Insects do it all the time. Bats and birds soar through the air, ignoring gravity’s pull, as free as they could ever be.
Insects do it all the time. Bats and birds soar through the air, ignoring gravity’s pull, as free as they could ever be. Flying squirrels, flying Mobulas related to manta rays, Indonesian Wallace’s flying frogs, flying geckos and flying Colugos (mammals the size of house cats) that reside in the Malaysian rainforest, flying snakes (yes, they live in southeast Asia rainforests) and people glide or jump to experience a small taste of weightlessness. Flying is an exhilarating experience.
Flying fish was the subject of the PBS series “Trails to Tsukiji.” Our Swedish host traveled to Hachijojima, a volcanic island near Tokyo. I have been mesmerized by flying fish sailing through the air next to the ferry as we motored to Ocracoke Island North Carolina. In Japan, flying fish is a seasonal delicacy. The marine acrobats are fried, made into sushi, fishballs, soups, served with ramen noodles. Even the roe (eggs) is well-liked. Sixty-four species of flying fish live in the oceans; fish with one set of large fins and others with two sets (they fly further). The fish can remain airborne for nearly a minute rising 20 feet above the ocean traveling a distance over 1,000 feet at speeds over 40 mph. You have to admire this fish, not eat it.
Flying birds use the aerodynamic forces of lift and drag to land at feeders, give or take a few over-eager beavers. The past week was cold and full of hungry birds. The 22nd Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) ran from Feb 15th through the18th. Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society host this on-line citizen scientist bird count project observed in over 100 countries. Bird populations constantly change and reflect what is happening to our world. The first time my birds participated in the GBBC was in 2012.
On a freezing Friday the 15th I counted birds until my eyes crossed. For four days I continued to check bird feeders at different times. Some birds follow a mealtime clock but others operate from sun-up to sun-down. They flock to the feeders in cold weather and go elsewhere during mild spells. On the count days temperature highs ranged from 30 to 47 degrees. Nights dropped deep into the low 20s.
The main problem: the entire red-winged blackbird/cowbird flock had rediscovered the bird feeders since it was cold. The group had been feeding elsewhere except for the few determined diehards that did come every day. Now, with the arctic air, everyone was here. The red-wings, many in iridescent black feathers, numbered over 75. They were accompanied by dozens of slightly smaller brown-headed cowbirds in shiny black plumage. To complicate the issue, the females and juveniles of red-wings look like large darkly streaked brown sparrows and the young or female cowbirds masqueraded as plain brown sparrows. The males arrived late morning and early evening, but the females became thick on the ground late morning to mid-afternoon. As dusk neared, all one-hundred thousand red-wings and cowbirds flew away to their roost, wherever it was, for the night.
Red-winged blackbirds usually hunt for seeds of grasses and other grains. They hang out in marshy areas or fields. With spring on the way, the male birds now flaunted their brilliant red shoulder patches with thin yellow wing bars as they jostled for seeds at the bird feeders. At this time females seemed non-plussed and unimpressed. The sisters know as daylight lengthens and temperatures warm there will be ambitious males that will entice or coerce up to 15 females to nest within their territory. Not to worry. Female red-wings also acquire other mates, making this species very polygamous.
Counting the Northern cardinals was also tedious. After I counted twenty-four on the ground and perched on feeders, I looked high into the tree only to spot more shades of red. Both sexes sing, so it was not quiet. The plucky dark-eyed Juncos wearing differing intensities of gray had better manners, bouncing around here and there, chirping and pecking in the leaves under trees and shrubs.
The four non-flying Eastern Fox Squirrels regularly scampered up the feeder poles to the seeds, dropped down from the branches or took positions below the feeders. The birds gave the fluffy tailed mammals wide berth. Squirrel breakfast was at 9 am, served at two feeders. Lunch might be about noon and the rodents preferred an early supper, usually 3-4 pm. They then retreated to their comfy dens of moss and leaves constructed in branches of nearby trees. The sunflower seeds in the bird feeders supplemented the usual squirrel diet of acorns, pecans and Bois d’Arc (Osage orange) seeds. The little guys eat 1.5 pounds of nuts and seeds each week within their 20 acre range…except my squirrels. I think their range is closer to 2 acres with bird feeders, fields, trees and a pond. A few bold cardinals and doves were not intimidated by the squirrels. One morning I counted twenty Mourning doves milling around under the back feeder while the squirrels hung out on branches overhead and watched the bobbing heads.
The last day of the count was crazy. Early in the morning Blue jays landed in the tree tops screaming insults. The birds became a bit disconcerted. When the raucous crows arrived, the birds disappeared into the brush and branches. Talking loudly, the crows pranced underneath the feeders before deciding it was not worth the effort and left. The other birds relaxed and resumed eating. An hour later in strolled the ginger tabby. The feline had either been dropped off by an uncaring person weeks before or belongs to one of my negligent neighbors. Cats should be kept indoors. Cats decimate bird populations. We have had cats for years. One stray became an indoor cat sooner than he preferred after eating a Ruby-crowned Kinglet on the front porch. I have dragged so many beautiful dead cats off of roads over the years and wondered “what were their owners thinking?” Did they actually believe their cat had 9 lives and could survive poisons, wild animals, trucks, dogs, coyotes, hawks, cars, bobcats and bullets?
Orange cat was chased off. Eventually the birds returned to the feeders. Middle of the afternoon a swooping Merlin shot across the driveway right in front of me at chest level. Whoa. This steel gray-backed falcon, not the wizard, sent the red-winged blackbirds in all directions as they frantically tried to get away. This hunter is slightly smaller than a crow but has pointed wingtips which gives it excellent maneuverability. In medieval Europe Merlins were known as “lady’s hawks.” Mary Queen of Scots owned a Merlin. Good time to end my observations. It might be a while before the bird population regroups.
The day after the count ended, in the sleet and icy rain huddled 45 cardinals on feeders, branches or the ground. The area was awash with sepias and reds.