Monday, January 19, 2015

A Crescendo of Crows

As evening falls, the crows arrive.

First just two or three. Then clusters of half a dozen or more. Calling, cawing, the crows wing their way over our house, a black arrow of birds pointing to the west.

The crows look purposeful, and they are. They are heading home from a day spent gleaning in fields, parks, and city streets to roost for the night at the UW Bothell campus, along with  more than 10,000 others of their kind.

My husband and I headed there, too, one recent evening to watch for their arrival. The sky was that wash of pink and blue peculiar to midwinter dusk, with purple shades of night seeping in around the edges.

And then the pink and blue became speckled with bits of black. From all directions, the crows came, from Seattle and Sultan, from Snohomish and Skykomish. Their cawing grew from a few raucous cries to a seething, swirling wall of sound.

Crows perched on the roof and in the trees. Late arrivals gathered on the grass before looking for spaces in the crowd. Clusters of crows would startle and fling themselves into the air, making the constant crow-clatter rise and fall, swoop and turn.

The crows aren't here to feed. Nor are they hatching plans to conquer the human race. They're simply seeking safety in numbers.

By nightfall, they'll all be tucked into the willow trees and other vegetation growing thickly in the wetlands on campus. It's a slumber party inspired by a mutual desire to not get picked off by a hungry great horned owl.

These highly social and smart birds have a lot to say before settling down for the night. Who knows what they're sharing as they caw, cackle, and squawk?

By the time we left, the crows had vacated the rooftops. A few stragglers flew in, making straight for the trees; it was easy to imagine they were stealing glances over their shoulders, convinced that an owl was just a few flaps behind them.

At sunrise, the crows will awaken, stretch, and fly off for another day of scavenging, socializing, preening, and playing. Many will head for familiar places while some may be inspired to tag after other birds and find new feeding grounds.

By late spring, the crows will disperse throughout the region, busy with mating, nesting, and raising young. They'll stay in their home territories throughout the summer. In fall, all the crows--youngsters on up to crows that have been around for 30 or 40 years--will resume trekking to the campus to roost in the trees.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Quicker Flicker Picker

The holiday lights have been put away. The Christmas cookies are long gone. We enter the dank slog through January and February's winter weather, a season that's always felt very long and dreary to me, made more so by sad memories of bad things that have happened to loved ones during this time. Spring, growth, and renewal seem very remote.

But not if you're a bird. The male Anna's hummingbird who ferociously guards the nectar feeder in our yard is already alternating his pugnacious displays with athletic courtship dives, swooping and buzzing loudly in front of his lady love. Bufflehead ducks in ponds along the Snoqualmie Trail are courting, too, the males rapidly bobbing their heads to impress the females.

photo courtesy Wiki Commons
And I heard a varied thrush trill the other day--just one short trill that broke off abruptly, as if the bird had surprised itself and was now standing quietly, bashfully putting a wing over its beak and looking around in mock alarm, wondering who spoke out of turn.

It seems kind of early, though, for woodpeckers to be drumming. Yet on January 12 a local birder reported hearing a flicker rat-a-tat-tat on her chimney flue in Seattle.

Flickers are big, polka-dotted woodpeckers found throughout North America and into parts of Central America. Properly speaking, the species is called the Northern Flicker.

Flickers found in the eastern part of the species' range flash bright yellow wing and tail linings and are known as yellow-shafted flickers; flickers of the West are rosy instead and are called red-shafted flickers. They were once thought to be separate species.

Like other woodpeckers, flickers drum to court each other and to defend their territory. They usually drum on trees, but with the diverse drum kit that humans provide, flickers have expanded their repertoire--like any enterprising musicians would. So they also drum on metal chimney flues, gutters, and other house bits and pieces. One midwestern flicker routinely used an abandoned tractor as its post. Locally, I know of a flicker who uses, to great effect, a metal streetlight as his bandstand.

We'll never know whose home had the honor of being the first to be drilled and drummed by a flicker, but the habit goes back a long way. The author Frances Staver Twining, in her 1931 book Bird-Watching in the West, describes the flicker's springtime behavior thus:

The flickers are busy signalling from the ridge-pole over our sleeping heads at five o'clock in the morning. Later on in the day I am very apt to come across a pair of these energetic birds on the ground in the middle of a path. They bow to each other like partners in a quadrille, execute a few awkward steps, and converse in tones that vary from a soft coo, kuk, tut, flicker-r-r to a resounding wake-up, wake-up, wake-up! This is a flicker's courtship and his spring song.

Flicker on suet feeder, Seattle, outside our previous house
I haven't heard any drumming* or cooing so far this season, though one flicker did let out a joyous wick-wick-wick-wick, a call described by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology as "a loud, rolling rattle with a piercing tone that rises and falls in volume several times....You’ll hear it in the spring and early summer, while pairs are forming and birds are establishing their territories."

Like the varied thrush who said "Whoops! Pardon me" after letting out a trill, this particular flicker clammed up and I haven't heard him since.

Flickers are boisterous birds, however, so they'll definitely be shouting soon enough as well as drumming. The "rolling rattle" has spawned a wealth of regional common names, such as wake-up, wick-up, yucker, harry-wicket, yarrup, and yawker bird. Another call note, a piercing klee-yer, has added a few shorter names, such as clape. The drumming likewise has inspired red-hammer, yellow-hammer, and a slew of shouted epithets I will not render here.

Male flicker keeping an eye on me at Magnuson Park. Flickers spend
lots of time on the ground probing for and eating ants.
The name "flicker" itself may be a human rendition of its rattling call, though sources also suggest that perhaps the bird's habit of flicking its tail or its bill is the source of its name.

I can't say I've noticed flickers flicking any more than other birds (and certainly not as much as a wren or sparrow). I wonder if perhaps the name was inspired by the way a flicker's dazzling red or yellow colors are revealed, like flickers of flame, when it spreads its wings and tail.

I never saw flickers when I lived back east; I've only seen these birds since moving west 25 years ago, and every single one of them was a red-shafted flicker with feathers shading from pink to crimson.

At least, until a rowdy flicker with screaming-yellow wings and tail crash-landed on the suet feeder this past weekend.

What a bird! The undersides of his wings and tail would have done a canary proud. He was a glorious lemony explosion in the middle of a dank, foggy, gray midwinter morning.

The distraction created by those beautiful feathers is what made me into the "quicker flicker picker" of the title: I did what the most newby of new birders would do, which is rush to identification before checking sources carefully. I went around crowing that we'd seen a yellow-shafted flicker.

Not so fast, cautioned wiser, calmer birders. On a birding website, they pointed out that "my" bird had a red moustache, a feature of the male red-shafted flicker; a yellow-shafted male would have a black moustache. This flicker also had facial and crest feathers that were more gray and less brown, also typical of red-shafted. However, it also had a bit of a red chevron on the back of its neck--a mark that exists in the yellow-shafted and not the red.

So what was it? A red-shafted flicker with yellow shafts? A yellow-shafted flicker with a red moustache? None of the above. It appears to be either an intergrade flicker--a flicker who's a cross between a yellow and a red--or one that's got such an intergrade in its ancestry.

An intergrade's different from a hybrid. A hybrid is the product of two completely different species--a mule, for example, is the hybrid offspring of a horse and a donkey. An intergrade is the product of two different subspecies. Red-shafted and yellow-shafted flickers are both varieties of Northern Flicker, hence their kiddos are intergrades.

Whatever his parentage, this splendid flicker's appearance nudged me to see what John James Audubon wrote about them. He did not have anything to say about being awakened by flicker reveille at an ungodly hour, and he seemed to be  genuinely fond of this species. Below is his impression of the birds (leaving out the later bit where he and an associate plunder a nest).

Do try to ponder the merriment of flickers yourself when their springtime joy bubbles over into drumming on your roof at 4:30 a.m.!

"It is generally agreeable to be in the company of individuals who are naturally animated and pleasant. For this reason, nothing can be more gratifying than the society of Woodpeckers in the forests. To prove this to you, kind reader, I shall give you a full account of the habits of the Golden-winged Woodpecker....No sooner has spring called them to the pleasant duty of making love, as it is called, than their voice, which, by the way, is not at all disagreeable to the ear of man, is heard from the tops of high decayed trees, proclaiming with delight the opening of the welcome season. 
Their note at this period is merriment itself, as it imitates a prolonged and jovial laugh, heard at a considerable distance. Several males pursue a female, reach her, and, to prove the force and truth of their love, bow their heads, spread their tail, and move sidewise, backwards and forwards, performing such antics, as might induce any one witnessing them, if not of a most morose temper, to join his laugh to theirs. 
Even in confinement, the Golden-winged Woodpecker never suffers its naturally lively spirit to droop. It feeds well, and by way of amusement, will continue to destroy as much furniture in a day as can well be mended by a different kind of workman in two. Therefore, kind reader, do not any longer believe that Woodpeckers are such stupid, forlorn, dejected and unprovided for beings as they have hitherto been represented. In fact, I know not one of the species found in our extensive woods, that does not exhibit quite as much mirth and gaiety as the present bird."

*Untrue as of 3:30 p.m. on January 13, when I heard a flicker ardently drumming on a cottonwood tree across the street.

Friday, January 2, 2015

First Bird of the Year 2015

Some New Year's Day I may fling open the curtains to find a crested oropendola, a hyacinth visorbearer, or some other spectacularly unlikely bird at the feeder to claim as my first bird of the year. But I'm not holding my breath. I wasn't at all surprised to be greeted by one of North America's most common and widespread birds: the plain-Jane-simple-name Song Sparrow.

The song sparrow is one of the many little birds in the group known as LBJs ("little brown jobs"--a.k.a. LBBs, "little brown birds"). It is found throughout much of North America.

"Common and widespread," states the Kaufman field guide about this species. "Common and widespread," agrees the Sibley guide. "Probably the most widespread sparrow," adds the National Geographic guide, nodding eagerly.

But looks can be deceiving, because this ubiquitous little brown bird actually varies widely in coloration across its range.

Photo courtesy BLM (song sparrow, Alaska)
Song sparrows in the desert southwest, for example, are pale reddish yellow birds, while song sparrows in Alaska's Aleutian Islands wear dark feathers and are a third bigger than their cousins in the eastern United States. There are reddish brown song sparrows in some places, birds with slate-gray backs in others.

This variation is so bewildering that the Peterson field guide waves its hands wildly and warns with a note of panic, "Do not attempt to untangle various migrants in the field."

(Don't worry, though, if you have recklessly attempted to untangle various migrants in the field. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology's song-sparrow profile reassuringly advises, "Don’t let the bewildering variety of regional differences this bird shows across North America deter you: it’s one of the first species you should suspect if you see a streaky sparrow in an open, shrubby, or wet area.")

Photo from Wiki Commons
Song sparrows are a cinch to identify in the garden right outside your kitchen window, though.

Here in Washington State, song sparrows are chunky, dark-feathered birds with boldly streaked breasts that bear a characteristic central spot. They're just as much at home in a well-planted garden as they are in their natural habitat of low, thick brush; a 1968 Seattle Audubon Society publication calls this species "the 'small brown sparrow' of backyards, brushy areas, and semi-open woods."

In winter, our yard's song sparrows often show up two at a time. They usually hop about under the feeder, eating seeds spilled by the enthusiastic finches and chickadees clinging to the feeder's wire mesh. There on the ground, they keep company with several spotted towhees, a varied thrush, and an occasional fox sparrow.

Come spring, we'll hardly see them at all, partly because we've shut down the feeder  but also because song sparrows are busily courting, defending territory, building nests, and feeding hatchlings. But we will hear them caroling from dawn to dusk as they prove they're not called "song" sparrows for nothing.

For this plain little brown bird is a vigorous and lovely singer. One of its regional common names is "silver-tongue." Even its scientific name honors its ability: Melospiza melodia means "Song-finch song."

Photo from Wiki Commons
I used to hear song sparrows trilling in the birches of my childhood Long Island, New York, suburban home. So many sparrows sang that they sounded as if they were doing a call and response routine. It was a joy to hear their familiar melody welcome springtime when I left  New York and moved to Seattle 25 years ago.

A song sparrow's song isn't the complex river of sound that flows from the minute Pacific wren, or the ethereal cry that spirals from a veery or Swainson's thrush--it's more of a confident, burbling, cheerful, chatty sort of tune.

First the little bird pipes three times, as if warming up or calling its listeners to attention. Then it trills loudly before descending into a quickly uttered series of chirps and ringings.

As a kid I always thought it sounded as if the sparrow were contentedly talking to itself after it had emitted the pipes and trills.

Ornithologist William Leon Dawson (1873–1928) called the song sparrow "the poet of common day" and described its melody as being "like sunshine, bountiful and free and ever grateful." He transcribed the sound as peace, peace, peace be unto you, my children.

Of the song sparrow's song, Audubon wrote:
"I have at all times been very partial  to the
Song Sparrow; for although its attire is
exceedingly plain, it is pleasing, to hear it,
in the Middle States, singing, earlier in
spring, and later in autumn, than almost
any other bird. Its song is sweet,
of considerable duration, and performed
at all hours of the day."
A more common mnemonic device for identifying the aria of a song sparrow hidden among leaves and brush is Madge, Madge, Madge, put on your tea kettle, kettle, kettle or Maids! Maids! Maids! Hang up your teakettle-ettle-ettle!

The Audubon Society's massive Encyclopedia of North American Birds adds that the "first three notes [are] often popularly compared with first three notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony."

The male repeats this song frequently, as often as eight times per minute, and though he sounds jaunty there's serious stuff at stake: he's defending his territory and also seeking to attract a mate.

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's profile of the song sparrow, "Laboratory studies have shown that the female Song Sparrow is attracted not just to the song itself, but to how well it reflects the ability of the male to learn. Males that used more learned components in their songs and that better matched their song tutors (the adult bird they learned their songs from) were preferred."

Fortunately, human listeners don't have to be so picky. We can simply enjoy the glad tidings of spring from a little brown bird, common and widespread, that is known in some parts as "everybody's darling."