One of the many ways I escape the noise of an angry, fractured America is to walk out to the patio with binoculars and dog-eared Peterson Field Guide in hand and observe birds. It relaxes me no end.
Birds do not care if you’re conservative or liberal, anti-abortion or hate the stimulus. They will pose on a limb for you whether your name is Adolf or Mahatma. They will eat from your feeder whether its hung up with the right hand or the left. They treat you the same. With great fear. And they are wise to do so in this era of hatred and thoughtless violence.
Not all birds have got the message. I recently saw a pair of malingerers, Mallards, male and female, asleep on the ledge of a water fountain at a mall. Someone with a weapon, you can bet, had an eye on them.
Every year about this time, since 1998, the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) provides me with the perfect excuse to step outside and inhale a wheeze or two of what now passes in Phoenix for clean city air.
This year’s count took place February 12-15 and, as usual, was open to anyone. Even to those who can not distinguish between an American Eagle gold coin and the common loon. You observe for at least 15 minutes, note the largest number of each species you see at one time and submit the results online via an easy form. The results of the count are broken down by state, city, species, etc., and published, although the final numbers will not be known until the submission deadline on March 1.
I doubt there is much good science in the results of the GBBC. No matter. The sponsors, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Audubon, deserve high marks for their attempt at upping America’s awareness of our often-unnoticed neighbors in feathers. By mid-afternoon over 80,000 checklists were turned in from across the U.S. and Canada.
I went out twice, around noon on the 13th and in late afternoon the next day, a total of only an hour and 45 minutes. My two lists were small. Only 10 species this year and 26 birds. Pigeons, Starlings, Verdins, Mourning Doves, House Sparrows, Mockingbirds, Anna’s Hummingbirds, Gila Woodpeckers and Inca Doves, all within a few miles of downtown highrises.
The most stressing moment, if you could call it that, was deciding whether I had seen a Yellow Warbler. Or was it an Orange-Crowned Warbler? Just think of it. What a better world it might be if that question weighed on everyone’s mind for just one hour a day.
Anyway, I regret now that I chose the Orange-Crowned and not the Yellow as my 10th species. For one thing I didn’t see the “orange” on top of the head although Peterson says it is “seldom visible.” It’s not like the warbler stops and poses for you. It’s not a dove. Warblers are twitchy and move a lot. I now believe this very yellow bird was, duh, a female Yellow Warbler. I had discounted it because it is still winter here and the Yellow’s range is said to be mostly west of here, along the Colorado River, until spring and summer. As if birds follow what a book says.
The bigger picture shows the Northern Cardinal as the GBBC’s most-counted species in America so far. If it holds off the Dark-Eyed Junco and Mourning Dove, the Cardinal would win the count’s title for the sixth straight year. Before that the Mourning Dove was king for five of the first six years.
In Arizona, the top 10 species in order: House Sparrow, House Finch, Mourning Dove, Inca Dove, Lesser Goldfinch, Gambel’s Quail, Starling, Rock Pigeon, Great-Tailed Grackle, Redwing Blackbird and White-Crowned Sparrow.
For my money, the Pigeon continues to get dissed. If it is not the most populous bird in the state I’ll eat a crow. In driving through my neighborhood several days ago, for instance, I counted 57 pigeons grazing on lawns. Yet I could not rightfully put them on my list. I think they largely went uncounted.
If you are looking for democracy in action, then the GBBC is your cup of tea. It is grassroots. PAC money and special interest groups carry nary a dime’s worth of influence. Take the locality reporting the most species. It’s little Tivoli, Texas. Do you think those birders consulted with those spoiled Wall Street bankers before writing their checklists? Tivoli, though, may not be a perfect example since it rests on the Gulf Coast near the huge Aransas Wildlife Refuge.
A better choice might be the locale with the most submissions. Ahead of contenders Charlotte, Tallahassee, Sacramento and Atlanta is little Columbia in south central Kentucky, population about 4,000.
Columbia’s birders sent in 545 checklists at last look, a fact that will surely bring national attention to the town. Already a “celebration potluck” is planned for February 23.
I wager a lot of the Columbia birders carry strongly diverse political views. Not one view flies for all. But for a few days out of the national turmoil that is 2010 they united and carved out a niche of history for themselves.