Monday, November 29, 2010

Bears Thump Eagles: A Bird in Hand

Among the fascinating tidbits I picked up from our Thanksgiving quiz this year is that:
   a) an adult turkey has about 3500 feathers
   b) Minnesota raises more domesticated turkeys than any other state, including Arkansas
   c) Israel consumes more turkey per capita than the U.S. or Canada. Or Turkey.

Here's a picture I took of a turkey displaying in our yard in Carlisle, Mass. last spring, a hunka-hunka burning love....

Here's the same turkey in profile.  He looks exactly like the paper turkeys which used to decorate the Thanksgiving table at the Onwentsia Club when I was a kid.  I love this shot.  Look at that tiny head.  And you can easily see how he would have 3500 feathers.  Benjamin Franklin lobbied hard to have the wild turkey named our national bird, and I'm sorry that he failed, especially since they keep ending up in the White House.

  (That remark is non-partisan, by the way.)              
  Ordinarily I write something about sports in this column, but I am so pleased with my beloved Chicago Bears win over the high-flying Eagles yesterday that I've decided to write about birds instead.  I have some unusual pictures I've been lucky enough to snap in the last couple of years, and I have an idea for a Christmas gift for the bird lover in your family.  You won't even have to get in the car.
   I'll begin with the most unusual bird picture in my repertoire, which was taken in Spring Island, South Carolina, just after Christmas in 2007.  I was standing in our driveway around dusk when I heard a strange, meowing sound above me, and looked up to see this owl on a branch. 
Great Horned Owl
It was a Great Horned owl.  They are common there, but shy and difficult to photograph.  This one wasn't hooting.  It was meowing like a cat.  It was very strange, because it was being answered by another Great Horned Owl that was hooting nearby.
       "Meow....meow... "
        "Hoo-hoo, hoot-hoot-hoot."
      This went on for a couple of minutes.  Suddenly the hooting stopped and out of the corner of my eye I saw something swoop over my head.  I raised the camera and snapped a picture of two great horned owls...copulating. 
Slam, bam...
   It took about three seconds, then the male swooped off into the fading light...

...Thank you, ma'am

...leaving the female speechless, meowless, and sitting exactly where she had been when I'd first seen her.  Even in that dim light, I would describe her expression as underwhelmed.

Looking underwhelmed

        Probably my favorite bird, on Spring Island or anywhere else, is the pileated woodpecker, otherwise known as the Woody Woodpecker bird.  It is crazy large and has a crazy wukwukwuk cackle and hammers away at dead and dying trees in search of grubs and beetles like a lumberjack.  This shot was taken in northern Wisconsin.  He was so intent on drilling this dead birch tree he let me get pretty close to him:

Pileated woodpecker

      Another favorite is the scarlet tanager.  I've only seen a handful in my life.   They never come to the feeder, though we have a family of tanagers that lives near us in Carlisle, perhaps even on the property, somewhere in the woods I suppose.  Every couple of years I'd see one, so easily recognized with its shocking red feathers with black wings.  Three years ago we built a water feature in the back, a couple of rivulets running down a bank, over rocks, into a small pool.  It had a couple of pint sized waterfalls.  We did it because the area was shady and wouldn't grow grass.  Little did we know once completed it would attract all manner of birdlife, including scarlet tanagers.  (It even attracted a Great Blue Heron last fall, which flew in and dined on the fish and bullfrogs that lived there.)  The tanagers, normally so reclusive, loved to take baths in the running water.  Who knew?
Scarlet Tanager

      Which brings me to my mother's favorite bird, the rose-breasted grosbeak.  When we were kids, growing up in Lake Forest, Ill., my brothers and I always wanted a BB gun. My mother forbade it.  She didn't trust us, with reason.  She was sure we'd either use it to shoot each other or, worse, one of the birds that came to the feeders.  One year a rose-breasted grosbeak built a nest in the thorn tree that grew beside our whiffle ball park.  This development was sufficiently earth shattering that all games that spring were summarily cancelled by my mother, the Commish, who watched from the upstairs hall window as mama grosbeak laid three eggs and sat on them till they hatched.  When the chicks were still little more than featherless blobs, a gray squirrel climbed into the tree one day and approached the nest while mama grosbeak chattered helplessly.  My mother's squeals were a good deal more piercing, and all three sons were called upon to defend the nest from the squirrel.  Since we didn't have a BB-gun, and were afraid of thorns, we fired tennis balls and sticks and golf balls at the critter from the base of the tree, without result.  I knew the game was up when three headless grosbeak corpses, which looked exactly like miniature roasted turkeys, dropped to the ground and the squirrel bounded away, sated.  Apparently the head of a baby bird is the most nutritious part.  We got our BB-gun the next day, but the grosbeak flew away and never came back.
       Ever since, a rose-breasted grosbeak has made my heart leap.  We have a family of them that comes to our feeder and pigs out on sunflower seeds every summer, then disappears into the woods from whence they came.  They are not particularly shy.  But here is an unusual shot of an immature male, who is just beginning to attain the signature rose-colored patch on its breast. 

immature male rose-breasted grosbeak
        Now, the Christmas present idea.  If someone in your family enjoys birds, and likes identifying birds by their calls, there is a new book out called Bird Songs Bible which is published by Chronicle Books.  It weighs about 20 pounds and comes with an attached recording device which can play the call of every single bird that nests in North America, nearly 750 in all, plus at least one that doesn't: the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, now believed to be extinct again after temporarily making a fleeting comeback in the swamps of Arkansas. (The Ivory-Billed looks like a pileated, but its call is more like one of those old bicycle horns with the squeeze-bulb: Toot-toot-toot)   The calls are from audio recordings made by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and include such rarities as calls of petrels and shearwaters who only vocalize at sea.  Also turkeys, great horned owls, scarlet tanagers and rose-breasted grosbeaks.  There are color illustrations of all 728 species, plus a diagram of their range and habitat, and while the illustrations are not to scale (the hummingbird is the same size as the turkey vulture) they are pleasant to peruse.  It should be noted that this book will be of absolutely no use in the field: it is too cumbersome and the drawings don't show the birds in flight.  But at cocktail hour it is a fun tome.  The most comprehensive book of its kind, it retails for an imposing $125.  But for readers of this blog, it can by ordered from Amazon for a more palatable $75 by clicking the link below. 
   Or not.
   The important thing is BEARS WIN! BEARS WIN! BEARS WIN!
    Hope you all had a great Thanksgiving.