It is Valentines and my mind turns to things I love. One such is in-your-face birds. Not the TV Muppet kind but the pecking, flying versions.
Well, don’t you know about the bird
Well, everybody knows that the bird is the word
A-well-a, bird, bird, b-bird’s the word
My earliest memory of loving such birds was at preparatory school. There I discovered that the exotic Hoopoe, with its terrific Latin name Upupa epops, sometimes visited Britain.
Nowadays about a hundred of them fly into the south shore of England every summer. They have a pinkish-brown body, striking black-and-white wings, a long black down-curved bill, and a huge head crest that they raise when excited. They are almost ludicrously flashy and their whoopee call is wonderfully anachronistic in such a grey and cloudy landscape. When our teacher asked the class to name their favourite bird, I volunteered the Hoopoe. The class and teacher broke up laughing. When I went on to describe it, no-one believed that in the bird world truth can be as strange as fiction.
I now live in the Humber Valley where the Pileated Woodpecker is the flashiest guy around. This oversized demon pecker is almost impossible to ignore. As one of the most striking forest birds on this continent, everything about it is big. The size of a crow, it is black with bold white stripes down the neck and a flaming-red crest. As it flies it makes the loudest call of anything around, and sounds like a jackhammer when it is driving its high-powered beak into your trees. One regularly drilled deep holes all over the front fascia of the Kortright Nature Centre in full view of visitors. Folk thought it had been trained to do it. It probably thought it was the boss bird and could do what it wanted. I can still picture a male Dryocopus pileatus in the snow pounding a tree stump in my back yard to pieces. Watching it hacking and slashing its way to a meal was way more thrilling than those Christmas-card cardinals eating my bird seed.
These birds need big trees to nest in, the sort you usually find in old growth forests or difficult-to-reach sites that have never been logged. One May we saw them in Pacific Coast forest in Costa Rica, just as exotic and brightly coloured as the Toucans and Scarlet Macaws that one expects to see there. At our previous house lower down the Humber a pair of Pileateds nested in a large dead elm tree still upright near the house. Once they were fledged we had duck-sized youngsters hopping around our lawn for several days. Sadly they never did approach the house which was riddled with the carpenter ant, their favourite prey and the bane of wooden house owners.
For a long while the Pileated was the largest woodpecker known in North America, then, quite recently, someone spotted an Ivory-billed Woodpecker deep in the forests of the Grand Bend of the Rio Grande. This magnificent creature, inches longer than the Pileated and with wide white stripes down its back, had been thought to have passed into history.
The wild turkey is back with a vengeance. For most of the 20th century Meleagris gallopavo were as scarce as the proverbial hen’s teeth in Ontario, having been hunted out for the pot. Some years ago a swop with Michigan for moose put them back into our woods. The bird is usually a serious beast, parading around importantly in single file through our woods and meadows, and only deigning to fly when chased or to get up into a tree to roost.
When the toms start gobbling in the Spring to attract a harem, the racket they make echoes a great distance through the trees. On the head of the Big Daddy toms, the wattle and carbuncles are red, white or blue, brilliant in colour and very pronounced. When they are large enough to make a good Thanksgiving dinner, they out strut their rivals and corral a large number of hens to impregnate. We once had this orgy going on for a whole day round our yard. The much smaller hens were invisible under a mound of feathers and wrinkles. Mass rape in the world of birds.
Turkeys have small heads with not a lot between their ears. It is unwise to wash your car at that time of year or the young males, seeing their reflection in the shiny paint as a rival, will rush to the attack and probably ruin your finish. Thank goodness the old guys know their worth and stay in the trees or they would break down the car door.
At other seasons turkeys are quite timid. I saw a file of them and another of Canada Geese walking on a collision course. To my great surprise it was the turkeys that stepped aside for the smaller geese.
As a child I lived on a hill above seasonally flooded meadows called meads where every Spring the northward migration of the Whooper and Bewick’s swans would stop to feed. One of the most stirring sights in our local hills here is to watch a pair of migratory Trumpeter swans, a close relative of the Whooper, whistle overhead to land with a splash on one of our many lakes. Cygnus buccinator sound off with their far-carrying trumpeting as they fly. This truly big bird has the most mass of any waterfowl in present-day North America and beyond. It tolerates no interference, as soon as it arrives in the Spring scaring off any geese hopeful of nesting. Another former rarity, thanks to the work of the Trumpeter Swan Restoration Group since the 1980s, this majestic fowl can now be spotted on any good-sized lake here and points north.
If we are diligent we big bird lovers may also sight such rare gems as a solitary Great White Heron or the small flock of White Pelicans in Burlington Bay every 15 years or so when they get blown badly off course on their flight up the US Midwest to the lakes of Manitoba. Meanwhile just sing-along with me:-
A-well-a, bird, bird, b-bird’s the word, papa-ooma-mow-mow, papa-ooma-mow-mow
By Ian Keith Anderson