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From Literature

From the Literature

Compiled by Jon Friedman

John Baker, The Peregrine,(Chuck Bowden told me this is the most important book he’s read) “She drifted idly; remote, inimical. She balanced in the wind, two thousand feet above, while the white cloud passed beyond her and went across the estuary to the south. Slowly her wings curved back. She dipped smoothly through the wind, as though she were moving forward on a wire. This mastery of the roaring wind, this majesty and noble power of flight, made me shout aloud and dance up and down with excitement. Now, I thought, I have seen the best of the peregrine; there will be no need to pursue it farther; I shall never want to search for it again. I was wrong of course. One can never have enough.”

Alexander Skutch, A Naturalist on a Tropical Farm, “Wandering hummingbirds give many surprises. Last May, the young photographer Paul Feyling…described a hummer that he had photographed at close range. Not recognizing it from his description, I went to see it. The large hummingbird, resplendent in glittering metallic green, deep blue, violet, and purple, was perching just where Paul had found it, in a large, spreading shrub of Hamelia patens beside the banana plantation. After visiting a number of the tubular red flowers, it consistently returned to the same perch, a slender dead twig of the shrub that supplied its nectar. Although it could be approached closely, I watched long before I saw it at just the proper angle to catch a fleeting glimpse of the small, intensely bright, orange-red patch that clinched its identity as a Fiery-throated Hummingbird – the first I had ever seen below six or seven thousand feet.

This amazingly tame hummingbird repeatedly permitted us to stretch up our hands above our heads and gently touch its tail. Once it remained on its preferred perch while I slowly closed a hand around it; but, just in time to avoid being caught, it slipped between my fingers and fled with squeaky notes of alarm – the only time I heard it utter a sound. Immediately after this narrow escape from a brief sojourn in my hand, it was slightly more cautious and alighted on more distant perches. Soon, however, it returned to rest where I could touch it again. Probably it had hatched in remote mountains where men never appeared. I surmised that it was a young bird seeking a territory, and I was certain that, although it had found abundant food, it would never remain so far below its life zone. After twelve days, it vanished.”

Jim Burns, Arizona Birds, (On the five levels of birding):

  • Level 1 – You may not even have to leave your yard or your car.
  • Level 2 – You will have to get out of your vehicle and open your eyes and ears.
  • Level 3 – You will need some research and knowledge of the bird’s natural history.
  • Level 4 – You will need lots of food and water and a good night’s sleep.
  • Level 5 – You will either need pure, dumb luck or years of perseverance.

Level One birds can usually be easily seen in suburban settings without much effort.                                          

Level Two species you will need a tank of gas and a couple of hours.

Level Three separates the casual bird-watcher from the “birder”. Birds at this level require some research into the literature, careful planning, and a working knowledge of seasonal movements, habitats, plumages, and vocalizations.

Level Four birds are for the hard-core birders. They require up-to-the-minute information, well-conceived logistics, and a major commitment of time and effort. At this level, you may find it difficult to keep your vehicle and your body happy with you.

Level Five is a special category reserved for species notoriously difficult to find and see, even though some people might see them while barreling down the highway not even looking for them. This highest level requires one of two things: pure dumb luck or years of diligent search and research.

Best of luck. And remember, it’s the search and research, not the checkmark on your bird list, that are fun and make it all worthwhile.”

Edward Abbey, Watching the Birds: The Windhover, “Throw metaphysics to the dogs, I say, and watch the birds. I’d rather contemplate the noble turkey vulture soaring in the air; contemplating me, than speculate further on Einstein’s theories, astrophysics, or the significance of the latest computer printouts from Kitt Peak Observatory and NASA. The computer tapers (tapirs?) have a word for it: GIGO. Garbage In. Garbage Out. Useful, of course, for the processing of data, physical relations, human beings – but not interesting.

The vultures are interesting. In the morning they would rise, one by one, from their communal roost a quarter-mile below our lookout, and disperse themselves to the four quarters of the firmament. Each patrols its chosen – or allocated – territory, rising so high and sailing so far it soon becomes invisible to human eyes, even when our human eyes are aided by Baush & Lomb 7 x 50 binoculars. But although we cannot always see them, the buzzards keep an eye on one another as well as on the panorama of life and death below, and when one bird descends for an actual or potential lunch its mates notice and come from miles away to join the feast. This is the principle of evolutionary success: mutual aid.

At evening, near sundown, the vultures would return. Friendly, tolerant, gregarious birds, they liked to roost each night on the same dead pine below. One by one they spiraled downward, weaving transparent figures in the air while others maintained a holding pattern, sinking slowly, gradually – as it reluctant to leave the heights – toward the lime-spattered branches of the snag. They might even have had nests down in there somewhere, although I could never see one, with little buzzard chicks waiting for supper. Try to imagine a baby vulture.

Gathered on their favorite dead tree, heads nodding together, the vultures resembled from our vantage point a convocation of bald, politic funeral directors discussing business prospects – always good. Dependable. The mature birds have red, wrinkled, featherless heads; the heads of the young are a bluish color and also naked. The heads are bald because it’s neater, safer, more sanitary, given the line of work. If you made your living by thrusting your beak and eyes and neck deep into the rotting entrails, say, of a dead cow, you too would prefer to be bald as a buzzard. Feathers on the head would impede a hasty withdrawal, when necessary, and might provide lodging for maggots, beetles, worms, and bacteria. Best for the trade to keep sleek and tidy.

I respect vultures myself, even like them, I guess, in a way, and fully expect someday to join them, internally at least. One should plan one’s reincarnation with care. I especially like the idea of floating among the clouds all day, seldom stirring a feather, meditating on whatever it is that vultures meditate about. It looks like a good life, from down here…
Appealing as I find the idea of reincarnation, I must confess that it has a flow: to wit, there is not a shred of evidence suggesting it might be true. The idea has nothing going for it but desire, the  restless aspiration of the human mind. But when was aspiration ever intimidated by fact? Given a choice, I plan to be a long-winged fantailed bird next time around.

Which one? Vulture, eagle, hawk, falcon, crane, heron, wood ibis? Well, I believe I was a wood ibis once, back in the good, old days of the Pleistocene epoch. And from what I already know of passion, violence, the intensity of the blood, I think I’ll pass on the eagle, hawk, or falcon this time. I’ll settle for the sedate career, serene and soaring, of the humble turkey buzzard. And if any falcon comes around making trouble I’ll spit in his eye. Or hers. And contemplate this world we love from a silent and considerable height.”

Henry David Thoreau, The Journals of Henry David Thoreau, “May 1897: If you would hear the song of the sparrow inside you a thousand years hence, let your life be in harmony with its strains today.”

Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, “The birds have started singing in the valley. Their February squawks and naked chirps are fully fledged now, and long lyrics fly in the air. Birdsong catches in the mountains’ rim and pools in the valley; it threads through forests, it slides down creeks. At the house a wonderful think happens. The mockingbird that nests each year in the front-yard spruce strikes up his chant in high places, and one of those high places is my chimney. When he sings there, the hollow chimney act as a soundbox, like the careful emptiness inside a cello or violin, and the notes of the song gather fullness and reverberate through the house. He sings a phrase and repeats it exactly; then he sings another and repeats that, then another. The mockingbird’s invention is limitless; he strews newness about as casually as a god. He is tireless, too; toward June he will begin his daily marathon at two in the morning and scarcely pause for breath until eleven at night. I don’t know when he sleeps.”

Gary Paul Nabhan, Where the Birds Are Our Friends, from The Desert Smells Like Rain: A Naturalist in Papago Indian Country, “When I explained to Remedio that we were finding far fewer birds and plants at the uninhabited oasis (Quitobaquito Springs on the Organ Pipe National Monument), he grew introspective. Finally, the Papago farmer had to speak: ‘I’ve been thinking over what you say about not so many birds living over there anymore. That’s because those birds, they come where the people are. When the people live and work in a place, and plant their seeds and water their trees, the birds go live with them. They like those places, there’s plenty to eat and that’s when we are friends to them.’”

Gilbert Klingel, Wild Swans of the Chesapeake, from The Bay, “Then the fog lifted completely, and against a dark green sea and a gray sky appeared one of the largest flocks of wild swan I have ever seen. There must have been nearly eight or nine hundred birds and they were massed together between the deep water and the beach.
Captivated by the unexpected display, for I never expected to see such a sight again, I circled inland over wet fields and through fog-dampened woods to approach the flock through a screen of dark green pines and holly. By creeping through sheltering vines, from trunk to trunk, I managed to arrive undetected at the top of a small bluff overlooking the center of the gathering.

As I reached the edge and sank into the vegetation out of sight, a wonderful event occurred. At that very moment a rift must have opened somewhere in the clouds, for a long shaft of soft rose-colored light stole down through the overhanging mist and bathed the whole group in a luminescent glow. Against the somber background of gray sky and dull-green sea the sight of these hundreds of graceful, clean, curving bodies suddenly lighted with brilliant pink was exceedingly beautiful, and I rate it as one of the most enthralling spectacles I have ever witnessed. For a little while the matchless scene endured and then the color faded and the world was once again a monotone.”

Joseph Wood Krutch, The Voice of the Desert, “…the road runner is not one who needs either the human inhabitant or anything which human beings have introduced. Not only his food but everything else he wants is amply supplied in his chosen environment. He usually builds his sketchy nest out of twigs from the most abundant tree, the mesquite. He places it frequently in a cholla, the wickedest of the cacti upon whose murderous spines even snakes are sometimes found fatally impaled. He feeds his young as he feeds himself, upon the reptiles which inhabit the same areas which he does. And because they are juicy, neither he nor his young are as dependent upon the hard-to-find water as the seed-eating birds who must sometimes make long trips to get it.

Despite all this, it must be confessed that not everybody loves the road runner. Nothing is so likely to make an animal unpopular as a tendency to eat things which we ourselves would like to eat. And the road runner is guilty of just this wickedness. He is accused, no doubt justly, of varying his diet with an occasional baby quail itself. Sportsmen are afraid that this reduces somewhat the number they will be able to kill in their own more efficient way and so, naturally, they feel the road runner should be eliminated.

To others it seems that a creature who so triumphantly demonstrates how to live in the desert ought to be regarded with sympathetic interest by those who are trying to do the same thing. He and the quail have got along together for quite a long time. Neither seems likely to eliminate the other. Man, on the other hand, may very easily eliminate both. It is the kind of thing he is best at.”

Walt Whitman, Specimen Days, “Did you ever chance to hear the midnight flights of birds passing through the air and darkness overhead, in countless armies, changing their early or late summer habitat? It is something not to be forgotten….You could hear…’the rush of mighty wings,’ but oftener a velvety rustle, long drawn out…occasionally from high in the air came the notes of the plover.”

John C. Sawhill (1936-2000), president, The Nature Conservancy (1990-2000), “In the end, our society will be defined not only by what we create, but by what we refuse to destroy.”

Edward O. Wilson, The Future of Life, “For centuries, birds have been the most pursued and best known of all animals, but here again new species are still coming to light a steady pace. From 1920 to 1934, the golden age of ornithological field research, an average of about ten subsequently authenticated species were described each year. The number dropped to between two and three and remained steady thereafter into the 1990’s. By the end of the century, approximately ten thousand valid species were securely established in the world register. Then, an unexpected revolution in field studies opened the census to a flood of new candidate species. Experts had come to recognize the possible existence of large numbers of sibling species – populations closely resembling one another in anatomical traits traditionally used in taxonomy, such as size, plumage, and bill shape, yet differing strongly in other, equally important traits discoverable only in the field, such as habitat preference and mating call. The fundamental criterion used to separate species of birds, as well as most other kinds of animals, is that provided by the biological species concept: populations belong to different species if they are incapable of interbreeding freely under natural conditions. As field studies have increased in sophistication, more such genetically isolated populations have come to light. Old species recently subdivided into multiple species include the family Phyllosopus, leaf warblers, of Europe and Asia and, more controversially, the crossbills of North America. An important new analytic method is song playback, in which ornithologists record the songs of one population and play them in the presence of another population. If the birds show little interest in each other’s songs, they can be reasonably assumed to represent different species, because they would presumably not interbreed if they met in nature. The playback method makes possible for the first time the evaluation not only of populations occupying the same range but also those living apart and classified as geographic races, or subspecies. It is not out of the question that the number of validated living bird species will eventually double, to twenty thousand.”

Marco Polo, “At Changanor the Khan has a great Palace surrounded by a fine plain where are found cranes in great numbers. He causes millet and other grains to be sown in order that the birds may not want.”

Eudora Welty, The Optimist’s Daughter, “They were looking down from a great elevation and all they saw was at the point of coming together, the bare trees marching in from the horizon, the rivers moving into one, and as he touched her arm she looked up with him and saw the long, ragged, pencil-thin line of birds within the crystal of the zenith, flying in a V of their own, following the same course down. All they could see was sky, water, birds, light, and confluence. It was the whole morning world.

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