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Those jaunty grackles. May 9, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, wit and wisdom.
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Here at Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home our friend Ben and Silence Dogood share in the precise middle of nowhere, PA, we anticipate the return of the grackles each spring with the same enthusiasm most people reserve for robins. Not that we have anything against robins. And of course we love seeing the golden breeding plumage reemerge on our goldfinches, who’ve been camouflaged in olive-drab all winter, and the arrival of bluebirds, orioles, hummingbirds, and even the great blue heron who terrorizes our neighbor’s water garden.

But the grackle’s cocky personality gives him an edge as far as we’re concerned. Beautiful and glossy, with black, green, purple, bronze, and even blue highlights in his plumage, he always seems to have every feather in place, ready to step out in his tux and tails for a high-society evening affair. Clearly, he knows that he’s at the top of the totem pole, too: Just watch him prancing around the deck, strutting his stuff, then abandoning dignity for a moment to snatch a piece of dry cat food from the outdoor cat’s bowl. He knows he’s entitled.

In our area, these big, bold birds—about halfway between a red-shouldered blackbird and a crow in size—come in two types: the common (or, in our area, purple) grackle and the rarer and larger boat-tailed grackle. Common grackles have purple heads, bronze bodies, and golden eyes. Male boat-tailed grackles are iridescent purple- or blue-black, with a distinctive tail that ends in an oval spoon shape. Female boat-tails are only half the size of their showy mates (who can reach almost 15 inches long with a nearly 20-inch wingspan) and brownish.

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, a source we very much respect, boat-tailed grackles are generally found in marshy habitats along the Gulf Coast and up the Eastern Seaboard. Though they might come as far north as scenic PA, it seems unlikely that they’d find their way inland to our Southeast PA location. Yet, they do, at least one or two each year, and it’s a thrill for us to see them.

The smaller common grackles (typically 11 to 13 inches long, with 14- to 18-inch wingspans) are the ones we see most often. Not a surprise, given their prediliction for nesting in tall conifers, such as those that border two sides of our property. They can live for more than 20 years, so we suspect that our grackles have been here before and will be here again. They’re wily, adaptable, and omnivorous—just like people. No wonder they seem so self-assured!

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology notes that they’re really fond of corn, which certainly explains their success in our area, where farm fields dot the landscape and the chief crop is corn raised to feed dairy cows. It’s enough to make us feel guilty for loving these glossy, impudent pirates. But then, we’re pirate fans here at Hawk’s Haven, flying the Jolly Roger proudly in our own backyard. We suspect we’ll continue to enjoy our grackles’ antics until we see one setting off flares in its plumage, as Blackbeard did in his famous beard to terrify his victims by surrounding his head with a demonic aura of smoke and flame. Until then, grackles make us laugh. And we think that’s a good thing.

Onward grackles! Welcome back.

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The blackbirds are back! February 21, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Ah, the joys of February. Just yesterday, for the first time in two months, the mountains of snow and ice that had blanketed our friend Ben and Silence Dogood’s rural cottage home, Hawk’s Haven, had finally retreated to the point where almost all of the ground was green or brown. Two 60-degree days last week had released us from winter’s icy grip at last. Our friend Ben almost wrecked the car on Saturday when Silence suddenly started screaming—turns out she’d seen a flock of snow geese, one of our favorite birds, for the first time since fall. Spring was clearly in the air.

This morning, the ground is white again. We became aware of this at about 6:40 a.m. when a passing car skidded into the field across from our house. Soon police and tow trucks had stopped traffic, lights were flashing, and the day had kicked off to a somewhat more lively start than is usual in our sleepy rural setting. (Fortunately, neither car nor driver was injured.) We found ourselves staring out at 3 inches of fresh snow, with more big flakes drifting down.

We weren’t the only ones who’d been tricked into thinking it was spring. One look at our feeders showed us that the blackbirds were back. Grackles, red-winged blackbirds, brown-headed, black-bodied cowbirds, starlings—there they all were, trying to convince themselves that they hadn’t made a huge mistake by showing up today.

We admire the bold, beautiful grackles, big, showy birds with iridescent black, purple, and green plumage. They aren’t the least bit afraid to snatch a piece of cat food from under the nose of our outdoor cat, Dixie, though they’ll also help themselves to seed from our feeders, standing their ground against any and all comers but not trying to drive them off and deprive them of their share.

We’re also fond of the red-winged blackbirds, so called not because their wings are red, but because mature males bear red-and-yellow epaulettes on their black shoulders. They can be found in our meadow garden during the growing season, helping us keep the bug population under control. We say, welcome back!

We feel considerable ambivalence about cowbirds, who evolved with the bison of the Plains and whose range was limited and controlled by bison populations and movements. Unfortunately, when pioneers exterminated the bison and started raising grain, the cowbirds’ range and population expanded exponentially. This is a problem because cowbirds are parasites, laying their eggs in other birds’ nests. Species that become inadvertent hosts of cowbird eggs raise fewer if any of their own chicks. While we think cowbirds are beautiful and appreciate their original role, consuming the pests that plagued the bison and making life better for both species as a result, we’re appalled by their current status.

Starlings are even worse. It’s not that we have anything against these birds individually. Right now, before their plumage dulls to black, it’s an attractive spangled glossy brown with gold highlights. Rather, it’s the number of starlings we object to. Huge flocks cover the bare trees, screaming and shrieking. These starving masses make our squirrels look like polite diners who only go back for one refill at the all-you-can-eat buffet. If there were five or even ten starlings in the yard, we wouldn’t mind. But 500 starlings! No, thanks.

One reason we have a problem with starlings is that they’re alien invaders, like stinkbugs and Japanese beetles, who have multiplied out of control in their new, predator-free environment. And we have Shakespeare to thank for it.

Not that Shakespeare meant to unleash starlings on the unsuspecting citizens of America. In fact, we suspect he’d had a few pints too many when he had Harry “Hotspur” Percy announce in Henry IV, Part I that he would teach a starling to speak to the king. He was doubtless confusing them with magpies, whose renowned talent for mimicry has caused many to be taught speech.

Unfortunately for us all, Shakespeare’s starling reference was responsible for the starling invasion here on U.S. soil, thanks to an idiot named Ernest Schieffelin, a wealthy drug manufacturer in the Bronx, and his American Acclimatization Society. Though it sounds like a group dedicated to helping immigrants acclimatize to American customs and ways, its real purpose was to import every bird mentioned in Shakespeare’s works—all 600 species—and release them in New York’s Central Park.

The European starling took its turn in 1890 and 1891, and spread like contagion across the U.S., growing from an initial flock of 100 to today’s 200-million-plus, and displacing native birds like our beloved bluebird along the way. (Shieffelin’s Society was also responsible for introducing that other menace, the house sparrow, which has displaced innumerable native species of small songbird and threatened their existence.) 

We can only say that, in today’s culinary climate, in which two top trends are all things meat and all things local, it’s a shame that consuming starlings hasn’t caught on. Where are chefs and hunters when you really need them?! And incidentally, we have at least six fat squirrels here at Hawk’s Haven if anyone’s in the mood for burgoo…

The birds say it’s spring. March 2, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, gardening, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Looking at the ground surrounding Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home Silence Dogood and our friend Ben share in the precise middle of nowhere, Pennsylvania, you would swear it was winter. Several inches of snow and sleet have blanketed the ground with white. But our birdfeeders tell a different story.

Yes, we still have a few of the winter regulars—the juncos, titmice, purple and house finches, and chickadees—that brighten our lives through the coldest months. And our year-round regulars, the cardinals, woodpeckers, sparrows, blue jays, mourning doves, and nuthatches, are still out in force. So is our large resident flock of goldfinches. But we’ve noticed they’re starting to look more gold and less olive-drab as the days lengthen into March. And as we’ve mentioned in a previous post, our Carolina wren has begun singing his courting song (“Judy, Judy, Judy”) loudly every midmorning. (“Judy” must be taking her time about answering.)

But today brought two first-of-season species to our cabin feeder: We saw a single red-winged blackbird, his epaulettes all yellow rather than the brilliant red-and-yellow of courtship plumage.* And there, bold as brass—or in this case, bronze—were a whole flock of the big, bold grackles with their iridescent plumage.

The poor grackles have now been lumped into the demoralizing designation of “common grackle,” where before they flaunted their colors as purple grackles and bronzed grackles. These are definitely of the bronzed persuasion, with bronze backs and blue heads. They are handsome birds, and they know it. But while most of our feeder birds hang back while the grackles feast, the sparrows know no such restraint. They boldly forage among the bigger, brighter birds, who don’t deign to acknowledge such drab little things. (Much like teens at the mall pretending not to see, much less know, their parents. Or perhaps Regency dandies swanning around while their valets hover unobtrusively in the background.)

And yes, lest our friend Ben forget, yesterday I saw several pairs of red-tailed hawks, my favorite and totem bird. Redtail courtship has begun in earnest. Soon enough, a new generation will be taking to the skies over Hawk’s Haven.

Like the snow geese that make us glad to be alive when they pass over our home as they make their springtime progress northwards, the arrival of spring’s regulars lifts our hearts. We begin to think of mockingbirds and bluebirds, of the occasional oriole and tanager to come. We experience a greening of our thoughts, a fever for new plants, spurred on by such sights as the first snowdrops in bloom and the first daffodils breaking ground.

The snow says that winter is still with us. But our friend Ben and Silence are siding with the birds and the daffodils.

* Oops, I lied, and did I ever! Though it’s true that there was only one red-winged blackbird for most of the day, the gale-force winds that blew the storm through here must have brought all his friends and relations in its wake. I now count more than 30 red-winged blackbirds at the feeder, including one stripey immature, one female, and several males sporting both red and yellow epaulettes. These seem to be the honor guard of the flock, always guarding the perimeter. I also saw the season’s first starling, still in its fresh, spangled plumage, and one cowbird.

The pirates and Captain Hook. April 18, 2008

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Here at Hawk’s Haven, spring is not just the time of daffodils and forsythia. The pirates are back again. Strutting across the deck, a bold gleam in their eye and their glossy black attire enlivened with gaudy flashes of bronze, blue, and purple, they are brazen in every sense of the word. They don’t say much, but our friend Ben remains convinced that when they do speak, it’s to shout things like “Aaaaarrrr!”, “Yar!”, and “You savvy?”

They’re grackles, of course, and their shameless depredations are mostly focused on the big bowl of cat food just outside the deck door. They stroll up bold as any raccoon, help themselves, and follow their meal with a slow swig of water from the cats’ bowl. Then it’s back to the food dish for another helping. Fortunately, our friend Ben gets a kick out of grackles (and all things piratical; check out the great blog, Future House Farm, at http://futurehousefarm.blogspot.com/, for a fun pirate hit). And there’s more cat food where that came from.

What about Captain Hook? He’s also hanging around in the form of our ratty old tom, Danticat. It must be said that, visually at least, Danticat is not one of nature’s finer efforts. His enormous round head sits on a very modest body like a pumpkin stuck on a pole. Adding to his disreputable appearance, his ears are almost devoid of fur. But the worst is his tail—a ludicrously pathetic rat’s tail that hooks up at the end. All he needs is some Johnny Depp-style headgear and a silver hoop earring and he’d look like the worst kind of pirate.

Danticat’s behavior reinforces the piratical impression. Maybe it’s just because he’s old, but his every movement is deliberate, seemingly filled with malevolent intent. The huge head swivels slowly back and forth, green eyes seemingly sizing up the situation before giving the command to attack and take no prisoners. If you greet him with an eye blink, he fixes you with a long, slow stare before deigning to blink back.

Fortunately, Danticat’s laissez-faire temperament belies his vicious looks. Rather than eating them, he’d much rather command his pirate crew from the comfort of the captain’s quarters—curled up as living mulch on the warm soil of a large planter or insinuated into the pachysandra behind the deck. The crew for their part seems unlikely to mutiny; instead, they’d probably just walk over the old tom en route to their treasure, perhaps pausing just long enough for a muttered “You savvy?”

Our friend Ben can only say, “Yaaarrrrrrr!!!!!!”