Monday, February 13, 2012

Putting Birds to Bed. . .And What They Think When They Wake Up

 [This Ring-necked Duck slept on a tiny pond at Cox Hall Creek WMA Saturday night. I know, because I left him there at dark, and went back at dawn on Sunday to photograph him. If you squint you can see the brown ring around the base of his neck, whence cometh the oft-criticized name.]

Have you ever lingered with a bird as the evening light fades to darkness, just to see what it does? I did over the weekend, putting the Ring-necked Duck pictured above to bed, and was delighted to find him still there at dawn the next morning, for a while anyhow.

We tend to be too busy to stay with a bird for more than a minute or two, yet many of my most deeply intimate moments with birds come from sharing nightfall with them, watching them go wherever they decide to consign their fates for the night.

Several times I've been lucky enough to be in a deer stand near the chosen roosting cavities of titmice or chickadees. A little flock will come, scolding softly in the near dark, inspecting and discussing each tree hole, entering and leaving and entering again, and before you know it the woods are silent and you can imagine a titmouse wedged tightly against wood, eyes closed, waiting between sleep for dawn again.

Wild Turkeys roost in trees, and for years I lived near a white pine grove they favored, and hid nearby to watch the pageant. It began with the rustling footsteps of the flock, punctuated by occasional nervous putts and yelps. Then they would stand, for a long time, watching and listening, for predators one presumes. Who will go first? Then the woop-woop-wooping of wide wings lifts the first bird into the trees of an otherwise quiet wood, often accompanied by the sound of small branches struck or broken as the big bird settles in. Another follows, and another - there are always more birds than you would have guessed from the sound of the flock on the ground. A Great-horned Owl calls across the valley, and you wonder what it's like to be a turkey on a roost knowing the cat-owl is hunting.

Saturday morning I happened to look over from the drive-up window at the bank in Rio Grande and see what I first took to be a windblown piece of white paper moving erratically through the woods. Binoculars revealed an adult Cooper's Hawk bound to a white Rock Pigeon, struggling to carry it somewhere to dine. The pigeon itself struggled no more, and I thought, I bet that pigeon didn't wake up this morning thinking its day would end that way.

I saw several more Cooper's Hawks this weekend. One perched viglantly on a wire overlooking the vast phragmites stand at Fishing Creek marsh, north of the Villas. Waiting, I'm sure, as dawn broke, for the blackbirds and robins that roost in the phragmites to move. Another swept through the yard at mid-morning carrying a grackle, and I thought the same thing I thought about the pigeon.

A few of us gathered for, of all things, dancing at a Cape May bar late Saturday night, well, late for me (9 to midnight), and I mentioned the pigeon. We talked about it, wondering whether birds thought like that, if they thought about what would happen that day, thought of or even knew about death. I think we decided they didn't, and I know I decided they couldn't, because if birds thought like people, and knew that at any moment a Cooper's Hawk or Great-horned Owl could abruptly and permanently end their day or night, they would quickly go insane.

Something to consider the next time you're pissed because the coffee's not done brewing, or waiting nervously before a meeting with your boss.

[Springing straight up from the water, as dabbling ducks do, these American Wigeon are part of a flock that has shrunk to 6 birds at Cox Hall Creek WMA, on the big lake. Divers, like the Ring-necked, have to patter along the water to get airborne, a result of heavier bodies and smaller wings. Though as divers go, Ring-necks get airborne quickly. I look at the ring-necked in the photo above and note its feet seem oversize, wonder if that helps? Whatever it is, Ring-neckeds are often found on small ponds both breeding and wintering, where the runway for take-off might not be long enough for other diving ducks.]

 [Chipping Sparrow, Cox Hall Creek WMA this morning, showing trademark gray rump (Clay-colored's rump is brown).]

I spent a fair bit of time over the last 3 days coursing over Cox Hall Creek WMA, both on and off trail. I go there a lot, because it's close, and yet until today hadn't bumped into a Chipping Sparrow. Apparently that was because they are all in the extreme SW corner of the WMA, where I never go. Until today, when I found a flock of 15+ Chipping Sparrows there, along with 2 Savannah Sparrows, another bird I hadn't had at the Villas this winter. Other notables there, despite the wind (and brother has there been wind) include at least 2 continuing Red-headed Woodpeckers, more or less in the middle of the WMA, both kinglets and Winter Wren in the woods on the east side, and an American Woodcock flushed near where the Red-headed Woodpeckers hang out.

[10 of the at least 15 Chipping Sparrows at Cox Hall Creek today.]


  1. Interesting thoughts Don. I feel like birds must have some concept of death, or else their survival instincts would be pretty poor and birds like Cooper's Hawks wouldn't have such high rates of mortality in their first year of life. I've always thought that the possibility of predation is just something they live with, perhaps something akin to people living in an unsafe do what you can to stay out of bad situations, but you don't sit around cowering in fear.