Last Sunday I asked for a copy of North Dakota's most recent record of Acadian flycatcher (Empidonax virescens); it soon arrived via email. In the dispassionate language of scientific data, the entry simply stated, "5/29/1973 (1 called) Montpelier (LCH)." Translated it means someone with the initials LCH had heard this species calling in Montpelier in late May, 1973. Presumably "LCH" did not even see the bird. Prior to this there is only one other record from the state, a specimen recovered in Grafton in 1927 which now purportedly resides within a collection at the University of North Dakota.
Dates are important. Always have been; just ask Julius Caesar about the Ides of March. Whether to recognize birthdays or anniversaries, or to memorialize an event for a specific reason (eg. June 6, 1944, D-Day), people all over the world have long looked at certain spots on the calendar as being significant. Sometimes these days evoke sadness, as in the anniversary of a loved one's death; sometimes joy, like on the birthday of a relative or friend; other times it might signify nothing more than the time of year to set out tomato plants.
There is any number of ways we can divide birds into groups: Pelagic (oceangoing) vs. land-based, precocial vs. altricial young, cavity nesting vs. nest building, or perhaps vegetarian vs. flesh-eating. Among the birds that spring to mind when a person considers the flesh-eaters are hawks, eagles, falcons, and owls. But if we further define carnivores as those beasts which catch and eat live prey the club's membership is perhaps more broad than we would think. Some ducks, herons, and most water birds are included.
A 2006 poll conducted by the US Fish and Wildlife Service showed North Dakotans among the least likely Americans to be bird watchers on a per capita basis at 14 percent. Only Hawaiians polled lower among the 50 states. I've got my own theories as to why this might be the case but let's put that aside for another time and assume the data are reasonably accurate. Consider what this means to bird biologists.
On the 18th of December, 1993, I saw my first merlin sitting in a tree in Fargo's industrial park. By then I had been birding for over 15 years and merlins--those energetic falcons with an attitude I'd heard so much about--were quite near the top of the list of birds I wanted to see. I now realize there were two reasons it took me so long to find one. First, the birds were not all that common only briefly visiting our area during migration.
From the following list of cartoon birds, select the one with the specific real life counterpart and matching name: Big bird, Roadrunner, Woody Woodpecker, Daffy Duck, Woodstock, and Tweety. Woody Woodpecker comes close, I guess, and Daffy Duck even includes the word "duck." But only roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus) meets the specifics called for in the first sentence. I only mention this after hearing of an anecdote recently where, after bringing up the bird in conversation some years ago, someone questioned its existence; insisting the bird was strictly a cartoon creation.
"In the Spring a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love," wrote British poet Alfred Lord Tennyson in his work titled, Locksley Hall. Indeed there is something about the slightly warming weather, the ever longer days, and the slow greening of the landscape which stirs the hearts of not only young men, but young organisms of all types. I couldn't help but be reminded of this particular line of prose over the course of the past few weeks. During the depths of winter, scarcely a bird vocalizes.
The other day I received an email with an attached video showing scenes of a crow and a house cat frolicking and carrying on in a playful and friendly manner. Strange as it would seem, these two normally antagonistic creatures were boldly defying nature in a peaceful, even affectionate, fashion. Or at least defying nature as we typically recognize it. It doesn't stop here however. A quick search shows all sorts of strange pairings having been captured on video, from an orangutan with a dog, to a lioness cavorting with a young antelope of all things.
Just for fun, let's say we've been asked to manufacture a bird species using a list of certain characteristics, as if something like this were possible. Our orders say the animal must be small and gentle, it must be fairly tame, it must possess a wide vocal repertoire, it must be easy on the eyes using only shades of blacks and whites, it must get along well with others, it must appear readily at our feeders, it must be in the business of warning others of danger, it must range over a large area, and it must be easily recognizable.
Every now and then, we all need reminding as to just what it was that led us here in the first place, and why we love what we do. Over time, we tend to lose track of those first few occasions when the fever-pitch of excitement caused our hearts to thump; we forget those moments when we decided this was something we wanted to do. Last weekend I received just such a lesson from an unlikely source: a 10-year-old boy. A neighbor has a son, Joe, who exhibits a preternatural interest in the outdoors, especially birds.