Birding Big Year 2016

December 24, 2015

Now There’s a Good Bird

Filed under: Uncategorized — wfkeck @ 8:50 pm
Good Bad Bird

One of these is a good bird

Standing at the large picture window of the Old Cahoon house, I peer through the inch-thick glass, looking for a good bird.  The circa 1912, two-story brick house (aka City of Rocks Visitor Center) provides the perfect hunting blind for up close birding and photography.  Outside, three separate feeders are strategically positioned for maximum visitation.  At the moment, at least 75 birds have settled in for a meal.  To date, nearly a dozen species have discovered the sunflower seed buffet, spread daily thanks to the generous donations of park patrons.  Unfortunately, the majority of these feathered friends fail to qualify as a “good bird.”

Before I am accused of making value judgements regarding birds, let me just come right out and confess it.  There are good birds, and there are, well, birds of a lesser assessment.  It’s not their fault really, and the reasons date back to creation itself. For God created some things for noble purposes and some for ignoble, and this is the right of the creator.  Who is man to question his purposes? Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?  Did not the creator declare to the children of Israel that some birds were “clean” and could be eaten, but others like the vulture, raven, and cormorant were “unclean” and to be left untouched and despised?” Was not the dove a symbol of the Holy Spirit and the eagle a representation of strength and honor? On the other hand, have you ever heard the coot being spoken of in a positive light?

I know a good bird when I see one. Dark-eyed Juncos are ok, but there are just too many of them at the feeders.  The beloved male goldfinch is a good bird in full spring plumage, but in the dead of winter – not so much. House Sparrows, seriously? No.  I’ll take a House Finch sighting, only because they force me to discern the subtleties that differentiate the Cassin’s Finch.  A Ring-necked Pheasant dropped in a few days ago.  But what is considered a good bird on Tuesday, might not be so the rest of the year.  Pheasants are colorful and all, but they’re an introduced species from Eurasia (note upturned nose here). Three Eurasian Collared-Doves land near the northernmost feeder, scaring the crap out of the juncos…literally.  This dove species arrived to the Almo Valley about 2004.  I wonder if their ancestors were neighbors with the pheasants.

Twenty-five years ago I was an interpretive naturalist at Devil’s Den State Park in Arkansas.  As a pious birder there, I did my best to proselytize the field-tripping school children to embrace the religion of birding.  I recall one hike where we all had a close-up encounter with a beautiful Red-tailed Hawk soaring just above us.  “Look!” I exclaimed and pointed like all rangers are trained to do.  Some looked, some shuffled their feet, and one raised his imaginary twelve gauge and pumped two rounds into him.  Horrified, I chastised the boy – “That bird is federally protected!  You can’t do that!”  He nonchalantly replies, “My dad say’s they kill our chickens. What good is a chicken hawk anyway?”

Despite what some snot-nosed kid in Arkansas thinks, Red-tailed Hawks are “good” birds. Take my word for it.  And so is this Harris’s Sparrow that just crawled out from beneath a giant, undisciplined rosebush at the corner of the parking lot!  This species is most often at home on the east side of the Rockies, in the Great American Desert to be exact. The past three years it seems one (and only one) pays the park a visit. I will have to post the big news on Facebook later.  Just over 4,000 people follow the City of Rocks Facebook page, and I know at least a handful of them will be as excited as I.

So you might be wondering, how can I tell a good bird from a bad one.  It’s easier than sexing a chicken.  First you eliminate all of the bad ones: too ubiquitous, non-native, annoying call, ugly, drab plumage, occurs over all of North America in every habitat…need I go on?  Then, considering what is left, you have the good birds: colorful, few in number, hard to find, has a great song like “Quick three beers!” “Drink your tea,” or Jose Maria.”  Of course the absolute best birds are the ones not yet on my life list.  The funny thing is, however, when preparing for a Big Year, even a trash bird is loved the first time he is observed.  I’ll be counting on these Eurasian Collared-Doves to be right here on January 1st.

A Facebook friend recently asserted that there is no such thing as a bad bird, only a bad birder.  He must be one of those guys who likes to watch House Sparrows.  Clearly he is not one of the faithful. But I think I could convert him by the end of a Big Year.  Oh look!  Downy Woodpecker!  He just flew into the base of that Siberian Elm.  Now there’s a good bird!

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