Bird is the Word

by Wayne Heinze


“Birds are holes in heaven through which a man may pass,” Jim Harrison, In Search of Small Gods

shorebirds on an urban beachI have long contended, and frequently alluded to on paper, that our favorite outdoor pursuit often spawns interest in other opportunities afield. Being an angler, I began to go outside in pursuit of fish. But, it did not take very long to realize that my fishing opened up a whole world of outdoor possibilities. In fact, it continues to do so. The more time I spent in pursuit of fish, the more I became aware of and fascinated by the environments and ecosystems they were found in and around. Curiosity about and fascination with the woods, swamps, fields, beaches and waters grew. Grew to include things like the vegetation, the animal life, the insects, the rocks, and even seasonal meteorological effects. The angler gradually became a naturalist, as I think many do who spend time in the great out of doors. And more and more, I became cognizant of the bird life that seemed omnipresent. Creatures that I could hear, if not always see. Not too surprising, since we currently share our planet with about 10,000 species of bird.

Helen MacDonald speaks to that, and many other things, in her remarkable book H is For Hawk. About setting off to find a goshawk she writes “Looking for goshawks is like looking for grace; it comes, but not often, and you don’t get to say when or how”. So in some narrative, the “accidental bird watcher” has as good a shot of seeing a particular species as an ardent birder. So although birds can certainly be sought out, viewed, admired, recorded and even photographed while you are actively birding, it is not the only way. Quite often a random approach can suit our purpose. Birds are one of the most ubiquitous creatures, and I can recall few days in my life that I did not see or hear a bird. Perhaps I could not always identify the bird by sight or song, but I knew that what I was perceiving had feathers and wings. And unlike many of our outdoor pursuits, one does not necessarily have to venture very far to engage with birds, as they seem to exist everywhere, as they have since the Cretaceous Period.

If you can look out your window in most places you can see birds. Step out your door, into a courtyard or into your yard, and you’ll see birds at some point. And not just for country folk either, there are birds in big cities, towns, military bases, deserts and beaches. They feed on salmon in wilderness rivers, and on french fries in your local fast food parking lot. I see them in Lodgepole pines in Yellowstone or Pygmy pines in South Jersey. There are birds in the Sequoias in Muir Woods, and the bayberry bushes on Assateague Island. Birds of prey nest in skyscrapers, and the sparrows of London are now more often found in our cities. They have moved to New York like John Lennon or Mick Jagger. And although they are not rock stars, they are prolific and vocal. Their tunes are heard by more Americans in a day than hear the Beatles or Stones in a year. A bird has perched on your power line, clothes line, telephone line, cable line or windowsill today. Did you see it? Did you hear it? What was it? What was it doing, and why?

If taken as a whole, birds are as amazing a species as one could imagine, although if they did not exist, I’m doubtful we actually could imagine such creatures. Most fly, are capable of land travel, and some swim, in or under the water. Some are suspected to have developed cultures, and some use tools. Many can sing and some even talk via mimicry. The birds are related to dinosaurs similar to a Velociraptor, how cool is that? A few years ago, I visited the Museum of the Rockies at Montana State University in Bozeman, MT. In the Siebel Dinosaur Complex, designed by their world renowned paleontologist Dr. Jack Horner, there is a reconstruction of a velociraptor type dino, and it has feathers. Driving back to Billings that afternoon, I watched the ravens circling overhead from a new perspective.

We have deified birds, hunted some to extinction, keep some as pets, and raise some species for food. They have become symbols of nations, holidays, and athletic teams. When ancient mariners were searching the vast seas for land or returning to port from a sea journey, the first hint of terra firma that they got was usually birds. They would be sighted long before a “shore smell” reached their nostrils, or the cry of “Land ho!” reached their ears. And so it remains today, although radar, sonar, and GPS now confirm what the birds at sea have always been telling us. To my original point, comparatively few people go outdoors solely to seek out birds, but all encounter them at some point.

I record detailed journal entries of my fishing trips. For many years these journals also recorded wildlife observations, including birds. Then a few years ago, I began to keep a separate daily journal of the wildlife portion. It made sense to me, because although I am not able to fish everyday, few are the days that I don’t observe some wildlife, especially birds. And while making plans to participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count recently, I stumbled upon a neat tool. It is called eBird, a data sharing website put together by the Audubon Society and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in 2002. Using latitude and longitude coordinates, you can record your observations of birds, which are then added to a scientific database. The site is free, customizable to a great extent, and provides a wealth of avian information. And you can even record incidental sightings, which as we’ve read, happen all the time. A feature I found fascinating was the tool which allows you to create your viewing site. When you enter the coordinates, the pop up map shows other reporting areas nearby. Some are deemed birding “hotspots”. I found a couple of locations within a mile of my house, the crow flies, as it’s said. Maybe the date I spot the first redwing blackbird among the rushes at my favorite lake this spring isn’t a “Eureka” moment but it is interesting to me. And perhaps of use to some greater scientific good.

I was sitting on my side porch the other evening, watching a pair of young squirrels cavorting, and a trickle of sparrows, juncos, finches and towhees stopping to partake at my bird feeder. And I was not the only one watching the show that evening. I soon noticed a large crow perched just above and to the side of the feeder, which hangs from a looped bungee cord from the larger of the cedars in my yard. It is a tube feeder, with several openings, each with a small perch for a bird to grasp while pecking at the seed mix within. The crow was silent, intently watching the smaller birds at the feeder, oddly ignoring the squirrels, who always elicit a caw or two from “my” crow. But the crow was sussing out the possibilities, cocking its head like a puppy trying to make sense of a situation.

After a period, the crow rose with a loud flutter, scattering the two birds that were dining at that moment, as it hovered noisily in front of the feeder. The crow then flashed to the top of the feeder and suspended from the bungee cords supporting the feeder, and methodically pecked, bit and pulled, until the hinged top popped open. Using its beak to push the lid aside, the crow plunged its head into the tube and ate its fill of seeds. The crow ate them very quickly, messily, and from my perspective, amazingly. Only then did the crow disengage, and with a loud “caw – caw”,  shoot off to parts unknown, though due east.

The incident reminded me of something I saw on a frozen lake on a New Year’s Eve forty-five years ago. I was ice fishing on Greenwood Lake along the New York State line, and by early afternoon, the holiday spirit and/or the increasing rate of the snowfall cleared most of the lake of fellow anglers and the few ice boaters who were scattered about earlier. It had been a fairly productive day, and I had been kept busy checking my tip-ups, responding to flags, landing fish and refreshing bait. As I sat on a bucket drinking the last of my lentil soup from the thermos, I noticed a crow standing on the ice at one of my tip-ups, twenty yards from me, perhaps twenty feet from the tip up. It hopped in typical crow fashion, closer and closer to the tip up, finally dipping its head into the hole in the ice. It seemed to be an odd way for a crow to get a drink of water, and when the crow came up with my fishing line in its mouth, I was astonished, but a bit prematurely, as it turns out.

The crow began backing up with the Dacron running line in its beak, actually fluttering up a foot off the ice at one point. The tip up was a shallow set over a rock pile, with about eight feet of water and six feet of line. In short order, my baitfish, an emerald shiner, was wiggling on the ice. The crow hopped over to it, nudged it with its beak, and flew off. How long the crow had watched me or others pulling fish through the ice is unknown. What is known, is that the crow figured out how to do it too. As I sat there, I asked myself the questions I alluded to earlier in this essay: Did you see it? Did you hear it? What was it? What was it doing, and why? I don’t have all the answers yet about crows or any other birds, and probably never will. But I will continue to observe birds and wonder, even if that is not why I’m out there in the first place. Maybe especially so.

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