The thrill of discovering “new” birds in the footsteps of Denver’s first ornithologist

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:

This essay first appeared in the October 2022 newsletter of Denver Field Ornithologists, The Lark Bunting.

Featured photo of Cheesman Park in Denver by flickr user Ken Lund.

What Robins Take with Them

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. 

Photo credit: Jared Del Rosso
American Robin (Jared Del Rosso)

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.

Photo credit: Jared Del Rosso
American Robin (Jared Del Rosso)

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.)

Photo credit: Jared Del Rosso
Sharp-shinned Hawk and American Robin (Jared Del Rosso)

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.

Bird-ing? Here’s to the joys of bird-watching

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 McGregor described 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.

Northern Shrike (Jared Del Rosso)

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.

Northern Harrier (Jared Del Rosso)

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.

Featured photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

Review of The Rarest Bird in the World

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.

Oilbird, a relative of the Nightjars.
Oilbird. Photo by Doug Greenberg on flickr.

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.

A Raven @ Tower of London. Photo by Kasturi Roy on Unsplash

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.

For more, listen to this 4 minute NPR program.

Featured Photo of the plains of Nechisar by flickr user Rafael Medina

That Time when Americans thought Eagles would Snatch Babies.

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

Bald Eagle by Philipp Pilz on
Photo by Philipp Pilz on Unsplash

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.

Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest (1908)

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.

Featured Photo by Ingo Doerrie on Unsplash

The Hummingbird’s Gift: Wonder, Renewal, and Beauty on Wings

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
SUPERNATURE – WILD FLYERS | Anna’s Hummingbird | PBS

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.

Broad-tailed Hummingbird feeding on Agastache rupestris
Broad-tailed Hummingbird feeding on Agastache rupestris

Featured Photo by Dustin Humes on Unsplash

Sy Montgomery’s The Hawk’s Way: Encounters With Fierce Beauty

Falconers, not hawks, take center stage in Sy Montgomery’s book The Hawk’s Way: Encounters With Fierce Beauty.

I feel a two-fold ambivalence about Sy Montgomery’s book The Hawk’s Way: Encounters With Fierce Beauty. The ambivalence first comes from the fact that the book is not a book. It is a chapter of Montgomery’s Birdology repackaged with photos to stand alone; the production was clearly rushed and at least two of those photos have incorrect captions. The second ambivalence comes from the purposelessness of the story Montgomery tells. Just when I thought I had found the hawk’s way, Montgomery lost it.

Selling The Hawk’s Way

In tiny type on the front cover, below the title, a reproduction of Audubon’s illustration of a Harris’s Hawk (then the Louisiana Hawk), below even the reminder that Sy Montgomery is a New York Times bestselling author is this disclaimer: “Previously published as a chapter in Birdology.”

Birdology was published by Simon & Schuster. The Hawk’s Way (and The Hummingbird’s Gift) were published by Atria, a division of Simon & Schuster.

The repackaging alone doesn’t bother me. The chapter is now a stand alone essay with a lovely cover and full color photographs. The problem is it seems the production of the book was done quickly or without proper checks on the images photographs that are meant to make the book special. At least two species of raptors are mislabeled in the book–a disappointment that chips away at Montgomery’s credibility in telling her story of the hawk’s way (though I suspect we don’t owe the production to her).

Ferruginous Hawk. Photo by David Thielen on Unsplash

The third color photograph of a bird shows a Ferruginous Hawk in Colorado. The bird stands on the ground, as Ferruginous Hawks often do in the open, dry grasslands and pastures they hunt in Colorado.

The photograph’s caption tells the reader: “Red-shouldered hawks love tall woods and water. This one, photographed in Colorado, has an unusually light breast.”

So here is a hawk, standing among dry grasses, loving tall woods and water. Here’s a nearly-white breasted raptor, while the Red-shouldered Hawks red shoulders bleed rust through their breast.

Photo by Richard Sagredo on Unsplash

Later in the book, an apparent Peregrine Falcon is labeled as the much smaller and more colorful American Kestrel.

It’s easy to make mistakes in the writing or production of a book. Copyeditors and I have caught mistakes in the spelling of well-known names in books I’ve written. I shudder to think what I didn’t catch.

But the mistakes in The Hawk’s Way are glaring. They are attached to one of the elements of The Hawk’s Way that make it a special book to own and not just a book chapter.

The mistake has the effect of eroding Montgomery’s credibility as a narrator of the hawk’s way of life. The book is short on species accounts to begin with. (In truth, a more accurate title is The Falconer’s Way.) So to not know the main characters well enough to use their proper names is something of a disappointment.

The Wayward Way

My other ambivalence comes from the underlying meaning of the stories Montgomery tells. For much of the chapter, I thought I was with her. This seems a story about the wildness of diurnal raptors and the profound incompatibility between their wildness and our own way of being in the world.

Books on birds often look for ways to diminish the distance between us and them. This brings us closer to birds, giving their lives meanings on our terms and investing us in them and their conservation.

This is particularly true of books on social songbirds, like crows, ravens, and starlings. Corvids, especially, possess remarkable, human-life abilities. They can solve problems. They express emotions. They lie. They play. They use vocalizations in ways that seem to mirror human language.

Not so, hawks. (Or perhaps most hawks, though they’re treated with a broad brush in The Hawk’s Way.)

I appreciate Montgomery’s effort to express the singularity of hawk-ness. But this seemed to fade into the background of the book the more Montgomery involved herself in the world of falconry.

This is particularly so in the book’s conclusion. The closing scene has Montgomery going out in the field with a master falconer to hunt with a young bird. It seemed a mess. Wild hawks lurk at the edges of the scene, and these birds’ wildness seems a problem to be solved. Conflicts between a hunting dog and the falconry birds abound. And all of this seems to result from human mistakes, not precision.

Perhaps this is what falconry is like, given the profound difference between a hawk and a human. But Montgomery doesn’t tell us if this is so. More importantly, she doesn’t help us understand this, so that we can appreciate the mistakes as something other than mistakes.

Instead, the clumsiness of the scene left me feeling for everyone subject to the interests and actions of humans — the wild birds seen as threats, the dogs who might the falconry birds might attack, those birds who might get downed by a Goshawk or Red-tailed, and the quails feeding all of the action.

And then I was left wondering the purpose of it all. If it’s to get close to wildness, then why the neglect of the wild birds when they enter the scene? (And the neglect of them when photographed and used to illustrate a book.)

If, as the final sentence seems to suggest, it’s to appreciate the meaning of animal lives and deaths, why not live, for a moment, with the quail’s way?

What’s a good bird? Elizabeth Cherry’s “For the Birds”

As a qualitative sociologist who’s also a bird-watcher—or perhaps, more accurately, a bird-watcher who is also a qualitative sociologist—I was thrilled to discover Elizabeth Cherry’s book For the Birds: Protecting Wildlife through the Naturalist Gaze (Routledge, 2019).

Cherry is an associate professor of sociology at Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York, mainly researching and teaching in the areas of culture, theory, and the environment. For the Birds is her second book on animals and society. Her first, Culture and Activism: Animal Rights in France and the United States, was also published by Routledge. Both books have also won distinguished book awards from the Animals & Society Section of the American Sociological Association.

For the Birds is a book I wish I’d written. Cherry participated in birding trips and interviewed birders to understand how we think about and act toward birds and the environment. The book dispels stereotypes about birders as obsessives interested mainly, if not exclusively, in their life lists to show how we learn to care about the birds we encounter and the habitats that sustain them. She describes us developing a “naturalist gaze” through which we observe the dynamic relationships between birds, humans, and urban / suburban habitats.

Two of the chapters in For the Birds address birders’ perceptions and ways of talking about specific species and categories of birds. Given my own interest in how people think about Nightjars and Nighthawks, these chapters are of special interest.

Chapter 3 addresses common birds; Cherry shows that birders are not nearly as indifferent toward the typical birds of yards and parks as we normally think. Rather, we take common birds as indicators of relatively healthy ecosystems, particularly in urban and suburban environments.

Cherry also demonstrates how birding trip leaders try to convey this quality of common birds, helping field trip participants value the numerically common birds. Her writing on this resonated with my own experience, both as a trip participant and trip leader. Field trip leaders may draw attention to common birds, teacher novice birders how to identify them, and share origin stories of those birds’ presence in urban and suburban landscapes.

Learning to see the connections between birds, food sources, water sources, and built environments is critically important in this. Urban and suburban habitats come alive when we can perceive these connections. And birders may develop a commitment to stewardship and conservation, creating backyard and neighborhood landscapes that can sustain these connections. That so many birders become proponents of native plants is an example of this.

Chapter 5, meanwhile, addresses the distinctions birders make between “good” and “bad” birds. The former are, in a sense, birds–in–place: native species in balance with ecosystems. Birders are take into consideration commonness of birds. Uncommon birds and/or those that we only encounter during migration tend to be described as “good” birds during and after our outings in the field. Bad birds tend to be species out of alignment with ecosystems — invasive species and those birders consider “harmful” to other birds. Brown-headed Cowbirds, which lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, are the main example of the latter.

For a while now, I’ve found it curious that birders, myself included, will use phrases like “good bird” and “best bird” when describing their outings. I’ve wanted to analyze posts in birding lists to see which birds us birders apply these terms to. My sense is that uncommon birds — migratory ones and colorful ones, especially — most frequently earn this label. I’ll tend to use the term to apply to some migratory vireos in the Front Range of Colorado — Plumbeous and Cassin’s Vireos, especially, but not the rather common Warbling Vireo.

But Cherry shows that birders also consider the broader, ecological context of bird sightings.

Birders deem birds “good” based on their behavior, including how they fit into an ecosystem and how they exercise agency to provide ecosystem benefits.

Cherry, For the Birds, p. 117-18

A bird like the Common Nighthawk — my favorite bird and almost always the “best” bird on my lists when I see this — fits most of these criteria. It is, most of the year, numerically uncommon (by comparison to common birds). Though not difficult to encounter, it’s not exactly easy to encounter. So sightings, too, are rather infrequent in most urban and suburban settings.

But their behavior, too, draws me in: their crepuscular flights; their singular calls; and their intense, unsteady pursuits of prey. (I’ve written of these in “The Nighthawk’s Trajectory,” for the Center for Humans and Nature.) And then there are Nighthawks relationships to ecosystems: their dependence on flying insects as prey and their use of human habitats for nesting, for instance. This is what Cherry means by “good birds” exercising “agency.”

I also have a tendency of designating every Shrike I see — Loggerheads during spring and fall migration, Northern during winter — as a “good” bird. Like nighthawks and some vireos, they’re uncommon. On most bird outings, I don’t expect to see them. They are also rather “picky” in their exercising of agency. They need particular habitats and food sources. In Denver’s suburbs, they tend to prefer weedy, overgrown areas with lots of insects and mice. This means you’re less likely to encounter them in a backyard than you are even the uncommon vireos. And many suburban parks wouldn’t attract them. Rather, you need wilder portions of suburban habitat.

All of this is to say that Cherry’s sociological analysis of how birders think and talk about common, good, and bad birds resonates with — and, indeed, clarifies — the birder’s experience.

Featured photo by Joshua J. Cotten on Unsplash

Book Review: Flights of Fancy by Peter Tate

Peter Tate’s book Flights of Fancy documents the odd and unusual in European folklore of birds.

Flights of Fancy: Birds in Myth, Legend and Superstition by Peter Tate describes thirty European species of birds and the folklores surrounding them.

The book’s chapter on nightjars led me to it. This chapter, like most in the book offers a brief history of the species in European legend. It offers a fairly rudimentary description of these legends, and most of the chapter’s content could be gleaned from the Wikipedia entry on the European Nightjar. (In fairness to Tate, he wrote a brief, but impactful natural history of Nightjars. Most of the Wiki entry on the species could be gleaned from Tate’s earlier account.)

This is typical of the book, as many Goodreads’ reviewers of it have noted. Some of the chapters offer rather basic descriptions of folklore surrounding European birds. And Flights of Fancy isn’t ripe with references that lead readers back to historical sources.

And yet I found the book, as a whole, endearing and informative, if not a bit beguiling for the strangeness of European beliefs around birds. Barnacle geese, for instance, were believed to have been born not from eggs but something like a mix of sea foam and barnacles.

Barnacle Geese by Ronald Woan @ flickr

An old remedy for headaches, meanwhile, required killing a swallow on a full moon, drying the swallow, then grinding it into a medicine — a rather elaborate ritual when nibbling on willow bark would do.

Tate’s chapter on Wrynecks, a bird unfamiliar to me, taught me that the genus’s scientific name (Jynx) is the origin of the familiar word, jinx. This holds up. Both the OED and Merriam-Webster attribute the origin of the word jinx to folklore surrounding the genus.

Eurasian Wryneck
Eurasian Wryneck (Jynx torquilla) captured at Borit, Gojal, Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan with Canon EOS 7D Mark II

I also learned of the rich Christian folklore surrounding the bird, of which I was entirely unaware. Two species — the European Robin (not a thrush like the robins of the Americas, but a flycatcher) and swallows — were held in particularly high esteem for having provided aid to Jesus during the Crucifixion. The red of Robin Redbreast was believed to be a drop of Jesus’s blood that the bird carries on its chest. (A sort of follow-up legend, which Tate doesn’t describe, has Merlins, a falcon, capturing robins and keeping them captive during cold winter nights. Their red breasts, apparently, would warm the falcons.)

Birds were also believed to have access to magical stones and herbs. People could access them by tricking the birds into retrieving one. This often involved an act of cruelty — injuring or blinding a young bird — so the parent would retrieve the stone or herb in question. Then, when the adult bird returns to the nest, it’s fooled again — a red blanket is put under the bird’s tree, simulating a fire. The bird, in a rush to put out the fire, then would drop the stone or herb to the deceitful human.

Swallows, for instance, could retrieve stones that cure blindness. Tate writes,

If you wanted to obtain the pebble for yourself, you first had to blind the nestlings of a pair of swallows, so that the females would fly off to get the magic stone and touch their nestlings’ eyes with it in order to restore their sight. Then you had to place a red cloth beneath the nest, so that the swallow would drop the stone on to it, believing that she was dropping it into a fire.

Flights of Fancy, 2007, p. 140

Flights of Fancy is, definitely, Eurocentric, and many reviewers of the book note this. Most single volume field guides are provincial in nature, by necessity — birds are too global and diverse a kingdom to be otherwise.

The book’s failing is less in its focus, though, but in its subtitle, which promises more than it offers. This is European birds in European myths, legends, and superstitions. Tate tends only to invoke beliefs from Asia and the western hemisphere when they’re largely resonate with the European myths. This allows Tate to document the surprising coincidence of beliefs around global genera of birds, such as Cranes (Grus).

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