An Association With Birds

I don’t know what happened to them or how they always seemed to end up in our yard. Most likely neighborhood  cats were the cause. I couldn’t have been more than six or seven years old. I’m sure there were others-mockingbirds, brown thrashers, cardinals. But it’s the blue jays that I remember. I’d find them lying stiff in the yard, all the life drained from their fragile bodies, beaks open, lying in the grass.

Sometimes the ants would get to them before I did. I was curious, but I knew what fire ants were and I had better sense by that age than to risk their stings. If I did find the birds before the ants did, I gave a vivid imagination its head.

Most boys my age in the place I was raised interacted with the small wild things around us—insects, frogs, birds—by trying to kill them if the opportunity arose. But, that always bothered me. Taking life just because you can. No one told me so, but somehow it just didn’t seem right. I was too fascinated by the secret lives animals led to want to snuff them out for no reason at all.

So, I gathered up the dead birds, ran my fingers across their feathers, and turned them over in my hands, examining them closely. Keep in mind this was in the late 1970’s, before Avian bird flu and Salmonella became household words. I was fascinated by how the feathers parted where the beak began, the variations in color pattern, their scaly legs and feet, the sharp little claws. I liked to imagine I was a bird doctor and pretended to nurse these dead birds back to health. In most of the cowboy movies I saw, when someone was gravely injured they were given water. So, I filled bowls with water and stuck the stilled beaks of the birds into those dishes as if the birds could drink.

I told my daughters this story. They looked at me strangely and said I had been a weird little kid. I must say it seems that way to me too as I write this. But, thus began my long association with birds. They make some of us do odd things.

Many years later, I was still curious about wild things and decided to major in Biology in college. I took classes in zoology, botany, microbiology, mammalogy, physiology, ecology, etc. One class in which I had great interest always seemed to elude me. My schedule never seemed to align properly for a course in ornithology, the study of birds.

As a result I became an informal yet obsessive student of ornithology by taking up “birding”. One of my professors, Dr. Bergstrom, was an ecologist by training and an accomplished birder. He hired me on to assist him with a survey of birds and mammals at Moody Air Force base.

We tramped through the swamp in all weathers to set and check little metal boxes called Sherman traps for mice, shrews, and muskrats and pitfall traps—a coffee can buried to the edge of the lip— so that small critters scurrying along the ground would fall into them. We listened in on the echolocations of bats chasing mosquitos as summer evenings settled to night and trapped migrating birds in nylon spider webs known as mist nets. We had to weigh and measure each bird, noting the species and sex. If you caught a cardinal you had to be careful. They would quickly pinch a finger between their fat, orange beaks.

Dr. Bergstrom was a distinguished scholar, devoted ecologist and vocal environmentalist, which often led to clashes with local south Georgia officials and sometimes even University administration. But, he knew his stuff (still does) and when it came to birding he was a master. He taught me how to spot a bird among the foliage and bring your binoculars up without losing sight of it, which as simple as it seems, actually takes some practice with which to become consistent and spot small birds quickly. He taught me how to “pish”—make small, repetitive noises that sound like “pish”, which brings little birds flitting through the brush out of their hiding places and out into the open so you can get a better view. The noise mimics an alarm call and attracts flocks of small birds that mob together to chase away predators. It also makes bystanders look at you funny.

I began to join Dr. Bergstrom on birding trips to the Georgia coast to see painted buntings, to the Wakulla River in the Florida panhandle to see Limpkin, and to central Florida to see scrub jays. Once we joined a group of birders near St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge to see a Common Eider, a duck-like bird from the North that had flown off course and had birders flocking to see it.

In my first quarter of graduate school, before I had chosen a research project for my Masters thesis, I dabbled further with the idea of studying birds. I worked on a small project studying the diet of captive eagles. My job was to take frozen, dead rats and squirrels out of the freezer, weigh them, throw them in the pens with the eagles and weigh the remaining carcasses the next day before throwing more frozen rodents in for the day’s meal. If you’ve never tried it, I can tell you getting a dead animal carcass away from an eagle is no easy task. This glamorous work later drove me to study pine tree pests for my thesis rather than spend two years feeding dead rats to eagles.

But, my interest in birds remained. My favorite group of birds became the warblers. Small, delicate birds who spend their time in the tree tops and understory of trees and shrubs, going unnoticed by most people. And what a show you are missing if you haven’t discovered the plethora of hues and patterns found in warblers. Their colors can be stunning. Anything from bright golden yellow to orange, black, green, or blue and combinations of all the above. They are as diverse in their habits as they are in their color patterns. Warbler species divide their choice of preferred foraging locations in a forest. Some scurry along the ground or in shrubbery, while others search the treetops or limbs and tree trunks at various heights in the tree canopy.

For a few years throughout the early to mid 1990s, I was a serious birdwatcher. Birding helps open the eyes to the world around you. It gets you focused on nature’s rhythms. I spent hours clustered together on beaches and roadsides with other similarly obsessed people looking through binoculars and spotting scopes. I kept a “life list”, a running list of all the bird species I had observed. Folks who do this are called “listers” in the birding community and may keep life lists, annual lists, trip lists, location lists, etc. I birded every spare minute—in city parks, driving down the highway, in state parks, WMA’s, botanical gardens, or any place I could find feathers. On visits home from school I roamed our family farm documenting the birds I saw.

After 8-10 years of this I had amassed a life list of several hundred birds, mostly from the Southeastern US and a few Western states. I even made time to do some birding in south Texas once on a job interview in Weslaco near the border, where I got my first glimpse of a trogon, an elegant, emerald-colored bird with a long tail that looks as if it belongs in the jungle. I got the job offer too, but turned it down. I learned on that trip that I didn’t really want to live out of sight of a pine tree.

At some point, I began to question the whole listing thing. It felt as though birds were becoming nothing more to me than a check-mark. I was too focused on getting the next life bird to really see the birds around me.

Its still exciting to see a bird I’ve never seen before but I try to take as much enjoyment now from the common birds I encounter every day. With a job, a farm, and a family, its hard to find time to actively bird nowadays. On the rare occasion I find myself with no pressing chores, nowhere to haul kids, no extra work to do that my wife thinks up, I still take pleasure in walking or sitting in the woods with a pair of binoculars in my hand.

In November, the sandhill cranes show up, filling the sky as high as 6000-7000 ft with their trumpeting calls and the fields with their tall, long-legged flocks feasting on leftover peanuts. I’ll take a close look at the chipping sparrows scampering and fluttering through the orchard, foraging for insects in the leaf litter and bark crevices to keep warm in winter.

Winter also brings the Northern Harriers flying low over the fields in search of prey. The adult male is grey in color and can sometimes appear almost solid white, while the female is brown with just a small patch of white on its back just above the tail. A friend of mine once texted me from a deer stand on the farm, “Youre going to think I’m crazy but there’s a solid white hawk over here”

“I know”, I replied. “It’s a Northern Harrier”

“You’re full of s@$%!”, he texted back.

“No, really. Look it up”

Thanks to the modern miracle of cell phones he did so and when he got off the stand, he said “You were right. How the heck did you know that”?

I proceeded to tell him about my long interest in birds. “That’s weird”, he replied.

“Yeah, I know.”

Through much of the winter and into spring, bluebirds who call the orchard home grow aggressive and impatient with others of their kind. As mating season approaches that ancient instinct of males to defend their breeding rights on a given spot of ground kicks in. Whenever I am on the tractor I leave my truck parked next to the tractor shed. The male bluebird who dominates this territory is a vigilant old rascal, perhaps too much so. I don’t know how bluebirds have such a knack for finding mirrors but in his drive to pass on his genes to the next generation he lands daily at my truck window and hurls himself at the invader who appears in the side mirror. Despite the vigor of his attacks, the invader doesn’t back down. The angry male flutters back and forth from the driver’s side to the passenger’s side and the invader follows until I drive off at days end, my mirrors, windows and doors decorated with bird poop.

I do much of my spring and summer birding from the tractor seat, taking notice of those with which I share the farm. Cattle egrets like to follow a tractor while its mowing or even spraying herbicide. They glide in and wait for the tractor to scare up grasshoppers and other insects from the tall grass and weeds. Their throats will be quivering in the heat–a behavior called the “gular flutter”, which helps them keep their bodies cool in hot weather. They vibrate their throat muscles to rapidly pump air back and forth, which causes evaporative cooling of their systems.

These are common birds found the world over and they get their name from the habit of following cattle to catch the insects the cattle hooves scare up just as the tractor does now. I’ve noticed they seem to have a rather orderly process for doing this. As the tractor moves forward, some of the flock scarfs up grasshoppers. While they are eating, other members of the flock fly ahead of or even with the tractor tires to grab at the next serving. As they eat, the first group moves forward again and so they continue, taking turns across the field.

Newly planted pecan orchards often have a lot of rank, trashy weeds growing in them—or at least mine do. This is because the bermudagrass and clover have not fully established yet and the trees are too small to cast much shade to limit the weedy growth. If you let this growth between the tree rows get too thick, as I sometimes do, it provides fodder and shelter for rodents and rabbits in the field. As this is mowed, the small mammals scamper everywhere. This brings in hawks—usually red-tailed or red-shouldered hawks who perch on the small trees and await the jump of a rodent. The hawks then take flight and with keen eyes locate and nail their prey. Its quite an impressive sight. I’ve seen Mississippi kites, a more elegant raptor, take snakes this way as well.

One side of the farm is located on the shores of Lake Blackshear. This proximity to that large body of water brings us ospreys who nest in the lake’s cypress trees. The osprey has a characteristic shape that’s easy to identify—a large raptor with arched wings and primary feathers that droop like fingers waving at the wind. Ospreys primarily eat fish but they will take other prey on land from time to time and they frequently use sticks from my orchard prunings or windfalls to construct their nests.

Occasionally bald eagles will fly over the orchard as I am working. When I planted my first orchard I didn’t yet have a well dug and I had to go down to the old cabin at the lake’s edge to fill the water tank I used for watering in the trees. Waiting for the tank to fill one day I looked up to see a bald eagle on the bank at the water’s edge  not 30 yards away. I assume it had a meal there it was protecting and refused to leave despite my intrusion. I took its presence as a good omen for the planting.

There are times in the last few moments of daylight when the shadows grow long and the only glow left in the sky is that strange mix of purple, pink, and gold that is only seen when the air turns cool and dry. These are the moments when the wood ducks come whistling in to their roosts in the timbered creek bottoms, the mourning doves alight with loud, flapping wings in the pines, and the barred owls crack the silence of that still time of day with their raucous calling. These are the signals for all the night creatures to begin their work. I count myself blessed to be witness to it all.

I don’t keep a life list anymore. I still enjoy seeing new birds when travelling and sometimes I do make lists of birds seen on my trips. But I’ve discovered a deeper pleasure in the simple familiarity of the lives and habits of the birds with which I share my small piece of the world. I learn to expect where and when to see certain birds and what to expect to see them doing. I learn where they belong. What I like about it is that there’s an interaction. I’m not just checking them off a list. I see first-hand how my actions—planting orchards, planting clover, mowing, even parking my truck at the shed so the bluebird can fight his reflection—are a part of my relationship with the birds and with this land.

I’m not exactly sure why many of us are so drawn to birds. Perhaps its because the birds are so free with their presence. The bobcat, the coyote, raccoon, otter, deer, bear (if you have them) and other mammals are all so secretive and prefer to go about undetected. But not the birds. They proudly announce themselves in color and song. Gifts which make the days sweating in the hot sun or shivering in the cold wind a little less burdensome.

There’s a satisfaction in sharing my days with these birds who, like me, have an attachment to this place. They know me and the farm better than I do. They know where insects hide under the crevices of tree bark. They know where the deer slink into the orchard’s corners at dusk.They know the tunneled lanes through the thick clover stems made by small critters. They have seen me bang my knuckles and cuss broken down tractors. They have watched me fling wrenches in frustration. They have seen me fall on my knees and thank God for leaving the orchards standing following a hurricane. They know where I scattered my father’s ashes on a warm spring morning. The birds take it all in without judgement and with a song in their voice.

©2020 Lenny Wells

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