness that annoys us” (258).

Operation Migration, among others, have done extraordinary work in trying to re-establish whooping crane populations. Mooallem details their dedication and the madness to their (relative, precarious, hard-earned) success. Humans teaching birds to fly without making them tame is a remarkable feat, to state the obvious. I support the effort, because I’m a bleeding heart who thinks every individual animal values its own life as much as I value mine, and because I hate that we are tossing aside biodiversity like a cartoon character frantically pawing through a pile of garbage to find one thing worth saving. And I know we lose something irreplaceable every time we lose a species.

I’ll end with this jewel from Mooallem. (Again, read this book.)

“In the end, I can’t say I’m optimistic about the future of wildlife. The stories of the polar bear, the [Lange’s metalmark] butterfly, and the whooping crane, had, at times, even lowered my confidence in our ability to see the problem clearly. There’s a fluidity to nature that’s not easy to recognize or accept, and climate change will only accelerate and distort such changes. There’s also a fluidity to how we feel about nature–the way our baselines subjectively reset and will keep resetting far into the future, while, in the background, the empirical damage piles up.

These are destabilizing thoughts. I still don’t know what to do with them. But neither does anyone else, it seems, and so their weight has a way of compressing conservation down into a nearsighted exercise–one that can be pursued only by focusing on the little picture of the present and by blocking out the yawning uncertainty that the moment is adrift in.” (292)

From this video:  “But we had to try.”

About the flock in Texas

Information about Sandhill Cranes & Whooping Cranes

Operation Migration

Elephant in The Room

The elephant in the room, the specter hovering over daily minutiae, is global warming. (At least for me.) I feel more comfortable talking about reproductive systems with hormonal seventh graders than I do honestly expressing my opinions about climate change. I have to hold back, since nobody wants to talk to a depressing Cassandra. I don’t even want to talk to myself when I get in those moods. And yet, I still feel that my grim outlook hews closely to reality.

I’ve been grappling with how to tackle these issues in my own life, and educate others, without coming from a place of fear and pessimism. Sometimes I think of the feeling that animals must have as their water source moves, flowers don’t open at the right time, or in the case of the puffins, the herring and white hake (Audubon Project Puffin 2015) aren’t readily available and many fledglings starve to death.

I think of the feeling I have when I’m not dressed for the frigid cold and rushing home, wanting with every cell of my being to reach a destination. Or the sheer desperation of the time my family went on a 3 mile walk in the mountains of Wyoming without any water, and how all I could think about was water and chapstick, not the clear beauty of the snow-capped mountains. I remember being consumed by a desire for liquid, any liquid. I drank and drank and drank when we finally made it back.

I can’t help but imagine that animals feel that same overwhelming, primitive urge, the urge that is crucial to survival. It breaks my heart to think of them never arriving at their destination, never finding the right kind of fish to feed their starving chicks, never slurping down water gratefully. Climate change means suffering for puffins, and innumerable other living organisms.

I will celebrate the living things we have, and mourn those that we have destroyed.

Puffins and Climate Change

More Puffins and Climate Change