International Vulture Awareness Day 2009

International Vulture Awareness Day 2009

The great broad wings tilt slowly, spilling the sun-warmed air, sacrificing lift, then they tilt to the other side, and again, again. The vultures spiral, drain out of the sky.
Just so, they’ve drained out of nearly the whole subcontinent, felled by cheap drugs for cows, of all things – drugs that were banned in your country long ago – banned to use but not to make.

So begins a short science fiction story* set in India and Nepal. The decline of the vultures, unfortunately, is not the SF-nal part.

And this is not a problem that American birders can regard smugly as far away and Third World. We’ve done pretty much the same thing to our own most magnificent vulture (no relation) with both DDT and lead. Even though you wouldn’t know it by their numbers today, the Turkey Vulture once suffered from DDT poisoning too – and from the benighted blasts of gunners who thought that the “buzzards” were a threat to chickens or game birds or just their sensibilities.

There’s a tendency, I think, to cast judgment on endangered species; the same Just World fallacy that allows so many people, particularly Americans, to sit back and try to figure out what a crime victim or a person in poverty did ‘wrong’ also leads us to think of lost and at-risk species as finicky narrow-niched things that brought their distress on themselves because they just couldn’t cope with the rough-and-tumble human-dominated world. Of course, this is pretty rich coming from the humans that invaded a continent and in short order wiped out the most common bird and the swarmingest insect (along with most of the humans who were already there, most of the apex predators, most of the vast herds of large herbivores, etc., etc.)

If that weren’t enough to give us a hint, the plight of the vultures proves that it’s just not a few fringe weaklings at risk. So much of what we think of as ‘normal’ in the modern world is built on a foundation of poison; so few of our systems are set up to take into account all the real costs of our actions to our fellow beings. Vultures, the opposite of finicky, pay the price when they try to perform the valuable service of cleaning up after us.

Only with active awareness can we hope to set right what has gone wrong.

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*which I hope to finish any day now

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The Peregrine Falcons who nest on the gruesome office building down the block from the gruesome office building where I work are poking round the nest site today, thinking about spring.

The Jersey City Peregrine Falcons have experienced a lot of ups and downs over the years.  A pair first nested there in 2000, when they hatched four eggs but fledged two young.  Since then, at least one bird from the building has ended up in the care of wildlife rehabilitators every year except 2003 and 2006 (when a bird that was to be taken into care died before it could be retrieved.)  Usually these have been recently fledged young, and this isn’t terribly surprising; for the majority of birds, the most hazardous period of life is the transition from nest to wider world.  Learning to master flight, to obtain one’s own food, to avoid modern perils like power lines and plate glass, and to do so all at once in a situation with no do-overs – honestly, it’s kind of amazing that any Peregrine Falcons survive at all.  So it’s no surprise when a young bird on its first flight gets itself into a situation where it needs to be scooped out of danger and given a square meal and a bit of R&R before heading on its way.

But sometimes things happen that are just plain melodramatic.  Last year, for instance, the webcam audience at home watched in dismay as one of the three chicks in the nest faded rapidly, then died.  A technician from the NJ Department of Environmental Protection was dispatched to retrieve the carcass, in order to perform an autopsy, only to discover that it was only MOSTLY dead.  The “carcass” was then rushed to an animal hospital, where she was treated for an impacted crop.  After a few days in the care of the Raptor Trust, she was returned to the nest and went on to fledge normally, though a bit later than her siblings.

And better still is the story of 2005.  In 2005, the nesting season was proceeding as planned when the male falcon, flying fast in a landscape that evolution has yet to catch up with, ran into a light rail power line.  The force of his speed was so great that he severed his own wing.  Miraculously, a Good Samaritan found the bird before he bled out or went into irretrievable shock, and he was rushed to the Raptor Trust and saved.  But with only one wing, he would never fly again.  And back on the roof, his mate was incubating.

Peregrine Falcons mate for life, and both male and female hunt actively during most of the nesting season.  But when the eggs are about to hatch and for the first two weeks of the chicks’ lives, the female needs to brood them near-constantly to maintain the proper temperature.  During this interval, she becomes almost wholly dependent on her mate for food.  And it was at this, of all times, that the male had his accident.

Birds, of course, don’t have insurance.  But the Peregrine Falcons, being threatened and charismatic megafauna, did have the attention of the species that invented insurance.  The NJDEP decided to make deliveries of thawed quail to the nest site in the hopes of tiding the rest of the family over.  It was a delicate balance – too much disturbance could stress the female and make things worse, maybe even drive her away.  And there was no guarantee that she’d accept pre-killed food from these strange bipeds who were so clearly not her missing mate.

Then, just as if scripted, the day of the first delivery arrived and the building maintenance workers were puzzled.  Why the need to dump dead critters on the roof?  There were two falcons up there, just as there should be.

Punchline!  A new male, either young and unattached or having lost his own mate, had turned up at the crucial moment and begun courting the female by helping her defend the nest.  She was more interested in her parenting duties than in him, and he would wander away for a time and then return, but eventually he began bringing prey to the newly-hatched chicks.  She was also able to go hunting soon enough, and with occasional assists from her beau successfully raised three chicks (though one died shortly after fledging due to a window impact.)

I can only imagine what further unexpected twists and turns this season will bring.

My trip to Central Park to look for Common Redpolls was called on account of rain (I’ve now officially run through my whole stock of baseball metaphors, by the way. Stephen Jay Gould I will never be.) So instead, here’s a link to a 2005 article on the history of Screech Owls in New York City, including an account of the reintroduction efforts in Central Park, from the online journal Urban Habitats.

I first heard about the Central Park Screech Owl reintroduction on a Brooklyn Bird Club trip in 2006. I had only just moved to the city in fall of 2005, and in my rural-nurtured naivety I was shocked that Central Park was ever lacking Screech Owls to begin with.

My experience up until then had led me to regard Screech Owls as rather hardy and people-tolerant birds. One regularly roosted in the hay loft of my family’s barn from about 2000 until the barn burned down in summer 2007; this being a space that was used daily by people, dogs, and cats, and often sheltered motor vehicles in inclement weather. When I was in Ithaca, another bird turned a lot of heads by spending several days sleeping in the ivy on one of Cornell’s administrative buildings, in plain view of the road. The sheer difference in magnitude of human disturbance that Manhattan represented was a bit difficult to grasp even when I looked straight at it, like one of those presentations on the size of interstellar space where the Earth is the the size of a dog louse.

Happily, the owls still persist in Central Park. Less happily, they are still fairly precarious – they don’t even rate the “expected species” list for Central Park from NYCBirdReport.com.

One of the big tensions is between publicizing the owls – in order to educate the public, get them into the recovery effort, and facilitate getting data from “citizen scientists” (aka people who see stuff) – and keeping their location undisclosed – in order to protect them from evil-doers, but also from people who might get too into them, and pull stunts like this. I’ve heard tales of people hassling rarely-seen owls like Great Grey, but Screech Owls? Really?

April 17, 1910, was a Sunday. If, on that day, you sat down with a copy of the New York Times and flipped to page 6, you would have seen the following:

BIRD-LIFE TRAGEDY IN PROSPECT PARK; Hermit Thrush, Rarest of Songsters, Slain by the Bloodthirsty Northern Shrike.LURED TO DEATH BY SONGVictim’s Own Sweet Melody Imitated by the Murderers — Sentenced to be Shot on Sight.

“A tragedy of bird life has upset the colony of feathered folk in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, for the great northern shrike, which appeared in the park last Winter on a trip down from Canada, has murdered the little hermit thrush, sole fellow of his kind, and the most highly prized songster in the colony.”

(if you have a .pdf reader installed, you can get the rest of the article here.)

An alert reader will first notice that the 1910 Times used thirty-five words to get across the same idea that the 2008 Post would have summed up with the headline CHEEP TRICK. But besides that, there are a couple of interesting details.

First, the anthropomorphism. On beyond the “murder” thing, the shrike is described as a “cannibal” multiple times in the article, in defiance of the fact that Shrikes and Thrushes are, in fact, two different sorts of bird altogether and that the one eating the other has about as much to do with cannibalism as the packet of soup bones in my freezer does. These days, this much is evident to six year olds and Creationists. Indeed, I feel rather foolish even pointing it out. It is hard for the modern reader not to suspect that the journalist responsible for this piece was not being just a little bit tongue-in-cheek. However, assuming that said author was not some member of a cult that makes a month-long celebration of April Fool’s Day, the Park Superintendent’s decision to have the Shrike shot speaks to a very surprising standard of wildlife management ethics.

But beyond that – in Brooklyn of the twenty-aughts, the Hermit Thrush is by no means “the rarest of songsters.” A day with a Hermit Thrush sighting in Prospect Park is a nice but relatively ordinary day. A sighting of a Northern Shrike, however, would get the mailing lists jumping. Has the Thrush’s population improved that much, or is its toleration for people and noise grown better (as seems to be the case with the Cooper’s Hawk)? Or is it merely that in these days of modern field guides and high-tech optics, we actually know a Hermit Thrush when we see one?

Things have improved for birders in Brooklyn since 1910. In some ways, they have even improved for Brooklyn’s birds – especially predatory birds, who for the most part no longer incur the wrath of the Parks Department just by getting dinner. But note the end of the article, and the touching story of how a mystery bird was identified for a local naturalist by a homesick German emigrant.

Yes, in 1910 it was entirely possible to do a year list in Prospect Park and not know what a Europen Starling was. That’s why they call it “the good old days”.

Voting is open on the 10000birds.com essay contest. Rock the vote!

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Saturday I headed down to Prospect Park, hoping for a some hot Redpoll action. No luck with that, but the hawks, on the other hand…

The Northern Goshawk is normally a passerby at best in Prospect Park. But recently, a juvenile bird has been hanging around the park for an extended period of time, hassling the local songbirds and getting hassled in turn by the resident Red-tails.

Now it appears that s/he has a friend. While I stood by the lake, looking at another couple of dozen Goldfinches-that-weren’t-Pine-siskins, a large raptor cruised over and busted up the party before landing in a nearby tree. I got my binoculars on it, and sure enough, Goshawk. Not a big surprise. But then I saw a big bird-shaped lump just at the corner of my vision, panned over to that… another Goshawk! Pretty freaking cool. I wonder if this one will stick around too?

But that wasn’t even the coolest thing I saw on Saturday, oh no.

While I was walking up the Lullwater trail, I noticed a Mourning Dove just ahead of me. I gave it the once-over to make sure it really was a Mourning Dove and not anything more unusual, and a twice-over to appreciate the subtle brown color, and then continued on my merry way. The dove shuffled to one side as I passed, then changed its mind and fluttered up to go elsewhere.

This was a bad plan, as was vividly demonstrated mere moments later when a large Red-Tailed Hawk shot directly over my head and nailed the dove in mid-air. Half my brain immediately went “Oh shit! Sorry little dove!” and the other half my brain went “Oh shit! That was so cool!”

Sadly, I didn’t have a camera with me, but I got to spend the next twenty minutes watching the hawk meticulously pluck and eat its prey. Not something you see every day. A couple of other folks stopped to watch as well. (Although the couple with the itsy-bitsy offleash yorkie didn’t, which was a pity, because maybe they would have learned that their dog is entree-sized and should stick close by!)

So, two year birds (Northern Goshawk and Snow Goose) plus a little Wild Kingdom action… another good day. Oh, and then there was the bright male Baltimore Oriole that cropped up near the Vale. I was not expecting that at all, in December.

P.S. Why didn’t anyone tell me that I had the Latin names for Northern Shoveler and Northern Pintail transposed? Now I’m going to have to come up with a new mnemonyic and everything.

Rock Dove Columba livia
European Starling Sturnus vulgaris
Blue Jay Cyanocitta cristata
White-throated Sparrow Zonotrichia albicollis
Dark-eyed Junco Junco hyemalis
Fox Sparrow Passella iiaca
Song Sparrow Melospiza melodia
Mourning Dove Zenaide macroura
Northern Cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis
Mallard Anas platyrhynchos
House Sparrow Passer domesticus
Red-tailed Hawk Buteo jamaicensis
American Crow Corvus brachyrhynchos
Black-capped Chickadee Poecile atricappilus
Winter Wren Troglodytes troglodytes
Ruby-crowned Kinglet Regulus calendula
White-breasted Nuthatch Sitta carolinensis
Tufted Titmouse Baeolophus bicolor
American Goldfinch Carduelis tristic
Mute Swan Cygnus olor
Northern Shoveler Anas clypeata
American Coot Fulica atra
Northern Pintail Anas acuta
American Black Duck Anas rubripes
Canada Goose Branta canadensis
Snow Goose Chen caerulescens
Ruddy Duck Oxyura jamaicensis
Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus
Bufflehead Bucephela albeola
Ring-billed Gull Larus delawarensis
Herring Gull Larus argentatus
Common Grackle Quicalus quiscula
Northern Goshawk Accipiter gentilis
Hairy Woodpecker Picoides villosus
Red-breasted Nuthatch Sitta canadensis
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker Sphyrapicus varius
Chipping Sparrow Spizella passerina
Baltimore Oriole Icterus galbula
Red-bellied Woodpecker Melanerpes carolinus

My essay “In Praise of the Great Auk” is live at 10000birds.com.

Check it out.