Today, the southern suburbs of Denver are beneath 9 inches of snow. Our songbirds are quiet. In my yard, they waited out the winds and cold, taking advantage of the warmest part of the day – only 20 degrees and mostly cloudy – to forage bird and wildflower seed in my yard.
Only a few weeks ago, the world wasn’t like this. The fruits of shrubs and vines didn’t yet show their age. Wasps and flies still found the supple creases in berries, lapping seeps of sugar.
And songbirds hunted tinier insects yet.
Birds of Prey?
It’s difficult to see a songbird as a hunter — and a merciless one at that. The smallest ones — kinglets, nuthatches, bushtits, and chickadees — are not only adorably diminutive. They’re also clownish in flocks. They honk (nuthatches) and dangle upside down (nuthatches and chickadees). Or, as Bushtits do, they move in endless streams of one following the other, as cartoon clowns do when they emerge from a too small car.
But they are merciless indeed, no less so than any bird of prey. It’s just that who they hunt is too small for us to perceive and too alien for us to mourn.
And so it was, a few weeks ago, that I stood underneath a hawthorn tree outside a nondescript office building in Centennial. A noisy flock — is there any other kind? — of Bushtits called me over.
At first, I stood in wonder of how tolerant they were of my presence. But I should have known better. It wasn’t that they didn’t care about me. They were just more committed to their hunt than they were to avoiding me.
The flock was indulging in a meal of mealybug. Phenacoccus dearnessi, to be exact: Hawthorn Mealybug, seen in my photo below.
A Matter of Scale?
Mealybugs are roughly 1/25th the size of the three-inch long Bushtits. Coincidentally, this is about the same ratio as a Bushtit to me — and it leaves me wondering if the scale works out in roughly the same way. I struggled to find the Mealybugs, though I experienced no such difficulty tracking down the Bushtits.
Looking at the Mealybug, I initially thought that it must take a miracle for a flock of Bushtits to find something so small. Or perhaps it was evidence of some avian superpower to locate tiny movements of gray against gray bark.
Or maybe it spoke to the Bushtit’s level of commitment to the hunt, a commitment I could never muster. After all, so much for a Bushtit depends on occasionally pillaging a plant of its pests. I got this blog post for finding the Mealybugs. They got survival.
But perhaps the Bushtits just see the Mealybugs as the same size as I see Bushtits?
I’m sure a little more research could tell me if this is so. But I like to think it is, and that the world appears to a Bushtit to be filled with Bushtit-sized beings no less remarkable than a Bushtit.
What the century-old reports of Denver’s first ornithologists tells us about the birds and changing urban landscape.
In 2015, I became a “patch birder,” focusing my outings near my central Denver apartment. Usually, this meant visiting Cheesman Park and Denver Botanic Gardens next door. In part, I did this to spend less time in my car and more time in the field. But I also did so because at that time, Cheesman and the Gardens were “underbirded,” a term meant to describe locations with relatively few checklists on eBird.
At the start of 2015, fewer than 90 species had been reported to eBird from the two locations. This gave me the opportunity for one of the undisputed thrills of birding: To “discover” species in the middle of an urban center where many had yet to be recorded — in this case, central Denver.
So that spring, I visited both locations regularly — and I was rewarded with “discovery” after discovery. In April and May alone, I added 16 species to the joint Gardens/Cheesman hotspot list on eBird. In fall and winter, I added another 11. With fresh attention to this rather overlooked location, more other birders joined in. By the end of 2015, the hotspot list had grown by one-third, to more than 120 birds. In the years since, birders have boosted the eBird checklist to 150 species.
Among these additions were many “good” birds for urban Denver: Red Crossbill, Common Poorwill, Brown Thrasher and Sage Thrasher. Philadelphia Vireo, a rarity, visited in September 2015, giving good looks to me and Chris Rurik, who identified it. In May 2017, another local birder found Virginia’s and Black-throated Gray warblers, and in April 2018, both Long-eared Owl and Loggerhead Shrike on the same day! Suddenly, a tepid, back-burner destination on Denver’s eBird map was hot.
I learned a couple of valuable lessons birding Cheesman and the Gardens in 2015: eBird is an imperfect guide to the reality of birds in our region, and there is a long history of birding in Colorado still awaiting discovery.
So many of us rely on eBird to lead us to lifers, rarities and “good” birds — and yet, here in central Denver, hidden from eBirders for years, were at least 150 common, uncommon, and rare species.
Digging into the history can help us understand how our present-day finds are often encounters with birds that have long visited our state and its people . . . people like William H. Bergtold, whose century-old footsteps I would soon find myself retracing in Cheesman Park.
Born in 1865, Bergtold lived and birded in central Denver more than a century ago. He came to Colorado, as I had, from the Northeast; we both grew up in upstate New York. For a time, he even worked for my current employer, the University of Denver, teaching in DU’s medical school at the end of the 19th century.
An 1899 note in the journal Science reported that Bergtold was the first president of what may have been the first bird-related organization in the state, the Colorado Ornithological Association. Over the first three decades of the 20th century, he published numerous reports, articles, and books on Colorado’s birds. Those writings led me to Bergtold. Yes, while looking for Cheesman’s birds, I found one of the park’s first birders.
Bergtold wrote one of the state’s first books for birding, A Guide to Colorado’s Birds. Through his articles, he did something further — he told stories of the times. In a 1921 article about the “English Sparrow” (now House Sparrow) and the rise of motor vehicles, Bergtold speculated that the transition to automobiles from horses in urban centers might reduce the population of a despised non-native bird. Not only would fewer horses mean fewer horse droppings (road apples?!) for starving sparrows to comb for morsels, it would “probably also (make) the species’ street life so hazardous and fatal as to drive it largely out of the business area” of downtown Denver.
Many of Bergtold’s reports focused on birds in Denver and surrounding cities. He publicized other birders’ accounts of uncommon and rare birds. Noteworthy was a pair of Northern Cardinals that apparently nested in Littleton for several years. Reading Bergtold’s reports today, I can’t help but marvel at the city of a century ago — its natural and human-made landscapes, the birds that populated them, and the people who watched those birds.
“The Birds of Denver: An Annotated List,” Bergtold’s 1917 essay in The Wilson Bulletin, is riveting for what it tells us about bird diversity in Cheesman Park and around the city. Some species we take for granted today were far less numerous in Bergtold’s time — and others that were common here in his day are scarcer now.
Writing about the American Crow, Bergtold noticed one “flying over Eleventh Avenue and Corona Street, December 7, 1913.” Another Crow was “seen in Cheesman Park, May 1, 1917.” Where he once noticed a single bird, I have watched hundreds of crows fill the park, which seems to be a staging ground for overnight roosting in late autumn and winter. Spotted Towhee, a rather ubiquitous backyard sparrow these days, was even scarcer. On Jan. 1, 1913, Bergtold wrote, “One detected in Montclair,” a Denver neighborhood 3 miles east of Cheesman. Black-capped Chickadees (in those days called Long-tailed Chickadees) hadn’t even begun nesting in Denver but instead were “regular winter visitors,” he said.
His reports also reflect what the city has lost to human alteration of once-natural landscapes. Pine Siskin was once a common spring nester in Denver, the bulk arriving “early in March, and many linger till June . . . probably going to higher altitudes to nest a second time.” Bergtold tells us Black-headed Grosbeak and Bullock’s Oriole were common breeders throughout the city a century ago. Although less common, Lazuli Bunting and Northern Mockingbird both were regular summer breeders in the city, too. Although Colorado Breeding Bird Atlas II lists them all as breeders in Denver County, none seems as common in the city as Bergtold suggests they once were.
One bird I’m particularly fond of roosts in the midst of these losses and gains. According to Bergtold, Common Poorwill was an infrequent migrant through Cheesman Park — and it still is today.
Having stalked through Cheesman a century after Bergtold, I like to think there was a connection between the poorwills we both encountered. I imagine that through decades and generations of humans and birds — then, now, and after us — the poorwills come and go, only occasionally resting in places like Cheesman where birders decide to look.
To read more about Bergtold, consider these articles:
I have had occasion—three times now—to watch a robin die.
I have had occasion—three times now—to watch a robin die.
The first to causes unknown, three decades or so ago. I was a child, perhaps ten or twelve years old. I collected an ill or wounded bird from near my family’s home. My uncertainty about her condition says everything. The bird died, because she was dying and because all I had was a human’s stubborn belief in the life-giving force of a human’s stubborn belief.
I kept the robin in a shoebox, believing her recovery was only a matter of rest and food. I fed the bird grass, believing her association with the damp lawn was about the plants, rather than the worms and insects I’d later learn she so effectively hunted.
Over days, the bird lay motionless, shallow breath proof of life. To me, her death seemed slow, perhaps tragically so. But I think it’s more correct to say that she died only as quickly or slowly as what killed her would take her. I buried her, in the shoebox, on Memorial Day, thinking the act and timing significant.
I then neglected American Robins. Even when, two decades later, I became a birder, I thought robins too much a caricature of a bird to deserve my attention. More Disney cartoon than wild life, robins walk like every bird is supposed to walk, run like every bird is meant to run, and feed on a cliché—the early bird getting the worm that ought not to have dawdled.
It was like this for me until 2014, when I decided to attend to a flock of robins at Cheesman Park in central Denver, Colorado. In the presence of these birds—a sign of warmer seasons—I tried to will spring into existence, laying on the cold February ground to photograph one of them at eye-level.
But recalcitrant robin he was. Instead of performing his photogenic wildness, he looked for the wildness in me. My photographs show him staring back, seeming to meet the gaze of my camera.
So I left him and found the rest of the robin flock in the small, landscaping trees that edge the park. I stayed with one member of the group, who perched with her back to me. I did this for roughly fifteen seconds, collecting a dozen or so photos, before the flock convulsed as one.
In the act of photographing, I almost missed the moment, the meaningful signs that a flock of birds gives in the presence of their hunter—the tightening across their bodies, the change in the urgency of their calls. I whirled as the flock took flight, trying to follow the group. I found instead, on the pavement, about ten feet from me, a juvenile Sharp-shinned Hawk with her prey.
Sharp-shinned Hawks kill by constriction. They tighten their talons around their prey, choking air, then life from songbirds and small mammals. And so the robin, beneath this small hawk, gasped. And so the robin called out, perhaps involuntarily, as the accipiter undid the robin’s breath. Meanwhile, I held my own, resisting the urge to flail and shout and rob the hawk of her well-earned meal. (Imagine my intervention, and this wounded robin dying regardless of my efforts while the Sharp-shinned Hawk went unfed.)
A third time, about four years later, in my new neighborhood in the southern suburbs of Denver. On a walk, I encountered a Black-billed Magpie running interference on American Robin parents as another magpie hammered at the skull of a still living fledgling.
The bodies of hawks—bills and talons, especially—prepare them for the work of death. By contrast, magpies’ minds are more lethal than their bodies. (This is probably true of all corvids—crows, ravens, magpies, jays. I think it’s fair to say that it’s also true of a certain primate species.) Magpies’ bodies prepare them for exploration and their omnivorous, opportunistic lifestyle. Their minds, though, prepare them to plan raids on nests and vulnerable young. And so the fledgling’s death was pure terror to this human observer—protracted and inefficiently violent. And, it seemed to him, deep tragedy to the fledgling’s parents who leapt and called and failed still.
I watched from afar, aghast as I have ever been at the capacities of non-human animals. I wanted to make it stop. I wanted to bring some relief to the suffering fledging. I wanted to keep the parent robins from this loss and the panic they showed before it. Instead, I left the magpies, as I had left the hawk, with their well-earned meal. Given the timing—it was early June—I suspect they delivered the fledgling to their own hungry young.
When I’ve shared these observations with other birders, I admit all it took for me not to try to rescue the robins. Often, others respond without pausing for thought or reflection, offering clichés, which are no less true for being clichés.
Nature is cruel.
Death is cruel.
Death is part of nature itself.
A hawk or magpie, as the case may be, must eat.
Intellectually, I understand and appreciate these messages. They encage the tender human muscles and brake the impulse to act on death denial, the belief that the protection of life is always an absolute good. Ruminating on them now, I recall in judgement the boy I was, who thought a wild being’s death could and, so, should be forestalled by a cardboard box, a bed of grass, and human intentions alone.
But clichés can be true without being all the way true. I find these as one-sided as those that moved me to try to rescue a robin. For just as the younger me was certain a robin ought be saved, these clichés offer an alternative certainty: that the necessity of a non-human animal’s death strips death and the animals themselves of meaning.
These clichés are used not merely to convey moral imperatives, but also to shape our attitudes and perceptions. Their subtext is that the mature observer must remain blasé in the face of life-giving death. Unattached to the bird who delivers death to the robin. Unmoved by the robin who delivers life in return. Uncurious about what it means to be in the presence of both.
I accept that the hawk must kill. And yes, the magpie will, too. It follows, then, that the robin must die. But what passes among the hunter and hunted? And what of the human witness, who hardly understands the lives of robins, or hawks, or magpies, or even his own species, let alone the ways they experience the extinction of life?
I do not know what a robin’s death means—not to the robin, the hawk, the magpie, or me. But I think I know this: there is no slogan that contains the death of a robin. I think I know some other things, too. One may feel for the life being taken toward death, even as one resists the pull of the feeling toward intervention. One may grieve for a robin, even as one honors the exchange between predator and prey.
All other meanings robins bring with them. And whatever they leave behind belongs to the birds who take them away.
This essay first appeared in the Center for Humans & Nature’s Blog. Featured image of an American Robin at Denver Botanic Gardens by Jared Del Rosso.
Spring migration is upon us. Here’s to the unique joys of slow birding.
Among the first lessons new birdwatchers learn has nothing to do with birds and everything to do with the people who watch them. Those who are serious about watching birds call themselves “birders,” eschewing the more generally familiar “bird-watcher” label.
I don’t remember when or how I learned this lesson. Certainly, it wasn’t from my field guide. Sibley uses the two words interchangeably, though he seems to prefer “birding.” Dictionaries, too, don’t much distinguish between the two words. Merriam-Webster defines one term by the other — to “bird-watch” is, simply, to bird.
I suspect I learned of the differences from other birders, whether from those I encountered in the field or those that write about birding online. Just google the distinction and you’ll find blogs, essays, and articles expounding on differences that are undetectable in the dictionary definitions of the two.
So what’s the difference? A New Yorker review of the film adaptation of Denver birder and writer Mark Obmascik’s The Big Year distinguished the two in this way: “Crudely put, bird-watchers look at birds; birders look for them.” Yes, but I think the differences are deeper. Writing last year for National Audubon, Freya McGregordescribed how she often hears birdwatching defined as a more relaxed, leisurely appreciation, while birding focuses on chasing and listing birds, often in a competitive way. Frequently, birdwatching is considered more amateur, while birding’s regarded as more serious and legitimate.
Many of us think of ourselves as birders, not bird-watchers. We do “watch” birds, but watching as a means to an end — identifying bird species, sometimes as many as possible, the “sport” of birding.
I don’t want to make too much of this. Many birders are excellent bird-watchers, if we mean the simple act of observing birds to understand them better. Many serious birding outings — whether alone or in groups — have moments of long watching, to enjoy the beauty, behavior, or individuality of the birds we see.
Still, allow me to make the case for the particular joys and passions of bird-watching — watching a bird, the bird, closely. In a few moments, I’ll tell you about a bird that has done that for me this winter.
You’ve heard the saying, “Familiarity breeds contempt.” But between species, familiarity is a prerequisite for understanding. The longer we bird-watchers do our thing — watch a specific bird, species or individual — the more likely we’ll get to see birds do theirs. By watching, we may see, hear, and even feel their way of being in the world. “Feel”? Yes, I’ve had a flock of Bushtits pass closely enough to feel the breeze of all those tiny wings.
Some watchers of birds attend so closely that they even know individual birds, naming specific ones and picking them out of flocks. I am reminded of author Leonard Dubkin and his daughter Pauline naming pigeons in The Natural History of a Yard — and of the great corvid observers Lyannda Lynn Haupt and Bernd Heinrich doing the same with crows and ravens, respectively. I can’t say I know which are the true resident Spotted Towhees in my yard — the Him and Her of that space — and which of the others this winter are their offspring or visitors. I don’t think I’d know the difference if another Northern Shrike suddenly replaced the one I’ve been watching, off and on this winter, at Willow Spring Open Space in Centennial.
Even if we can’t yet tell a specific individual, we can still detect a lot. Take that shrike, for instance. I’ve noticed that the famously unafraid “butcherbird” can be as withdrawing as any other songbird. A male American Kestrel steals its perch, and the shrike retreats, calling in protest as it goes. (Birds of the World notes that shrikes on their breeding territory will chase off kestrels. But this young shrike is on winter grounds.) And like the American Tree Sparrows also at Willow Spring this winter, the shrike hid away when a male Northern Harrier, the “gray ghost,” coursed through and then above the shrike’s hunting ground.
One more thing I’ve learned. This particular shrike seems to favor small rodents over small songbirds. Though my observations are admittedly limited, I’ve only seen it pluck rodents from the grasses and weeds. It seems to ignore numerous flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds that fly over. In one hunting attack in the grasses, the shrike landed next to a small flock of tree sparrows yet seemed to ignore them.
Birds of the World offers no clue to this shrike’s apparent preference for rodents. Maybe there are more voles this year. Maybe it’s the other predators. Or maybe it’s simply this: I haven’t yet watched the shrike enough to see its songbird pursuits.
Maybe that’s the point (it’s certainly one of the pleasures) of bird-watching. It forces us to slow down and notice more about where we’re watching birds and what else is there. Certainly, spending 30-45 minutes in one spot, and returning there frequently means less time in other spots, other habitats — and fewer species per outing. But remaining still, in one small patch, widens our view to other things, doesn’t it?
Things like the mammal tracks, the tufts of fur snagged on thorns of wild plum, scat, rodent trails, wasp and spider burrows — not to mention an uncommon or unexpected bird that may happen along as we watch. And also those fall and winter seedy weeds, wildflowers, shrubs and vines, all food sources to be surveyed to see how birds use them, and how that shapes our future bird-watching and birding visits.
Gradually, slowly, but never completely, the places where we bird-watch snap into sharper focus. I’ve known, in a general way, why I see the shrike, the kestrel, the sparrows, hawks, harriers and coyotes at Willow Spring — food, of course. But the gap between knowing that fact and experiencing it in the birds’ everyday actions is as wide and expansive as the open space itself.
One day, might we begin to list bird-watching experiences, observations, and learnings alongside our birding checklists of species and numbers? Stories may be harder to quantify, and eBird won’t be keeping state-level rankings of bird-watchers with the most of them. But bird-watching encounters are no less meaningful than birding ones.
This essay originally appeared in Denver Field Ornithologist’s newsletter, Lark Bunting.
This morning, a walk along the High Line Canal Trail in Greenwood Village proved eventful. For most of the walk, a drone — pilot unseen — beat me around every corner. It flew higher than nearly any of the birds, save a large flock of Red-winged Blackbirds.
Wednesday’s snow meant a fairly fresh canvas covered by mammal tracks. Indecipherable ones lined the canal — coyote perhaps, but I’ve also seen a bobcat in the area. Rabbit, raccoon, and rodent tracks crisscrossed the trail.
Down along the Little Dry Creek, signs of beaver activity. Should the beaver have any success at building, their work will certainly be undone. Homes, the trail, and nearby roads all come to close to the creek for Greenwood Village to abide beavers.
A Baffle of Bushtits
During my short walk, I had the good fortune to encounter a flock of 15-20 Bushtits. They were in a productive patch of the canal, along with Chickadees, White-breasted Nuthatches, Juncos, Songs Sparrows, and Spotted Towhees.
Every encounter with Bushtits is magic. They’re incredibly active birds, moving from spot to spot in ways that mean you can never be sure you’ll indeed meet them while birding.
This flock might have been satisfied feeding along the canal, undisturbed by me and my camera. But a Sharp-shinned Hawk had other plans. Entering the scene to briefly perch on a power pole, the hawk inspired the Bushtits to give an emphatic, noisy warning call. They went quite for a time, as the hawk stayed perched. But as soon as the sharpie took off again — flying directly away from the Bushtits — the Bushtits called again.
I’d not heard this vocalization from Bushtit before. Apparently, they reserve it for small avian predators, namely Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks. Joseph Grinnell documented this in a 1903 essay. Referring to the call as a “confusion chorus,” Grinnell speculates that its radiating intensity causes accipiters to lose individual Bushtits to the din.
A flock of bush-tits will be foraging as usual, with the ordinary uncertain medley of location-notes, when suddenly one or two birds utter several of the sharp alarm notes and then begin a shrill quavering piping. This is taken up by the whole flock, until there is a continuous monotonous chorus. At the same time every member of the scattered company strikes a stationary attitude in just the position it was when the alarm was first sounded, and this attitude is maintained until the danger is past. In nearly every case the danger is in the shape of a hawk, more especially of the smaller species such as the sharp-shinned or sparrow hawks. No matter how close the hawk approaches, the shrill chorus continues and even intensifies until the enemy has passed. The remarkable thing about this united cry, is that it is absolutely impossible to locate any single one of the birds by it. The chorus forms an indefinably confusing, all pervading sound, which I know from personal experience to be most elusive. This confusion-chorus, as I think it might be appropriately called, is a sure sign of the appearance of a small hawk even a long way off.
It seems reasonable to infer that this monotonous chorus of uncertain direction, at the same time as it sounds a general alarm, serves to conceal the individual birds, all of which at the same time maintain a statuesque, motionless attitude. Their colors also harmonize closely with the shadows of the foliage. The whole evidently forms a composite protective device, which must be, as a rule, effectual.
Beyond the Bushtits, I encountered a female Northern Flicker in a cavity in a cottonwood. She sat or perched deep in it at times, her head barely visible in the cavity.
She stayed in the cavity for some time, perhaps watching me watch her.
What was she doing? We’re months away from when flicker nesting usually begins. I didn’t notice any obvious nest building activities — no excavation of the cavity, no interactions with a mate.
Perhaps the sun, after snow, sparked something — as, for all of us, it tends to.
Fri 17 Feb 2023 9:58 AM High Line Canal Trail–Greenwood Village / Centennial (Arapahoe Co.)
16 species observed
Sharp-shinned Hawk, 1 Northern Flicker, 4 Blue Jay, 2 Black-billed Magpie, 7 American Crow, 2 Black-capped Chickadee, 5 Bushtit, 15 Red-breasted Nuthatch, 1 White-breasted Nuthatch, 2 European Starling, 3 American Robin, 10 House Finch, 9 Dark-eyed Junco, 2 Dark-eyed Junco (Slate-colored), 1 Dark-eyed Junco (Pink-sided), 1 Song Sparrow, 2 Spotted Towhee, 2 Red-winged Blackbird, 35
In 2009, Vernon R. L. Head and his companions set out to become the first birders to see the rarest bird in the world, the Nechisar Nightjar.
I feel the need to open with a disclaimer. Book writing is difficult. And books aim for an audience. Sometimes, we find ourselves outside that audience. Reviews, I think, should begin from those premises.
This was the case for me with Vernon R. L. Head’s book The Rarest Bird in the World: The Search for the Nechisar Nightjar. On one hand, Head took on an impossible task: the only thing known about the Nechisar Nightjar is that exists, and even this is questioned. In 1990, scientists a single wing in a remote location in southern Ethiopia. In 1995, they published an article identifying it as belonging to a then unknown (to science) nightjar. They named the species Caprimulgus solala (the sole-winged goatsucker), or Nechisar Nightjar, for the location of the bird’s discovery.
Little is known about the wing. And thus the impossibility of Head’s task, to write a book about a bird about which there is nothing to say. Accordingly, The Rarest Bird in the World says little about the Nechisar Nightjar, beyond recounting the discovery of the bird’s wing. A twenty-five page chapter does help the reader understand the family of birds we call Nightjars, Head’s encounters with them as a bird-watcher, and his pursuit of some of their family members and more distant relative, such as Oilbirds, across the globe.
The Wrong Reader
And this leads me to the question of audience. Head is a global birder and The Rarest Bird in the World is as much about global birding as it is Head and companions’ pursuit of the Nechisar Nightjar. As such, it reads more as a travel book than a book about birds, or the environment, or nature.
To be sure, Head offers occasional remarks on conservation, evolution, or the behavior of birds. But The Rarest Bird in the World lacks the careful observations, grounded in a strong sense of place, that I look for in the books I read about birds and birders. Instead, Head’s destinations and his encounters with rare species at those destinations are central to the book. From these, he offers generalizations about what it means to be a bird-watcher. I imagine that some bird-watchers, particularly those who chase birds across the globe, will recognize their way of thinking about and doing birding reflected in Head’s book. As a mostly local birder, who usually eschews the chase, I didn’t.
Given how badly suited I am to The Rarest Bird in the World, I read it in a hurry. I nearly stopped, a chapter or two in, overwhelmed by Head’s use of metaphors. Probably 60-80% of the book’s paragraphs include at least one, often more. I think Head was trying to make the unfamiliar familiar. After all, most readers will not have observed the places and birds that Head wrote of.
For me, Head’s metaphors replaced careful observation of birds and the surprise that comes from uncovering something genuinely new or overlooked in the familiar feathers of a crow, raven, or starling. Head pursues the new in extraordinary encounters with extraordinary birds, and he tried to convey these experiences by comparing them to experiences slightly less extraordinary. Fair enough. But I still prefer the extraordinary in the birds of ordinary places. The ravens, kingbirds, and blackbirds who nest at strip malls have intrigue enough.
Do Rare Birds Need Us?
The Rarest Bird in the World left me wondering what genuinely rare and vulnerable birds want of us. Surely, it’s to be left alone. Being discovered by humans is only “useful” to a vulnerable species in that some humans might protect that species from some other humans. Head tells some of these stories of species pushed to the brink by humans only to be saved, perhaps just barely so, by conservationists and ornithologists.
This is one of the tragedies of human discovery. For many birds, to be known by humans is fatal. And yet to be known, particularly today amid the Anthropocene, might be a vulnerable species best hope.
I asked ChatGPT to create a list of 5 birds named after their songs. The chatbot went 0 for 5. What went wrong?
Worried about ChatGpt? Not me. (At least not yet.) I previously asked the popular chatbot to explain the Whip-poor-will’s name, and it made the same mistakes of 18th century ornithologists. Now, I’ve asked ChatGPT to “Write a blog post about 5 U.S. birds who are named after their song or call.” It offered me this list of birds who definitely don’t sing their name.
Five Remarkable Birds Who Sing Their Names, according to ChatGPT.
Birds are one of nature’s most beautiful and melodious creatures. From their brightly colored feathers to their sweet songs, they are a delight to watch and listen to. In the United States, many species of birds are named after their distinctive songs or calls, making it easier for us to identify them. Here are five such birds and their fascinating stories.
Eastern Bluebird: This beautiful blue bird is known for its cheerful “cheer, cheer, cheer” song. It is a common bird in the eastern United States and is often seen perched on fence posts or trees. Eastern Bluebirds are a symbol of happiness and hope, and their sweet songs can brighten up even the dreariest of days.
Wood Thrush: This bird is easily recognizable by its beautiful, flute-like song that echoes through the woods. The Wood Thrush’s song is considered one of the most beautiful in North America and is often described as a rich and melodious “ee-oh-lay”. These birds are found in deciduous forests across the eastern United States and migrate to Central America for the winter.
Northern Cardinal: The Northern Cardinal is one of the most recognizable birds in the United States, with its distinctive red feathers and sweet whistle-like song. The male cardinal’s song is a series of clear, sharp “cheer-cheer-cheer” notes, which can be heard year-round. This bird is a common sight in gardens, parks, and woodlands across the eastern United States and is a popular bird with birdwatchers.
Tufted Titmouse: This small, acrobatic bird is known for its unmistakable “peter-peter-peter” call. The Tufted Titmouse is a common bird in deciduous forests in the eastern United States and is easily recognizable by its distinctive crest of feathers on its head. These birds are often seen flitting about in the treetops, diving into bushes, and hanging upside down in search of food.
American Robin: The American Robin is one of the first birds to arrive in the spring, signaling the arrival of warm weather. These birds are known for their cheerful “cheer up, cheerily” song and are easily recognizable by their distinctive reddish-orange breast. American Robins are found across North America and are a common sight in gardens, parks, and woodlands.
In conclusion, these five U.S. birds are a testament to the beauty and diversity of nature. From the Eastern Bluebird’s cheerful call to the Wood Thrush’s flute-like song, these birds remind us of the magic of the great outdoors. So next time you’re out on a hike or in your backyard, take a moment to listen for these birds and enjoy their enchanting melodies.
What Went Wrong?
We got off to a good start. The chatbot recognizes that there are indeed birds named for their songs.
Unfortunately, the list offers only the most popular and common eastern U.S. birds. Four of the five have well-known songs that can be translated into English — either with words, “Cheer up, cheerily,” or through approximation, “ee-oh-lay.” But clearly none of these birds is named after their song. The Wood Thrush does not sing “Wood Thrush.” The Norther Cardinal doesn’t call “Car-din-al.” The chatbot entirely missed the distinction between having a song that can be translated into words and those whose name is a translation of their song.
ChatGPT also attributed the Cardinal’s song to the Bluebird. Bluebirds are famous for singing. We can thank Disney for this. But bluebirds are not, from the human perspective, remarkable singers. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology describes their song like this and not as “cheer, cheer, cheer”:
a fairly low-pitched, warbling song made up of several phrases, each consisting of 1-3 short notes. Harsher chattering notes may be interspersed with the whistles.
5 More Remarkable Birds Named After Their Songs
Let’s try again, but with a human writer.
Chickadees. Chickadees are remarkably intelligent, social, and vocal birds. Often, they don’t vocalize their names. So it can be easy to forget that chickadees take their name from their “chick-a-dee” call. Research suggests that they vary the call, encoding messages in it. Remarkably, their messages convey information about predators, such as the size or speed of the threat.
Eastern Towhee. Not all towhees call their name. But the Eastern Towhee is said to. The Eastern Towhee’s song has been translated into English as both “drink-your-teeaaa” and “to-wheeeee.” Only one of those is suited for a bird name, I suppose. The Eastern Towhee has also been given a name after their call: “Chewink.”
Eastern Phoebe. Not all phoebes call their name. (Are you sensing a pattern? As European naturalists first encountered eastern North American birds, the continents other birds received hand-me-down names.) A common bird around homes and other structures, Eastern Phoebes indeed seem to rasp Phoebe’s name.
Bobwhite. No longer widely known by U.S. Americans, Northern Bobwhites were once a staple of popular culture, known for their ability to whistle the English name, “Bob White.” Apparently, everyone knew the bird. Or at least this is what Connee Boswell and Bing Crosby banked on when they sang, “Bob White (Whatcha Gonna Swing Tonight).”
The Wills. Four Northern American Nightjars are said to sing the name “Will“: the Eastern and Western Whip-poor-wills, Chuck Will’s Widow, and the Common Poorwill. Odd thing that these birds would all learn the name of an Englishman. But they did, and all through North America our summer nights fill with Wills.
Jack E. Davis’s book The Bald Eagle reminds us that the national symbol was once erased from the lower 48. One reason? The belief that eagles hunted babies.
I just finished reading Jack E. Davis’ wonderful book The Bald Eagle: The Improbably Journey of America’s Bird. The book is a stunning account of the Bald Eagle’s natural history in the U.S. and Canada, as well as the species’ journey through policy, politics, and culture. Davis’ writing is beautiful, crisp, and loving. And the story is an epic as Bald Eagles themselves.
In truth, it took me much longer than it ought to have. I took breaks to read Sy Montgomery’s essays on hawks and hummingbirds. In part, the book reads slower than it might because there’s a lot packed into the book’s 380+ pages. Especially names. Names upon names. Of naturalists, activists, hunters, poachers, politicians (some who venerated the Bald Eagle, many who didn’t), and conservationists. Many of the names are lost (at least to me) to the arch of the story — from the Eagle’s veneration at the country’s founding, U.S. Americans quickly moved to assaults on the bird, only to realize in time to save them.
Some of these assaults were outright. Some farmers and ranchers killed (and still kill) hawks and eagles to protect domestic animals. Some hunters and fishers antagonize the bird (and still do) to protect prey for humans. Many states once had bounties on the bird, and hunters would exchange talons for dollars.
Other assaults were less direct, but no less fatal. Habitat loss and DDT, especially, nearly did to Bald Eagles what generations of persecution had failed to do: wipe the birds from the continent.
But as every birder knows, Davis’ story has a happy ending. Thanks to the careful and dogged effort of conservationists, Bald Eagles were guided through the worst of DDT’s impact. According to Davis, their population today matches what it did when their land was first colonized by Europeans. While every eagle encounter may still be captivating, such encounters are no longer rare, as they were just four decades ago.
Misunderstanding the Bald Eagle
U.S. Americans persecuted Bald Eagles for many reasons. Most of those have to do with our view of nature as an exploitable resource that serves humans, first, and all others last. From our perspective, Bald Eagles violate this rule by hunting some of the same animals we hunt. Or worse, that we raise to eat ourselves.
But worse than any of this was the fact — well, actually, fiction — that eagles not only ate our food, they also ate our babies. In the early 20th century, some Americans believed that Bald Eagles hunted children, snatching babies from yards and carriages. No matter that eagles can’t carry infants and toddlers. Members of Congress, children’s writers, nature writers, even ornithologists spread the lie of the eagle who hunts human babies.
So, too, did the nascent film industry. Davis’ describes a brief, silent film that Thomas Edison’s movie studied produced in 1908. Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest stars D. W. Griffith, who later go on to direct the racist film Birth of a Nation, as a father who pursues an eagle back to the bird’s nest, where Griffith’s baby has been taken. The film is a sad and awkward 7 minutes or so of propaganda against the eagle. The bird herself appears in the form of a stuffed specimen that, by ropes, hoists the real human baby into the air and back to the eagle’s eyrie.
Edison’s studio has a dubious record, to put it mildly, of representing non-human animals. Five years before making Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest the studio released a film of an elephant, “Topsy,” being electrocuted to death.
We’ve come a long way from the misbelief of this film. But we haven’t yet come far enough. There’s still a general distrust of hawks and eagles. I’ve heard, more than once, that they’re likely to take dogs. They generally won’t, unless those dogs are the smallest of small dogs. No doubt people, vehicles, and other dogs attack dogs more regularly than do raptors. I’ve also had neighbors ask me if Turkey Vultures, which feed on carrion, will attack dogs. They definitely won’t, unless something gets to the dog first.
Davis’ book is an corrective to all of this. Davis is meticulous in his research. He is loving in his descriptions of both eagles and the people who care for them.
Most of all, Davis respects the unbridgeable difference between us and Bald Eagles. Sure, we’re now entangled: Eagle and Nation, eagle and people, nest and cul-de-sac (or golf course or reservoir or stadium lights or cell phone tower). But Eagles, like all other living things, neither exist for us nor on our terms.
Sy Montgomery’s The Hummingbird’s Gift shows just how wild the world’s smallest birds are.
Like The Hawk’s Way, Sy Montgomery’s The Hummingbird’s Gift: Wonder, Renewal, and Beauty on Wings is a repackaged chapter from Montgomery’s book Birdology. In many respects, it’s also about the same themes — wildness and the utter, unpassable gap between humans and a family (or two) of birds.
This theme is more fully realized in The Hummingbird’s Gift. This is unexpected. Hummingbirds would seem a far more docile, less wild thing than a hawk. Consider size. North America’s most familiar hummingbird, the Ruby-throated, weigh just .4% what a large female of North America’s most common hawk, the Red-tailed, weighs. And while the latter are built to kill, hummingbirds are built to lap up nectar and miniscule insects.
It’s the hummingbird’s diminutive size and their delicacy that makes them far less amenable to the handling of humans than hawks. Montgomery explains to us how much of hummingbirds exist as air. Yet its this delicacy that makes hummingbirds such remarkable creatures. They are the only birds that genuinely hover. Hummingbirds are even capable of feeding while upside down in flight. And though Peregrine Falcons get all the attention for their gravity-enhanced speeds, hummingbirds are arguably faster.
… a male Allen’s humingbird, for instance, can dive out of the sky reaching sixty-one miles per hour, plunging from fifty feet at a rate of more than sixty feet per second–and pulling out of his plunge, he experiences more than nine times the force of gravity. Adjusted for body length, the Allen’s is the fastest bird in the world. Diving at 385 body lengths per second, this hummer beats the peregrine falcon’s dives at 200 body lengths per second–and even bests the space shuttle as it screams down the atmosphere at 207 body lengths per seconds.
Montgomery, The Hummingbird’s Gift, p. 16
Most of the Montgomery’s essay is a careful description of the work of Brenda Sherburn, one of the few people in the country who have the skills, patience, and commitment to rehabilitate hummingbirds and their nestling. We follow Brenda and Sy as they try to save the lives of two orphaned Allen’s Hummingbirds nestlings.
It’s a gripping story that can, at any moment, end badly. Hunger, mites, and aggressive Anna’s Hummingbirds threaten the nestlings. Montgomery takes us through all of it, offering bits and pieces of natural and cultural history along the way.
I hope the story leaves its readers planting pollinator-friendly wildflowers and keeping their cats inside. And maybe, just maybe, appreciating the tiny, fairy-like hummers that sip sugar water at feeders. After all, they are no less wild than the hawks and owls that carry off other living things at the harsh edges of prairies and forest.
Our names for birds reveal how we think about them. We can see ever more when we look across languages.
The names we call animals reveal how we think about other species. With birds, they can tell us what we see or hear when we encounter them. These Spanish names might just change how English language birders think about 5 familiar birds.
Eastern Meadowlark, or “Pradero Tortillaconchile”
Meadowlark is a suitable name, at least for poetry of it. But what’s a lark to begin with? And what does our grassland bird have to do with the name’s original holder, Europe’s Skylark?
In truth, the name “Meadowlark” for the Eastern, Western, and the recently “discovered” Chihuahuan Meadowlarks, which was split from the Eastern, doesn’t tell us much. It hints at the birds’ preference for grasslands. But many sparrows–the Lark Bunting, the Lark Sparrow, the Cassin’s Sparrow–all could be fairly called a meadowlark.
And this is why I especially like the name used in Mexico for Eastern Meadowlarks. At first, the name’s not unlike the English language one. “Pradero” translates to “Prairie,” pointing toward the Meadowlarks’ preferred habitats. But the name swerves at Tortillaconchile, an onomatopoeic rendition of their song: “tortilla chile.” As with all onomatopoeic names, it’s both a bit of a stretch and, once heard, a phrase that cannot be unheard.
Spotted Towhees, or “Rascador Moteado”
What’s a “towhee”? A large sparrow. Why’s a towhee called a towhee and not a sparrow? Because towhees make the sound “towhee.” But their call also sounds like “chewink,” another name once applied to the birds. Oh, and this only applies to the bird now called the Eastern Towhee, which gave the rest of the Pipilo genus its common name. (East coast bias…)
Throughout much of the West, the Spotted Towhee is the most common of the towhees. Here in Colorado’s suburbs, the presence of Spotted Towhees is a good indicator of a fairly healthy backyard ecosystem. They like cover, tangled shrubs, and fallen branches. Spotted is an okay descriptive, but Eastern Towhees have a few spots. Western Towhee might have worked, but there are several western towhees. Mew Towhee or Cat Towhee (like Catbird) could honor the species’ feline-like call.
In Mexico, Spotted Towhees are known as Rascador Moteado. Rascador translates to Scratcher, a description of the towhee’s method of gathering food by double-scratching the ground. Moteado means mottled, so not that different from spotted. Still, when combined with “Scratcher,” the name offers a bit more insight into the behavior and appearance of this remarkable towhee.
House Finch, or Pinzón Mexicano
Today, House Finches are among the most common and widespread finch in North America. But this wasn’t always the case. Until the 1940s, House Finches were exclusively western U.S. and Mexican birds. Early in the decade, House Finches were released on Long Island, setting in motion the species’ spread throughout the continent.
The scientific name of House Finches, Haemorhous mexicanus, recalls the bird’s center of gravity in Mexico and lands now part of the US that once belonged to Mexico. (The same is true for the Prairie Falcon, Falco mexicanus.) The name for the House Finch in Mexico, Pinzón Mexicano (the Mexican Finch) reminds us of what borders mean or don’t mean to birds and how our naming practices reflect this.
Loggerhead Shrike, or Verdugo Americano
Birders use the word “loggerhead” unreflexively, without much wonderment about what it means. (A disproportionately large head.) A strange word, indeed, and one that doesn’t mean a whole lot in the field.
Birders also call Loggerhead Shrikes, and Northern Shrikes as well, Butcherbirds, for how brutal these songbirds’ methods of hunting are. This is an old folk name for shrikes that’s now more of a curiosity than a common name for them. Both birds cache food, impaling live prey on thorns and barbed wire. In part, this is to ensure a consistent supply of food, particularly during winter and the breeding season. But the behavior may also be a display behavior, with male shrikes marking territories and advertising their skills in butchering.
In Mexico, the Loggerhead Shrike is known Verdugo American, or American Executioner or American Hangman. Not only is the name more evocative than Loggerhead. It also better suits these birds, whose paths through the world are marked by deaths.
Whip-poor-will, or Tapacaminos Cuerporruín
It wouldn’t be a bird list without a Whip-poor-will. In most languages, the species’ name is a translation of the bird’s song. Cuerporruínm, which is used in both Spain and Mexico, combines two words: “cuerpo” and “ruín.” (I think the addition of an “r” to join the two words is meant to replicate the bird’s trill, which is particularly pronounced in the Mexican Whip-poor-will (Antrostomus arizonae).)
As a translation of the species’ song, “Cuerporruín” is as effective of an imitation as “Whip-poor-will.” The name is also more evocative, translating to Despicable (or Contemptible, or Mean, or Vicious) Body.
But it’s not just Cuerporruín that enriches the Whip-poor-will. Tapacaminos is an alternative to the European and English language names for the Whip-poor-will’s family: Goatsuckers (e.g., Chotacabras, in Spain) and Nightjars. Both names are famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective). But neither is suitable. Goatsuckers is based on folklores around the bird, which had them suckling goats. Nightjar, which conjures the song of Europe’s nightjar, isn’t as suitable to the more melodious North American jars.
In Mexico, the name is used for three other Nightjars that are also present in the US: the Common Poorwill, the Mexican Whip-poor-will, and the Chuck Will’s Widow. The name combines two words: “tapa” and “caminos.” It translates to Trail Topper or Road Topper. A fitting name for the Nightjars like Whip-poor-wills and Poorwills, who will often hunt from the ground at the trail and roadsides that cut through their habitats.