Fun With Falcons

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American kestrel

Winter is falcon season here in northern New Jersey, when our resident peregrines are joined by migrants of that same species, merlins, and American kestrels. For the most part, these fierce little bird-eaters manage to stay out of each other’s way. But not always.

Wednesday dawned dim and dull, and that was pretty much how I felt that morning while I sat in the Trader Joe’s parking lot waiting for something to be bought that should have been bought the day before. Things brightened considerably, though, when I saw a merlin powering in from the south; the bird paused briefly, then knocked a small passerine — a house finch or a house sparrow — out of the sky. Suddenly a peregrine appeared, probably a local bird from the Highway 3 bridge. Distracted, the merlin chased the bigger bird, which wheeled to defend itself. Wisely, and uncharacteristically, the merlin opted for the better part of falconid valor and sped off, while the peregrine turned a leisurely victory circle before sailing back towards the east. That little bit of feathered breakfast is probably still lying, uneaten, on the roof of the Ticktock Diner.

This morning’s show, though less dramatic, was far more puzzling. The monk parakeet nest at Mill Creek Marsh had a bird perched atop it when I arrived — not a parrot, though, but a little male American kestrel. As I watched, the kestrel fluttered down twice to briefly perch at what I assume were two separate entrances to the mass of sticks; apparently finding no one at home, or at least no one in reach of those tiny talons, he swooped back to the marsh and started to harry the much bigger female kestrel that may or may not wind up sharing the winter territory with him. When I checked again half an hour later, two parakeets were perched next to the nest — but not on it — and it wasn’t hard to imagine the green birds worrying just a little bit that there might be a feathered fury waiting for them inside.

Was the kestrel really hoping to snag a parakeet? (Hats off to his ambition if so.) Or was he simply exploring, perhaps having caught a mouse-like rustling from inside? Or did the chance of finding some warmth in that bushel of tightly packed twigs and branches exercise another appeal on a chilly fall morning?


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A Ross Goose in Oregon!

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Seventy-two years ago today, northeast Oregon’s first record of the sweet little Ross goose was obtained when I.S. Surber shot a juvenile in Wallowa County. Reporting on the remarkable find, Stanley Jewel noted that

recent known occurrences of the Ross Goose outside of its regular winter range have been few and far between and should be placed on record.

Fast forward three quarters of a century: How many counties in the United States have not recorded the species?

How things change — and sometimes for the better, at least from the point of view of certain tiny white geese.

Ross's Goose

(The photo is from central New Jersey — ho hum, almost.)

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Martin Luther, Bird Conservationist

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Screenshot 2017-10-30 11.19.42

On the five hundredth birthday of what one has come to think of as the start of the Reformation, a letter from the birds of Wittenberg to Martin Luther:

We, the Thrushes, Blackbirds, Finches, Linnets, Goldfinches, and all other righteous and honorable Birds wishing to migrate over Wittenberg this autumn beg to inform you that as we have ourselves been credibly informed, a certain Wolfgang Seyberger, your servant,  has undertaken to purchase several old worn-out nets at considerable expense, in his great hatred and anger at us, in order to create a finch trap, to deprive not only our dear friends the Finches but all of us of our God-given freedom to fly through the air and to collect seeds from the ground, and that he is plotting against our lives, though we have caused him no harm and done nothing to merit such severe and ill-considered actions on his part.

Because all of that is, as you yourself can imagine, poses a great and dangerous burden to us poor free Birds, who have neither houses nor barns and no possessions, our humble and amiable plea to you is that you will discourage your servant from such presumptuous actions, and if that is not possible, then urge him to spread grain on the ground for us in the evening and then to stay away from the trap before eight in the morning, so that we can elude him.

If he refuses, then we shall pray to our Lord God that his traps capture nothing but flies, midges, and slugs, and that at night he is so plagued by mice, fleas, lice, and bedbugs that he forgets us entirely and does not deprive us of freedom and flight.

Why does he not direct his wrath and efforts against Sparrows, Swallows, Magpies, Jackdaws, Crows, Mice, and Rats, which do harm you by stealing and robbing wheat, oats, barley, and so on from the buildings? We do not do this, but merely seek tiny crumbs and single dropped seeds. We submit our case to all righteousness and reason to determine whether it is not unjust that we are so severely persecuted by him. We hope to God that as so many of our brothers and friends have escaped him this fall that we too can fly through his lax and rotting nets that we saw yesterday.

Given this day at our sky seat in the trees and under our common seal of feathers.

Suppose Luther showed this letter to Seyberger?

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Halloween Pie

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common magpie France

Crows and ravens have it rough this time of year. Their deep voices, intimidating intelligence, and simple blackness have made them among the most halloweenish of birds.

Another, more colorful corvid has an equally ominous reputation. In eighteenth-century Sweden,

many believe that magpies are the attendants and instruments of the devil, and it is said that when the witches and bloodsucking sorceresses set out for their assemblies, they change themselves into the form of a magpie. And when in August the magpies molt the feathers of their necks, the common people say of this molt that “the magpies have gone to the witches’ assembly, and when they helped the devil carry his hay, the yoke rubbed the feathers from their neck.”

Naughty birds.

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When Playback Goes Bad

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“Playback” — the use of recordings and imitations to elicit responses from otherwise secretive birds — will always be a matter of controversy. Most of the debate has focused on the effect on the birds, which generally have better things to spend their time on than frantically trying to drive off phantom competitors.

But it’s also worth asking how playback alters the experience for birders. Yes, it can be annoying. Yes, it can be disturbing. But most of all, it can be dangerous.

Don’t take my word for it. For more than a century and a half, we’ve known what happens to those who use calls to lure owls.

It is not a good idea to imitate their vocalizations, as when you do, they come closer and closer and finally punish the offending party. Once, when a tawny owl was calling not far from a house, a boy imitated the call. The owl came in and shook the iron bars protecting the windows so vigorously that the entire house shook.

Happy Halloween.

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