Friday, March 29, 2013

They're Baaaaack!

Friday, March 29, 2013
Uggh! One sure and early sign of spring around these parts is the return of the parasitic nest pirate: the brown headed cowbird.

I looked out at the freshly filled bird feeders this morning and there was a male cowbird, all shiny black body and chocolate-brown head. The male cowbirds return first in spring and the females follow a week or so later. Once everyone is back, they begin their traditional business of courting and making whoopee. The male emits (because it can't really be called "singing") a burbling sound that rises in pitch, ending in a piercing squeak. As he vocalizes, he raises his bill to the sky, trying his best to look at once handsome, regal, fierce, and ready for some lady action. In the next week or so, our farm will become a noisy cowbird singles bar.

When the songbird nesting season starts in about a month, the female brown-headed cowbirds will spend their time watching and waiting. They are very clever at finding the nests of other bird species: warblers, thrushes, tanagers, sparrows, vireos, and many others. Once she spots a nest, a female cowbird will inspect it to see if it has eggs in it. If it does, and if she has a fertilized egg ready to go, she may drop it right there in the nest.

Then she simply flies off to look for another male cowbird, another nest of an unsuspecting songbird into which she can deposit an egg. This nest parasitism evolved from the nomadic lifestyle of the cowbird. Cowbirds traditionally followed the large herds of bison as they roamed across the continent, eating the insects the herds kicked up. As the herds moved, so did the cowbirds, a lifestyle which did not leave any time for nest building or young rearing. So the brown-headed cowbird figured out a way to reproduce successfully by having other birds raise their offspring.

My lifer summer tanager was a handsome adult male, sitting on my parents' platform feeder in our small-town backyard. It was feeding a fledgling brown-headed cowbird.

Each spring I have slight urge to do something to help our songbirds avoid being parasitized by cowbirds. And each spring I realize just how futile this would be. We do cut back on ground feeding, especially on offering cracked corn, when the cowbirds are around. Secretly I'd like to ask for a week-long visit from the Fish & Wildlife Service folks who "control" cowbird populations in the Kirtland's warbler's nesting range. They have large, baited cages where cowbirds check in but they don't check out. A cowbird Hotel California.

Alas they are native birds, so, as much as I despise them, I accept them. And sometimes I even sing about them.

Friday, March 8, 2013

My Top Ten Birding Wishes

Friday, March 8, 2013
For years I've written a top-ten-themed column for various channels of the burgeoning Bird Watcher's Digest media empire. Many of them were straight-ahead lists of things to do to enhance your backyard bird watching or tips for better birding. But this one is pure fantasy.
Where would we be without wishful thinking?

My Top Ten Birding Wishes
If I found a mysterious lantern while trudging along the muddy banks of the Ohio River, rubbed the dirt from it, freeing a long-trapped genie who promised to grant me some birding wishes, these are the things I'd wish for. [Never forgetting that one should never end a sentence with a preposition.]
Everyone wishes for a genie lamp.

10. ID Wizard
You could say it takes the fun out of birding, but I wish I had a magic gizmo (or an app for my iPhone) that would help me ID the birds I see and hear that I can't easily ID myself. I've preached about being zenlike when that unidentified (possible life) bird disappears over the next ridge, never to be seen again. Well, that's horsehockey. It drives me NUTS! Give me wizard or give me birding death! Certainly there are enough genius engineers SOMEwhere in the world to come up with a sound- or sight-based device to help us identify poorly seen, unfamiliar, uncooperative birds. Aim. Capture. Answer. I'm sure I'd only use it when I was really stumped, because figuring things out yourself is a big part the enjoyment of birding.

9. Hotter/Colder Bird-finding App
Let's face it. The bird-finding apps that are available currently are only as good as the data that they are built upon. It does me (or you or anyone) no good to know that there's a resplendent quetzal near College Corner, Indiana if we can't get directions or access to the birds because it's a private sighting or on private property. Better: A bird-finding app that lets you know there is a rare bird near you, then takes you on a game of "hotter/colder" to find it. As you moved in one direction, the app would say to you (hopefully in a voice less annoying than Siri): "you are getting colder....." You'd change directions and, as you got closer to the correct direction, the app would say "warmer...WARMER...GETTING HOT NOW!" Hey look! There's the bird!

8. iPhoneBins
Since this blog post is all about me, I want a camera/binocular device that has both WiFi and cellular service so I can immediately share my sightings in real time with my friends and family and fellow birders. Turn the focus wheel, frame your shot, and press the record/capture button. Then hit send. Think how cool this would be! Rare birds records committees would immediately order shots of both Jack Daniels and hemlock. Meanwhile, a birder could order a pizza using the iPhoneBins while scanning a flock of shorebirds.

7. Hologram Replay
As an added feature of the iPhoneBins I'd like hologram replay. Stick with me here: the concept is simple. The camera in the bins would record still images and video constantly and store them on either an internal hard drive or via the cloud. If you wanted to share a sighting with your fellow bird watchers in the field, or afterwards, back at home, simply push the hologram replay button and a lens cover rolls back, exposing a projection lens which would show your sightings in a holographic beam of light, in 3D, so everyone could enjoy them. Finer ID points could be discussed. Rare sightings could be shared with others at the press of a button.

6.5 BONUS SELECTION! Google Birding Glasses. Incorporating numbers 10 through 7 above, but wearable all the time. Also available in seamless transition bifocal format.
How long will it be until we're all wearing something like this?

6. Starbucks Birding Concierge
Have you ever been out in the field, feeling a bit sluggish and cold—finding yourself wishing for a hot cup of coffee or tea? I know I have. Because there seems now to be a Starbucks cafe/bistro/whatever it is on every street corner in every town it would seem only logical that they would begin delivering their hot expensive beverages to us wherever we are. Nothing quite says birding like a grande sugar-free non-fat vanilla latte with whipped cream.

5. Birdingmobile Hybrid Convertible with 360˚ Glass
Now we're talking! This incredible birding vehicle would run on old french fry oil and be as rugged as a jeep with four-wheel drive. The seamless glass surrounding the car offers a clear, unobstructed, non-wavy view of the outside. It would have four rotating captain's chairs with built-in scope mounts. An external mic pipes in bird sounds while filtering out extraneous noise from wind, traffic, jackhammers, Garrison Keillor broadcasts, and so on. On board WiFi and digital interface lets passengers stay connected with the birding world. While we're dreaming I guess I'll put in a request for an on-board kitchenette, bathroom, and beer cooler.

4. Sunproof Birding Skin
Like many of my outdoorsy friends, I've already incurred the wrath of my dermatologist for not protecting myself well enough from the harmful effects of the sun. I try my best to remember to smear a thick layer of 50 SPF sunscreen onto my epidermis prior to going out birding. I also begrudgingly wear the dorky sun hat. A better solution would be some sort of genetic tweak or synthetic implant or holographic shield that would offer sun protection with out all that fuss, muss, and fashion faux pas. We can breed corn that never needs water and laughs at insect pests. We can create dog breeds that look like they were put together out of Mr. Potato Head kits. I'm certain that we can come up with a sunproof birding skin. When we do, I'm an XL long.
Not what I had in mind, but probably sun-proof.

3. Time-Space Migration Transportation
I would like to go birding with John James Audubon. I would like to be the birding guide for Lewis and Clark (heck I'll even bring along extra bins for Meriwether, Bill, and Sacagawea.) I want to see passenger pigeons darken the sky. I want to hear a Bachman's warbler sing in a canebrake. I want to sneak up on a heath hen lek. Pterodactyl fly by? Yes please. Give me the power to go back in time and I promise you I will do my best to stop some of the truly stupid and tragic bird extinctions. I just want to see one alive Eskimo curlew. Just one. Of all the dreamsicle wishes on this list, this is the one I hold most dear.
Eskimo curlew.

2. Everfill Feeder
It may seem like a frivolous thing, but you haven't filled our 17 bird feeders. It takes 45 minutes if you do it right. Please give me a feeder that magically stays filled with the proper seed. And it automagically stays hygienically clean, too.

1.  Birding Dream Team
Along the lines of going back in time, I want to put together a no-longer-alive dream team of birders. Baseball (my other love besides birds) used to put together all-star teams from the major leagues that would then travel the country playing exhibition games in towns big and small along the way to drum up interest in the national pastime. They called it barnstorming. Well I'd like to put together a team of famed bird people from history and go on a birding barnstorming trip around North America just to see what we could see together.
Of course RTP is on my team. Heck he'd be the captain.

On my roster would be John James Audubon, Alexander Wilson, and William Bartram—though they'd have to leave their guns behind. Lewis and Clark would come along, too, and we'd go looking for their namesake birds. I'd pick Teddy Roosevelt for a trip out west. Roger Tory Peterson and his mentor Ludlow Griscom for some New England outings. Frank Chapman would be our DO (designated ornithologist). Margaret Morse Nice and Florence Merriam Bailey would add their immense bird knowledge to the adventure. When we headed out on a pelagic trip, Charles Darwin and Robert Cushman Murphy would be our leaders. If you do not know these names, please do yourself a favor and use The Google.

Does this adventure sound like fun? You're welcome to join us...We're leaving as soon as the Birdingmobile and the iPhoneBins arrive. I ordered them yesterday and asked for expedited shipping.