“Lead, kindly fowl! They always did: ask the ages. What bird has done yesterday man may do next year, be it fly, be it moult, be it hatch, be it agreement in the nest. For her socioscientific sense is sound as a bell, sir, her volucrine automutativeness right on normalcy: she knows, she just feels she was kind of born to lay and love eggs…” – James Joyce from Finnegan’s Wake
WATCH A MURMURATION OF STARLINGS
STEPHEN HARPER BIRDS
PELICANS – video
MALE PEACOCK DISPLAY – video
PEREGRINE FALCONS NEST ON THE CLIFFS IN DOWNTOWN WINNIPEG
VULTURES OF ST. VICTOR
THE WHOLE SONG BIRDS OF NORTH AMERICA BOOK
CEDAR WAXWINGS IN BRANDON
JERRY LEWIS BIRDS
Among my most treasured and influential possessions from my childhood is a small book called Song Birds of North America by Roger Tory Peterson. A promotion item from Brooke Bond Canada Ltd, makers of tea and coffee back in the 1950s & 60s, the book is an album that holds a series of collectible bird cards. The cards came in packages of Red Rose tea and Blue Ribbon coffee. The little album is copyright 1959 by the National Wildlife Federation. I’d be ten years old and spending long summer days exploring the bluffs and sloughs, the fields and bush around Shoal Lake, my hometown in western Manitoba.
Red Rose and Blue Ribbon were popular brands at the time so lots of kids collected the cards. We traded extras, filling in blanks and completing collections.
The cards are full colour illustrations of the birds with information on the back. The back of each card has the same information that appears in the album. There are 48 cards, all bilingual. Many of the bird descriptions include phonetic spellings of their calls.
Growing up in rural Manitoba, there were always opportunities to see birds close-up, to hear them repeatedly all year and to become well acquainted with them. Song Birds of North America helped me identify the birds by sight and sound.
American writer Edward Abbey, when he took tourists on excursions down American rivers in the Southwest, was incessantly asked, “What’s that?” His reply was always, “I have no idea what it is. We call it a house wren,” or whatever the critter happened to be. Our naming simply does not capture the essence of many birds. It takes encounters with them at all our ages and in all their seasons for us to even begin answering, “What’s that?”
If you have a solid foundation of knowledge about something from childhood, you are likely to find some use for it throughout your life. This happened with my bird book. It created a sustained interest in birds that makes me curious when I see a flock wheeling in the sky or hear a new bird song. I need to know what bird it is. I’m not a serious bird watcher or bird chaser, as a friend calls them. I just need to go to Birdland now and then.
The birds I write about are not rare at all. They are some of the most common birds in North America. Except for European starlings, these birds are seldom seen in cities. Their habitat requires open spaces or quiet forests, places where humans are rare. The circumstances and location of my encounters with these birds makes them special to me. Often they enliven a forest or field with their twitters and songs. Birds heighten my experience of sacred hilltops, those lonesome places where the sky feels like a second skin and the only sound is the wind soughing pierced eerily by a red-tailed hawk soaring and crying overhead. Birds bring a sudden sense of delight when their hopeful and rejuvenating songs rise out of the background din of city living.
They come alone and they come in flocks. They soar or sit in silence and they have so much to say they can’t shut up. Take flight, flock with me, share some cherries, build a nest, lay an egg and fly, fly some more.
A MURMURATION OF STARLINGS
Thousands of starlings wheeling en masse in the air is called a murmuration. Click the picture to watch an amazing video of a huge murmuration on River Shannon in Ireland. In an article called Jerry Lewis Birds, I wrote about the European starlings that live in my neighbourhood.
Stephen Harper Birds
In a previous post, I wrote about the Jerry Lewis Birds that inhabit my and my neighbour’s backyards. In fact, they are European starlings and come with an asinine genesis in North America. Having grown accustomed to the starling’s bizarre repertoire of trills, thrills and chills, mimicking cats, squeaky hinges and other birds with expert precision, their sudden absence this spring was obvious.
In their place, a flock of Stephen Harper Birds invaded my neighbourhood. These birds have shiny heads and cold yellow eyes. They aggressively usurp the starlings’ nests, threaten smaller birds like the sparrows that nest in my neighbour’s birdhouses, en masse attack crows and other birds, dive at cats and squirrels and offer a boring repetitious song. Because I didn’t know what science calls these birds, their sinister appearance and unpredictable behaviour earned them the moniker Stephen Harper Birds.
Just as appropriately they are, in fact and by the bird book, common grackles. A lanky blackbird apparently, but when in flocks are noisy and aggressive. I noticed a pair of grackles building a large nest high up in a conical cedar tree in my backyard. I didn’t want these greedy belligerent birds in my life all summer so I applied some bird psychology. I know, how hard can it be to outsmart a bird? Read on…
In my decades I have come to understand that aggression understands aggression so, with that in mind, I tied a stout piece of rope about eight feet high up on the trunk of the cedar where the grackles nested and yanked on it vigourously. It caused the lean tree to sway wildly and the top section where the nest was to whiplash violently, sending the bird fluttering out of the nest. I started this mid afternoon and did it every two hours, always accompanied with wild growls, hisses and noises to add to the effect. During the day other grackles would come and croak away, defending the nest, I guess. But I kept it up until about two in the morning and the bird would fly out of the nest each time. I did this for two days, always with the strange noises. By the third day, the grackles had moved on.
I expected them to return and start nesting again but it hasn’t happened. I notice they have moved about a block west of here, apparently finding easier and more amenable nesting opportunities there. At least now that they have abandoned our backyards, the cats can peacefully snooze on the railings again, the sparrows sound much happier and the European starlings have reclaimed their nests. No more Stephen Harper Birds to defile the neighbourhood. (My apologies to common grackle lovers for the comparison to The Dark One.)
MALE PEACOCK DISPLAY
PEREGRINE FALCONS NEST ON THE CLIFFS OF DOWNTOWN WINNIPEG
assembled by Reid Dickie
Following an alarming decline during the 1950s and 1960s, this spectacular falcon, also called the “Duck Hawk,” is on the increase again, now that DDT and other pesticides that caused thinning of eggshells have been banned. After an intensive program of rearing birds in captivity and releasing them in the wild (a process called “hacking”), this large falcon is reclaiming nesting grounds from which it disappeared a few decades ago. Although their habitat is mainly open country, especially along rivers and coasts and near lakes, a favorite nesting site nowadays is a tall building or bridge in a city. These urban Peregrines subsist mainly on pigeons.
Since 1989, pairs of reintroduced Peregrines have nested high atop the Radisson Hotel on Portage Avenue in downtown Winnipeg. Characteristically, Peregrines return regularly to favourite nesting sites. One pair after another has used the same spot in England since 1243. Since 2006, CBC Manitoba has provided a falcon cam in the nest of the downtown birds. This year, the chicks have just hatched so the feeding frenzies now begin. Click pic to start falcon cam.
The Peregrine Falcon has been the favourite of falconers for over 3,000 years, ever since the nomads of central Asia first pursued game with trained hawks and falcons. Extremely acute eyesight, even in dim light, allows falcons to be very effective hunters around dawn and dusk.
Peregrines often migrate very rapidly between breeding and wintering areas, flying as much as 500 km per day. A female Peregrine that nested in Edmonton flew to Mazatlan, Mexico, in less than eight days and returned in six days.
With the exception of Antarctica, New Zealand, and Iceland, the Peregrine is found around the globe. Twenty-two subspecies are recognized throughout the world. Their great powers of flight have enabled them to establish nesting populations in the Arctic, and as far south as Tasmania, South Africa, and the Falkland Islands.
Peregrines breed from Alaska and the Canadian Arctic south locally through the mountainous West right into Mexico, and sparingly in East. Peregrines winter coastally, north to British Columbia on the west coast and into Nova Scotia on the eastern seaboard.
As I walked up the easy incline toward the Turtle Effigy in southern Saskatchewan, overhead I heard familiar prairie music – the piercing screech of Red-Tailed Hawk. The bird had followed me from Wild Man Butte, half an hour away, or so it seemed, and would meet me again at the Herschel Petroglyphs, hundreds of miles away. As I prayed amid the stones on that serene hilltop, Red-Tailed Hawk hunted up and down the surrounding ravines.
I have encountered this beautiful creature at sacred sites all over the prairies. The call of Red-Tailed Hawk punctuates the vast loneliness of wide-open spaces with its desperate, even crazy edge, a shrill urgency meant to frighten small timorous critters from the safety of grass nests to become hawk breakfasts. Hear it.
To the south of Turtle Effigy, the plains roll away toward Big Muddy Lake, usually a shallow, white-rimmed affair. In a bluff down the hill, an uneven nest of sticks built near the swaying top of a huge cottonwood indicates the home of Red-Tailed Hawk. Nests like these abound from Alaska to Panama. A successful bird, Red-Tailed Hawk is the most abundant hawk in North America and the largest, the female a third bigger than the male. The bird’s size caused ancient inhabitants to call it Red Eagle.
Red-Tailed Hawk, of the genus buteo (pronounced ‘beauty-o’), comes in a striking array of colour combinations. The consistent feature is the rufous-coloured tail, redder on top, pinkish underneath.
I have watched Red-Tailed Hawk’s skillful hunting and heard the melancholy cries at buffalo pounds, turtle effigies, burial mounds, snake pits and petroglyphs all across the southern prairies. If it is hunting in a valley, I may never see the bird but only hear its cries. Their numbers make them ubiquitous out here. Extremely rare in cities, they prefer lonesome expansive grasslands or rich marshes.
A special encounter with sacred Red-Tailed Hawk occurred in an unlikely place. A few days before my double-bypass heart surgery in June 2002, with my prayer circle and spirit friends in place, I was taking a walk down our elm-shaded streets when I heard the distinctive sharp cry of Red-Tailed Hawk! In the middle of the city! It was clear and recognizable in the midday din.
The sound of the hawk immediately transported me back to the sacred sites I’ve come to know over the years. I recalled the helpful local spirits at these places and realized, since I have a familiarity with them, they would be an important part of my healing.
I don’t know what made the sound of Red-Tailed Hawk in the middle of the city – I didn’t see the bird, only heard its cry. Whatever it was, it reminded me of the places and the powers I have encountered, how they manifested in my life on the verge of surgery and how they could play a role in my healing afterwards.
Thank you for reminding me Red-Tailed Hawk.
VULTURES OF ST. VICTOR
Above and south of the tiny village of St Victor in southern Saskatchewan a row of naked sandstone outcrops protrude over the Sylvan Valley. The view from the place is spectacular. To the north Montague Lake is a blue dash among yellow and green fields checked with black summer fallow. To the west is Twelve Mile Lake; in the east is Willow Bunch Lake. These lakes are the remnants of a huge drainage channel that icy torrents of glacial meltwater dug from the prairie as the latest Ice Age ended. They extend east to include Big Muddy Lake and the surrounding badlands, finally to meet the Missouri River and flow to the sea.
Etched into the top of one of the sandstone promontories is a variety of petroglyphs, images hand carved in the stone. Turtles, human faces, grizzly paws with long claws, human hands and feet, buffalo, elk and deer tracks with dewclaws, carved into the horizontal sandstone surface. Near the outer edge of the stone, there are carvings of two human feet aligned so the next step would be into thin air. Or perhaps onto the ice. It is possible this was an unglaciated area during the last Ice Age and the ice abutted this cliff. See Sacred Places page for complete report on this site.
St Victor is one of the stops on my annual pilgrimage into the Saskatchewan holy land, a tour of ancient sacred sites, geographical anomalies and interesting “feeling” places that runs parallel to the Canada-US border. This is my fourth visit here. The tour begins in southern Manitoba at several burial mounds. In Saskatchewan it includes human effigies, turtle and buffalo effigies, the petroglyphs, a medicine wheel in Grasslands National Park, a ceremonial site near Val Marie, and the “mystery rocks” south of Cypress Hills Provincial Park to name a few of the places created by ancient peoples.
It’s a hot day at the end of July 1998. I turned south out of St. Victor for the short drive up the steep side of the valley to the parking lot and noticed a huge dark bird circling slowly on the updrafts. I park below the sandstone cliff where the petroglyphs are.
At the base of this outcrop, there is dense and rich forest with plenty of game. There is also a large source of red ochre. Sitting in a small pasture to the east of the road to the site, there is a large boulder bleeding red onto the ground. This would have been a strong attraction. Red ochre was used ceremonially, to “embalm” the dead and as an insect repellant.
A short hike through a cool forest and 165 wooden stairs that wend their way up the face of the cliff gives you access to the site. The layers of stone you pass as you ascend reveal the area’s geological history. In the soft sandstone, deep tunnels have been eroded smooth by centuries of water and wind. The hen scratchings in the stone by modern visitors are lame imitations of the sublime carvings at the top.
I get to the first landing and from above hear a sudden gruff gurgling sound. Looking up I saw a large black bird perched on a jutting rock near the top of the climb. It had naked red skin over its small head and neck, a large, cruelly hooked beak, its neck curved into a hunched black body that suggests vulture. It ruffles its feathers in a mildly threatening manner and makes the strange gurgle again as I climb the stairs. I thought the petroglyphs must have acquired a guardian spirit. A few more steps I see what the bird is guarding.
Two almost-grown chicks stand a few meters inside a deep rock crevice. As big as adult chickens they are mostly covered with white down, their wings blackening. The parent bird takes flight as I approach and silently performs aerial ballet for the duration of my stay. Eyeing me with suspicion the chicks retreat deeper into the crevice as I pass by. When I come back down the stairs, I don’t see them at all.
It is my first encounter with a turkey vulture, not uncommon on the prairies but this would be close to the northern limits of its habitat. A big bird, the turkey buzzard can have a wingspan of two meters. It is a carrion eater living mainly on dead and decaying flesh and finds suitable habitat from southern Canada to the Strait of Magellan. Turkey vultures are voiceless birds which accounts for the attention-getting gurgle. Though its sharp talons and curved beak suggest killing ability, they do not possess enough strength, thus the reliance on scavenging dead and decaying meat supplemented by some vegetation. Day flyers, turkey vultures have keen senses and locate food by sight and an acute sense of smell. The turkey vultures play an important role in cleaning up carcasses. Their digestive juices are so strong that no virus or bacteria can survive.
The natural gas industry has found an interesting use for the keen sense of smell of turkey vultures. Since natural gas is odourless, a chemical, ethyl mercaptan, is added. This chemical, also produced by decaying meat, attracts turkey vultures to leaks in gas pipelines.
If cornered, turkey vultures have two ways to defend themselves. They will suddenly roll over and play dead. Sometimes they will eject a foul-smelling vomit at their foe. Turkey vultures are among the most graceful soaring birds in the world. With the silvery lining under their wings glinting in the sun, they can glide on thermals for hours. During these long soars, the wings are held in a distinctive V shape and seldom flapped.
Turkey vultures are not averse to being around people. They seem to enjoy us. There have been occasions when turkey vultures “adopt” a person such as the woman in California who walked her dog in a certain place each day accompanied overhead by a turkey vulture. When she was unable to walk her dog due to a broken leg, the turkey vulture found her home in a town of 12,000 people and welcomed her one morning from her backyard tree.
Two chicks, such as the brood I encountered in the eroded sandstone, are typical. No nest is built. Instead, they lay their eggs on a rock ledge, in a cave, hollow tree or barn with several generations returning to the same spot to roost and procreate. Turkey vultures cooperate with each other in supplying food and roosting spots. They are clean birds that spend several hours each day preening themselves. Turkey vultures migrate south near the autumnal equinox.
Since turkey vultures often return to nest in the same place, it is likely that whoever came to carve on the stone here long ago also encountered turkey vultures, watching them hover in the air, afloat on the rising thermals.
The layout of the site in 2011 is very different from what I just described. The wooden stairs are gone completely, destroyed in a windstorm. Access is now gained by a prairie road up the hillside. The site is approached from the rear. Limiting access is attempted by a chain link fence between viewer and site. Though I didn’t see any nesting birds in 2010, when they do return they will have privacy and protection from humans now that the staircase has been removed.
THE WHOLE SONG BIRDS OF NORTH AMERICA BOOK
Inside Front Cover
Inside Back Cover
CEDAR WAXWINGS IN BRANDON
It was a strange April day in Manitoba: temperatures around 30 degrees C and clear blue skies all weekend long. I was staying with my cousin, Duncan, in the east end of Brandon. On the day I arrived, Duncan pointed out an ornamental cherry tree in his neighbour’s backyard that was loaded with shriveled red cherries. Unfit for human consumption, the cherries are a delicacy of certain birds that, according to Duncan, each spring swarm the tree and feast on the cherries, now sweetened by winter’s freezing and thawing.
The next morning, as if induced by my cousin’s comment, the tree was alive with cedar waxwings. Famished from their long migration, the waxwings cover the tree and the ground below, ravenously eating the cherries. A flock of birds flies up from the ground into the branches and the ones from the tree swarm to the ground, excited birds, appetites whetted, blissful on a hot strange spring day.
The air was vibrating with the shrill keening of the waxwings. Several large still-bare nearby trees were decorated with more cedar waxwings waiting to feed, hundreds of birds in all. Flock after flock dined at the cherry tree.
Several curious species – robins, blue jays and starlings – arrived to see what all the commotion was about. These birds prefer feeders and worms to cherries but waxwing enthusiasm was contagious. The feeding frenzy went on most of the morning then the flock was gone, the air still, quiet, hot.
In a few weeks, the cherry tree will be smothered in tiny white and pink blossoms that perfume the air with a sweet smell. By then subsequent flocks will have stripped all the cherries from the tree.
Cedar waxwings have the ability to digest a variety of berries, some of which are poisonous to humans. Gorging themselves for hours, waxwings have been known to get a little drunk if the berries have fermented.
A sleek, beautiful creature, cedar waxwings are strikingly identifiable: the brown topnotch crest and breast with grey wings and tail, the yellow wash over the belly, the dark eye mask and throat marking, the yellow tail tip and the distinctive waxy red drops on the wings with give the birds their name. The females are somewhat plainer. Cedar waxwings are one of the few birds whose numbers are increasing in North America.
Coniferous trees are favoured places to build their deep nests. Chicks are born late to ensure a supply of berries and bugs for their growth. I remember seeing waxwings as a kid in western Manitoba. Apparently they abound in Assiniboine Park in Winnipeg but I haven’t seen one in our neighbourhood for years. The last time I saw one was a few years ago at Last Mountain Lake in Saskatchewan. I was camping next to the bird sanctuary and saw a nesting pair.
What a hopeful sign it was to see a huge flock of excited birds so eager to fulfill their biological imperative. I had begun to wonder if there were large flocks of any birds remaining. It was good to see an old friend return with such vigor.
JERRY LEWIS BIRDS
From lack of knowing what ornithologists call the birds that nested in our neighbour’s eaves, splashed in our birdbath, crapped on our deck and sang in our elm and maple trees, we dubbed them Jerry Lewis birds. Linda and I named them that because of their large fanciful repertoire of odd whistles, tweets, coos, hoots, squeaks and throaty gurgles. At times, it sounded like they were chuckling to themselves. Sometimes I’d whistle two or three notes a few times and the Jerry Lewis birds would try to imitate them, or so it seemed. They definitely meowed like the neighbourhood cats and imitated the squeaky hinge on our neighbour’s backdoor. We expected the next thing they’d say is “Hey Lay Dee!”
They have a distinctive appearance. Their feathers are black and iridescent purples, greens and blues with hints of paler shades depending on the light. The plumage is sometimes speckled with white spots around the head, neck and belly. The bill changes from yellow to dark brown in the fall. Compared to the little sparrows that shared the nesting area, Jerry Lewis birds are aggressive.
By sheer luck, I found out what these critters are called. I had come across a book called Manitoba Birds and opened it, coincidentally to the picture of our noisy backyard bird. It was the European starling, not a bird native to North America but an introduced specie. The story of how European starlings came here makes them even more worthy of the name Jerry Lewis birds.
They were brought here under the silliest pretext, one borne out of human ignorance and hubris. Late in the 1800s, there was a group in New York City called the Acclimatization Society whose aim was to introduce into North America all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare’s writings, a frivolous plan at best, a disaster for indigenous species at worst.
About 60 European starlings were released in Central Park in 1890 and 1891. Since then the offspring of those 60 birds have spread to every corner of the continent. So successful have they been at adapting to their new environs that in the northeastern United States, they often flock in such large numbers they become a nuisance.
One of the disasters of European starlings is they are cavity-nesting birds and will aggressively take nesting sites away from native birds. European starlings will nest near people in cities, towns and farms or in forests and clearings. They can produce two or three batches of young every year, ensuring their numbers remain high and continue to disadvantage other birds.
So the exotic bird we thought was a fun-loving entertainer that mimics other birds, cats and environmental sounds – I’m sure I’ve heard them imitate the two-note stoplight beeps that help disabled people cross the street – is an invader, a usurper stealing food and nests from native birds.
“Hey Lay Dee!”