Birds


Technicolor hippies

As I type these words, a rafter of wild turkeys is scratching for seed beneath our backyard birdfeeder: two hens and their combined offspring, a true Boston marriage. We didn’t see much of our resident turkeys in the spring and early summer, when the hens were incubating eggs, but now that the poults are leggy and ravenous, we’ve seen them and their mothers more frequently.

Fantastic 'fro

The other day, J and I saw a small group of tom turkeys crossing a side street about a half mile from our house, one striding slowly in front of the other like the Beatles crossing Abbey Road. This is how turkeys live in August: the females band together to shepherd their combined young, and the males hang out singly or in loose-knit throngs, fattening up for breeding season. It’s a strict division of labor where the females look after the poults and the males do little more than strut and breed.

Birth-control pill chastity belt

A week or so ago, J and I watched an episode of the CNN documentary The Sixties that discussed the women’s movement. The episode discussed the advent of the birth control pill, Gloria Steinem’s stint as a Playboy Bunny, and the one-two punch of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl. Once you acknowledge that some housewives are unhappy tending children and doing housework and some women are enjoying sex outside the bonds of marriage, you’ve crossed a revolutionary divide. Everything is possible between the sexes because everything has been called into question.

Eclectic

A strict division of labor between tom and hen turkeys has worked for eons: just look how many turkeys there are! But human beings aren’t turkeys. We no longer live as hunter-gatherers, when it made sense for larger, stronger males to pursue large game while bands of women gathered nuts and berries, their babies and children in tow.

His and hers

Nearly all of today’s jobs can be accomplished by either gender, and the job of gathering groceries knows no sex. This means each household is free to divide chores however works best for them, individually. In our home, J does yard work and cooks, and I do dishes, take out the trash, and shop for groceries. J and I don’t divide these chores by gender; instead, we’ve settled upon a routine that works for us, and we don’t expect that routine to be universally applicable to other couples. We’re talking about conscious choices, not binding cultural rules.

Braids

I don’t know if male and female turkeys are content with their lots in life: I suspect turkeys live the way they do because they don’t have much choice. Does an abundance of choice make us humans more or less happy in the long run? That’s a question for philosophers to decide. All I know is that once a choice is offered, you can’t take it back. Once you know other options are available, you’ll always want the freedom to choose between them.

Since I don’t have any decent photos of turkey hens and poults that have been visiting our backyard bird feeder, the photos illustrating today’s post come from last summer’s groovy MFA exhibit of sixties clothing, Hippie Chic, which I blogged last December.

Northern flicker - June 6 / Day 157

This morning while I was taking out the trash, I happened to look up at the very moment a Northern flicker was flying from one pine to another, the yellow undersides of his wings flashing in the morning light. We’ve seen flickers in our backyard before: although flickers are woodpeckers, they love to forage on the ground for ants, so suburban yards and parks with mowed lawns provide ideal habitat. While larger woodpeckers prefer deep woods, flickers don’t mind living on the woodsy edge of suburbia, where ants and other insects abound.

Flicker in foreground; flying sparrow in background

After this morning’s flicker disappeared into the trees, he squealed then cackled. Flicker squeals (a call often transliterated as “kyeer”) sound similar to the calls of red-bellied woodpeckers, and their high pitched cackles sound similar to those of pileated woodpeckers. Whenever I hear a flicker, in other words, I automatically think of the other woodpeckers it could be, with “flicker” being (unfortunately) the least exciting alternative.

Flicker in foreground; mourning doves in background

Compared to seeing a red-bellied or pileated woodpecker, seeing a flicker isn’t hugely exciting: these are, after all, birds that don’t mind frequenting yards and parks. But on a day when all you’re doing is taking out the trash, just happening to look up at the very moment something other than a sparrow or grackle flies by feels fortuitous: a flash of fortune on an otherwise normal morning.

Closeup

Today J and I walked to Newton Centre, where we had lunch at Johnny’s Luncheonette. J typically has the weeks of Christmas and New Year’s off: work is slow then, with many of his co-workers taking the remainder of their vacation days. J and I typically don’t travel for the holidays, so we use this “off but at home” time to rest, take lunchtime walks, and otherwise recharge.

Strutting

On our walk home from Johnny’s, we stopped at a new beer store in Newton Centre, where J bought a bottle of his favorite Belgian beer and I bought a disc of my favorite Mexican chocolate. It was a small indulgence on a day when we hadn’t planned to go shopping: a decision on a whim to duck into a store we’d never explored before.

Quartet

Had J and I not stopped for impromptu beer and chocolate on our way home from lunch, maybe we would have missed the half dozen turkeys we saw foraging in someone’s yard near the intersection of Beacon and Walnut Streets: a busy stretch of road with enough woodsy fringe to harbor our local yardbirds.

And if you’ve ever wondered whether wild turkeys perch on branches rather than simply strutting like chickens, they do indeed take to the trees when the impulse strikes them. So on this second day of Christmas, instead of contemplating a partridge in a pear tree, J and I were treated to the sight of a turkey in a crab-apple tree.

And a turkey in a crabapple tree

Bird feeder visitors

This morning when I was taking our beagle, Melony, out to our backyard dog pen, we startled two wild turkey hens who had been sampling the seed beneath our bird feeder. J and I have seen turkeys in our yard before, but this was the first time Melony had seen one, so I expected her to lunge after them, as she does with our backyard bunnies. Instead, the turkeys crouched in their tracks, and Melony didn’t even strain at her leash as we walked past. Turkeys aren’t known for being particularly bright, but apparent these birds have learned that dogs on leashes aren’t a threat worth ruffling ones feathers over.

Turkey trio

Earlier this week, I read an Audubon magazine article about an unidentified threat facing wild turkeys. (I’d link to the article, but it’s not posted online.) When I was a teenage birder in the 1980s, wild turkeys were rare, having been hunted to near extirpation in much of their native range. In the decades since, turkeys have been successfully reintroduced throughout much of the United States, leading many people to see them as the quintessential conservation story. The magazine article I read, however, was titled “Turkey Troubles: The Ups and Downs of an American Icon,” and it described an unexplained (and thus troubling) recent decline in turkey populations across the country. Turkeys used to be rare, then they experienced a resurgence, and now (according to Audubon magazine) their numbers are declining again, and no one seems to know why.

Fleeing

I have to admit I was incredulous while reading the article. “Turkeys aren’t rare,” I thought. “They seem to be everywhere in the Boston suburbs these days.” J and I often see turkeys roaming our neighborhood, and I regularly see them on my morning commute, occasionally having to stop to let them cross the road, just like the chicken in the old joke. On my way to Boston College on Friday morning, in fact, I saw a half dozen turkeys fly over Beacon Street, their heavy bodies barely clearing the cars in front of me. Flying turkeys always look aerodynamically improbable, as if they are able to remain aloft only by sheer luck, and the birds I’ve seen look glossy and well-fed, scavenging backyard feeders along with their natural food sources.

Suburban turkeys

The Audubon article did admit that turkeys are becoming more adaptable in terms of their habitat preferences, learning to live alongside humans in the suburbs: apparently, it is elsewhere, in their wilder haunts, that wild turkeys are declining. In suburbia, the coexistence of birds and humans can be tenuous, however, since male turkeys are large, occasionally territorial, and possessing of sharp claws and spurs. The turkeys we’ve seen here in Newton haven’t been aggressive, but nearby Brookline seems to attract particularly nasty birds, and last year, environmental police shot a tom turkey that had attacked an employee at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge.

Perfect pose

With this checkered history in mind, we’ll see how our Newton turkeys fare. The Cochituate aqueduct, a ribbon of woods frequented by joggers and dog-walkers, winds through our neighborhood, and both Newton Cemetery and Cold Spring Park offer fields and forests where long-legged birds can wander. Whenever we see turkeys in our neighborhood, I’m always startled and amazed: if birds this big can survive in the woodsy fringe of suburbia, what else lurks just beyond our green backyards?

This is my Day 9 contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

The photo at the head of today’s post shows the two turkeys that visited our yard this morning. The other photos illustrating today’s post come from previous turkey encounters.

Boston skyline from Alumni Stadium

Yesterday J and I walked to Boston College for a football game at Alumni Stadium. Our seats were high in the south end-zone bleachers, so we had a bird’s eye view of the Boston skyline towering over the turning trees at the Chestnut Hill Reservoir. J and I have been to enough BC football games that we’ve taken some version of this same shot countless times. There’s something about a skyline that just begs to be photographed, especially when the buildings of said skyline seem to be shimmering straight out of the water and trees.

BC vs Virginia Tech

This semester I asked my first-year writing students at BC to write about the history of a specific site on or near campus, and from those essays I’ve learned that the Chestnut Hill Reservoir used to have two basins, with Alumni Stadium now standing on the drained site of one of them. Chestnut Hill Reservoir is a manmade body of water, originally built to supply water to thirsty Boston residents, so I guess it makes sense that it would be re-engineered over time: first to provide water, next to provide extra land to the college campus next door, and now as a place where students from that campus go to jog, walk, or otherwise de-stress.

BC vs Virginia Tech

It seems a bit odd to look at the remaining reservoir from bleachers built on what used to be its other half: when else have I sat or stood on seemingly solid land without realizing the former fluidity of the very ground beneath me? Now that I know Alumni Stadium used to be water, however, that might explain a curious phenomenon I’ve observed at every football game we’ve attended there.

BC vs Virginia Tech

At some point during the game’s second half, one or two gulls quietly appear overhead, soaring from the reservoir next door and gradually being joined by more and more of their fellows. I’ve always assumed these gulls were looking to scavenge the peanuts and popcorn left behind by football fans: over time, I assumed, the reservoir gulls have learned that the sound of cheering crowds means lots of leftover snacks.

BC vs Virginia Tech

But that doesn’t explain the fact that these gulls are always gone by game’s end: just as they spontaneously appear overhead at roughly the same point in the second half, they just as inexplicably float away, back to the reservoir that remains, before the game ends and we football fans vanish, as well.

Maybe these stadium gulls aren’t looking for handouts, and maybe they aren’t even earthly birds at all. Maybe they’re the ghosts of gulls long dead, soaring over the site where they once in a past life dipped their feet and feathers in a reservoir made and then reclaimed by humans, those fickle folks who would build you a home then turn around to take it away. Finding nothing but a stadium, football fans, and the promise of scavenged snacks, these ghosts of gulls float overhead, disappointed, before they soar to find something more enduring to sustain them.

This is my Day 3 contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

Killdeer with three eggs

Last weekend, I took a quick trip to Columbus, Ohio to visit my family, a trip that involved more than a bit of bird-watching. In past Ohio trips, my folks and I have watched nesting yellow-crowned night herons in Bexley, ospreys in Pickerington, and eagles in Delaware. This year, my folks and I didn’t see any night herons, osprey, or eagles, but we did see a pair of killdeer at Pickerington Ponds guarding (and noisily trying to distract us from) a clutch of speckled, well-camouflaged eggs.

Three killdeer eggs

Also at Pickerington Ponds, we saw a half dozen barn swallows who had transformed the ceiling of an under-used picnic shelter in an open-air nursery.

Barn swallow at nest

The barn swallows in particular were being run ragged by their hungry offspring, whose cavernous mouths simply would not be filled, no matter how many insects their parents stuffed into them.

Barn swallow with two babies

But what impressed me more than these hard-working swallows was the steadfast tenacity of the killdeer, who had built their minimalistic scrape of a nest on the edge of a gravel path leading to a lookout blind (and which park rangers had dutifully circled with yellow CAUTION tape).

Killdeer with eggs

It takes guts (and healthy vocal cords) for two robin-sized birds to keep an intermittent stream of park visitors from inadvertently stepping on a nearly invisible nest, but that’s exactly what these two killdeer did, first trying to lure us away by feigning a broken wing (a quintessential killdeer distraction display) then noisily dive-bombing us as we tried to locate the nest they were guarding. (In the picture above, the adult killdeer is standing right next to her eggs, but we stared at the bird for a couple minutes before we realized that.)

Killdeer with water bottle

After we’d found the killdeer nest and stepped off the gravel path they were guarding to take a circuitous route behind the observation blind, we looked back and saw one of the pair investigating a water bottle my mom had set down while she was scanning the skies with her binoculars. When you’re a killdeer guarding a well-camouflaged clutch of speckled eggs, you have every reason to suspect every odd or unusual object.

Click here for more photos from Pickerington Ponds: enjoy!

White-breasted nuthatch

I’ve chosen a favorite among the birds who frequent our backyard bird feeder: an intrepid white-breasted nuthatch who is invariably the first bird to return to the feeder after a flyby-hawk scare. I don’t know whether it’s always the same nuthatch—I haven’t watched our assortment of feeder-birds closely enough to tell members of a particular species apart. But I know there’s always a lone nuthatch who ventures back to the feeder before the other birds do, as if he knows the food will be his, without challenge or competition, if he’s a bit bolder than the rest.

Immature Cooper's hawk

Boldness is a brash and typically stupid move: bold birds make easy meals for predators, vulnerable as they are in their lonely, exposed spots. As much as I’d love to see our resident Cooper’s hawk in action, swooping down from a nearby limb to snatch an inattentive bird at or near our feeder, I don’t want to see a hawk pluck this particular bird. Not a nuthatch, I find myself silently praying to a predator as lightning-fast and invisible as God. Take one of the juncos, or a dim-witted dove, or as many house sparrows as you can stomach, but leave my intrepid nuthatches to live another day.

Chickadee

I’m not sure what it is I find so endearing about nuthatches. I’m charmed, I think, by their jerky, wind-up motions, especially the way they scoot down tree trunks and stiffly hop from limb to limb. I like their honking, almost-cartoonish chuckle, and the assortment of soft squeaks and toots they make among themselves when they’re neither calling nor singing: conversational chips among familiars, like an elderly couple’s mundane chitchat at the breakfast table. I’m cheered by nuthatches’ squat, cigar-like shape and by the fact that they are like chickadees in color but entirely different in posture and demeanor. Chickadees are round and cute—adorable little balls of birdish good cheer—whereas nuthatches are oblong and stubby, clownishly quirky and jerky. Chickadees chatter while nuthatches chuckle; chickadees flit and flutter while nuthatches scoot and jerk. Chickadees are what you’d want a pert and alert bird to look and act like, and nuthatches are comedic caricatures of awkwardly avian behavior: fleet and agile flyers who become clowns on the ground.

Red-breasted nuthatch

J has a short video he shot when we first set up our bird feeder and he trained his camera on it, using a tripod and long lens. The video shows a nuthatch feeding alone on the feeder—my intrepid favorite, or another like him—when a male cardinal lands next to him, sending the hanging feeder spinning with the impetus of his lighting. The nuthatch doesn’t flit away; instead, he clings to his perch and flips upside down, flashing his wings at the cardinal in an aggressive display: back off, I was here first.

Who wouldn’t root for a bird who stands up to a bullying newcomer twice his size?

I don’t have any photos of the white-breasted nuthatches that frequent our backyard feeder, so today’s illustrations come from my photo archives: a white-breasted nuthatch on a colorful feeder behind our neighborhood elementary school, an immature Cooper’s hawk in our backyard, a chickadee near the feeder shown in the first photo, and a red-breasted nuthatch in the tall pines that border our backyard.

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