You can tell how a crested bird is feeling by watching its feathers.
Uh-oh. Your anthropomorphize-ometer is spinning, isn’t it? Feelings are an ornithological no-no.
But I’ll argue that it doesn’t take much bird watching to notice the agitated crest feathers of a frightened bird. Or the smooth, motionless crest on a calmer bird’s head. If you’re lucky enough to catch their springtime flirting, you may notice that crested birds’ top feathers wag and wiggle in courtship. When they have a family, their nestlings’ crests show visible excitement when mom and dad approach with a meal.
Are the crest feathers expressing feelings? Maybe not, but those top feathers sure seem to convey a crested bird’s state of mind.
A place for everything and everything in its place.
That admonition came to mind as I watched a familiar bird engage in some very peculiar behavior.
Great Blue Herons are a common sight out my window. One fellow (or girl—they look the same) appears regularly on the edge of Eagle Island, about 1,000 feet from our home. He comes out to feed, stalking fish and amphibians as he tip-toes through shallow water in classic heron style. Step. Pause. Stare. Step. Pause. Stare. Step. Pause…Pounce!
But on that July day, something else drew the bird’s attention.
I wonder. Does the standard onomatopoeia for ‘spitting’ apply to woodpeckers?
Ptooey is a brilliant onomatopoetic expression, but I’ve never had my ear quite close enough to hear a Red-Bellied Woodpecker spit.
I need to take a photography class, so I can show you the look of concentration on the bird’s face the instant he spews the chips. That class is on my to-do list. But the good news is, you can see the bird’s determined demeanor on video if you keep scrolling.
Use your saddest raspy voice, and you’ll sound like a squirrel singing the blues.
Quaaa is how biologists describe the squirrel screech that catches my ear from time to time. If you live anywhere near a tree, you’ve probably heard it, too, along with the critters’ kuks and moans, the other documented squirrel sounds.
The scientists call the quaaa an alarm sound, but after seeing one mama perform an extended quaaa soliloquy, I think they’re misinterpreting the lady’s meaning. Read more and see the video
Such a happy creature, I thought. Then I returned to my senses. Loons are not puppies, whose joyful exuberance might be measured in tail rotations per minute. Could the tail swish be aimed at keeping insects away? Not likely. Conditions were breezy on Farm Lake, just windy enough to keep flies and mosquitoes at bay. Surely, the loons enjoyed the same benefit of that day’s Algonquin weather. My kayaking partner and I headed for a closer look.
As we approached, the wagging continued. Six or eight shakes, then a pause, followed by another series of rapid flapping. The flag-like end of the bird’s tail seemed improbably large. I peered through the camcorder’s viewfinder and bumped up the zoom. The camera jiggled from the kayak’s unsteady movement, but the loon’s details came into view. That’s when I realized my mistake.
But not the young ones; at least not for several weeks. On a recent Algonquin paddling trip, I noticed Common Loon parents diving for fish and then surfacing to pass the goodies to their chicks. The fluffy-feathered kids appeared to be good swimmers and sometimes they disappeared momentarily under the water. So why weren’t they foraging their own food?
The answer, it turns out, is in those fluffy feathers.
Not on the lake below our home; no loons grace Lake Allegan. But on a recent paddling trip in Canada, we were treated to near-constant loon company. I’ve always understood loons to be shy, so I was not expecting to see so many of them at such close range. The loons did not turn away as we paddled nearby. Sometimes, they even approached us, stopping just a few yards from our kayaks. Apparently, these Ontario loons see a lot of paddlers. Or, they simply share in the Canadian reputation for being extra friendly.
I saw some touching loon behavior—adults feeding their young, including one moment when a parent appeared to be teaching the child a food-finding skill. I also saw some comical loon behavior known as the foot waggle. I’ll share those moments in future blog posts.
My new motto: Never get in a kayak without the camcorder.
Last weekend, when Bert and I took one of our kayaks out, I left all things electronic in the house. That turned out to be a mistake. We did an hour of uneventful pedaling. (That’s not a typo; this two-person kayak is foot-powered.) Hugging the south shore of Lake Allegan, we enjoyed the usual flora and fauna, the latter limited to a few turtles warming themselves in the afternoon sun. Then fauna became fawna, as a young deer hopped out of the woods and into the water. He (or she? I could not tell) was not more than twenty yards in front of our boat.
I thought the fawn might reverse course on seeing us. Instead, he put his skinny legs in gear and swam.
Tree Rat? Seed snitch? Bane of the backyard birder?
Squirrels get a really bad rap. Not at my house, though. I harbor no ill will toward the bushy tails—no resentment for wasted seed, no anger at stolen suet. That’s because we do not feed the birds, who seem to dine just fine on our woods’ native food. Not to mention that when I film, I prefer catching the creatures in trees instead of hanging on feeders. So, aside from the racket our dog Remy makes when he spots a squirrel in a scurry, what’s not to love? Indeed, I’m grateful to the squirrels. They’re entertaining, and they eat tons of acorns. If you happen to have a lawn surrounded by oaks, you know why I think it’s wonderful when acorns do not have a chance to become seedlings.
But back to that bad rap. Apparently, it gives the little cuties a complex. Which could explain why I see them practicing tai chi in the trees. Read more and see the video