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Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Have You Seen A Wawa?

When I first visited southeastern Pennsylvania in October 2004, one of the first things I noticed were the Wawa chain stores and gas stations. I had no idea what a Wawa was--but I did note the goose in the Wawa logo.

After I moved here a couple months later, I learned that Wawa is the Lenni Lenape Indian name for the Canada Goose.

I also quickly found that the Canada Goose is perhaps the most abundant winter bird in this area. Every day I see hundreds--if not tens of thousands--of these geese flying in formation, feeding in fields, or loafing on local lakes.

So, I live in the wawaland. I gas up at Wawa. I see wawas flying overhead as I drive home from work every day. Wawa music accompanies me frequently when I'm birding. I have spent many hours looking through huge flocks of wawas, hoping to find a more rare Blue Goose, Barnacle Goose, White-fronted Goose, or Brant. For birders looking for rarities, wawas are just birds to be looked through, not at.

But wawas, despite their abundance, are fascinating in and of themselves. Researchers have studied many aspects of wawa social and breeding behavior, so we know more about wawas than we do about most bird species. We know that they identify each other by voice. Researchers have even described how they may fake each other out. A search for other articles on Canada Goose behavior on the Searchable Ornithological Research Archive, brings up 417 articles.

With so much written about how they live, and the ease with which they can be observed, wawas are ideal birds to watch and learn from. Anyone over three years old can probably identify a Canada Goose. But how many of us really know them? I, for one, have much to learn about these wild neighbors of mine--and look forward to spending more time with them over the next few weeks before they head north again.

Monday, January 30, 2006

No Ivory-billed Woodpeckers So Far

Latest news from the Cornell search teams: despite internet rumors, and brief glimpses reported by a few birders, no confirmed Ivory-billed Woodpecker sightings in Arkansas so far this year. The birding world waits.

Too Close

This afternoon, after I walked the woods at work, I was coming back in when I noticed a House Finch that didn't fly off as I approached the feeder. When I was about 8 feet away from it, I could see that it had House Finch eye disease (conjunctivitis). I was able to get within 12 inches of the bird as it picked up sunflower seeds from the feeder. It didn't see me. I could see that both of its eyes were swollen, red, and watery. While it is great to get close looks at birds, this was too close, and made me sad. Some birds with this condition can recover on their own, but many will die. If this bird couldn't see a 6 foot tall human 12 inches away, its hard to imagine that it can persist much longer in the wild.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Bird Flu Viruses

There is a new study in Science magazine that provides much more detail on the genetics of avian influenza viruses, and the authors think they may have found one gene that may make the virus more deadly to humans. An abstract of the article is here, and a news story in The Scientist about it is here. We still have a lot to learn about these viruses, but most of us will never see chicken sneezes the same way again!

Birds At The Feeder

Thursdays and Fridays are days we count birds at our feeder for Project Feeder Watch--a joint research project of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, Audubon, Bird Studies Canada, and Nature Canada. Basically, we have to report the highest number of individuals of each species that we are able to see at our feeders at one time during the two day count period. Just now, my 10 minutes at the window netted me a birder's dozen:

Mourning Dove 4
Blue Jay 4
House Finch 6
White-crowned Sparrow 10
Dark-eyed Junco 8
Red-bellied Woodpecker 1
Downy Woodpecker 1
Carolina Chickadee 2
Tufted Titmouse 1
White-breasted Nuthatch 1
Northern Cardinal 3
American Goldfinch 1

The goal during periodic visits to the window the rest of the day will be to see if I can see a higher number of each of these species, or find additional species. Its kind of a game, but the results from thousands of such sightings, across the country, for many years, is helping us better understand the winter ecology of our winter birds. A good book that came out a few years ago, based on Project Feeder Watch data, is Birds At Your Feeder, by Erica Dunn et al. If you aren't a Project Feeder Watch participant, check it out and give it a try. Its a lot of fun!

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Bird Flu on Oprah

Oprah did a whole episode today about bird flu (see highlights here). Oprah seems to have done a good job reviewing the fundamentals of bird flu with Dr. Michael Osterholm of the University of Minnesota. Some good ideas about how to prepare for pandemic flu. Oprah Winfrey Show watchers wanting to find out more about bird flu should check out the information pages at www.pandemicflu.gov for info on human health issues, and ProMed emails for the latest news about bird flu outbreaks around the world. And just to be sure everyone is on the same page--if there is a pandemic flu, it will be spread by people, not wild birds. Right now, the outbreaks in Asia and Europe appear to be tied to the movement of infected ducks, chickens, and their wastes.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Watcher in the Woods

This afternoon I took a break from dissertating to walk the woods along the western edge of the field behind the office. Very few birds around, I was begining to wonder if Sartre had scared them all away, when I discovered that he had, in the form of an immature female Sharp-shinned Hawk, sitting in a tree. Those sparrows and chickadees don't like being out in the open with one of these birds around. First they catch them in their gaze, then they catch them! After I got too close, the hawk flew away, and all the little birds came out and started foraging in the open again. An amazing little chain of events.

The only other real birds I saw today were 1085 Common Mergansers, along with two Ruddy Ducks, thousands of Canada Goose, and a couple dozen gulls of several species at Peace Valley Park on my way to the office this morning. Fun to see huge rafts of mergansers moving in the same direction and diving for fish in the lake. I'm used to seeing hundreds of Ruddy Ducks during winter in Texas, but here the are harder to come by--the pair of Ruddy's today were the first I've seen all winter.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Pressure is On

In the latest issue of the Auk, ornithologist, Federal Ivory-billed Woodpecker recovery team member, veteran Ivory-billed Woodpecker searcher, and author of In Search of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Jerome Jackson has a commentary critical of the recent Ivory-billed Woodpecker reports in Arkansas. Pressure is really mounting for the Cornell researchers to provide more conclusive evidence for the presence of these birds in the Big Woods of Arkansas. I wish my friends at Cornell all the luck in the world. I hope the birds are really there. But as Jackson says at the end of his commentary, "hope is not truth. It is only the fire that incites us to seek the truth."

Fish Farming and Bird Flu

BirdLife International has come out with a new statement and info about farming practices and the spread of H5N1 avian influenza. This photo, from the BirdLife website, shows how duck farms are established in conjunction with fish farming, so that bird manure can be washed into the water to provide nutrients to feed the fish. If infected duck manure is used, this can spread the infection to wild birds and other poultry, as the virus remains viable for a long time in water--especially at lower winter temperatures. There is concern that shipments of infected bird manure for use in distant fish farms may be spreading the virus outward from centers of infection. It is possible that public health officials continue to blame the spread of bird flu on migratory wild birds (when there isn't much evidence to support that claim) in order to avoid dealing with these popular agricultural practices.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Carolina Parakeet Video

Not everyday you get to see an extinct species on film. But thanks to digital technology, we'll all get to see Carolina Parakeets (view clip here) in The New World, the latest film from New Line Cinema, opening Friday. Haven't been keeping up with movie previews lately, so hat tip to Bill of the Birds for this one.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The Gaze

This morning after a brutal three hours of work on the dissertation, I headed off into the woods at work to try and recoup my sanity. I didn’t see anything too unusual--mostly because of the rather odd gentleman I ran into down near the creek. He appeared to be in his late 60s and had some kind of European accent. I was trying to pish up some sparrows when I noticed him sitting on the ground maybe thirty feet away.

At first I was a little startled. The only folks I usually see in the woods are hunters in blaze orange vests, but this guy was obviously not a hunter. I quickly noticed he had some old Leitz (remember those?) binoculars, so I figured he might be a birder and asked him if he'd seen anything good. He kind of looked at me funny and asked me what I meant--which immediately tipped me off to him not being a regular birder. I asked him if he'd seen anything out of the ordinary, and he replied that it was his first time on the property so he wasn't quite sure what was ordinary.

Anyway, I introduced myself and he told me his name was Sartre. "Like the philosopher?" I asked, to which he replied in the affirmative. I thought he was a little confused, because actually, when I said "like the philosopher?" what he really said was, "Yep, that's me."

Well, I really didn't think much of it because I noticed a couple of sparrows back in the brush, but then I noticed that this Sartre guy was kind of looking at me funny, so I felt like I had to make conversation with him. I muttered something about sparrows, and he started asking me about bird watching.

Now, I've only recently embraced the term "bird watching," it just wasn't cool to be a teenage bird watcher. Growing up, I had tried very hard to make a case for it being cool to be a birder. I was explaining this to him when he interrupted me--

"But you are watching the birds, aren't you?" he asked.
"Uh, I guess so," I replied. "Really I'm just trying to identify them, to see what they are."
"And what do you think the birds make of you watching them?" he asked.

Now, I thought this was getting a little weird, but whatever. Then he asked me if I'd ever felt like birds would "just happen" to take off as soon as I got them in the scope or binoculars. "Sure," I responded, "especially grebes."

Then he asked me if I wanted to know why they fly as soon as you look at them. I told him I thought it was just coincidence that the birds would fly when I looked at them, but then he did something that really kind of freaked me out. He said, "here's what you look like to a bird when you look at it..." He lifted his 7X35s to is eyes, and all of a sudden his eyes got HUGE! The binoculars magnified his eyes so all of a sudden it looked like he had giant monster eyes.

He took down his bins and said, "those birds are watching you, and when you look at them through the binoculars, they know that you have spotted them, you've captured them in the gaze, you've objectified them, put them at your visual mercy. It's like you've caught them, like the way you feel when you realize someone has been staring at you.

Birds don't like this, because usually they only experience this feeling when a predator has locked on them. When your eyes get huge through the bins, or you all of a sudden sprout a big giant eye in your spotting scope, it freaks them out and they fly away. You've caught them in the gaze."

Now, this was all very startling to realize. Birds may be watching us watch them, and our big, huge, magnified eyes might appear threatening to them. Yikes! Next time you are birding with someone, have them look at you with their binoculars or scope and you'll see what I mean. It's rather amazing.

Anyway, I kind of stood there puzzled for a minute, looking at my binoculars. I wanted to ask this guy more about this insight, but he was shuffling off towards the creek. He just said I could check it out in his book. "The Gaze," he said, "just remember the gaze."

Of course, this couldn't have been the real nobel prize-winning existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (he's dead), but I have to tell you, this whole experience was kind of puzzling. Maybe even shocking. Maybe I've just been spending too much time writing my dissertation, or watching grackles at the feeder outside my window at work. Maybe none of this makes sense, but then again, maybe there's something to it. Maybe dead philosophers really do go birding in Southeastern Pennsylvania.

This afternoon I’ll go back out to the woods to see what’s around. I'll try not to "gaze" at the birds, but I'm still going to want look for those sparrows.

Monday, January 16, 2006

All Work and No Play...

...makes me a dull birder, but there it is! I spent the day at the office working on my PhD dissertation with only occasional glimpses at birds out the window. I was able to see a couple new 2006 office yard birds (Purple Finch, Common Grackle, Red-winged Blackbird, and Brown-headed Cowbird), but nothing out of the ordinary. The Purple Finch was the first I've seen since late last Fall. It was a beautiful wine-colored male, a real stunner. I was a bit amazed to see a Downy Woodpecker feeding on the ground beneath a feeder--don't recall ever seeing one of those on the ground before. And it was fun to watch the Blue Jays pick up a sunflower seed with their beaks, place the seed between their feet, and holding it there while they peck it open and extract the meat.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Birds on Google Video


Did you know you could get free videos on Google Video? You can even place the video on your blog or website. This one is of baby House Wrens being fed by their parent. Not quite the same as watching it in real life, but kind of fun anyway.

Here's another one of hikers walking right past one of the reintroduced California Condors in Arizona. Makes you wonder how long this bird is for the world!



According to the Peregrine Fund, this individual is Condor 241, a female bird hatched at the World Center for Birds of Prey on April 13, 2001, raised by puppets to keep it from becoming imprinted on people, and released at Vermillion Cliffs in Arizona on December 9, 2002. According to the latest info, it is alive and well in the wild. Lets hope the bird is usually a bit more wary of people and this video just shows it having an off moment!

And finally, if you have an hour and a half to kill, here's a long video with Diane Porter of birdwatching.com that will teach you how to start watching birds. Enjoy!

Bullock's in Bethlehem


This morning I drove an hour and a half out of my way to see a young Bullock's Oriole in Bethlehem. The bird is coming to a feeder behind a house, and when I got there this morning, it was pouring rain. Fortunately, within ten minutes, the bird appeared at the feeder, where it seemed to eat some grape jelly spread out for it on the platform feeder. Then after about 45 seconds, it flew off around the back side of the house.

While this is only the third time this species has been seen in Pennsylvania, I grew up with them out west and have seen dozens, if not hundreds, of them. So why would I drive an hour and a half out of my way and stand in the rain for ten minutes--just to see this orange and gray bird for less than a minute? Especially when I should be spending the full day working on my PhD dissertation on urban bird conservation? Probably because I'm insane. Its just what birders do!

Now, there's a Northern Hawk Owl I'd love to see just six hours away up in New York. What are the chances I can get my family to make a day trip of it?

Friday, January 13, 2006

Helping Folks With Their Owls

The first weekend in February I'll be down in Austin, Texas to teach an owl workshop at the Hornsby Bend Bird Observatory. I'm pretty excited to get back down there and see old friends, lead some folks on an owl walk, and help them figure out how to get more owls on their property or in their yards. Check out the workshop details here, and if you're in Texas that weekend, stop on by for owls and a great Texas BBQ lunch!

Saving Birds is Hard Work!

Usually when I tell people that I'm a bird conservationist, that I get paid to help save birds, they think I must have it pretty easy. But hey, bird conservation is hard work! Even Einstein agrees!


Of course, he'll write just about anything if you visit Hetemeel.com!

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Bird Eats Boy

OK, it was 2 million years ago, and the boy--well, maybe it was a girl--was a young Australopithecene, related to our early ancestors. But still, quite an interesting story. Eagles in Africa were more than an awesome sight to our early, early forebearers. Apparently, at least every once in a while, an eagle would swoop down, grab a youngster by the skull, hover with it in the air until it died, then fly off to feast on it. Sometimes, we watch the birds. Sometimes the birds watch us!

Sunny Day

After a day of miserable cold and mist, today dawned bright and sunny, with 18 bird species in the woods at work, including a Hairy Woodpecker, which is new for the year. I first heard it call high in a tree, then saw the larger-than-a-cardinal woodpecker briefly before it flew off through the woods. Birding is often like that. Of the 146 individual birds I saw or heard this morning, many were just brief looks--often obstructed by trees or bushes. While it is common to get killer magazine-cover-type looks at birds, most of the birds you see are far away, partially hidden, or don't stay put for very long. But that's part of the challenge and fun--to be able to find and identify these little gems as they go about their own business.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Ivory-billed Woodpecker on NOVA

Check out the seven minute story that aired last night on NOVA about the recent rediscovery of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Controversy continues to swirl around these Arkansas sightings. My friend Laura Erickson is down in Arkansas looking for it right now (read her reports here). I've had other friends go down to help look for it. Half the time I wish I was down there searching as well. But according to Tom Nelson, one of the leading skeptics, it may be all for naught--the video, sightings, and sound recordings do not reveal the presence of ivory-billed woodpeckers, but merely the wishful thinking of the searchers. It's a damning argument, and one that is ruffling more than a few feathers. Here's hoping this is all resolved soon!

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Sleeper Creeper

This morning while walking the woods at work, I watched a Brown Creeper for about five minutes as it worked its way from tree to tree. Then it flew down to the base of a tree and did something I hadn't seen a creeper do--it just stayed put. There was a White-throated Sparrow perched a couple feet away from the creeper, and it was looking up into the sky, so I wondered if the birds were just watching a hawk or something up there, but I couldn't see anything. Then I got closer and the creeper stayed put, clinging motionless to the side of the tree. I'd never seena motionless creeper, so I wondered if something was wrong. Finally, when I was 15 feet away, I could see that its little eye was closed. Was it alive? After about five minutes, it perked up, stretched its wings, squirted out a little dropping, and started hitching itself back up the tree. It was just taking a nap! A sleeping creeper is not something you see every day, so it was fun to witness this little episode in the life of a backyard bird.

On the way to the bank this afternoon I had a Snow Goose in a large flock of Canada Goose in Richboro. Turkey Vultures and a couple singing Carolina Wrens bring the 2006 office yard list up to 27 species.

Ancient Birds, Stone Age Music

Mark Brazil has an interesting article about his visit to see the oldest known flute, a 35,000 year old instrument made from a swan bone found in Germany's Geissenklosterlen Cave. We've all heard birds sing, and speculated about how human music may have been initially inspired by the sounds of birds. This ancient flute not only shows Paleolithic humans to have made bird-like notes with a flute, but to have crafted that flute from the body of a bird. Next time you're listening to your iPod, you can thank your prehistoric ancestors for creating music by literally taking a note from their bird neighbors.

Monday, January 09, 2006

H5N1 Bird Flu in Turkey

While public officials are quick to blame wild birds for the latest spread of H5N1 avian influenza throughout 10 of Turkey's 81 provinces, there is yet little evidence to support the claim, while trade in poultry is still the most likely carrier of the virus. In recent weeks, evidence has been mounting that use of chicken manure as food for farmed fish is another likely spread of H5N1 viruses to both domestic and wild birds. Wild birds are still more than likely the victims, rather than common carriers, of H5N1 avian influenza.

2006 Office Yard List

Since its a new year, its time to start a new yard list at work...after a nice morning walk today with Black-capped Chickadee (out of range, but regular this year in the area), Red-breasted Nuthatch, and Brown Creeper, the office list is up to 25 species. The office is located on 160 acres along Neshaminy Creek where it crosses Almshouse Rd. The land is owned by a the Heritage Conservancy, and my office is in a 200 year old three-storey farm house. With only the creek for water, we don't get many ducks or shorebirds, and the corn field hasn't attracted many grassland species, so its mainly woodland birds with the occasional flyovers. This year, we'll try to see if we can see more than the 109 species we found here last year. Its a great place to work, and take those 15 minute breaks!

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Mr. Nature Mom

Took all three kids this morning up to the Green Lane Nature Center. We all got great close looks at a Brown Creeper from the bird blind, and the kids enjoyed the activities at the center. Then we drove around the lake--not a lot of different birds on the lake, but several thousand Canada Goose. On the way home, the four year old said his favorite part of the morning was seeing the large flock of geese.

Rule #1 for nature viewing with kids--keep it short.
Rule #2--focus on showing them the spectacular, either spectacular creatures, or spectacular numbers.
Rule #3--don't push it, when they're done, you're done. As long as they enjoy it, they'll want more. If you push it too much, they may resist.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Birdchaser in Birder's World

My review of John Faaborg's book Saving Migrant Birds has just come out in the latest issue of Birder's World Magazine. Just got my two complimentary copies in the mail, which was a boost to my day, which has been otherwise slow birdwise--170 Common Mergansers at Peace Valley were nice, but action at the bird feeders here at work has been very light. One cool thing today was a young White-breasted Nuthatch that kept winking at me as it sat just outside the window on the feeder. OK, maybe it was just blinking repeatedly. But then again, maybe it likes me!

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Flybys

One of the joys of birding is experiencing regular flybys. This morning, two of the neighbor crows zipped past my car as I was heading out to work. During my afternoon walk, several Mourning Doves flew across the field and through the trees.

The great thing about flybys, is that you don't know where the birds are coming from, or where they are going. It is just a few short shared moments in the otherwise discontinuous lives of the bird and the observer. Like art, a bird flyby is reality frozen in a moment. The coming from and going to is a mystery, and stands for all the other comings and goings in our lives.

Usually, if we think about it, we want to know more. More about where the bird is coming from, where it is going, how it spends the rest of its time. But that is only when we think about it. For most of us, the flyby is just a flash. Just a brief moment that may or may not even register. Like the passing of clouds, or a thought. Birds come and go. Like the feathered winds that they are.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Bluebirds

This afternoon, the woods at work were very quiet, but there were four Eastern Bluebirds calling and foraging along the edge of the mowed corn field. While Eastern Bluebirds can be fairly common (I had one on the roof of my neighbor's house when I pulled out of the driveway this morning), they sure are beautiful, and its easy to see why they are so popular.

And, as if to join me in initiating my Year of the Redtail, a nice adult Red-tailed Hawk soared over the field most of the time I was birding during my break this afternoon.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Spying on the Neighbors

There were plumbing problems at work this morning, so I got to work from home. While eating lunch, I noticed that my crow neighbors were out on the basketball court behind our townhome, so I grabbed my Zeiss 7x42s and went up to the upstairs windows to see what they were up to.

The first thing that I noticed was that there were six, not five, crows together in the group--so the family may be a bit larger than I originally thought. When I first saw them, the birds were sitting more or less together on a split-rail fence surrounding the play area. Then they all flew out to the basketball court. They were all there for only a few moments when one of the birds flew up to the top of a basketball backstop. A couple seconds later, that bird was joined by another, while the remaining four birds continued to walk around on the ground. I didn't see them eat anything, but they seemed to pick up some small rocks and sticks.


The second crow on the basketball backstop seemed to want to get closer to the other one. It sidled up to it and started grabbing the other birds wing feathers with its beak. After maybe 30 seconds, the first bird flew 50 years away and landed on the top of a townhouse. Soon, three of the other birds followed suit and landed on nearby rooftops. I didn't see where the other two birds went. Soon, even the rooftop birds were gone.

Not much to gossip about. I really have more questions than information about these neighbors of mine, and not sure when I'll actually meet them. Maybe I should get some cracked corn for them. If we don't end up moving to Perkasie, maybe I'll be able to find this pair's nest when the nesting season gets started here in a few months.

Meanwhile, some interesting reading on the secret lives of crows from Crow expert Kevin McGowan can be found here. A good old-fashioned life history of crows is online here. In addition, a biography of the crow leader Silverspot, by Ernest Thompson Seton, while perhaps slightly conjectural, has been on my mind a lot lately. I enjoyed it as a kid, and it still serves as a bit of an inspiration for my new fascination with crows.

There is still a lot to learn about these small black neighbors of ours. For folks interested in helping us all learn more about crows, check out Crows.net to see how you can submit your own valuable crow sightings.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Unless You Believe

This morning I took our friends from Maryland to see some of the sights here in the Philadelphia area. At one point while we were walking, we came to a wooded area with a lot of leaves on the ground. A group of doves were feeding there in the leaves and my friend said, "you don't usually see a lot of doves in the forest."

Its true. Sometimes you do. I've seen small flocks of Mourning Doves in the woods, but more often they feed on the ground in more open areas. But there was something else different about these doves. They were larger than Mourning Doves. More purplish. We were only a few feet away from them, and in perfect light, I could see that they weren't Mourning Doves at all. There, right in front of me and my friends was a small group of Passenger Pigeons.

I know Passenger Pigeons are extinct, but that's what they were. Not five feet away. Six or seven of them on the ground. In perfect light. The scene will be engraven in my memory forever.

Then, hearing something behind me, I turned and saw a large pair of woodpeckers behind me. On most days, a sighting of a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers would be the highlight of any morning birdwalk here in Southeastern Pennsylvania. But not today. Just as the doves weren't Mourning Doves, the woodpeckers in front of me weren't Pileateds. They looked to be about the same size as Pileateds, but they had large white patches on their back, and horn-colored bills. One, the female, had a recurved black crest. The other, the male, had a red crest. Again, I was very close to these birds. In perfect light. In fact, squatting down very still, I was able to get within inches of this pair of birds clinging to an old stump. The viewing conditions were perfect, and I studied the birds at length. There can be no doubt as to their identification. There, not 15 feet away from the Passenger Pigeons was a pair of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers.

Anyone reading this would have to think that I'm either kidding around, or completely whacked, but let me assure you that this is an entirely accurate account of my experience. I really did see Passenger Pigeons and Ivorybills at 11:45 AM. Anyone who wants to can check out my story. I can provide excellent directions to these birds.

From where I live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, head south towards Philadelphia on the Northeast Extension. Take I-76 east towards central Philly, then take the left exit onto I-676. Immediately take the first exit on the right--that's the Ben Franklin Parkway. At the bottom of the ramp, continue straight for a couple blocks. That will take you to Logan Circle. Go 1/4 of the way around the circle and you'll see a large brick building on the right on the corner of Logan Circle and 19th Street. The birds were on the third floor of this building, here on display at The Academy of Natural Sciences.

While you can't exactly add these mounted museum specimens to your life list, you can see them at extremely close range. And right next to these birds, are three mounted Eskimo Curlews, a Great Auk, and a couple of Labrador Ducks.

How is one to feel at seeing the bodies of so many extinct birds? While I don't get to see Passenger Pigeons and Great Auks every day, even as museum skins, it was hard to get excited about seeing them. It was neat, but not a happy sighting. Instead of marveling at the sight of so many rare birds, the experience left me feeling hollow and empty. Their presence was a blunt reminder of their absence.

For those who care about birds, there are many such reminders. Too many. Small flocks of spring warblers reminding one of the many more birds that one could find in the past. Sightings of birds, now rare, that were once common. Rumors of ghost birds, hard to verify, in distant bottomlands of the Mississippi Delta.

These sightings and experiences are hard to take, unless you believe. Unless you feel in your heart of hearts that the Cornell researchers and Audubon volunteers will find the Ivory-bills this winter in Arkansas. Or maybe on the Atchafalaya. Or you can imagine somebody spending $100K to set up a private Attwater's Prairie Chicken breeding facility, and raising another $30 million to buy 5,000 acres of Blackland Prairie Farmland to restore prairie chickens to Central Texas. Or you can envision neighbors banding together to manage their property for the birds of conservation concern in their area. Or that we can rewild the American west by bringing back the megafauna that we lost during the human colonization of the Americas 11,000 years ago at the end of the Pleistocene.

Unless you believe, your heart must necessarily ache. Or you must numb yourself to the pain of loss. Unless you can envision a world teaming with wildlife. Unless you can see in your mind's eye flocks and herds to rival those reported by our ancestors, and see a way to bring that vision to life.

I believe. Can you? Can you see it?

For a $10 museum admission I can take my children to see Ivorybills and Passenger Pigeons any day of the week. Someday, I hope to be able to take them to see real live ivorybills. And Bachman's Warblers. And hundreds of prairie chickens. And thousands of Whooping Cranes. And maybe even Eskimo Curlews. I can see an America echoing with their wingbeats, where flocks of wild birds are more common than strip malls. Its a future I want to invest in. Its a future I want to leave for my kids. But its a future we may never see, unless we believe.

Year of the Redtail

I was busy with houseguests this weekend, and couldn't get away for an early morning birdwalk to start the year. Then, driving to church, an adult Red-tailed Hawk flying across the road in front of me was my first bird of 2006. Since I'm writing about Pale Male in the first chapter of my dissertation on urban bird conservation (which I'm trying to complete it this year), I'm more than happy to see this sighting as an omen, and look forward to a happy and productive Year of the Red-tailed Hawk.

After church, I took the kids and our friends to Peace Valley Park. As we approached the bird blind, one of our friends' kids said that he hated birds. I said, "you don't hate birds, you just don't know you like them yet".

Sure enough, in ten minutes we saw over a dozen species at close range, including a lifer Red-breasted Nuthatch for my kids. As we left the blind, that same kid who hated birds was gushing about the bird blind and how cool it was to see those birds.

Nobody hates birds. Some people just don't know how much they like them yet.
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