Monday, May 20, 2013

Getting familiar with familiar birds

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, natural history, birds, paintings, drawings

A week ago we found the first blue, cast-off robin egg shell in the middle of the back yard. Robins carry empty shells away from the nest, to mislead predators, but I knew the nest was within 50-100 feet. A few days later, I saw the male (so I assume because his colors are so distinct) following me as I cut the lawn. He didn't follow closely, keeping a dozen yards back, but I could see that he was having good success picking out worms, which he carried to our apple tree—to be sure, about 100 feet from where we found the egg shell. I can think of two reasons for his behavior. Of course, the newly cut grass is shorter, and robins hunt for worms by sight. Earthworms frequently push out a little processed dirt, and sometimes their end sticks out of the ground briefly. But also, many worms come out of the ground when it is "thumped". This seems to be a mole-avoidance maneuver. It is the basis of "worm thumpers", sundry devices for thumping against the ground (some are wind driven), used by anglers to get bait. I reckon my power mower was doing plenty of thumping! The robin somehow learned to take advantage of it.

I wonder who else might have observed this behavior by a robin? A likely candidate is Julie Zickefoose. In her recent book, The Bluebird Effect: Uncommon Bonds with Common Birds, Ms Zickefoose writes of 25 bird species with which she has had an uncommon level of contact, although her chapter on the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker is based on others' stories. She is a licensed rehabilitator for songbirds, a job few take on because an infant bluebird or phoebe needs at least one feeding per hour, for ten days or more!

As Yogi Berra said, "You can observe a lot just by looking." Looking is what birdwatchers do best. Fortunately for us, Ms Z is not just a looker but a painter and sketcher. She draws and paints from life, or from very recent memory. She laments that she is no cartoonist, able to draw a made-up scene, even if its elements are remembered and not imagined. To me, that is no loss. An artist's eye and hand are better than a camera, making clear to the viewer details that she subtly enhances in a way no automatic device can capture.

This painting forms the book's frontispiece, and is on its cover. It has instantly become my favorite picture of a bluebird.

The essays in Bluebird Effect brought together for me a trend I had observed without taking particular note. Baby birds in open nests fledge quicker than those in cavities (or bird boxes). One of the fastest is the mourning dove; the babies are ready to fly in 10-12 days after hatching. A typical cavity nester, the tree swallow, takes about twice as long. The reason is simple, once it was pointed out to me. An open nest is harder to defend, so the young need to spend as short a time there as possible. During several years I checked bird boxes on a box trail set up by my company (I'd still be doing it, but I retired). Our most frequent "guests" were tree swallows. I recall it was typically about three weeks from hatching to an empty box. There are also barn swallows that nest atop a porch column at a place I frequent. The mud nest tucked under the roof is well protected, and those young stay on the nest about three weeks also.

Even in a bird box, species differ. House wren and chickadee babies leave the nest within about 2 weeks. I also remember chickadees as very aggressive. They are scrappy little critters! I think of them as avian Napoleons. However, the "bird lady" at a museum where I volunteer told me that a house wren will typically drive off a chickadee, though it is even smaller. Nature is not all sweetness and light.

Ms Zickefoose has a special love for phoebes, and named her daughter Phoebe. This young phoebe is just 9 days old. Its feather coat is full, but the wing pinions are only half grown. A few more days will take care of that. One of the author's specialties is drawing young birds daily as they develop. This is what she calls a "drawing". The book is filled with the author's art. It is also a tad oversize (8¼ x 8¼, or 21x21 cm), making it a mini-coffee-table book. The art is worthy of a full-size coffee-table book, but I know the market for those is tiny. This size is just right. I love it.

I remember being told not to handle baby birds; that my smell would make the parents abandon them. This is a convenient bit of fiction to keep kids from hurting baby birds. I have since learned that it is quite OK to return a fallen youngster to the nest. The parents are smart enough to continue caring for their baby. Not only so, they will probably attack you while you are doing your kindness for their chick. A bluejay peck hurts, even through a ball cap!

The author has come to feel that the turkey vulture is her totem, or a special sign to her. Seeing them makes her happy. This sketch shows feeding behavior. Many of the sketches and drawings in the book are right out of her field notes, complete with her comments.

She is one of the lucky ones to have seen an albino vulture. It was not totally white, having a few black pinions, including three primaries on the right. After she reported her sighting to others, the bird was seen by others at both ends of its migratory route. No need for a leg band on that bird!

I too like seeing these big buzzards, as they are also called. When I was a teen, we lived near Cleveland, Ohio, and would go to a place called Whipps Ledges near Hinckley to see them returning from South America. We would sing a parody of "Swallows come back to Capistrano" about the buzzards returning to Hinckley.

A turkey vulture is big enough to support plenty of brain, and these birds are curious and comical. My wife took the picture below last October, when a pair of vultures came into our yard, devoured a roadkill squirrel they'd carried in, then swept up to the neighbor's roof, where one looked in his window.

This picture, like the others my wife took that day, was shot through a window. No way was she going to go outside, with the birds nearly as tall as she was! Besides, they'd just have flown away.

Whether it is the gentleness of a dove, or the cussing ability of a titmouse, the essays in this book amuse, delight and inform. I learned that the call "peter-peter-peter" I have been hearing is a tufted titmouse in full territorial defense mode. They are small gray birds that I have a hard time distinguishing from a mockingbird (I usually don't carry binoculars; Ms Z has at least one pair in every room with a window, and wouldn't be caught outside without). I have a suggestion. This book has four parts, with essays pertinent to each season. She would to well to produce an entire book about each season, supplementing the lovely seasonal set by Edwin Way Teale.

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