Photo by Mary Curry
Birds and Beyond
Claire Curry, October 2002, Wise County Messenger, © 2003
If you’ve spent time watching the behaviors of different birds, you know they each seem to have their own idiosyncrasies. For example, Eastern Phoebes have a nervous twitch. At times, it appears all their energy is devoted to catching insects, and twitching their tails. Other birds have habits just as unique. Here are some of our local birds, and a few of their interesting traits.
Gnatcatchers are hyper little fluff balls that frequently give out buzzy call notes. They seem like they’ve had way too much coffee and soda and ate far too many sweets, and are all wound up as a result. Hopping around, flicking their tails this way and that way, gnatcatchers seem nervous, excited, and a bit upset all at once.
Another small, active bird, the chickadee, is not only nervous, but lets the whole world know about it. Their relatives, titmice, are just as vociferous. These cute little birds are always miffed at the world in general and still manage to not act grumpy.
The Downy Woodpeckers that come to my suet feeder don’t chatter near as much as the chickadees. However, they look both cute and rather fierce, holding their heads high even when the bigger birds chase them away.
If you really want to talk about tiny and mean, just try and mess with a hummingbird. Even though hummers are only a few inches long, they have been known to attack hawks. I sometimes hear about people wondering what they can do about bullying hummers taking over their feeders. Well, if you somehow made the one leave, another just as determined would take over. Sit by a hummingbird feeder, and you will know why. The charming little fellows fight, clash bills, and zip back and forth with vim and vigor, each struggling for complete dominance of the valuable sugar water. It’s a wonder that I’ve never seen two hummers with their beaks stuck clear through one another!
Pine Siskins are another tough but diminutive bird. They look like slightly daintier, streaky versions of the American Goldfinches at our feeders. Unlike the goldfinches, they will occasionally chase off the larger House Finches to get a choice perch. The goldfinches are content with fighting among themselves and with birds their own size.
All of the aforementioned birds are generally considered pretty. Vultures, however, are usually not. How attractive can a naked-headed, carrion-eating bird be? When soaring, vultures float through the air with the confidence of an eagle, rarely flapping a feather. I also happen to consider both species of vultures to be quite elegant birds. When perched, despite a wrinkled head with little stubbly feathers, vultures have a quiet dignity. Laugh if you want.
None of these behaviors I’ve described are defining field marks. They are a bit more intangible; something that doesn’t seem, to me, very useful to the bird. It’s more of the essence of the bird; something that adds to the personality of a species. Besides, what fun would bird-watching be if field marks were the only things which made each species itself?