November 7, 1996
Notes from a birding trip through Mexico by Jim Conrad
day I backpacked with so much food up the 18-kilometer (11-mile) gravel road to Nevado de
Toluca Volcano's crater I managed to give myself a bad case of hemorrhoids. I tried to
ignore it. Those days camping just below the tree line were mostly spent lying in the tent
hoping the problem would resolve itself but it didn't. I was thus profoundly grateful when
friends in Toluca suggested that I stay in their unrentable, unfurnished apartment across
the mountains in Mexico City. I went there planning to stay until I felt able to strap on
a backpack again.
It's been said that Mexico City is the world's second-largest (after Tokyo). Though it lies at an elevation of 2,240 meters (7,347 feet), it spreads across the floor of a valley so that nearby mountains keep winds from blowing the city's air pollution away. Upon my arrival the city has declared one of its many air-pollution alerts, the air smells like ashes, and my throat and chest immediately begin burning. I have read that breathing air here is like smoking three packs of cigarettes a day.
The new camp is a fifteen-minute walk east of the Nativitas Subway Station, three stories up, with windows overlooking an horizon-to-horizon clutter of flat rooftops sprouting crooked TV antennas. The rumble of heavy traffic seeps unimpeded through the building's thin walls.
Across the street a neurotic Doberman Pinscher penned in an obscenely small rooftop enclosure barks approximately once each second. This barking will continue in cycles of fifteen minutes on, then fifteen minutes off, day and night during all my waking hours, for the entire stay. Three years ago I used this same apartment briefly as I gathered material for my Traditional Mexican Markets Website, and I am amazed and appalled to think that this has continued all that time.
Blessedly, behind the building lies a grassy space about large enough for two cars to park in. Hemmed in by high concrete-block walls crowned with broken glass embedded in cement, the miniature lawn is dominated by a single small pine tree. Onto the pine's lowest branch a lady downstairs has hung a red, plastic hummingbird feeder.
A FRIENDLY, GENTLE COO-COOING
At dawn on my first morning in town I awaken to a friendly, gentle coo-cooing, sung like a sweetly monotonous lullaby in a storm of traffic rumble. Perched on a metal bar outside my window is an Inca Dove, not seen since the Río Santa Catarina camp.
With my nose against the window glass I can see every barb of every feather. Each feather is dark-margined, bestowing the sleek-looking little bird with a scaly appearance. Her thin eyelids twitter, maybe because of the chilly breeze streaming around the building's corner, or maybe because she's nervous at seeing me through the glass. Remembering that Mexico City now occupies the site of the ancient Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, I speak to the little dove using what Sahagún reported as her Aztec name:
"Hello Cocotli," I say. "Thank you for welcoming me to my new camp."
FIVE HUMMINGBIRDS CAVORTING
Five hummingbirds cavort around the feeder on the pine below exactly as they do in so many North American suburban backyards -- the frantic zipping back and forth, the comical confrontations at sipping holes, the occasional zooming off to other favorite places, far out of sight...
At first they are hard to identify to species. In the early morning light the males look entirely black and the paler females are similarly unidentifiable. As the sun continues to rise, however, both sexes turn out to have red bills with black tips. Eventually the male's blue throat and greenish belly show up and when sunlight fully bathes the area the male's deep blue and metallic green colors shimmer iridescently. When a male flies to my window and for a moment pecks at tiny specks of dried paint even his scarlet bill appears to radiate light.
Mexico is home to about fifty hummingbird species, and the field guide mentions about a dozen with ranges extending into the Mexico City area. Of the dozen possible species, the males of only one species have red beaks, blue throats, and green chests: the Broad-billed Hummingbird. This species ranges from southeast Arizona and the Big Bend area of Texas as far south through Mexico's high, arid regions as the state of Oaxaca. It doesn't make it across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec into the highlands beyond.
How pretty when the Broad-billed Hummingbird with its scintillating blue throat, green belly and red bill lands on the downstairs-lady's caesalpinia, now ablaze with large, friendly spikes of yellow-orange blossoms.
I'm leaning from my window when the lady downstairs opens her squeaky window and tosses a handful of crumbled tortillas onto the ground below the pine. Almost instantly five House Sparrows, which have been perching unnoticed inside the tree, fly onto the ground and begin pecking. In half a minute my Inca Dove lands nearby, but merely stands bobbing its head back and forth and shuffling on its feet as the House Sparrows gorge themselves. Once the House Sparrows leave, the dove goes to where the scraps had been, and daintily pecks at what's left among the grassblades.
Of course the ancient Aztecs didn't know about House Sparrows for House Sparrows are natives of the Old World -- originally from Eurasia and northern Africa. At least one introduction of them occurred in the US in 1850, when people were hoping the birds would help control an outbreak of cankerworms. Of course, anyone looking at a House Sparrow's stubby, thick beak can see that this species is a seed eater, only rarely dining on animals.
From the U.S. East Coast the species spread into the rest of North America like a weed, literally, appearing wherever the land was disturbed or destroyed by mankind. Mexico's great naturalist Miguel Alvarez del Toro recorded their first appearance in Mexico's southernmost state of Chiapas in January of 1950, when twelve appeared in the state capital, Tuxtla Gutiérrez.
The next morning from the window I see a bird perching on a crooked TV antenna across the street. It's the Bronzed Cowbird.
Bronzed Cowbirds are black, thick-billed birds with red eyes. Though females are dull, the males' blackness shines with iridescent greenish and bronze shades on the body, and blue and purple on the wings, tail, and rump. This morning the male I see must have a female in sight, for he is puffing out his neck feathers, his "ruff," so magnificently that he looks as if he has two golf balls, side by side, lodged in his throat.
This is only one attention-getting feature of the Bronzed Cowbird's courtship behavior. Male Bronzed Cowbirds are famous for their bizarre strutting and hovering "helicopter" flights. I wonder why, here in early November with mating season presumably so far away, this male is puffing out his ruff?
Like the similar Brown-headed Cowbirds so abundant throughout most of North America, Bronzed Cowbirds neither raise their own families, nor do individual males and females pair off during the mating season. Bronzed Cowbirds, like their North American cousins, are "brood parasites."
In other words, two Bronzed Cowbirds casually mate after a great deal of male exhibitionism, the female becomes pregnant, and when her time comes to lay an egg she slips off, finds a nest of another bird species, typically a passerine (songbird, not a hawk, duck or the like), and when the other bird flies off her nest for one reason or another, the cowbird sneaks into the nest and deposits her egg. Sometimes the returning nest-owner recognizes that an alien egg has been deposited and that egg is destroyed or removed. American Robins and Northern Catbirds often do this. Sometimes vireos and certain warbler species cover all the eggs with a new nest floor and start egg-laying all over again.
But very often the subterfuge succeeds and the foster parents take care of the cowbird along with their legitimate offspring. Cowbird nestlings beg for food so aggressively that their nestmates may go hungry. When the young cowbird is fledged it joins others of its kind and the parasitic cycle continues.
PIGEONS IN THE ZÓCALO
The day finally comes when I'm healed enough to take the subway downtown to the Zócalo. The huge Zócalo is the main plaza downtown, Mexico's "Red Square." On its western side rises the National Palace and on the northern the Metropolitan Cathedral. The ruins of an Aztec temple occupy the northeastern corner. Government offices and upscale stores, especially jewelry shops, line the square elsewhere.
On the Zócalo's acres of pavement today there are gawking knots of tourists, small groups of Indians, unionists and taxi drivers with banners and bullhorns protesting this and that, and of course the whole open area is populated with pigeons, known in field guides as Rock Doves. Here people feed them and little kids run after them, exactly as is done the world over.
In the countryside I've noticed that usually if one bird in a flock suddenly flies up, all the others apparently think that something must have frightened it, and they fly with it. However, here I see that regularly one bird flies up but others just ignore it.
I'm probably noticing this only because I know about Michael Davis's paper published in 1975 in which he described the flight-intention movement of a bird preparing to fly up, and wishing to inform its neighbors that nothing is really amiss. From what I can see, the movement consists mainly of a very fleeting, subtle crouch and opening the wings a split second before flying up. If launching into the air isn't preceded by this movement, other pigeons fly up with it.
Then I see a piebald pigeon ruffle its neck feathers almost like the Bronzed Cowbird, lower its head and trot in several full circles. This is more pigeon-communication, a gesture known as bowing. It means different things, depending on its context. If it's done near its nest the display is a defensive gesture. However, here the bird is just showing off in front of that white female with brown speckles standing near him. And then a pigeon flies about with much-louder-than-usual wing-flaps. Wing-clapping flight is also an early form of courtship.
I could just watch pigeons all day, but here it's hard to find a good place to sit down, and I need to do exactly that.
THE SONORA MARKET
A few minutes of walking brings me the Sonora Market, famous for its sales of medicinal herbs, animals, and articles of black magic. The huge warehouse could not be more colorful, congested, ill lit, noisy and, in the animal area, stinking and depressing. Among the birds for sale are mostly newly hatched chicks, but also there are thousands of caged birds such as yellow Canaries, Budgies, and Zebra Finches. Also there are many native Mexican species. Judging from their wretched appearance and the numbers of dead ones thrown into the gutters outside the main doors, their rate of survival when caught is not high.
A Brown-backed Solitaire's ethereal, echoic call cuts through the stinking pandemonium reminding me of the first time it was heard this trip, up the canyon at Bahuichivo. There are House Finches not yet turned orange like María López's caged birds at Santa Catarina, and bright red Northern Cardinals, gray Northern Mockingbirds, bright yellow-and-black Scott's Orioles and orange-and-black Northern Orioles. From the humid lowlands' tropical forests there are Red-lored Parrots. Just because their bills are so different, brought down from pine forests of higher mountains, there are Red Crossbills with crossed bills perfectly adapted for the cracking of pine-cone seeds, though here they're being fed cactus fruits.
The Sonora's animal section merges with the zone specializing in black magic. Here most stalls are equipped with rattlesnake skins, dried stiff and ruler-straight, stuck like big pencils in clay jars. Desiccated hummingbirds with eyes sunken into black pits and their feathers dark and dull hang like keys on a ring, the metal ring piercing the tiny birds' necks, and suspended from a rattlesnake skin stuck in a pot. I'm told that these snake and hummingbird skins are just advertisements for the rattlesnake blood and hummingbird blood on sale there, for occult ceremonies.
PRINCES DZUL & LOR
On the subway back home a man with thick, horn-rimmed glasses, Indian features, a bad complexion, and slicked-downed hair sits next to me, asks if I speak Spanish, and in a friendly manner inquires what what I'm doing in Mexico. Hearing about my project, he smiles.
"All I know about birds is a story my mother told me when I was a boy in the Yucatan," he says. I bend close to hear through the subway's rumble, and this is the story the man tells:
"Long ago there was a king in our part of the world, and he had two boys, Prince Dzul, and Prince Lor. Dzul was the firstborn, so he was the first in line to become king. He was a happy, friendly boy whom everyone in the kingdom loved. Lor was very different. He was so jealous of Dzul that he decided to kill him. But when the night arrived when Lor was planning to do this, suddenly some gnomes appeared and put a magic spell on him. His feet turned pigeon-toed and he grew a huge beak."
"Nonetheless, Lor managed to club Dzul to death. Just then the bushes parted, and out stepped the Spirit of the Forest, who said, 'What my gnomes started, I will finish. Since you want to fly as high as to be king, I will give you wings. So that you will learn to love nature, I will give you green feathers. To punish you for the blood you have spilled, I will enable you to talk, but only in a way that no one understands.'"
"And so, Lor was turned into a parrot. Lor returned to the palace, but people treated him as a parrot. In disgrace, he flew into the forest."
"Today the soul of Prince Lor is purifying as his calls mingle with the songs of other birds. In fact, today his descendants have earned the respect of our people, and they call the green bird that speaks in a way that no one understands by the name of loro, in honor or Prince Lor."
In Spanish, the word for parrot is loro.
The story ends exactly as the man is rising to leave. The timing is so perfect that I half suspect him of exiting where he doesn't want to, just for the dramatic timing effect. The man smiles and disappears out the door.
THE LITTLE PARK
One morning, just a block from the apartment-camp, I'm astonished to discover a little park with wonderful trees, the most impressive of which are large Royal Palms, with thick, columnar trunks and broadly flourishing crowns. Graceful, almost black Baldcypresses rise like pagodas above garden plots planted with red-blossomed Cannas, now in full bloom. Also there are purple-blossomed Irises and pink-flowered Rose-of-Sharons, and ash trees with naked branches just now issuing new leaves as if it were April, not early November.
Two one-way, four-lane thoroughfares intersect at the park's southwestern corner, so traffic is always stopped in the red light's direction, perpetually fogging the park with diesel fumes. The constant rumble is overwhelming. Nonetheless, this morning, there must be thirty joggers running circles in this little park, and several people are doing calisthenics.
Not even hoping to see interesting birds in such an harassed little park I nonetheless take a bench, pull the binoculars from my day pack, and for three or four hours watch for birds.
OFFICIAL BIRDLIST #9
Here is this stop's rather surprising Official List:
Go to Stop 10
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