Archive for VENT Tour: Birds and Art in Berlin and Brandenburg

Jun
30

Home Pest Control

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woodchat shrike

I’ll happily confess that I’m not really one for pet birds: they’re noisy, they’re smelly, and some of them, I hear, have the disconcerting habit of outliving their human owners.

Loggerhead shrike, Arizona

Even if cagebirds didn’t give me the slight willies, I gravely doubt that my first choice for a domestic companion of the feathered sort would be … a shrike.

Red-backed Shrike Tuscany

I love shrikes, and have since I saw my first loggerheads in eastern Nebraska more than 40 years ago. Whatever the rest of the day afield has held, it is often the shrikes — common ones or rare, big ones or little — that press themselves most deeply into memory: a northern shrike chasing tree sparrows through the thickets, a great gray hounding innocent jays and magpies, red-backeds lighting up a brushy pasture, a southern gray singing from a Spanish fenceline.

great gray shrike

In the house, though? Never. Of all things.

But as so often, and always so surprisingly, I find that my tastes are not universally shared.

Lesser Gray Shrike

In 1795, Johann Matthäus Bechstein, uncle of the poet and philologist and father of German ornithology, dedicated a lengthy chapter of his Stubenthiere to these “bold predatory birds” and their place in the fashionable bourgeois living room.

Southern gray shrike

Like the European jay, the great gray shrike imitates many sounds. It does not quite succeed in replicating the songs of other birds, but its own flute-like note is that much more beautiful, quite similar to that of the gray parrot; it puffs out its throat like a frog…. Perhaps one might be able to teach it to speak, as it has some notes that are very like the human voice.

There is one thing to be very sure of, though, as Bechstein reminds us in his account of the lesser gray shrike.

Northern Shrike

Letting any shrike fly around in a room with other birds in it is not appropriate, because it is likely to want to kill its comrades — if not out of hunger, then out of jealousy or bad temper, or just to prove that it can.

Bloodlust notwithstanding, the male lesser gray is among the most desirable of cagebirds, “with a wondrous capacity to learn … the entire songs of other bird, among them the nightingale, the skylark … and the quail.” The woodchat, on the other hand, though its handsome plumage commends it, always mixes “its own screeching and squawking” into its imitations.

Then as now the commonest laniid in central and western Europe, the red-backed shrike was the birdkeeper’s favorite, readily captured, handsomely plumed, and easily fed. The song of the beautiful male

is a combination of the songs of the goldfinch, various warblers, nightingale, thrush nightingale, robin, wren, skylark, and woodlark, mixed with only a few of the shrike’s own coarse strophes.

Red-backed Shrike

Best of all, though,

if you place the shrike in a room infested with flies, he will quickly clear them out. He catches them most easily in flight; if you then stick a few pins into a twig, he impales the flies with an odd movement.

I’m still not convinced.

Southern gray shrike

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Sep
10

A Berlin Birder

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Gottfried Schiermann

Gottfried Schiermann, a pioneer in the study of bird populations, died 70 years ago today in the ruins of Berlin.

His much younger friend Ernst Mayr would later describe him not only as “a superb field ornithologist”but as “among the highest of all human beings I have ever been fortunate enough to meet.” In the photograph above, Schiermann is admiring the nest of a Savi’s warbler, which he and Mayr discovered in the Kremmener Luch.

common crane

I did not know Schiermann, and I do not know anyone who knew Schiermann. But in a couple of weeks we’ll be watching common cranes at the Luch, and thinking of those whose early work in field and museum preserved that and the other precious wild spaces that make our birding possible.

 

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May
11

Photo Quiz

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Well, it wasn’t meant to be a quiz photograph, but this bird in Berlin‘s Tiergarten last week was just a little bit too fast for me.

What is it, and how do you know?

great spotted woodpecker

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May
08

Kite Tails

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One of the great things about eastern Germany has always been the red kites, huge, floppy, swallow-tailed raptors seen in just about any open area of the countryside.

red kite

These carrion-eaters don’t need to be quite as nimble as some of their smaller, more ambitious relatives, but they are still impressively maneuverable in the air, twisting and turning as they pass by at often remarkably close range.

red kite

As this bird revealed the other day, it’s all in how they use that long, deep-forked tail.

red kite

No promises, no guarantees, but I don’t see how we could miss this species next fall. Join me in Brandenburg and Berlin

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