Archive for the ‘fun’ Category

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My New Thing

October 24, 2010

This falls under the not-exactly-timely category of postings, but I wanted to finally talk about “what I did this summer”. Way back in January, I wrote about signing up to attend the Macaulay Library Sound Recording Workshop held annually at the Sierra Nevada Foothills Campus (SNFC) northwest of Lake Tahoe in California. The workshop was held in mid-June, and I made it there.

And let me tell you, it was awesome. So awesome that I had to italicize the word “awesome”.

The workshop is run by Macaulay Library curator Greg Budney, who has held it I believe every year since 1986. He has a small staff of about 5 people from the library and elsewhere helping him run the thing, and it is a truly outstanding opportunity to learn about the art and science of nature recording. As I mentioned in my January post, I went into this not knowing thing #1 about nature recording. Well, I suppose that’s not entirely true, as I have spent the better part of the last 5 years listening assiduously to bird song recordings, and last year I did use my old Sony cassette recorder to take voice notes while hiking in Costa Rica. I know, that’s not much of a recording resumé, but it gives you an idea of how little experience was actually required to attend this workshop. The reality is, all you need is the enthusiasm to learn about it, and a willingness to drag yourself out of bed in the wee hours of the morning every day of the week. They take care of the rest.

If you are interested in reading a very well-written description of what goes on the workshop, I recommend reading “Birdsong” by Don Stap. The middle chapter of the book is devoted to following Greg Budney during one of his summer sessions in California, and the account is very close in its description to my own experience. Although the names of workshop participants aren’t given, I was actually able to recognize one of the people mentioned, just by his description of her background – one of the great people I met there has attended most every workshop offered in the last decade.

But back to my own experience. Again, it was phenomenal. Outstanding. Terrific. Really, it was perfect in just about every way. Just a couple days in, it really began to sink in just how perfect it was. I immediately likened it to Birder Summer Camp, if there ever was such a thing. So just how was it perfect? Let me recount the ways:

Staff. Greg Budney is a remarkable, experienced, super-smart, super-affable, organized, laid-back, and helpful workshop leader. Along with Randy Little and Bill McQuay, they were able to instruct 20 of us with our wide range of previous experience in a clear, organized fashion.

Location. The Sierran foothills in mid-June is an excellent place to learn how to record birds. We had ideal weather virtually every day, with little wind and no threat of precipitation. It made getting up early as easy as it can be, and it was nice to learn the nuts and bolts of recording (which are tricky enough) without having to deal with the elements. Of course, doing real nature recording will involve learning how handle less-than-ideal recording environments, but it was great to not have to worry about that as a beginner. In addition, the foothills provide several different recording environments that are easy to reach on subsequent mornings, so that you can get a good sampling of varying bird life and habitat on successive days, thereby expanding your recording experience very quickly. Greg and Randy now know the area inside-out, and make it easy for newbies to get a handle on what to record where.

The Field Campus. We stayed at the SNFC, about a 90-minute drive from Reno. The site is located around 6000 feet amid Jeffrey and Ponderosa Pines next to the churning Yuba River, and is enchantingly quiet at night but rife with singing birds like Evening Grosbeaks and Western Tanagers during the day. We slept in large tents situated on wood platforms, and in the tents were cots that we put our sleeping bags on. In this way, it was very simple, rustic accommodation but also quite comfortable.

The Food. Our meals were ably prepared by a staff of a great chef and several amazingly friendly summer interns. I’m really not exaggerating when I say that the food was some of the best I’ve eaten anytime, anywhere. It was so good that our workshop class made a point of it to acknowledge their cooking prowess with applause every night, and at the end of the workshop we even chipped in to a kitty to give them all one enormous, well-earned tip.

The Birds. Hermit Warbler. Mountain Quail. Pileated Woodpecker. Sandhill Cranes. Gray Flycatcher. Calliope Hummingbird. Evening Grosbeak. Sage Thrasher. Fox Sparrow. These and many more species were regular staples in our daily outings. I was very impressed with how vocal and numerous the birds were.

The Workshop Itself. I learned the proverbial “ton” about sound recording. On the first day those of us lacking our own equipment were able to borrow some from their collection of loaners, and Bill McQuay got us up to speed very quickly on how to use the rigs. The very next morning we went at it, and every day thereafter. Nothing beats actual field experience and just plain practicing on your own, and that was the main component for learning how to record. This field experience was augmented with afternoon classes and sessions focusing on the equipment itself and how it works, how to organize your recordings, listening to our work.

The Participants. You know how in any group of at least 5, 10, or 20 people there’s always bound to be one person who is a downer, or weird, or who you just can’t really talk to without getting at least a little annoyed? I do. But in this workshop, I can honestly say that I liked absolutely everyone. I have no idea how that happened, but we all got along. I don’t recall a single awkward moment, or wishing I was talking to someone else. When it was time to socialize or talk about the day’s recording, I felt like I could talk to any of the other participants. We came from very different places and backgrounds – a couple women came from Mexico, one guy from Argentina, one from Peru, one from Bhutan. We had people with lot of recording experience who are professional ornithologists, and a few people who hardly knew any birds. But we all had an interest and a need to do nature recording in some way, and if nothing else, that bound us all together very strongly.

Because my intention was to focus on sound recording, I opted not to bring my digital SLR for photography. That just would have been distracting, and inconsistent with my focus. I did bring a point-and-shoot, but even for that I was too much immersed in my daily recording efforts to do much in that regard. However, you can browse some workshop photos taken by one of the staff. In the second-to-last photo in the set you can actually see me attempting to record an American Dipper.

I won’t be able to go to the class next year, as I will be in South America virtually all year. But I will make every effort to go to the class in 2012. Hopefully by then I’ll have contributed a whole slew of new recordings to the Macaulay Library. Oh yes, I guess I should update you on the whole contributing-the-recordings thing next….

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Swainson’s Hawks – A Meditation

August 25, 2010

[Note: this is a slightly-modified version of a posting I made originally to the Rocky Mountain Raptor Program listserv]

If you attended rounds last night or just read Joelle’s Rounds Notes, you know that this promises to be a great day, as 16 Swainson’s Hawks, many of which have spent an entire year or more in our care, will be released to take part in one of the great natural spectacles that our world has to offer. I will be tagging along for the release today, helping where I can of course, but also there to catch a glimpse of the birds which will depart in the next month for the pampas region of northern Argentina, a one-way trip of nearly 5,000 miles. Along with migrating Broad-winged Hawks, Mississippi Kites, and Turkey Vultures, they fly over places like Veracruz, Mexico on their way south in astonishing numbers – the so-called “River of Raptors” in Veracruz in the fall regularly documents as many as 50 THOUSAND Swainson’s Hawks flying through a *day* during fall migration. The total number of raptors passing overhead there in a season is over 3 million.

Now, if you’ve been with the program for any length of time, and helped with any of the programs or exhibits or just overheard the handlers talk about our educational birds, you’ve likely heard the stories about the Swainson’s Hawks and their epic migration. You may already know these birds spend their summers in North America, largely in the American West ranging from northern Mexico up into southern Canada, from as far east as the high plains to as far west as the Central Valley of California. Starting around now they begin to assemble into larger and larger groups, as recently-fledged young disperse from their nesting locations. The young however need to find these groups, because they don’t know the way to go. Apparently past experience with rehabilitating first-year Swainson’s Hawks has shown this to be the case. It’s quite a testament I think to how some birds, even those who we tend to think are not very intelligent or socialized, actually DO use their brains, cooperate at least in some way, and have the ability to be very receptive to new knowledge.

As a handler I’ve often heard other handlers refer to the juvenile Swainson’s Hawks as “young and dumb”, and I wouldn’t necessarily argue against that, having seen how they behave in their flight cages. But think about it — after these birds have completed an annual migration cycle, where they’ve paid attention to landmarks along the way, and having been guided by seasoned adults, they are then in subsequent years able to do the trip themselves, and even lead the way for the next generation. That’s called LEARNING. That means they have good memories, that they were paying attention to where they were, to whatever other sky phenomena they may use to guide themselves on this remarkable journey through vast desert, urban, rainforest, and savanna biomes. How is that any different from how WE are? Who among us is so inherently brilliant to have mastered so many life skills without the guidance of at least someone at some point? Well, maybe a couple of us, I don’t know, but certainly not me. For my part, I can say that in this specific way, I identify with the Swainson’s Hawk. Inasmuch as the birds we are about to release today are going to embark on the epic journey that will define the rest of their lives, I salute them and admire them for what they are about to do, and for the symbol of freedom, exploration, and determination for survival that it represents. What better demonstration of the capacity for growth and change and self-improvement is there, than to answer the call of one’s inner nomad like this?

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This weekend I helped out at New West Fest, and on Saturday we had the female Swainson’s Hawk on display at the booth. At one point, I was relating the great Swainson’s migration to a booth visitor, describing the migration route they take. I told him that they assemble in North America, fly together in enormous kettles through Central America (Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, etc.) and then reach the Darien Gap which connects Panama to Colombia and the rest of South America. I then said that after that we don’t really know where they go next, just that after another couple weeks they are in northern Argentina.

But I was mistaken. We now actually DO have a pretty good idea about where they go. Take a look at this map:

Swainson's hawk migration route. Data from USGS, Snake River Field Station, from 30 birds fitted with satellite tracking devices.

This is a map compiled recently from a study involving the fitting of satellite tracking devices onto migrating hawks. What is astounding to me is how, once they arrive in South America, these birds take as direct a route to their wintering grounds as possible. They’re not spreading out over the vastness of the Amazon, lost or confused or distracted – no, they know exactly where they need to go, and they’re not messing around. And don’t be misled by that little bend they take in their path around central Bolivia – that is a strategically smart detour they take, because that allows them to not waste energy flying over the unforested high Andes and the resource-sparse altiplano. It’s brilliant really, but it’s only in the past few years that we now have the scientific data to demonstrate just what these birds do on their southbound trip.

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Back to the booth this weekend. I got to give my own Swainson’s spiel of course, but also listen to other handlers’ spiels, which was very interesting to me. In general, and this applies for any booth experience, people are initially confused by the mere name “Swainson’s Hawk”, as most laypersons have never heard that name before. Handlers tend to then explain, myself included, that the bird was named after someone named Swainson, which seems true enough, but then also add in, only half-jokingly perhaps as a way to bond or connect with the person we’re talking to, that Swainson must have had a big ego to name a bird after himself. After hearing that apocryphal explanation several times that afternoon, I got to wondering, what’s the real story there? Did Swainson really name a bird after himself? So, that night after I got home I did a little research…..

There was indeed in the early 1800s a British man named William Swainson. He was one of many amateur naturalists in that era who essentially were professionals, once they had a regular source of income that could pay for the time it took to collect specimens and participate in nature societies like the Linnean Society, of which Swainson was a part. In his case, he “retired” young on a military pension, and spent the rest of his life indulging his real passion, which apparently was studying animals and making illustrations. He became quite accomplished at making lithographs. He was one of the first if not *the* first person to make pictures like this, and I encourage you to do a Google image search on “Swainson’s lithographs” to get an idea of the kinds of illustrations he made. John J Audubon was an admirer of his, for good reason. Swainson worked with another naturalist named John Richardson and in the late 1820s they produced a volume called Fauna Boreali-Americana, which featured hundreds of Swainson’s excellent depictions of birds observed and collected by Richardson in North America. From what I can tell, Swainson himself never visited North America, although he did spend a fair amount of time in Brazil.

Anyway, one of the birds depicted in the book was indeed what we now call a Swainson’s Hawk, but of course it wasn’t identified as such in it. Richardson had described the bird as a form of Buteo vulgaris, which is now called Buteo buteo, basically the Common Buzzard of Eurasia. (The Common Buzzard is a close relative of all buteonine hawks, which if you aren’t aware, includes Red-tailed Hawks, Rough-legged Hawks, Ferruginous Hawks, Broad-winged Hawks, and many others.) A different naturalist some years later, Charles Bonaparte, noticed this and corrected this error. He knew that the bird in Swainson’s illustration was a different species, and it was he, NOT William Swainson, who was the first to give a scientifically correct description of it. However, he too was an admirer of Swainson’s work, and in tribute to his great lithographs, he named the bird after Swainson, Buteo swainsoni. And THAT is how the Swainson’s Hawk got its name.

In this manner, Swainson had other types of birds named after him too, including the Swainson’s Thrush, Swainson’s Warbler, Swainson’s Flycatcher, and Swainson’s Toucan (now usually referred to as the Chestnut-mandibled Toucan, although the scientific name still bears the swainsoni tag). From what I can tell, in that era of discovery and exploration in the 1800s it was actually quite rare for a naturalist to name a bird after himself – instead, he usually named it after someone else who he admired, or otherwise though deserved mention in some way. That’s still generally true I think.

That all said, I did also learn though that it’s not unfair to posit that Swainson probably did have a big ego. In an unrelated matter, Swainson later in his life moved to New Zealand, and a few years after that was offered a position as a “Botanical Surveyor” in Australia, based largely on his sterling reputation as a naturalist and illustrator. However, Swainson had little or no real experience with plants, and other more knowledgeable and experienced botanists of his day were more than a little annoyed at his simplistic and casual approach to describing new plants in Australia, where he took it upon himself to name hundreds or even thousands of species of plants, many of which weren’t really separate species in the first place.

In my book, that takes some cojones and an ego, to go into a field that you know you’re not an expert in and just go all willy-nilly on a naming spree, just because you can.

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The Denver Museum collections tour, or, Dead Birds R Us

January 28, 2010
Museum trip participants

Some of our happy participants at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science

I led a field trip today for Fort Collins Audubon down to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science to take a special behind-the-scenes tour of the specimen collections with Jeff Stephenson, the zoological collections manager. We had a terrifically fun and animated group (in contrast to the rather unanimated specimens) of 11 participants most of whom carpooled down from Fort Collins, with the remainder coming from Loveland and Aurora.

I became aware of the value of specimen collections a few years ago, but only in the past several months did I figure out that having a field trip down to the museum to see one could be quite popular. And this one was – we actually had more interest in the trip than our capacity would allow, so I have to think that we could run a similar trip next year.

Anyway, a few of the highlights:

  • The museum currently contains about 864,000 total zoological specimens, of which nearly 50,000 of those are birds.
  • About 1% of all the bird specimens are on display at any time in the museum, while the rest are in storage downstairs.
  • The oldest specimens date back to about the 1870s.
  • Albert Bailey went on several expeditions to bring specimens to the museum from around the world, and the museum in general has often finagled and made  deals to secure interesting and valuable specimens from other museums and collectors.
  • The museum hopes to create a new storage facility in two floors to be built underneath the current floor, to improve temperature control and insect infestations
  • They also hope to replace many of the antiquated storage cabinets, many of which suffer from problems ranging from outgassing to not having properly “gasketed” doors.

The bird tour began with Jeff showing us the “stacks” in the main storage room, and going to the cabinet with the heaviest flying birds in the world. He showed us a couple Kori Bustard (Ardeotis kori) skins, as well as an Australian Bustard (Ardeotis australis) skin.

Jeff showing the Kori Bustard skin, with Ann looking on

The Australian Bustard, subdued

Here’s what a live Kori Bustard looks like, by the way – this is from the Denver Zoo, just next door to the museum.

Kori Bustard (Ardeotis kori)

Kori Bustard, February 2009 (© Eric DeFonso)

The American Kestrel tray

Jeff then proceeded to show us some American Kestrel (Falco sparverius) skins. This was particularly fascinating, since many of the kestrels in the tray he showed us came from decades ago, and some of them from Guatemala. In discussing the AMKE skins, Jeff explained the value having skins from any species distributed broadly in space and time, to allow researchers to have samples and hard data for birds that have different diets or other traits that are still in the process of evolving, even if they are of the same species. For that reason the museum is still interested in collecting specimens even from “common species” like American Robins and Blue Jays and the like. He encouraged us to bring down any specimen regardless of quality or species, as long as we know when and where it was collected.

It was also interesting to see how the museum has to keep track of the latest taxonomic news, by updating their specimen tags where needed. For example, he showed us a Gunnison Sage-Grouse holotype specimen that had its tag updated a couple times, by having the original genus name crossed out. Heck, I didn’t even know what a holotype was until today.

A tray-full of tanagers

Jeff then pulled out a few trays of tanagers and talked for a while about the kinds of expeditions that the Denver Museum used to run back in the day. Most if not all of these tropical tanagers were obtained during those old expeditions, and you could see that from looking at the tag data. In the first tray you can see some Bay-headed Tanagers (Tangara gyrola) on the far right, some Speckled Tanagers (Tangara guttata) in the middle row, and Saffron-crowned Tanagers (Tangara xanthocephala) just above them. After I got home to look at the photos it occurred to me that it looks like Jeff is offering hors d’oeuvres to everyone. “Try the Saffron-crowns, they’re to die for!” (Sorry, I couldn’t resist the morbid humor.)

There was also a tray of Blue-necked and Golden-hooded Tanagers. Just awesome.

More tanagers from Peru

Everything was building up to the end where Jeff showed us the trays with Several extinct North American species. The first tray had the Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius), and Jeff explained for the group what led to the demise of this once outrageously abundant bird. It was a poignant reminder of what used to be, and how wasteful, stupid, and greedy some people were and how the effects of that continue to this day.

Jean and Ann looking on to the Passenger Pigeons

Passenger Pigeons, closer up

We also got to see a couple extinct subspecies. The first of them was the Dusky Seaside Sparrow of central Florida. We then saw a few Heath Hens (Tympanuchus cupido cupido), a subspecies of  Greater Prairie-Chicken that used to live on the eastern seaboard.

Heath Hens

The Carolina Parakeets (Conuropsis carolinensis) were spectacular. Like the Passenger Pigeon these birds were heavily persecuted and therefore hunted into oblivion.

Carolina Parakeets in repose

Of particular interest was seeing this specimen, gathered in 1892 in Cherokee Nation/Indian Territory, as indicated by the original tag. This location is now better known as Oklahoma. Jeff commented that there were anecdotal reports of birds quite similar to Carolina Parakeets in the Arkansas River Valley in SE Colorado around that same time – it’s plausible then that even Colorado saw at least a few of this stunningly beautiful species sometime in the 19th century, although no hard evidence exists to prove that.

I finally got to see my first Bachman’s Warbler (Vermivora bachmanii) too.

Bachman's Warbler

The "Lord God" bird - the Ivory-billed Woodpecker

At last Jeff brought out the big guns, the Campephilus woodpeckers. First was the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis), seen here. The museum does have a mounted Ivory-billed on display in one of the dioramas, I believe on the third floor. But it was very exciting to see this study skin up close. Interestingly, one of the 3 IBWOs they had in the drawer was collected from St. Louis, Missouri, although I don’t know when. Jeff also explained the origin of the previously common name for this bird, the Lord God bird.

In the tray I photographed the other remarkable Campephilus specimen, the Imperial Woodpecker (Campephilus imperialis), formerly from central Mexico. This was the largest of the genus, and the largest woodpecker in the entire world. Sadly, this species was last documented in the wild in the 1950s, and like most extinct species it suffered from extensive habitat destruction by deforestation.

The Imperial Woodpecker

A pair of mounted Huia, from New Zealand

Two more highlights were shown after this. The first was a pair of mounted Huia specimens, showing a male (right) and female (left). The Huia (Heteralocha acutirostris) was one of the three wattlebirds endemic to New Zealand, and was last documented in the wild in 1922. It too suffered from habitat loss, although the introduction of mammalian predators was also a huge factor. New Zealand has no native or natural mammal predators, and all its bird species evolved in an ecosystem without them and therefore suffered greatly as they had no natural defense or instincts against them. Note the highly dimorphic bill sizes!

The last highlight was a pair of eggs from the Aepyornis, or Elephantbird, and extinct ratite from Madagascar. The egg is slightly larger than a basketball, and belonged to a bird that stood nearly 12 feet tall.

A semifossilized egg from Aepyornis, or Elephantbird

Jeff showing us a photo of the Elephantbird posed with its egg. The egg looks small only because the Elephantbird stood nearly 12 feet high.

As Jeff led us out of the main storage hall, we made one last stop at the room where they prepare specimen skeletons using dermestid beetles. I didn’t take any pictures in here mostly because the room was small and I didn’t think the photos would really be all that illuminating. However, you can read a little more about how the beetles are used here. Jeff explained to us how it works, and we were all fascinated, although not all of us were in the room for the explanation. Consider that the room is used to strip the last remnants of flesh from the carcasses of dead animals ranging in size from small birds to ram skulls, and you can maybe imagine that it isn’t the most pleasant smelling place. Because a few of us on the trip are regular volunteers at the Rocky Mountain Raptor Program where we frequently work with things that don’t smell nice, I guess we were more accustomed to it.

All in all, a truly fascinating excursion. The rest of the trip was spent perusing the displays in the museum, having lunch in the food court (watching the dermestid beetles made us all hungry), or taking in an IMAX show or the special Genghis Khan exhibit. Thanks to Jeff Stephenson for offering the tour and his many entertaining and illuminating stories and explanations of what goes on behind the scenes at the museum!

Update (1/28/10, 11:10am): I can’t believe I totally forgot to mention that at the end of the tour, I gave Jeff a new museum specimen. Denise B of Loveland had called me a few weeks before the tour and said that although she was unable to take the tour herself, she had a dead Swainson’s Thrush in her freezer, and wanted to donate it to the Museum. It had collided with her patio door last October. She dropped it off one day and I kept it until the field trip, where I was able to donate it then in a very timely and instructive way for our field trip participants. All I needed was a reasonably approximate date of collection and location.

The museum is always interested in specimens like this, so keep that in mind the next time you come across one. It doesn’t matter how common the species is, it’s still useful. And even if it isn’t in the best appearance or shape, they can still use it as a skeleton or tissue sample. So if you can overcome any personal revulsion at seeing dead birds, please consider doing something like this if the opportunity arises.

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Moonwalking Manakin

October 14, 2006

Actually, to me this shimmy looks a little more like the “Electric Slide” than Michael Jackson, but that’s just nitpicking.

The clip doesn’t make it clear, but this bird is Pipra mentalis, the Red-capped Manakin. It ranges from southern Mexico down through Central America into northern South America.

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“huffy underpants”

September 7, 2006

My dad in Florida frequently likes to send me newspaper clippings about birds from his small town (Avon Park area). There’s a regular segment in the paper called “Wild Bird Sketches”, and it’s written by a couple bird enthusiasts, the Kowalskis. Recently they had an article about the Northern Flicker, which featured this amusing description of the bird:

This woodpecker is about 12 inches in length, has a brownish-olive back, barred with black and a large white spot near the tail. The huffy underpants are thickly spotted with black and there is a black crescent on the breast. …

Huffy underpants? Sounds like a great epithet for someone who gets riled up about things a little too easily! Come to think of it, flickers do sound a little crabby sometimes.

Obviously they meant to write “buffy underparts”. I can imagine how this malapropism made its way into the article though, maybe if one of the Kowalskis was reading the description out of a book but didn’t have his/her glasses on!

Anyway, I thought it was funny. An endearing mistake, to be sure.

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The Fremont Street Experience

March 24, 2006

One other amusing bird-related experience we had in Vegas was the Fremont Street Experience, a block-long archway of lights over Fremont Street in downtown that act as a movie-screen for passersby on their way to casinos and shops. High-wattage speakers also line the street providing booming audio. One of their shows is called “American Freedom”, a 4-minute long rip-roaring, flag-waving bonanza to the music of John Philip Sousa.

At the conclusion of the piece, a Bald Eagle soars across the screen, and we got to hear the eagle’s call. Or rather, we got to hear what the vast majority of America seems to think an eagle call sounds like — an aggressive, extended high-pitched keeeeerrrrrrr, suspiciously similar to that of a Red-tailed Hawk.

I just think it would be hilarious if the audience could hear what a Bald Eagle really sounds like. Heads would explode from the cognitive dissonance of realizing that our majestic national bird emits whimpering cackles instead of a clarion screech. Of course, that realism would take away from the triumphalist image of the bird, so on we go, perpetuating Bald Eagle myths based only on its striking size and plumage.

Although, perhaps to its long-term benefit – you could argue that the species is well-served by Americans’ misconception of its call, which fits a preconceived notion of menace and thus makes the bird more sympathetic to Americans than it otherwise might be. Eagles get shot enough as it is, and there’s no need to reduce its stature in the eyes of a country with a history of killing these remarkable creatures.

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Bird food

February 16, 2006

I had a dream last night that I went to a market somewhere and saw boxes of hummingbird filets in the frozen section. I remembered being initially shocked upon seeing it, and then thinking that, well, I guess hummingbirds must be the locally preferred birdmeat.

It makes you wonder about me – I mean, my brain actually invented this idea.

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