from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
February 16, 2003
"Poor" in the sense of "unfortunate." "Poor birds" is what I've said more than once this week as I've watched what's happening to them.
For example, all winter during my breakfasts the White-throated Sparrows have peacefully foraged on and along the forest trail between my outside kitchen and the blackberry field, pecking seeds and the occasional bug or spider, the very picture of a contented little community of meek, hard-working citizens. But this week one of them acquired a splendiferous white throat patch, a throat so white and well defined it looked painted-on, actually artificial.
The white throat wasn't the problem, though. It was the attitude that came with it. The same spring- induced hormones causing the dazzling white throat to suddenly, seemingly overnight, pop into existence had bestowed this little male bird with unbounded machismo. He claimed the entire pathway for himself, attacked whomever else wanted to peck seeds in his domain, and sometimes he attacked for no reason at all.
It wasn't just the White-throated Sparrows, either. That tightly knit little family of titmice I told you about a couple of weeks ago now is having family problems. One of them, supposedly an oversexed male, chases the others around like a demon possessed. The chased ones squeal and squawk in indignation like teenage boys being chased from home by a father "finally fed up, finally at his limit." Other birds look on in wide-eyed amazement. It's clear that the congenial bird gatherings I've known this winter are growing dysfunctional and soon will break up, the members in them metamorphosing into territory obsessed, male-female breeding factories.
Hormones. Where there was peace now there is strife and it's just because the Earth tilts in a certain manner causing days to grow longer, sending light and more light flooding into our lives, and this light tickles photosensitive glands in our bodies so that they issue chemicals guaranteed to drive us all crazy and make us do outrageous things.
When I saw that White-throated Sparrow running amuck on my trail I thought of a conversation Plato reports as having taken place with the aged poet Sophocles. Someone had asked Sophocles whether he was still capable of enjoying a woman. Sophocles replied, "Don't talk in that way. I'm only too glad to be free of all that. It's like escaping from bondage to a raging madman."
Poor birds. Poor humans who behave as if it were spring and as if they had the whitest throat pouches of all. Poor all of us living critters to whom the coming of spring means submitting to the bondage of a raging madman.
Not all the birds are going berserk. For instance, this week I sat on the bank of a placid forest pond and witnessed a simple event. An old, mostly rotten, moss-covered log lay in the pond, only a small portion of it emerging from the silvery water. Onto this log flew a Swamp Sparrow who then hopped up and down his little island pecking into the soggy moss, possibly collecting Globular Springtails. Then the bird simply flew away.
What's noteworthy here is less what was done than who did it. Several rarely noticed sparrow species visit our area. There's the Savannah Sparrow, Sharp-tailed Sparrow, Henslow's Sparrow, Grasshopper Sparrow, Le Conte's Sparrow, and several others. Swamp Sparrows, MELOSPIZA GEORGIANA, lie sort of between this group of seldom reported, hard-to-see sparrows, and the group of common species. Swamp Sparrows are usually overlooked, but they're not really rare. There's a picture of one looking exactly like the one I saw at http://esaudubon.org/birds/images/DSCN7735_swsp.JPG.
Swamp Sparrows are strictly winter residents in the Natchez area. Mostly they eat small seeds but also they'll peck at any small insect that stirs. Mostly they spend their summers breeding in Canadian cattail marshes, bogs, and swamps with extensive sedge tussocks. The books say that during the summer they are conspicuous as the males deliver pretty, ringing calls from exposed perches as they defend their territories. Down here during the winter, however, their behavior is completely different. They stick to dense cover and keep quiet. Here I see them mostly in a field growing up with broomsedge and blackberry canes. A map showing their winter distribution is at www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/bbs/cbcra/h5840ra.html and another map showing their summer distribution is at www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/bbs/htm96/htmra/ra5840.html
BIRD FEEDER SENSE
Newsletter subscriber Fredie Seab writes from Baton Rouge that "So far this winter I have many goldfinches, cardinals, house finches, purple finches, titmice, and chickadees." I'll bet that half of our subscribers could say much the same thing and if I fed birds my list would be similar.
It's interesting to reflect that a list of all the birds possibly found around Natchez would contain over 300 species. However, at our feeders, the same few species occur again and again. Also, the entire bird world consists of some 9,000 species divided into about 30 "orders" -- there's the parrot order, the hummingbird order, the gull order, etc. -- yet all the birds at Fredie's feeder belong to a single order, that of the "perching birds," the passarines.
Every bird order is divided into familes. The perching bird order includes the swallow family, the wren family, the wood warbler family, etc. The birds on Fredie's list all occur in just two of the perching- bird order's families. The Goldfinch, Cardinal, House Finch and Purple Finch belong to the finch family, while the Titmouse and Chickadee belong to the titmouse/chickadee family.
Since each bird family more or less specializes in a particular ecological niche, we can see that the birds on Fredie's list practically define what's available in his backyard. In short, these are birds highly specialized not only for eating seeds, but also for dealing with being in the proximity of humans. Swamp Sparrows also eat seeds, but I don't think Fredie will see any of them nabbing seeds from the backyard feeder.
It's so obvious that seed-eating birds should visit backyard seed feeders that you might wonder why I'm dwelling on the matter. The reason is that when people observe the same birds day after day outside their windows, the impression can grow that these species are somehow less well adapted, less interesting or even less "noble" than true woodland birds.
Therefore, it's good to keep in mind that our backyards are very well defined ecological niches in themselves, and that the creatures who visit our backyards are as exquisitely adapted for their preferred ecological niche as the wildest creature anywhere.
WINGED ELMS FLOWERING
The brightest part of the winter-time Swamp Sparrow is its rusty-red shoulder patches, and the brightest part of the forest right now is the occasional blush of diffuse rusty red presented by the Winged Elms, who are flowering. It seems that rusty red is often the hue that breaks forth in any landscape in repose. Anyway, flower buds on the delicately deliquescing branches of Winged Elm trees burst forth long before the leaf buds, and right now the flowering branches look like they're adorned with toasted breadcrumbs.
A beautiful close-up of flowers and the winged branches of Winged Elm is available at www.missouri.edu/~umo_herb/monps/Images/Ulmus_alata.jpg
MY NEW WEBSITE: www.backyardnature.net
For the last few years I've produced the EarthFoot web site at www.earthfoot.org. That not-for-profit site offers free promotion to very small scale, locally produced, international ecotour programs. The idea is to encourage "environmental education and cross- cultural sensitization." My nature pages have freeloaded in a subdirectory of that site.
I've acquired a new domain, www.backyardnature.net, where nothing but my nature pages are gathered. I hope that having the nature pages under their own domain will make them easier for people to find. As soon as insects start buzzing and plants really start rampaging, I'll be scanning images, writing new sections, and telling you all about it.
Back to the sparrows. All week my mind has been developing a certain insight catalyzed by those sparrow observations.
It's interesting that sparrows can be divided into two general groups according to whether their breasts are streaked or unstreaked. Both chest types provide sparrows with good camouflage. You can imagine a bug looking upward, seeing the Swamp Sparrow's dark, gray chest very like the wintry sky behind it, or the Song Sparrow's strongly vertically streaked chest blending with the sky-reaching tussocks of grass or sedge behind it. Chests are also lighter than back colors, to compensate for shadowing.
The backs, or tops, of sparrows are essays in brown and black splotches and streaks. From the falcon's perspective they look very much like the floor of a field or a forest's leaf litter.
Therefore, sparrow colors and patterns make sense. Still, you can't help feeling that something is going on here other than the sparrow species having blindly evolved random camouflage patterns. Sparrow patterns are so elegant and the colors are so sublimely complementary that the mind rejects the idea that such effects could arise from mere Darwinian selection. One senses a hand at work here that creates with a flair. If this Creator were to walk into the room, you'd not be surprised if She were whistling a jaunty little tune.
I think that the question of whether one finds a sparrow's plumage pretty or not is a good measure of how comfortable that person is with reality at large. I am struck by the general "earthiness" and "hominess" of sparrow colors and patterns. Since I regard "earthiness" and "hominess" as hallmarks of a peaceful, happy, sustainable life, it seems that sparrow colors and patterns abstractly express something to which I aspire. It's as if what I regard as the Creator's guiding principles for life on Earth were somehow expressed in terms of sparrows.
I'm not suggesting that Nature teaches us to live exclusively in a subdued manner harmonious with earth- tone sparrow colors. After all, the Creator also produced Cardinals, Blue Jays and Painted Buntings.
But, if in your bird fieldguide you scan the species from cover to cover, you'll see that maybe 80% of the species are, you could say, modest looking but elegant -- like sparrows, sandpipers and thrushes. Maybe 18% are colorful (but not spectacular) or somehow novel in appearance, in the manner of woodpeckers and hummingbirds. And only a handful are outright bodacious, like the Cardinal and Blue Jay.
So I would say that if in nature the Creator provides paradigms upon which we humans should pattern our lives, the bird fieldguide reveals one view of the matter: The enlightened and fulfilled life will be 80% modest and dignified; 18% colorful but not gaudy, and; maybe 2% outright rip-roaring.