Swan riot rocks Brooklyn

“The couple in the southern end of the lake, raising four brown cygnets, are trying to drive out the other family, which has one cygnet. The southern father — wings beating, back hunched and neck extended — streaks across the lake with a wake behind him and repeatedly jumps on members of the other family. It looks as if he’s trying to drown them. Sometimes he has the help of the mother and their offspring. All appear to be males, and some are almost as large as their parents.”

Honestly, considering the Mute Swans’ propensity for violence, I’m surprised that the two pairs ever managed to co-exist at all. I’m also surprised at the people who think it’s a good idea to step into the fray between thirty-pound birds with bone-cracking wings and the intent to commit mayhem for reproductive glory. One wing to the crotch and they could win a Darwin award of their own.

Plus, hello, Mute Swans. Invasive, obnoxious, probably crypto-monarchists. Like when the Cowboys play the Redskins, the correct reaction is to root for both teams to lose.

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Brooklyn is buzzing with the latest boost to its tough reputation: over the past week, not one but two baby falcons have been rescued from pigeons in Greenpoint, Williamsburg’s slightly less hipster-infested, more ethnic neighboring nabe. (And, not entirely coincidentally, a major setting of my novel-in-progress, Sister Rat, a story of urban wildlife gone wrong.)

The story has legs for obvious reasons: falcons are charismatic megafauna, baby falcons are adorable big-eyed big-headed charismatic megafauna, the food chain role-reversal makes this the avian equivalent of Man Bites Dog, and frankly it’s too damn hot out to do any hard-hitting investigative journalism unless Bloomberg gets spotted frolicking with a woman not his wife under an illegally opened fire hydrant. But there are a couple of key points that this story raises that I find interesting.

1. Despite their hard-bitten reputation, New Yorkers really love them some wildlife. Even the rats and the pigeons, while we will cheerfully and futilely attempt to exterminate them, earn grudging respect for their tenacity. Anything out of the ordinary (a turkey in Battery Park, a coyote on the lam in Manhattan, an alligator in the sewer) will promptly earn a nickname and a fan club. This is of course a sign of our innate if scrappy good character and a hopeful indicator for those who want to make cities more habitatiferous. However….

2. Love is not enough. Despite widely publicized success stories (and they deserve their wide publicity, don’t get me wrong) of city-nesting raptors, urban environments make the already fraught and hazardous fledging process even harder, introducing all sorts of novel (in evolutionary terms) dangers like cars and windows. And animal lovers. It’s a catch-22, because while being in the actual street is clearly untenable for a young falcon, being chased down and handled by a Good Samaritan is stressful in and of itself, however necessary. (Figuring out how necessary it is to rescue a given bird from its present circumstances is another matter, and apparently one most people aren’t very adept at.) Given that very real, anthropogenic hazards faced by raptors and other wildlife in the city every day, it’s kind of ironic (and not in the Williamsburg ‘I’m wearing someone else’s bar mitzvah t-shirt!’ way) that the primary villains in the coverage of the incident are the pigeons.

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When you think of bird poaching for the pet trade, your mind might leap to the decimation of parrots in the Neotropics or the smuggling of rarities from Asia. But common songbirds in the heart of a bustling metropolis in one of the world’s great alleged superpowers are not spared from human greed, either.

Via the Prospect Park bird blog, a disturbing report:

“Oddest thing in PP this evening — a couple (in their 50s) trying to capture orioles in a net attached to 20′ long pole.”

Capturing, harming, or possessing any of North America’s native songbirds without a proper permit is, of course, prohibited by the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, along with various state laws. This isn’t the first time this sort of thing has come to light in Brooklyn.

Besides being a tragedy for the birds that are caught (many of which will die rapidly but horribly from improper care) and a massive stressor for those that are chased or disturbed, the illicit bird trade can spread diseases among various bird populations and even result in the introduction of invasive species to new ecosystems.

If you’re in Brooklyn and come across bird poaching or bird smuggling activity, Peter Dorosh and Rob Jett have assembled a helpful list of contact information here.

Anyone in New York State can use the DEC tip line to report harassment or capture of wild birds, as described here.

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A University of Florida study has demonstrated that Northern Mockingbirds can distinguish individual humans and respond to them based on whether they’ve previously been threatened by that specific human. In the study, grad students who poked at Mockingbird nests on consecutive days were subsequently hassled by the parent Mockingbirds, while grad students who had not poked the nest were allowed to approach much closer without being dive-bombed, shrieked at, or otherwise subjected to Mockingbird ire.

This is a remarkable ability for a bird with a brain maybe the size of a large honey-roasted cashew, and the researchers speculate that it may have contributed to the Mockingbird’s success in colonizing urban and suburban landscapes. Understanding which factors lead to the success of urban-dwelling birds is not only nifty in its own right, it can potentially offer clues on how to make urban and suburban habitats more congenial to less flexible species.

It’s a fascinating study, and the more I think about it, the more questions it raises. How do the mockingbirds do it? The grad students wore different clothes on different days of the experiment, so it’s not based on “plumage”. Either the birds can recognize distinct human faces/hair colors, etc., or it’s something more subtle, like gait or the timbre of the individual voice (Mockingbirds are, after all, quite good at noticing and remembering sounds).

And why? Has urbanization been around long enough to be a major selective pressure on Mockingbirds? Or is this a pre-existing trait now being adapted to a novel environment? And if so, what was it used for before people, with their puzzling propensity to poke nests, came along? It seems to me that once most predators know where your nest is, there’s not much left to defend for next time, so it’s better to go after all of them, not just memorable individuals – but I’m not a Mockingbird, so I could be wrong. Maybe preemptive aggression towards predators that don’t already know where the nest is only tips them off that there’s something interesting in the neighborhood.

Or perhaps this behavior drives away clumsy herbivores that might disturb or expose, not devour, the nest – say by preventing the local deer from making a particular shrub a regular snack-bar stop. In that case, it would be a waste of resources to hassle a deer that was just passing through.

Obviously, all this is just speculation and much further study is needed, which just goes to show that even common birds are worth careful observation. After all, it appears that they’re carefully observing us!

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