Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Malachite Waxwing Have One Thousand Of Debt!

I looked out the back window this morning and noticed the dead cornstalks thrashing about. "Aw hell, please don't tell me I've got a skunk," I prayed to the varmint god as I ran for the binocs.

When I raised them I saw a flicker awkwardly hopping around in my garden. This lady was nearly the size of a banty pullet; soft dove buff on the sides, with her gorget of shiny black. I've never seen a flicker this size before. The flicker one usually sees is a slender, thrush-sized bird, and usually stuck on the side of a softwood tree ring-barking it in search of sap and bugs. I checked out my plantings. Everything seemed good on that front so I settled in to watch the bird instead.

A Flicker has two toes front and two toes back like a ptsittacid, designed more for clinging to the sides of trees, so it wasn't making very good headway as it bumbled along. What it lacked in traction, though, it made up for in brute force, wearing a little circle of mud on its face where it had driven its bill further into the dirt than it had planned on doing. While I watched it went along pulling disgusting huge grubs up out of the soil. They might have been harmless; they might not have been harmless. I don't care...they were disgusting; now they're dead. Godspeed, birdie.

This autumn has brought the starlings out in their hundreds of thousands, so many that in flight they stop cars and darken half the sky. This time of the year their crops are full of rotted pears, apple mush and spoiled pumpkin. This effectively silences their wirebrush -on-steel flock voice, although one pays for the silence with the paint on any vehicle that isn't parked in a garage.

They flood in low from the field across the street and land on my lawn to pick and roam about, making all the browned stems in my neglected plantings jiggle about. (I know, I should have pulled this stuff out a month ago but I was too lazy; and it was raining. Probably.)
This late in the year they still aren't any smarter than they started out in the spring, I note: plenty of feathery little road pizzas out there have yellow feet, particularly when the pavement runs past an orchard or a hawthorne tree.

My hawthorne is down to bare twigs, too late for the starlings. A month or so past the robins beat them to the berries, and within two hours' time had stripped the tree bare of not only fruit, but leaves as well.
An American robin is a pretty sensible little guy, and not a destructive bird at all. When I noted this happening I clambered up on back of the couch to look outside, and after I watched the robins for a few minutes it dawned on me what the problem was.
These robins were bombed.

They flung themselves around at random through the branches, picking at whatever they spied...buds, fruit, each other, leaves...falling off their perches, missing them completely and crashing into the tam juniper, falling asleep in the grass while their friends walked over them. I think what had happened was, what few scarlet berries had fallen from the hawthorne by themselves had frozen, thawed and then fermented over the past few days. The robins were having a kegger.

Now a young sharp-shinned falcon destined for great things had taken note of this impromptu gathering of feathered hors d'oeuvres and had settled in to my 'Jackie Kennedy' rosebush nearby to spy out the situation. This bird was ingenious. As I watched he started up suddenly, frightening the robins into all directions like buckshot. It was fascinating to see. Both times he came out of the canes in a burst of motion and color, all eyes and talons and feathers-everything falcon, deadly and sudden completely on display and just that quickly folded back into something rapid and hungry. The robins responded to this in blind panic. They bounced off the siding and left feathers in the overhanging shingles as they fled. Both times the falcon sailed past my window, around the hawthorne and back into the rose canes in an effortless gliding figure eight. Out, past and done.

Both times the robins flew as far as the neighbors willow tree and clung there swinging from the whips like awkward parrots, talking themselves into going back to the party. Both times they did. One minute the hawthorne tree was bare and the next it was full once again, robins hanging upside down, robins losing their footing and tripping, robins having arguments, trying to order drinks with complicated names, using the wrong bathrooms and hitting on the wrong women, robins attempting to pick up the same berry seven times in succession and dropping it each time.

The final time the falcon came rampaging out of the roses one robin smacked right into the glass only inches from my face. Immediately behind it sailed the little falcon, glide, whip, flare and land, right on a branch just outside the window. It paused, yellow and streaked as a little flame, looking down into the plantings at the meeping robin standing in the grass. Then it opened its wings slightly, drifted down and bit the robin just behind the dome of it's skull.
It happened quickly and neatly in as much time as it takes to read about. I drew back from the window and just sat there in awe.

Today the same young man came dancing past in his full adult plumage being harassed by the raven couple that live next door in the alder tree. Nothing much daunted he flipped his tail and sailed into a nearby cherry tree. Once they felt that this undersized menace was taken care of, Mr. and Ms Raven parted and circled and regrouped and parted again, and played in the air all the way back to their raggedy pile of sticks high up in the limbs of the alder.

I get a kick out of watching the two of them. Back when they first met they were all young love and sweet nuzzles. They would sit on the roof of my shed and watch me weed the garden while they tenderly fed one another tidbits of baby bird. They whistled musically, or said 'Mao? Rom? Mop' while the fat broad toiled below, one nestling down like a comfortable chicken on the tin roof while the other one strode around picking in the corrugations for hidden treats. When I was inside my shed I could hear them up there on the metal just over my head like two romantic bags of nails as they shuffled around.

The two of them are like an ace barnstorming team. When the walnuts ripen down the street they play catch midair over the fields. One flies high with a green walnut and drops it; the one flying low flips over onto its back in midair, at the last possible moment before the walnut would bonk it on the head and catches it with its beak and feet. High dips low, close to the ground, while low flies high. Once the walnut is dropped, it is caught; but this time it is flicked up into the air by low. High snags it, flapping its wings hard, and shoots straight up into the air to drop the walnut once again. Over and over they loop, switching places and altitude randomly, and yet seldom does either of them ever miss a catch.

When the house sparrows built a nest in the clematis just outside my kitchen door this summer I lined up a row of clattery milk jugs on the porch rail to make the ravens think twice about robbing their nest.
Once the noisy little family was fledged and the nest abandoned, I took the milk jugs down and left a cob of corn there to lure the ravens back.
When I checked that evening, the corn cob was gone; and in its place was a small, small egg...palest blue with dark maroon speckles...a sparrow egg left behind in the little nest just beneath.
I still have it.


  1. ah yes... great post! reminds me of the old ass nature show, the one where the young guy and his wife live out in the bush with their infant and he cruises around checking shit out all the time... sorry not very descriptive there. but i liked it anyways. happy drunken ballfoot watching!

  2. What a wonderful post! I wish I had interesting birds to watch. All we have here are pigeons and seagulls. The pigeons are ok. They make that pleasant cooing/purring noise on the ledge, and I enjoy watching the males who think they're all that strut around with their breasts all puffed up, trying to impress da ladiez. And failing. Always failing. Utter comedy.

    The seagulls are just plain annoying.

  3. voices: you mean the McNeil-Lehrer report, of course. happy flucking bunkass fothang seashin babe! *burAAAAP*

    cb: *blush* thanks! pigeons: sometimes they're shitehawks and sometimes they're nice purring birdies. we have a love-hate relationship with the winged rat, methinks. i have no problem with gulls unless they're screaming. or crapping.

  4. do they do anything else??

    and thanks for the visual aids!

  5. By chance, is the falcon image an Arthur Morris? I'd recognize his work anywhere.

  6. A lovely, atmospheric post. Obviously your robins are a different type of bird to our robins. Our robins tend to be solitary birds and fiercly territorial. Starlings seem to be on the decline here in the UK, its years since I've seen them in the numbers you describe.

    Town pigeons are horrible vermin and must be exterminated.

  7. My one touch with birds in nature was a nest full of robins freshly hatched. I watched them develop and learn to fly. Their squatty little disney pouty faces so cute . I left the nest up for the longest time, in hopes they would come back

  8. Birds are not the sweet little things we believe them to be, are they. There might be a reason for this. When I read "The Dinosaur Heresies" I remember being struck by the implications of the statement that birds form a clade with Dinos, mostly on the basis of having hollow bones. It suggests that Little Robin Redbreast has more in common with the ravaging Raptors than with any other species, dead or alive.

  9. Oh, and another thing :)

    Are your headline titles anagrams, or just random combinations of otherwise unconnected words? I ask, purely because I don't want to make a twat of myself by spending hours of CPU time with an anagram solver trying to discover hidden meanings that just aren't there.

  10. EEEEEK a monster post...... I will be back to read , inwardly digest and comment :-)

  11. cb: thanks!

    mj: not since I crashed my motorcycle, thanks.

    frobo: XX my ratso, thank you! i know; our seattle pigeons will beat you up, steal your car and screw your girlfriend. they're lousy birds.

    gale: i know EXACTLY what you mean by the little disney faces! cool!

    sopwith: anyone who's seen a blue heron suddenly take flight past the windshield of their car will have no problem with that idea.//the titles are my riff on the mistranslated episode list from a japanese childrens show called Kikkaido. i have trouble thinking up titles; and i liked theirs so much I borrowed them.

    beast: take you time; it isn't a doughnut.


  13. Get some cats, that should take care of yer bird problem.

  14. OK...you've sorted Ziggi...
    This is a beautiful read! It was like watching a movie in my head.
    And aren't birds hilarious when they're stewed!

    (email me if the mailman is still being a pain.)

  15. Terrific post. Thanks. It's great to hear about birds I wasn't aware existed before. Typical that our robin should be that much dowdier than yours.

    Where I live off the north coast of Scotland is a kind of transport hub for birds travelling between the Arctic and Africa and Europe. Many choose to hang around. I've just spent an hour in the vegetable garden pretending to work, but watching 100-plus greylag geese take off from the beach, do a tour of the island before settling back in the same place. A dozen curlews are in the top field, while lapwing, sanderlings, redshank, sandpipers are all over the fields and beaches. And we've got starlings by the hundred.

  16. FN , marvellous post , I think Frobi is right your robins look much bigger than ours and sound more social .Ma and Pa Beasty have a hawk that terrorises their garden , plumets out of the sky from nowhere and grabs and murders things while they are trying to relax on the patio....he he.

  17. Can we see a picture of your milk jugs?

  18. I have birdhouses all over my back yard. All different kinds - you would think a little bird would at least consider staying. But no I get yellow jackets and wasps. I put up finch feeders but Elvis the resident squirrel eats it all. I need a squirrel twirler. I have birdbath, everything a bird would want. I feel like I am stalking these poor creatures....I did have a cockatiel fly in once for a couple of days.

  19. dinamow: wilco. and no! it's HERE!!!!! and its BEAUTIFUL!!!!

    knudie: the neighbors have more cats than carter has little liver pills and we're still overrun! maybe they're vegetarian cats.

    malc: many of those are birds i'll never see, so thank you for enjoying them.

    beast: it is a different type of bird. but the hawk is the same, and its known for hanging around peoples back yards and doing the nature red in tooth and claw thing.

    WCSN:theres a picture of my jugs in the post entitled 'I Crash And Burn' in the tags list. you're welcome.

    gale: every now and then we get escaped domestic birds too...they don't last long in this climate, unfortunately. when i was a kid we had a green parakeet fly into the yard and then into the house. we kept it for four years.

  20. I'm lookin' and I'm likin'

  21. Anonymous7:45 AM

    Fantastic post Ms FN - it has inspired me to write up a little about bird watching in my part of the world. I loved the image of the drunken birds - I have seen this as well when thrushes eat fermenting apples. I particularly liked the Flicker, what a fantastic looking bird!

  22. Fascinating.
    I lurrve Flickers..I always take it as a superstitious sign of good luck when they pass through these parts...we get the red patched fellers not those yeller ones that the get out East((spits))

    When I watched a Hawk eviscerate a Pidge on my neighbour's lawn it did not seem to have delivered a mercy snip at the base of the skull...very nasty...even though I hate Pidges.

    I was astonished to see that CB likes Pidges..the only other person that likes Pidge was the elderly Italian fellow who lived across the street...loved them..let them fly around the neighbourhood and then ate them.

    I am glad to hear that your Ravens said "never more."