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The January National Geographic magazine has a remarkable article about the 10,000 species of birds that live around and above us, and it prompted me to recall some of the species I have observed in my lifetime. As a five-year-old farm boy and the youngest of five kids, it was my responsibility to feed the chickens, ducks, and geese we raised for eggs and table. I remember holding the heads and bodies of birds on a wooden block as my mother brought the axe down. We canned all meat in those days because we had no electricity for refrigeration. I have fed and been entertained by birds for much of my 80 years since then.
I have several bird feeders and a water station outside of our den so I can observe many species of birds as they feed from morning to night. I usually leave the feeders empty for a couple of days so they don’t get too dependent on handouts. When I fill them it takes about five minutes for the word to get out to the bird universe: “Raymond’s filled them! Come and get it!”
Having a cottage and home on Pelican Lake for many years has exposed us to many water birds, sometimes by the thousands of one species. We have been lucky on a couple of occasions to be awakened by a fearsome racket out on the lake as thousands of Canadian geese and pelicans take a break from a long flight. They feed and rest for a day and then take off in waves as orderly as flights from a large airport. We have experienced that gathering twice. We have been entranced by the music of trumpeter swans as they fly low in formation. In the late fall we have had tundra swans park on a half-frozen lake for a few hours on their trip to somewhere.
On a cold winter day about 15 years ago we had a quick visit from a white gyrfalcon, the largest falcon in the world that normally stays way north of the Canadian border reigning over the coastal tundra. I had to go to “The Sibley Guide to Birds” to identify this one. Normally living in an area without trees, he had settled in a tree as most predators do, looking for a victim, ranging from mice to small dogs.
It Takes A Buffet, From Suet To Thistle Seeds, To Feed Birds
We have had families of pileated woodpeckers live in a hollow oak tree for forty years on a back lot. If we don’t keep them supplied with suet they let us know. This woodpecker tops out at about 1.5 feet tall with a red crest on a black and white head. If they are searching a tree for bugs their large beak can be heard pounding for half a mile.
We know it’s spring when on our feeders we have a bluejay, an oriole, a bright-green headed hummingbird, a yellow finch, a red-headed sapsucker, a male cardinal, and an eastern bluebird all at the same time. It’s a magnificent array of color, size, and diet-from sugar to sunflowers to corn to suet to oranges to dozens of different seeds. Most of them are sloppy eaters—and bluejays are the worst. But we have a local cleanup crew, about 30 wild turkeys that come out of our woods about once a month and spend a half-hour cleaning up all the spills under the feeders. Some say turkeys are dumb. I think that might apply to domesticated Thanksgiving types. The wild ones are smart enough to maintain a schedule for our bird feeders. I gave up many years ago trying to keep squirrels from the feeders. They entertain us with their athleticism, appetite, and greed, often hanging on to a feeder with one front foot while eating sunflowers with the other. One morning I counted 16 on the lawn and in the trees.
I’m glad that the bald eagle has survived hard times to become common again around the lakes. We enjoy watching them fish. They will perch in the tallest trees lakeside so they can spot fish near the lake surface. In a sudden flash-dive to the water they will flare out and come up with a fish-supper in the talons. A great sight. We would also like to see the courtship ritual of bald eagles because they do mate for life. Wildlife ecologist David Buehler describes the scene in the National Geographic: “The two soar up to a high altitude, lock talons, and tumble and cartwheel toward Earth.” They let go just before hitting the ground—unless their timing is bad. Courting eagles have been killed if their talons become locked. A pair survived locked talons in Oregon by landing in a tree. They eventually got untangled and flew away for their honeymoon. Buehler claims eagles do it to find a suitable mate. (I wonder which sex makes the first move.)
Ravens Are Pretty High On The Bird Bell Curve
As King Donald is somewhere on the lower end of the human Bell Curve of intelligence (with half of the human race below 100 IQ and half above that norm), I think the raven is pretty high on the bird Bell Curve. I have kept a file on the intelligence of birds for about 40 years. We have had only one pair of ravens on our property in all these years, but we have been exposed to that intelligence on a number of occasions. They seem to be much smarter than the one immortalized in Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” that could say “Nevermore.” I never did care for the poem. The intelligence of ravens was recognized by the Norse god Odin because he selected two ravens, Huginn for “thought” and Muninn for “memory.” He used the two to gather facts all around the world and report back to him.
Corky and I were first exposed to the intelligence of ravens when we encountered about a dozen of them in an Arkansas state park. They were a friendly and orderly group, lining up for food without too much of a squabble about it. Then we ran into a pair of real smart ones in the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona. We pulled into our first overlook spot at noon and decided to have lunch. Two ravens were perched on rocks near us. We threw the remains of sandwiches to them. They gobbled them up. As we drove to the next parking spot, one raven flew in front of the windshield and the other flew along about five feet from the RV door. When we stopped we fed them some scraps again. This went on for about another half-dozen overlooks—and each time we gave them a handout. Some thought and memory went into that!
But incidents with ravens in Alaska indicate an intelligence that is “overmore.” When it really gets cold in Alaska, ravens during the day will fly to streetlights and cover the light sensors with their wings so the lights come on. The bulbs give off heat so the ravens warm themselves. Some of our politicians would never have figured that out.
Bird researchers have discovered that corvids, a group of about 120 bird species that includes ravens, crows, and jackdaws, have some higher-order thinking and problem-solving skills along with languages. They can make and use tools, bargain with each other and with humans, recognize individual faces, and they often remember who screwed them in negotiations. Democrats even have difficulty with that skill. They can learn about water displacement. They can mimic human voices and sounds. They also seem to grasp the concept of death and some of its causes. They show signs of recognizing when they are being watched and they have the ability to engage in play. They also demonstrate the ability to think ahead and prepare for future events. Consequently, they should have had the vote in 2016. After all, their intelligence level is equal to chimps, our close cousins.
The Spectacular World of 10,000 Bird Species
The National Geographic article points out the amazing diversity in the bird species. We are just beginning to research the amazing sexual diversity in our own species, already recognizing the present sexual ranges in 60 genders. Birds range in size from the nine feet tall ostrich in Africa to the tiny bee hummingbird (the size of a bee!) found only in Cuba. Peregrine falcons can dive on a victim at 240 miles per hour. An albatross with its ten-foot wingspan can glide for 500 miles in a gentle wind. An albatross may spend as long as ten years on the ocean before returning to land where it was born. Some birds like wren-sized rushbirds can live their entire lives near a small pond—or a cerulean warbler can spend a summer in New Jersey then fly to Peru to enjoy another summer. Crows have been observed sliding down snowy roofs on plastic lids, then taking the lid in their beaks back to the top of the roof to do it again—just for the hell of it. They also like to perform aerial somersaults for entertainment. The thick-billed murre, an 18” sea bird with the body of a killer whale that lives on rocky cliffs, dives to 700 feet for fish. The Australian lyre bird sings a song that sounds like a flute playing. If they hear the click of cameras while performing a song, they add the click to the song. A European swift, after breeding, will stay aloft for nearly a year, flying to the Sahara Desert and back, eating and molting and sleeping on the wing, without landing once. Roadrunners in our Southwest like rattlesnake meat so they team up to kill it. One dodges and distracts in front while one sneaks up in back and kills it.
That Beautiful Yellow Finch Is A Close Relative of Tyrannosaurus Rex
The amazing physical stamina and strength of birds make them unique. A bar-tailed godwit has been tracked flying from Alaska to New Zealand, a distance of 7,264 miles, in the short span of nine days. The shorebird red knot with tag B95 attached to its leg flies annual vacation trips between Tierra del Fuego in South America to the Canadian Arctic Circle and back. The little bird currently has more than 230,000 miles on his pedometer!
The authors of the National Geographic article pay this tribute to birds: “They’re the most vivid and widespread representatives of the Earth as it was before people arrived on it. They share descent with the largest animals ever to walk on land.” That beautiful tiny yellow finch on the thistle seed feeder is actually a beautifully adapted living dinosaur, a very close relative to Tyrannosaurus Rex.