The Bird Meme: Day 8

Day 8: Most overrated bird

American Robin

As recently as eighteen months ago, I would have had a clear candidate for this designation: the Bald Eagle.

"How?" some might object. "How could a big, bold raptor, beloved as a patriotic symbol by American everywhere, be overrated?" Let's face facts: it's not really a special treat to see one anymore. Though the Bald was rare in the Lower 48 in my youth, the 1972 ban on DDT and a variety of other conservation efforts have increased its population to an enormous degree. Its reputation as a thief and scavenger, promoted long ago by Benjamin Franklin, is also worth considering, but the real issue is a simple one: it's overplayed.

Like a lot of classic rock songs, the bird is presented to us so often that we've become rather tired of it. Everyone from Anheuser-Busch to the NRA to the US Postal Service is waving an eagle around, and over two dozen colleges use the eagle as a symbol--even, somewhat bizarrely, in cases where the actual mascot is something else entirely. (See "Tigers, University of Auburn.") To say that the eagle is overrated is more of a comment on the rating than on the bird.

It doesn't help that the Bald Eagle is so hugely popular with non-birders, who assume that it's the bird everyone wants to know about. I know I'm not the only birder who will often go wandering in the woods and encounter a layman who insists on telling me, no matter what I'm actually looking for--warblers, ducks, even the nearest bathroom--how to get to the place where he heard some people saying they'd seen a Bald Eagle. Basically, these well-meaning folks are like the people who don't play the guitar, but who insist, when they see you have yours, that you lend it to them for a minute so they can show you they know how to play the riff from "Smoke on the Water." (For you guitarists with younger friends, change that last to "Seven Nation Army" and the joke works just as well.)

Still, even with my longtime thoughts about the Bald stored firmly in my head, my mind was changed by an incident on the shores of Lake Washington in the spring of 2016. On a stroll down the road along the lakeshore, I noticed a pair of Balds chasing a gull over the lake. Knowing what I know about eagles, I assumed they was pursuing the gull, which it dwarfed, in order to bully it out of a fish it was carrying, but as the pursuit grew more intense and the gull's dodging became visibly more desperate, I realized I was mistaken.

As I documented back in April 2016, the two eagles were not after a fish. The immature might have been just helping its parent out with a hunt, but the adult was after the gull itself. And a second or two later, it was all over. The eagle knocked the gull out of the sky with ease, seized the seabird in its talons, and soared into a tree right beside the lakeside drive where I was walking. It then proceeded to tear the unfortunate gull asunder, taking occasional pauses to call out its defiance to the other eagles that came circling too near its perch.

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So yeah. Watching this take place didn't make the bird's rating any less overhyped, but it sure as hell moved my opinion of the Bald Eagle considerably closer to that rating.

That leaves me in a rather awkward position, though. Where else do birds fall short of birders' opinions of them? It can't be where birds whose reputations are already fairly negative (European Starling, House Sparrow, Brown-headed Cowbird, etc.) and it can't really be where birds with reputations as exceedingly cool are in fact exceedingly cool (Peregrine Falcon, Swallow-tailed Kite, Magnificent Frigatebird, etc.)  Perhaps I could pick a species whose fame among birders is based on something other than its own qualities--its rarity, perhaps, or the difficulty of distinguishing it from a similar species, but neither the Red-cockaded Woodpecker nor any of the seemingly dozens of Empidonax flycatchers really struck me as overrated.

So in the end, I had to go with a bird that's perfectly adequate on its own merits, but hyped by non-birders often enough to leave it well short of its reputation: the American Robin. Historically, it has always lived in the shadow of its namesake, the more brightly-colored and celebrated European Robin, after whom the New World bird was named by homesick emigrants. Other than their orange chests, ground-feeding habits, and relative comfort around humans, the birds have little in common, but that didn't stop Americans from trying to push the Robin as everything from a standard of measurement (most birds' sizes are given in relation to the Robin because of its familiarity) to a magical exemplar for children. It should be noted, however, that the bird has NO business popping up in a London townhouse to help Mary Poppins; I'm sure there were plenty of out-of-work European Robins who could have played the part just as well, but Hollywood is a biased town.)

In the end, though, it's really the Robin's status as a Harbinger Of Spring that makes it seem overhyped. Excitement over the Year's First Robin is supposed to be a real thing, despite the fact that the bird can be found in every state of the contiguous 48 states throughout the winter. (It migrates out of the high Rockies in Idaho and Montana and the northernmost parts of the Great Lakes and New England states.) It's neither rare nor difficult to find, its song is rather monotonous, and though it can be diverting to watch one cocking its head to listen for earthworms, I can't say I know many birders who'll devote much time to a long-term viewing of the Robin. Is it a bad bird? Not at all. But based on all of the above, I'd have to call it overrated.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on September 19, 2017 6:25 PM.

The Bird Meme: Day 7 was the previous entry in this blog.

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