The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Monday, September 26, 2005

The Popcorn Bird
by Ron Smith

Have you ever seen the Popcorn Bird of the Rio Grande Valley?

Don't get up to get your bird book yet. You will find it in no field guide
under that name. If you could, it might be described this way: Ten inches in
length, large-headed with a strong bill made for catching insects, small fish
and amphibians, and it is fond of berries, mice and even baby birds. (Egad!)
Its back is a soft brown shade, and the wings are edged in russet tones.

There is a distinctive black mask bordered in white. Combined with a bright
yelow breast, these characteristics make this a distinctive species.
Vocalization is a ringing three-note call.

While many of this bird's family, the group known as the "tyrant"
flycatchers, are attractively plumaged, such as the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher,
there is one branch that is so dull and similar, you need a practiced eye to
separate one from another. Not this one. It is a creature with verve and
beauty.

Have you identified it yet? It is a bird seen throughout the Rio Grande
Valley and a bit northward in Texas. I call it the Popcorn Bird, and for good
reason.

When the dawn cracks in Pharr, and at times in the winter even before that,
my wife Sharron totes a bag of popcorn out the sunroom door where we breakfast.
She spreads it across the lawn of our backyard.

We know what is lurking in the shadows of our privet hedge, or in the leafy
confines of what may be the world's largest Turk's Cap shrub. Immediately after
she shuts the door behind her, the Popcorn Bird swoops from his perch of
anticipation. In one swinging arc, it picks up a kernel in its beak and flees
to a branch or the wires. You have to observe closely because the attack is so
swift you can barely perceive the catch.

Ater this comes the Plain Chachalacas, the Great-tailed Grackles, House
Sparrows, and other birds. Sometimes the Popcorn Bird will stay on the ground
eating defiantly, daring the grackles to come near. (They prefer to pick up the
corn, fly to the birdbaths and soak it.) When the others come too close, the
Popcorn Bird will flare its crest, a yellow patch in the black top feathers of
its crown. This is quite a show. Wildllfe Photographer and veterinarian Dr.
Steve Bentsen has a most magnificent photograph of this performance. You will
never see the crest unless the bird is in a high state of alarm or excitement.

One such case would be when predators are near. We have a Sharp-shinned Hawk
or two which hunt our neighborhood, at times making strafing runs down the
corridor of our backyard.

Some days we have at least three Popcorn Birds on the wires from which they
make alternate swoops, quarreling over the food, of course.

This subject bird is a feisty, noisy and beautiful creature, one of the
target species for the birders that come to the Valley from all over the world.
Its range is very limited in the U.S, but it extends outside the country all the
way to Argentina. It has adapted well to the growing urbanism here, as long a
there is proper cover such as trees and shrubbery. As a matter of fact, it is
one species that actually benefits from the spoiling of the rainforest because
it prefers openings, edges and new growth. Don't tell anybody.

If you have not keyed in on the species, go out and buy a good field guide
such as the National Geographic, Kenn Kaufman's or David Sibley's, et al. Pick
up some popcorn, spread it and watch for one. I believe the bird will benefit
nutritionally, and so will you and your family from enjoying one of the Valley's
natural pleasures.

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