Saturday, August 18, 2012

Bird Briefs, Part 2

They’re fluttering outside my windows and inside my books: birds. Thought I’d say a few words about them.

Extreme Rescue
Sy Montgomery’s latest book, Birdology, is a delightful collection of stories, histories, lore, and facts about seven avian species (or, if some scientists get their way, seven dinosaur species). She devotes one chapter to hummingbirds, profiling the day-to-day efforts of a “hummer” rehabber who specializes in fostering orphaned baby hummers—so tiny they’re best observed with the aid of a magnifying glass.

One member of the 340+ hummingbird species journeys from Mexico to Alaska each year—the longest migration, in terms of body length, of any bird. The first portion of the course includes a trek across the Gulf of Mexico—a 21-hour, nonstop flight. It’s a miraculous show of stamina and endurance, and not every hummer is up to it. Montgomery mentions one unfortunate bird who collapsed on an oil rig. The (unnamed) oil company ordered a helicopter to transport the feathered patient to a wildlife rehabber in the States, where the little guy spent months recuperating in a greenhouse. He caught up with his pals on their return migration to Mexico. I’m not sure which is more amazing: the hummers’ migration or the oil company’s good deed.

Say It Isn’t So
If you’ve read Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City, you know how packed it is with details about 1890s Chicago—the dust, the odors, the politics. Of all the remarkable and sometimes shocking facts Larson presents, one in particular stood out to me. Frederick Law Olmsted, as part of the magical landscape he conjured for the Columbian Exposition, populated the lagoons with birds. Larson writes: “Olmsted had ordered more than eight hundred ducks and geese, seven thousand pigeons, and for the sake of accent a number of exotic birds, including four snowy egrets, four storks, two brown pelicans, and two flamingoes.”

SEVEN THOUSAND PIGEONS? Really? Weren’t there enough pigeons in Chicago already? Every species on Olmsted’s list is a water bird except the pigeon. Could it be that a critical word—say, Guillemot—was omitted from the copy? Perhaps Olmsted imported 7,000 Guillemot Pigeons to the fair, which would make sense. Readers, can you shed any light on this matter?

Platonic Pairings
I’ve written before about LuckyBird and his sparrow pal. What I’ve not yet relayed is that we have been watching two other similar pairs at our feeders. The cardinals are young adults and, in both cases, the sparrows seem more committed to the relationships than their crimson counterparts. Is it misguided, unrequited love? Are they just friends? Will they ever mate with their own kind? Again, dear readers, if you know anything about cross-species relationships, please enlighten me.

“Birds teach us reverence—a virtue that, writes classicist and philosopher Paul Woodruff, ‘begins in a deep understanding of human limitations.’ ”
—from Birdology, by Sy Montgomery

[Art by Ernst Haeckel (top) and Charley Harper (bottom).]

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