Category Archives: Birds

Vultures on a Fence Rail

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I looked southward from where the wind had brought the brief summer rain, and was astonished to see a row of about two dozen turkey vultures perched atop a fence rail, their featherless heads almost glowing red above their black-feathered bodies.  A sight strange enough to inspire a poem.

VULTURES ON A FENCE RAIL

Vultures on a fence rail,
Heads bent low,
Sitting still and bundled
Through a fierce summer squall.

Vultures on a fence rail,
Heads pointed high,
Wide wings spread and warming
To the rainbow and the sun.

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Chapter 46: Of Boys, Pigeons, and an Evil Rooster

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— You’re my big, bald buddy-boo.–
(John-3 to Dad)

As I readied to leave for my Rabbit Lane walk, I noticed a pungent odor from the little boy that hugged my leg.

“I’ll change him,” Angie offered.  “You go ahead.”

Little John (2) responded, “NO—Dadda,” and I felt the dubious honor of being chosen by my son for this special duty. Continue reading

Chapter 43: Trees

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–Boogers are sticky!–
(Hannah-3)

Dead and dying poplars stand along the ditch bank on Rabbit Lane, like sentries propped up against battles long ago lost and won.  Many branches, devoid of leaves, poke absently out and up like ten thousand fingers on stubby arms.  On the oldest, the only leaves huddle close to the trunk, near the base.  Finches and sparrows hop happily amidst the morass for some purpose unknown to me, or for no purpose.  Their nests lie hidden somewhere in dense bushes; no seeds or insects can be found in the spiky tree stubble.  But safety from cats and falcons the branches certainly provide. Continue reading

Chapter 42: Birdhouses

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–There is no sweeter sound than raindrops on the rooftop.–

I love birdhouses and birdfeeders.  Probably because I love birds.  Their often sweet, sometimes cacophonic, twittering and chirping brings me happiness.  Providing them with an endless supply of seeds brings me happiness.  They gather at the feeders on my grape trellis by the hundreds: House Finch, House Sparrow, Pine Siskin, Redwing Blackbird, Mourning Dove, and on occasion some less-often-seen species like Brown Cow Bird, Indigo Bunting, Black-headed Grossbeak, Bullock’s Oriole, and Towhee.  One common sparrow shares the same general markings as its hundred cousins, but appears to be an albino morf, nearly white.  The Western Meadowlark, Western King Bird, and American Robin sing, fly, and hop around nearby, but don’t come to the trellis, being insect and worm eaters.

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But beyond the birds, I enjoy the sight of the little wooden birdhouses mounted on the beams of my grape trellis.  I call it a grape trellis not because it grows grape vines, but because I built it for grape vines and wish it grew grape vines.  For reasons peculiar to the Erda soil, or to my cultivation of that soil, grapes have never grown up my grape trellis, though I have tried many times with several varieties.  After ten years of false starts, the only thing growing on my grape trellis is bird houses.  Each of my children has assembled one or more birdhouses and attached them to the trellis.

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I decided one year to make large bird houses and mount them on poles throughout the yard.  Not content to purchase plastic models from Wal-Mart, and unwilling to pay for more expensive wooden models, I resolved to construct my own.  I drew out several designs that departed from the standard models.  In other words, no squares or rectangles, but unusual trapezoids and even a circle.  I constructed interior frames on the workbench in my shed, then attached gray, weather-worn siding harvested from discarded pallets.  No master woodworker, I awkwardly attached the siding to the frame, and the roof to the house.  Before attaching the roof, I drilled a hole in a bottom frame cross member, inserted a 4-inch-long bolt-head screw, and with a ratchet secured the house frame to the post.

The posts came in various forms from several places.  We found one while on a drive by Black Rock, on the shore of the Great Salt Lake.  The post had washed up on the rocks, worn smooth by years of buffeting by wind, sand, and salt water.  (The salt content of water in the Great Salt Lake exceeds 25%, while the oceans average about 5%.)  We tied the post to the top of our car and brought it home.  Another was an old cedar fence post I found lying broken and discarded in a ditch by the side of the road.  Four-by-four lumber also makes excellent posts.  I made a post for each of my four birdhouse models, cementing three of the posts in a cluster in the bird house garden, with the fourth nearby behind the picket fence.  The fence runs 40 feet from the grape trellis along the garden border to the birdhouse garden.  I made the pickets from old pallets, too.  I seem never interested in building the same thing twice, and built only one of each birdhouse model.  But seeing them each morning on their tall posts as I begin and end my walks on Rabbit Lane brings to me a simple satisfaction.  I would be happier were they inhabited by more birds and fewer yellow jackets.

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Birds

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One of my greatest life’s pleasures is seeing birds in all their colors, hearing birds of all songs and calls.  Though my grapes never grew, I am happy that the birds have come to my arbor.  These Red-winged Blackbirds and House Finches are happily cracking black oil sunflower seeds in the simple feeder Caleb made as a Boy Scout for his Nature merit badge.  I wrote this poem about feeding the birds.

BIRDS

Bird feeders swing empty from nails pounded in the arbor.
After years of compost, fertilizer, water, and iron,
the vines still grow sickly and yellow, vines that grow no grapes.
I once dreamed of the arbor covered in a dense green,
with plump, hanging clusters of white and purple grapes.

Bird houses nailed to the arbor sit vacant,
the entrance holes too large or two small, too high or too low,
or too exposed to climbing cats,
vacant but for teaming yellow jackets that relish dark nooks.

The finches prefer the spiny blue spruce nearby.
Who knows where the sparrows and blackbirds live?
But they visit by the hundreds, chirping and chasing, cracking at shells.

I must fill the swinging feeders
for the little birds that descend to my empty arbor.

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Snipe

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As an older Boy Scout I thought that a Snipe was an imaginary creature which younger scouts were sent to hunt in the Snipe Hunt hoax.  As a younger Scout myself, I never found a Snipe, whatever a Snipe was.  It was not until I was about 35 year old that I learned that a snipe was a real creature, a fairly small water bird with long legs and beak.  It spends its time meandering the irrigation ditch along Rabbit Lane, rising with indignant “peeps” as I trudge by on my walks.  I also learned that the Snipe was responsible for the eerie, haunting reverberating sounds I heard hovering like a fog over the fields at night.  Harvey told me to look up high for the source of the sounds: a Snipe, a brown speck in the high sky, diving and allowing the air to thunder through its wings.  I wrote this poem about this mysterious little creature.

SNIPE

Summer sun settles on high mountain peaks,
igniting heavy cumulus over a burning great salt lake.
A ghostly echo begins to move,
invisible, taunting,
low over twilight’s deep green fields
of pasture grass and alfalfa hay;
a lonely laughter
approaching then receding,
soaring then plummeting,
tumbling, veering,
in sunset’s golden glint,
in late night’s moon-glow,
to vanish at the new sun’s rising—
seen only by those who know whence comes
the haunting, moving echo of the snipe in the evening sky.

Chapter 37: Of Caterpillars and Birds

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–The Goldfinch is a splash of brilliant yellow against the white snow and brown earth.–

The ant hill is the sign of a delicate and sophisticated society, mostly unseen for its largely underground order.  The individual ant is tiny but far from delicate.  It is both formidable worker and fearsome enemy, taking on burdens and adversaries many times its size.  Yet its civilization is vulnerable to destruction by the careless shuffle of a shoe.

* * *

Every year we find Tomato Hornworms on our tomato plants.  The surest worm signs are bare branches, stripped of leaves, and large, barrel-shaped droppings.  When I find a fat caterpillar, I always call the children over to see.  Because of their tomato-leaf-green color and subtle markings, the hornworms are very difficult to see, even though they grow fatter and longer than my index finger.  Tracking them by dung and denuded branch is the quickest way to find them.

My grandfather Wallace, a part-time tomato farmer, detested these pests and hunted them doggedly.  Not needing to make a living from my tomatoes, I can afford to not mind a bare twig here and there.  In my garden, a bare branch is an occasion for excitement: a hornworm hides nearby.  The hornworms, earning their name from the stiff pointed horn on their tail end, don’t eat the tomatoes.  The children think the “callerpittars” are amazing, otherworldly creatures.  John (3) bravely held one in his open palm for a moment, then suddenly exclaimed, “He loves me!”

Unlike many moth and butterfly larvae, tomato hornworms dig into the earth to pupate.  They lie in the ground all Winter long and emerge in the Spring as tomato hornworm Hawk Moths.  Finding a hornworm, I have the children help me to prepare a shoe box with about two inches of loose, moist soil in the bottom.  We feed the caterpillars tomato leaves until their swelling, green bodies disappear to become dark-brown pupae in the soil.  We leave the box outside in a sheltered spot (where the cats won’t dig).  Occasionally we drip a little water on the soil to keep it from totally drying out.  In Spring, with the appearance of the first flowers, we put the box where it can warm in the sunlight, and we watch every day for the hawk moth to emerge.  To escape its pupa shell, the moth emits a liquid substance that dissolves a hole in the shell.  The new moth crawls out and spreads its wet, wrinkled wings and vibrates them rapidly in the sun’s warmth.  The vibrations pump blood from the moth’s body into the wing veins, causing them to spread open and smooth.  The wings quickly dry.  If this procedure is not completed successfully, the moth will never fly.

Hawk moths flit from flower to flower, sometimes chasing each other.  Their wings beat so fast that you see only the vague blur of wings.  The large moths look much like small Hummingbirds, and also enjoy the name Hummingbird Moth.  They feed while flying, like Hummingbirds, uncoiling their long, tubular, hollow proboscis to suck nectar from flowers.  Tomato hornworm moths are particularly striking, with soft red bands on their underwings.

We found a Hummingbird Moth floating in the children’s little wading pool.  We thought for sure that it was dead.  Putting a hand under it and lifting it from the cold water, I found that it moved its legs weakly.  We placed it on the sidewalk in full sunlight.  After a few moments, its wings dried and began to vibrate, circulating blood through the wing veins and warming the body.  The moth was a miniature, self-contained solar heating unit.  It suddenly rose from the sidewalk and flew away in search of nourishment.  We felt a hint of happiness at helping to revivify the moth.

I once gave a large Tomato Hornworm larvae, and a box with soil, to my nephew, Thomas (3).  Months later, he reported to me sadly that his moth had hatched.  Asking him why he was unhappy, he said, “I like the moth, but I miss my caterpillar.”

* * *

The children came running to me with alarm in their faces.

“A hummingbird . . . in the garage!” they gasped, trying to catch their breath.  Following them, I found the double-door up, the garage entirely open, yet the Black-chinned Hummingbird confounded and trapped inside.  Apparently, its instincts drove the tiny bird to fly always upward.  It buzzed around the garage with its beak to the ceiling, and could not see the obvious way out.  It stopped frequently to rest on the highest object it could find.  The bird looked at us nervously as we paced around the garage, but still could not discern the way to freedom.

I could see the hummingbird’s fatigue and hoped that, if I could catch it, it would have sufficient strength to fly away to find food and not fall easy prey to an opportunist cat.  I grabbed the long-handled butterfly net that stood in the corner of the garage.  The net was new enough to have survived active children chasing chickens and cats with it.  I raised the net and cautiously approached the hummingbird.  It jumped from its perch and flew to another resting place.  I quickly followed.  After repeating this for several minutes, I began to get a sense of its evasion pattern, remembering my old butterfly catching days.  Anticipating its next jump, I swung the net ahead of the bird, flipped the net to prevent the bird’s escape, and brought the net quickly but carefully to the cement floor.

Reaching my hand into the net, I wrapped my fingers around the bird tightly enough to keep it from flying away but loosely enough to avoid injuring the delicate creature.  The terrified bird peeped weakly and tried to flutter its trapped wings.  Bringing the tiny bird out from the net, I held it up for the children to see.

“That’s so cool!” one child exclaimed.  Then they all began to clamor, “I want to hold it!  I want to hold it!”

“Go ahead, touch it,” I invited, instructing them how to carefully stroke the iridescent, green feathers and to touch the wiry, black feet.

We walked out of the garage into the Summer sun.  Each child placed their hands under mine, and on the count of three we released the little bird.  It hovered erratically for a moment, then, gathering its bearings and new strength, it flew off to the south.  The hummingbird stopped for a moment at the feeder hanging from the arbor, full of sweet liquid, then flew high into the sky until we could no longer see it.  The children (and I) were thrilled at having touched and seen up close such a tiny, wild, beautiful creature.  We felt happiness inside knowing that we had rescued it and set it free.

* * *

An injured Western Kingbird flopped wildly on the pavement of Church Road near the intersection of Rabbit Lane.  It must have been struck by a passing car.  As I bent to pick it up, it opened its black beak wide and squawked in terror in a desperate but feeble attempt to protect itself from what it could only perceive as the attack of a giant predator.  I carefully folded the injured wing and cradled the bird inside my jacket as I carried it home.

I awoke Laura (9) and invited her help to dress the bird’s injuries.  We swabbed the wounds with disinfecting peroxide.  The bird still pointed its open beak at our awkward fingers, but had stopped verbalizing its protests.  We then wrapped the bird so that both wings were gently pinned against its body.  When the bindings were removed, we reasoned, the strength in the mended wing would match the strength of the good wing.  The wings would gather new strength in concert.  Satisfied that this was the best chance the bird had to heal, we carried it outside to a small, protected pen and set it down upon its feet in the straw.  We hoped we would be able feed and water the bird long enough for it to recover.  We would have to catch bugs, since its diet did not include seeds.

Releasing the bound bird, it immediately fell over onto its face.  The bindings had rendered it completely helpless, like you or I would be if wrapped from head to toe with only our toes exposed for mobility.  It needed its wings for balance as well as for flight.  Discouraged, Laura and I removed all of our careful wrappings and did our best to splint the broken wing.  This less invasive treatment allowed the bird to stand and walk about, but the bandage wouldn’t stay on for the difficulty of attaching it to the wing feathers.

Despite our well-intentioned but fumbling efforts, the Kingbird died after three days.  Still, I was glad we had rescued the bird and attempted to nurse it back to health.  The thought of leaving the frightened bird in the roadway to be smashed by the next passing car saddened me.  Also, handling the small but proud creature, and working to heal it, had worked a change in us.  We felt a greater awe in nature’s wild things and a deeper grief at their loss.

* * *

An old Warbler nest hangs, swaying, from a low willow branch like a balled up, gray woolen sock.  It clings to the branch through the strongest of winds.  Gusts topping 80 miles per hour have neither torn it apart nor pulled it from its suspending branch.

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A lone Crow flies south behind a V-formation of Canada Geese.  It caws loudly despite a large parcel in its beak, defiant toward the fable of the fox and the crow.  This seems to be a smarter, more talented Crow.  Is this Crow lonely or content in its aloneness?  Do the geese communicate, or do they merely find comfort in their raucous propinquity?

A cock Ring-necked Pheasant croaks unseen in the tall grass, nervous at my approach.  When I stop to search with my eyes, he seems to suspect me of bad intentions, and flaps inelegantly into a tree, landing clumsily in its top branches, his feathers thrashing against leafy twigs.  On Rabbit Lane, feathers from a Pheasant hen lay scattered about, chestnut brown barred with beige.  Nearby sits a pile of spent red plastic shotgun shells with brass caps.

When the Robin appears, pulling at worms, I know that Spring is near.  Hummingbirds whir and zoom looking for early flowers.  They light in me a tiny spark of joy that has lain smoldering all Winter.

The Killdeer scream at me, draw me away from their spare nests that lie hidden in the rocks and gravel, flapping their striped wings as if injured.

In a chaotic, white cloud of winged, shrieking voices, whirling and churning around me, charging my senses, thousands of California Gulls descend upon a newly ploughed field next to Rabbit Lane.  I perceive no order in their loose, gregarious grouping, unlike flocks of geese following a leader in formation.  Milling around in search of upturned earthworms, the flock calls raucously, sounding like a thousand tuneless New Year’s Eve noisemakers.  Despite their awful sound, the birds are beautiful: sleek white feathers with gray tips, a red dot on each side of the creamy yellow beak.  In flight, their streamlined bodies and powerful wing beats propel them through the air, with their black webbed feet tucked into their downy white undersides.

At Boy Scout camp at Lake Seneca, New York, the older boys sent me to ask another troop for a left-handed smoke-shifter, then took me on a snipe hunt.  I found neither the device nor the creature.  Only after moving to Erda did I learn that the Snipe is a real creature, a water bird.  Smaller than an Avocet, the Snipe roams the ditches and wetlands, poking its beak into the mud for insects and small crayfish.  On many an evening I strained to discern the source of a soft, ghostly, reverberating sound moving over the farm fields.  But I never found it.  Explaining this mystery to Harvey one afternoon, he told me to look high into the sky whenever I heard the sound.  There, I would see a small dot, the ventriloquistic Snipe.  Flying high, the Snipe turns to dive and roll at breakneck speeds toward the ground.  Wind rushing through its slightly open wings creates the haunting sound.  The Snipe throws the sound somehow from those heights to hover foggily over the fields.  I hear it less and less as the years pass.

The water from Rabbit Lane’s ditch crosses Charley’s pasture diagonally, bogging at the northwest corner.  Twenty or more striped Wilson’s Phalaropes cackle harshly at me as I walk by, their long legs sunk in the bog and their long beaks searching for insects and invertebrates.

Birds twitter in the willow bushes by the irrigation ditch.  Birds sing from the Russian Olive trees.  Birds call and screech and chirp from bushes and branches, from the tops of cedar fence posts and in flight.  How does one describe the song of a bird?  My National Geographic field guide to North American birds assigns all manner of syllabic writing to bird songs and calls, none of which words approach a satisfactory description of the music.  In English, the Crow is synonymous with the “caw.”  These meager descriptions are like saying a note played on the piano sounds like plink, like a model-T horn shouts ba-OO-ga, like a baby’s cry is waaaa.  No euphemistic reduction does justice to the genuine song.  Thanks to Cornell University’s ornithology lab, new bird books allow the reader to push a button and hear each bird’s unique song, sometimes a humble peep, sometimes a glorious, frenetic melody.

The Western Kingbird’s song resembles chaotic, unpatterned electronica.  A Bullock’s Oriole splashes its ember-orange on a canvas of blue-green Russian Olive.

The Western Meadowlark sings frequently from the tops of cedar tree fence posts.  Even driving at 60 miles per hour with the window cracked, I can hear its piercing but beautifully melodious song.  Attempts to whistle the tune bog it terribly down and omit half the notes, each critical, resulting in a sometimes recognizable but always shabby imitation.

A Black-chinned Hummingbird perches on a strand of stiff barbed wire, surveying vast fields of grass.  Its black beak points as straight and as sharp as the silver barbs, yet the bird possesses a softness and a beauty incongruous with the hard wire stretched tight.

A Field Crescent flits from place to place on Rabbit Lane’s asphalt, flying a low dance around my walking feet, making momentary spots of brightness against the ubiquitous gray.