What we call things in our respective languages is an interesting exercise in history, culture and linguistics. Why do we say cow, for instance? Who first came up with that? I mean, did some official naming committee stroll down a country lane with paper and pencil saying things like, “That fairly large, four-legged, horned creature eating grass over there, yeah, let’s call that a ‘cow,’ and let’s spell it c-o-w?” Not really. My mind ventures into similar territory when it comes to birds.
An enterprising individual strapped a miniature video camera onto the back of a northern goshawk some time ago and captured video of the bird flying swiftly through a rather dense forest. The result is nothing short of spectacular, as would be expected from such an accomplished flier. The north woods predator weaves and rolls and banks, making what appears to be an incredibly difficult task look positively effortless. Sharing similar hunting techniques with the goshawk is the more familiar Cooper’s hawk, with which it is bunched in the family, Accipitridae.
I can only guess what motivates people to participate in the annual Christmas Bird Count. I’m sure there are some doing it for the social element, to be with like-minded individuals; some are likely doing it out of habit or a feeling of obligation; some might even be looking to hone their bird-watching skills by hanging out with more experienced birders. As for me, it’s an invigorating way to break up the early winter season by getting me off the couch and out the door. Once outside, anything can happen.
The rustling and fluttering would be abrupt and startling. Dark, soundless mornings were quite often ripped open in this fashion, causing me to jump out of my skin every time. It was some years ago, but the memories are fresh.
It was quite warm, almost hot, as I set out on a noon jog in Fargo some years ago in early June; so warm that I had removed my T-shirt to carry in my hand. My route would take me along the bike trails on the Red River’s west bank north of Lindenwood Park, ultimately finishing at The Forum building downtown. The sights, sounds and smells of an early summer day were evident at every stride as I basked in the vigor of a lunchtime workout.
It was during a recent walk that I happened upon a gathering of American crows settling into the top of a large cottonwood tree for what would likely be the birds’ evening roost. In all, it seemed around 50 of the large black birds were jostling for space in the leafless branches. It was chilly, it was getting dark, and it somehow felt too early. It was just a few weeks ago, it seemed, when crows were not yet gathered into flocks; instead carrying on the business of breeding and raising a family in pairs and small family groups. What had happened?
We often think of the Arctic tundra as an utterly unforgiving zone of extreme winter darkness and extreme cold that we will — thankfully — never visit. But what if I said many of us have been there without even knowing it? Well, at least a reasonably comparable analog of it. I remember a tidbit from my plant ecology class (still my favorite course ever, thank you Dr. Gary Clambey) at North Dakota State University. It was a rule of thumb that said every 1,000-foot altitude gain was the climatological equivalent of traveling 300 miles north.
Words and their meanings evolve over time, they change across geography, and they change among different groups of users. To describe a popular carbonated beverage in this country, for example, you will hear the term “pop,” you will hear the term “soda,” and you will hear the term “Coke,” depending on where you are. They all mean the same thing; it’s just called something different by different speakers. The naming of birds is an interesting subject falling along these wavering lines of usage.
A strong cold front hit a couple of Sundays ago with an accompanying north wind. Betting on a good hawk migration day I set up a spotting scope for a few hours and watched as 11 different raptor species were noted heading south. Between bouts of trying to identify distant birds I couldn’t help but notice a few monarch butterflies also making advantageous use of the north wind.
It was well over 20 years ago. I was driving east on Cass County Road 20 north of West Fargo on my way to Hector International Airport. At one point the road crosses a small bridge over what I know as the Harwood Slough. As a person constantly on the lookout for critters and birds, I couldn’t help but pass a glance into the cattails. What I thought I saw in that brief moment surprised me, so much in fact that it necessitated a U-turn and closer investigation.