The Bird Meme: Day 5

Day 5: A bird that makes you happy

Well. That was a week. Getting back to classes always takes a little time and adjustment, but this week things were exacerbated by two additional complications: first, the need to construct a new Team Teaching course for Friday morning, which ate up most of Wednesday evening, and second, a trip to Charlottesville on Thursday night to see the David Wax Museum's 10th anniversary/1000th performance gala. The band was in top form, adding a horn section, full rhythm section support, and even a few songs performed on the floor out in the middle of the audience. Getting home after midnight, alas, did throw off the ol' sleep cycle just a bit. And of course one of the things that suffered was blogging.

Still, I'm back and ready to consider the issue of birds and happiness. I want to be careful not to confuse a bird that makes me happy with a bird sighting that makes me happy, because there have been plenty of occasions where I was absolutely delighted to see a bird. First sightings of life birds are a prime candidate for this kind of delight: my first look at the flaming colors of the Western Tanager, for example, or the hell-for-leather stoop of my first Prairie Falcon. But these are literally the only times I've ever seen these birds, so I can't be sure if the bird itself is more delightful than the prospect of adding it to my life list. Unexpected sightings are also very likely to get included on such a list; the Roseate Spoonbill that flew past the Sapelo Island ferry in Georgia a few years back, for example, still makes me smile, partly because it's such a great bird (and one I'd seen only once before) and partly because I took such a terrible, terrible photo:

DSC02250.JPG(Hint: look waaay to the right)
But I wonder whether I should perhaps be picking another kind of bird: one that I see frequently, but which always makes me happy when I do. There are plenty of these. I'm still a bit awed whenever I see a Bald Eagle, despite the fact that they frequent my area, and I feel much the same way about the Great Blue Heron. The bright colors, absurdly bobbing flight, and happy-go-lucky "potato chip" call of the American Goldfinch are a combination that never fails to please, and the spectacle of a Pileated Woodpecker winging its way over me will never become dull.

In the end, however, I decided to go with Clark's Nutcracker (a/k/a the Whiskeyjack) despite the fact that I have seen only a handful, all of them in the state of Wyoming. (I did glimpse a greyish bird in Utah's Bryce Canyon NP in 2008, but couldn't confirm its identity.) In 2013, my parents and I took a trip from Salt Lake City up to Glacier NP, and on the way we spent an evening in Jackson Hole. The next morning I persuaded my folks to take the tram to the top of Rendezvous Mountain, where I got a spectacular look at the Grand Tetons and the surrounding countryside, but I also logged a couple of life birds--albeit somewhat unsatisfying ones. My glimpse of a Black Rosy-finch atop the mountain was just barely good enough to make the ID. Only slightly better was my first look at a Whiskeyjack, which appeared directly below our tram car, winging out of cover and immediately back into it, but clearly displaying its pearly grey body and black-and-white wings en route.

Luckily, a few hours later, we were in Yellowstone NP, and when we stopped at a roadside lavatory, a couple of nutcrackers were hanging out in the evergreens nearby. This gave me ample time to watch them, and I quickly discovered that these birds seem to contain all the mischievous, fun-loving impulses that I've observed in other corvid species--the brashness of the Blue Jay, the experimentalist nature of the American Crow, and the aeronautic skill of the Common Raven. They were loud, talkative birds, and they hopped and flitted around the trees without the slightest concern for the prey or predators to whom they might be announcing themselves. 

I was liking them already, but then one of them pulled off one of the boldest, most beautiful, and arguably most foolish maneuvers I've ever seen from a bird, and I fell in love. From a branch high in a pine--at least thirty feet up, probably closer to fifty--the Whiskeyjack stepped off his branch and fell. And kept falling. It's not unknown for a bird to use such a drop to pick up velocity, then spread his wings and swoop off toward a new location, but this guy was still pointing straight at the ground halfway down the tree. And more. He was a grey-and-black deadweight, seemingly plumbing the full height of the tree, wings still held against his body, and I really wondered if I was actually going to witness the first documented bird suicide.

But suddenly, only a few feet from the unforgiving earth, he flicked his wings out, turned them upward sharply, and screeched to a halt, only inches from impact. He landed delicately, looked around for a moment, and let out a jeering chuckle, just to announce to everyone in the area, "I meant to do that."

I don't know this bird well. But the ratio of smiles to encounters is extremely favorable to it. And that makes me happy.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on September 16, 2017 1:06 PM.

The Bird Meme: Day 4 was the previous entry in this blog.

The Bird Meme: Day 6 is the next entry in this blog.

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