So much has happened with the birds around here over the last few weeks- I am way behind. In this post I’m going to try and catch up on several things I’ve been meaning to blog about over the last few weeks, so it’s going to be a little stream-of-consciousness and all over the place, so… kind of like most of my posts, I guess.
But first, I saw the Coolest Thing Ever Friday afternoon. Now the tough part of this is that I did NOT get a picture, and it would have been the Best. Photo. Ever. In. This. Blog. I am totally serious- here’s what I saw.
Friday I did a late lunch ride. I pretty much always keep my road bike in the car, because I never know how the work-day (and the weather) will turn out, and whether or when I’ll get to ride. I was doing one of my standard cherry-stem routes from the office, and was climbing up and South on Wasatch Blvd, just past the turn-off for Le Caille (pic left).
Tangent for Utahns: If you’ve ever been to Le Caille, you know how totally over-the-top it is- particularly the waitress’ outfits*.
*I googled high and low for a photo for this tangent, to no avail. I even considered stopping in on a lunch-time ride with my camera, but a middle-aged man in lycra trying to get a shot of the waitresses would’ve almost certainly ended my 40+ year jail-free streak…
Nested Tangent: Utah seems to have a number of these weirdly inappropriate combinations of a basic service (restaurant, haircut, housecleaning) and semi-naughty exhibitionism. Le Caille, Bikini Cuts, and that topless maid service that used to be a big news item a few years back are all examples. (Pic right= photo of actual hair stylist*, taken from Bikini Cut's’ website. In addition to cutting hair while clad in swimwear, “Ashlee” is said to enjoy dancing, cooking, traveling, boating and 4-wheeling**.) It’s almost as if all these straight & narrow Utah guys can’t quite bring themselves to go to an actual strip joint, so they try to sneak in the experience under the guise of, “well I needed a haircut/house-cleaning/pretentious way-overpriced dinner anyway…” or something.
* The photo bothers me a bit- I don’t really want my hair-stylist to be licking their fingers before touching my hair.
**All of which, coincidentally, Awesome Wife also enjoys (well, except 4-wheeling.) I bet the 2 of them would really hit it off…
Anyway, back in ’98, when Awesome Wife and I got married, my parents hosted a day-after brunch at Le Caille for the out-of-town guests. Neither I nor my brother- let’s call him “Phil”, had ever been to Le Caille before. Phil had a college buddy who was from Salt Lake, so he asked him what it was like. His buddy described Le Caille as “Part elegant French restaurant, part fine English country manor, and part Hooters.” Which is of course, totally spot on and the absolutely most accurate-ever description of the place.
Back to the story: I was climbing the moderate incline, pretty heads-down, and I caught a flash of black and white to my right. I looked right and downhill, and in a meadow about 30 feet away was a ring of about 7 or 8 Magpies on the ground, surrounding something in a ~10 foot radius circle. I looked closer, and saw that the thing they were surrounding was a bird- a big, brown bird, a Golden Eagle.
Utah’s Avian Apex Predator
The Golden Eagle, Aquila chrysaetos, is one of those birds that are immediately and spectacularly recognizable. It’s one of only 2 eagles in North America, the other being of course, the Bald Eagle. The Bald Eagle is native only to North America, but the Golden Eagle occurs across the Northern hemisphere, as 6 distinct subspecies. A.chrysaetos canadensis is the subspecies native to North America.
An adult Golden Eagle is an apex predator, meaning that nothing hunts it; it is at the top of the food chain. Anyway you look at this thing, it is an absolutely awe-inspiring bird. Its average adult wingspan- average - is 7 feet. They weigh up to 15 lbs, and have been known to fly away carrying 15 lb deer fauns. Their talons are powerful enough to break human bones, and their foveal vision is 8X as powerful as that of a human. No matter where you are, no matter what you’re doing, if you see this bird it is always totally worth stopping and staring.
Tangent: the Golden Eagle may also be the only eagle in Utah. I’ve ever seen a Bald Eagle here, though I used to see them frequently in Western Colorado. And the range maps show a curious hole right above Utah.
Bonus Tangent: When I lived in CO, I used to go out to Grand Junction every year in February. On the way home, I found a great place to watch Bald Eagles. Get off I-70 on Hwy 65 going South, like you’re driving up toward Grand Mesa. About 2-3 miles down the highway, along the river in the bare Cottonwoods there were always a couple of Bald Eagles.
I stopped the bike, killed the iPod, and immediately started rooting around in my jersey pocket for the Blackberry to get a photo. My abrupt stop spooked the Magpies, who quickly flew off, but the Eagle stayed still for the moment. Fumbling, I punched in the Blackberry security code with my gloved thumb and… mistyped it.
Tangent/Rant: My company supports email access via Blackberries, but only with a security code enabled on the device. Fine, so I mis-typed it. When you mess up the password, it pops up a big note that says “INCORRECT PASSWORD” and you have to re-type it. Fine. But when you enter the correct password, it pops up a “Please wait…” message that lingers for a full 4 or 5 seconds before letting you in. What on Earth is it doing during those 5 seconds- sending my 4-digit pin to NORAD?
Coolest Sight Ever
And of course, while my Blackberry was “please-waiting”, the Golden Eagle lifted off. Its wingspan was at least 5 feet, a magnificent bird, and clutched in its talons as it arose and flapped away, it held a snake. Yes that’s right- I saw the flag of Mexico in real life.
I love my country. I really do. But I think our flag absolutely sucks. It’s garish and complicated and crazy-busy with stars and stripes all over the place. Really- jingoism aside, would you order a sofa or a set of drapes in this pattern? Of course not. It hurts to look at for too long, and- pet peeve- it’s asymmetrical. I like symmetry- a lot. You might say I have a symmetry fetish. (That’s one reason I like vehicles like bicycles and motorcycles, where the pilot sits in the middle, as opposed to cars, where the driver is always over on the side.) Canada’s flag is significantly better- a good, recognizable symbol, simple, eye-easy color scheme, and nicely symmetrical.
But Mexico’s flag rocks. Bold, simple colors, overall symmetrical format, and an awesome, powerful symbol in the center, one that captures the founding legend of one of the nation’s mighty indigenous peoples- a Golden Eagle with a serpent in its talons.
According to legend, the leader of the nomadic Mexica had a dream in which the god of war, Huitzilopchtli*, told him that they should settle in the place where they saw an eagle perch with a serpent in its talons. They soon saw the sign- on a swampy island in the middle of a great lake, and it was there that they built the capital of their future empire- Tenochtitlan.
*No, I can’t pronounce it. But knowing what I do about the Aztecs, I am confident that he was one serious bad-ass.
Tangent: The word “Aztec”, as is so often the case with Native American names (“Anasazi”, “Navajo”), isn’t what the Aztecs called themselves, but rather what their enemies called them. The Aztecs referred to themselves by something that translates roughly to “Triple Alliance”, as the empire’s origins lay in an early alliance of 3 tribes, the largest/dominant of which were the Mexica.
Ironically, a number of the lots along that part of Wasatch are for sale. Maybe I’m supposed to buy one and build my dream home there?
Meanwhile In My Yard
No gods of war have spoken to me in the back yard, but there’ve been lots of cool bird happenings. A week ago Saturday a couple of Lazuli Buntings, Passerina amoena (pic right, not mine) showed up, and have been hanging around the feeders for the past ~10 days. They’re migrants in the valley and will move on before long, so check them out if you get a chance. They’re way more skittish than the back yard regulars, and have defied all my attempts so far to get a decent photo. They’re closely-related to the Indigo Bunting, and together the 2 birds have a fascinating, ongoing, speciation/hybridization story which I detailed in this post last year, and then explained more fully in a subsequent post on the Black-Headed Grosbeak.
There have been other newcomers over the last week. White-Crowned Sparrows, Zonotrichia leucophrys (pic left), though supposedly resident in Utah in Winter, just started appearing in our yard over the last 2 weeks Here’s an interesting tidbit about this bird: it aggressively chases Dark-Eyed Juncos off of its territory. And as soon as I read that I realized that I haven’t seen a single Junco- who’ve been day-in, day-out regulars on the ground below our feeders for months- for at least 2 weeks. The White-Crowned Sparrow is a native New World sparrow (family = Emberizidae) and so not closely-related to Old World Sparrows (family = Passeridae), such as the European House Sparrow, which we talked about in this post, and which, BTW, is still very active in our yard (pic right).
And Sunday afternoon we spotted our first Hummingbird of the season in the yard. (I did a big Hummingbird post* last year which you can check out for details, species info, etc. I also mentioned them in the Costa Rica birds post back in March.)
*Which contained what I still feel is arguably my Best Graphic Ever.
One of the most recognizable signs of Spring is being awakened before dawn by birdsong. (I did a post last year on the 4 stages of the morning birdsong cycle. Right now I think we’re between stages 3 and 4.) Interestingly, one of the loudest, most pronounced morning-singers, isn’t a newcomer at all but has been hanging around all Winter- the American Robin, Turdus* migratorious.
*So what did the poor Robin do to earn the genus-name “Turdus?” That just seems so unfair…
In Winter Robins are largely quiet. They roost together in large communal roosts, which they often share with other birds, including Starlings (whom we’ll talk about in a moment.) Come Spring, the communal roosts break up, and the male Robins disperse to establish territories. Initially male Robin territories are about an acre in size, but the boundaries are somewhat fluid, and the territories overlap. Following mating and nesting, the territories tighten up in size, down to about 1/3 of an acre, and are more rigorously defended.
Tangent: Territorial behavior in birds is way interesting and really varies widely. Some birds, like Red-Winged Blackbirds have small territories which they defend very aggressively. If you’re hearing the distinctive shrill of a male RW Blackbird in your neighborhood right now, that’s probably what you’re listening to. Other birds, such as Blue Jays, appear to have almost no concept of territory outside the immediate nest-site. And then still other birds, such as the Black-Capped Chickadee (whose cool “suspended animation” capabilities we looked at when we covered avian thermoregulation this past Winter), have social territories, defined and defended by groups of birds, but no real individual territories.
During this period of territory establishment, retrenchment, courting and mating, male Robins make a good deal of noise. But what’s so interesting about Robin calls, given how darn ubiquitous a bird it is in American suburbs, is how poorly they’re understood by ornithologists. Most common birds have a standard series of well-defined calls, associated with territory defense, courting, predator/threat alert, etc., that ornithologists have catalogued in detail over the years. But Robin calls appear frustratingly non-specific and still aren’t completely understood.
Even more enigmatic is the courting behavior of Robins; unlike pretty much every other suburban bird, their courting and mating isn’t at all obvious to the casual birder, and for a long while was somewhat of a mystery. It turns out that Robins do have specific courting behavior (the process is called “treading”), but it happens quickly and is rarely observed. I’ve studiously ignored Robins for years. This Spring, after learning a little about how relatively mysterious they are, I’m paying a bit closer attention.
There’s another super-common bird I started paying attention to this year. Back in late February/Early March, there were a couple of black birds hanging around the trees of my office parking lot. There weren’t a lot of birds out and about yet, so I noticed them and soon realized they were European Starlings, Sturnus vulgaris. I watched them regularly on and off for about 6 weeks, and since then I’ve noticed them a few times in the yard, around town, and even in stands of still-bare Scrub Oak in the foothills.
Starlings are of course exotics, having been introduced deliberately to the US in the 1890’s in an event I described in this post. They’ve spread across the continent like crazy and today they’re one of the most common birds in the US. And they’re pests. They’re fierce competitors for nesting sites, driving away many native birds, and they roost in such numbers that they’ve actually messed up powerline/electrical equipment with their excrement.
Side Note: At least part of the reason Starlings are such tough competitors for nest-sites is that they start looking early, like in November of the previous year.
They also have at least one other unappealing behavior- they’re sometime brood-parasites. Female Starlings who fail to secure a nest-mate will occasionally attempt to sneak an egg into the nest of another species, though the Starling is by no means a habitual brood parasite, like the Brown-Headed Cowbird.
I never bothered to learn too much about Starlings before, probably because, like a lot of aspiring “naturalists”, I’m somewhat of a snob when it comes to exotics. I’m interested in native birds and plants and mammals- who cares about European Sparrows and Crabgrass and Musk Thistles and Honeybees and Zebra Mussels? Starlings are all over North America, they push aside native competitors, they have minimal genetic variation across the continent, and besides, their earliest ancestors here date back only to the 1890’s.
Boy, what an annoying, invasive creature. Who needs ‘em? Why even bother with them? Starlings sound like, well, like, uh… actually, they’re pretty much like Euromericans, and specifically, me.
How I Am Like A Starling
Only 1 of my 4 grandparents was born in the US, and her parents were Italian immigrants. We know little about my great- grandfather, except that he came from somewhere in Northern Italy. My great-grandmother came over as a teenager, with her parents and siblings, in the early 1890’s, right around when the first Starlings were released by those kooky Shakespeare fans.
My great-great-grandfather was a gentleman lawyer in Nola, Italy, about a 40 minute drive (today) from Naples. He was well-established and respected in the community. His family had lived in Nola for generations, and he intended for his children to do likewise. Around 1890, he co-signed for a bank loan for a friend, who was some sort of local minor noble (and hence highly reputable.) The friend defaulted, and my great-great-grandparents lost everything. For a time they boarded with friends, but in the established, highly-stratified society of 19th-century Italy, a financial recovery for the family looked pretty unlikely. Ruined, depressed, desperate, my G-squared grandfather did what several million of his countrymen did in the decades before and following: he emigrated to America. (Pic left= …anyone recognize it? If you’re descended from European immigrants who came to the US anytime after 1890, then you really ought to.)
His daughter- my great-grandmother- married another immigrant- the mystery man from Northern Italy. He fathered 8 children with her and then promptly dropped dead, leaving great-grandma to raise the 8 kids solo, a task she accomplished in part by making and selling liquor during the prohibition. Today, a ~century later, her descendants number in the hundreds, and have included educators, physicians, restaurateurs, developers, artists, attorneys, engineers, a judge, a TV producer and a Fortune 500 CEO.
I’ve only known a small fraction of them, but I’m willing to bet my next paycheck that none of them has ever, ever co-signed for a loan.
There’s a recurring, ugly theme in the immigration debates of today: that today’s immigrants, unlike the immigrants of earlier times, seek to come to this country only for economic gain, as opposed to the high-minded, spiritually-oriented ideals of the founding fathers and Mayflower Pilgrims, and are somehow less deserving of a place here. This idea is of course largely BS; the vast majority of European immigrants to this country throughout our history were poor and desperate. Well-off, happy, safe & secure people don’t pick up and leave their homes and families and friends and homelands behind.
Tangent: Ironically, probably one of the few places in the US where this isn’t the case for a fair number of inhabitants is here in Utah. Many, many Utahns are descended from immigrants- often from England or Scandinavia- who were early converts to the Mormon church, and so this is one of the few places in the country where a majority of Euromerican residents can trace ancestry to immigrants whose primary motivator was often not economic.
3 generations later, I’m pretty dug in here. I’ve been to Nola, as well as the 2 European towns* my grandfathers were born in. I don’t belong in any of them; there’s nowhere for me- or probably 99% of Euromericans- to “go back” to.
*Horsted-Keynes, England, and Dhrousha, Cyprus.
And if anything, the Starlings are even more blameless. At least my ancestors chose to come here; from an immigration “rights” standpoint the Starlings are probably closer to African-Americans, whose ancestors overwhelmingly didn’t choose to come here.
So I’ve decided this year I’m going to be a little less snotty about Starlings, and exotics in general. Glass houses, throwing stones, and all that.