Our Birds: Birder to birder: ‘No ... really?’

“I didn’t know that!” she said to me, while looking out across the mudflats, listening to my bird-babble on something esoteric about sandpipers. “Is that for true or are you bird-storying me again?” she asked, turning from her scope to look at me.

“Yip,” said I, in that tall-tale manner I adopt when pontificating on superfluous truths about birds that for some reason I’ve tucked into back recesses of my mind. She just stood there shaking her head, not a comment in return.

So, I thought I’d share snippets of conversations she and I’ve had while out-and-about birding on the Olympic Peninsula on obscure facets of our birds.

Collision course

We were up at Deer Park, watching two F18s from Whidbey Island NAS fly over, when a juvy golden eagle flew into the same field of view. “Wow! I know about birds and planes, but I wonder how high a bird could go to collide with one?”

I watched the eagle soar higher, a long ways from the two jets, and mused aloud to her, “There’s a story from back in ’73, when a Rüppell’s griffon vulture flew into a jet’s engine. The jet, flying over the Ivory Coast at 37,100 feet, landed safely, but the vulture didn’t make it. The vulture was identified by feathers remaining stuck to the engine wall.

“Oh, here’s another tidbit: The first airplane-bird collision took place over Huffman Prairie in 1905 when Wilbur Wright hit a flock of birds: one was killed, Wilbur was OK. It was thought to be a red-winged blackbird. He wrote about it in his diary.”

Cats vs. birds

Birding on Ediz Hook last week, we were watching harlequins and feral cats at the end of the spit when she asked, “What kind of an impact do cats really have on birds?”

Thinking now to myself as I write this, cat lovers aren’t going to like the response I shared with her. “There are some 80 million pet cats and an estimated 120 million feral cats out there and they kill between 2-4 billion birds annually. On the low side, that’s about 10 birds per cat a year.”

Just then, one of the TNR cats leapt from behind a driftwood log and took a fledgling house sparrow. Her eyes went wide, even though it was only a house sparrow!

Then she asked, “TNR?” I shared, “Trap, neuter and release: a falsie that feral neutered cats re-released are ecologically and communally benign!”

As she watched the cat kill the sparrow, she asked, “Is it working?” I answered, “Not for the birds.”

Bet ya

The pileated climbed the tree, screnching up one hop at a time. She stood watching and did the Woody Woodpecker song, turned and grinned at me. Hmmmm, I thought, do I or don’t I? OK, I’ll go there.

“Nope! He’s wasn’t a pileated!”

She frowned, furrowing her eyebrows and squenching her eyes, and said to me, “He was too! And I’ll bet you a case of Deschutes Black Butte porter on that!” Oh my, the beer of beers!

And she again emphatically said, “Woody talks pileated!”

This is a good bet. Most who bird think this is fact. That Woody’s a pileated. But he’s not. He’s characterized after an acorn woodpecker. Go listen to one. OK, they don’t occur here, so go listen to one online and you’ll hear that rattle that Woody makes.

And then check the story out at Wikipedia.

Walter Lanz was honeymooning with wife Gracie at Sherwood Lake, Calif., during which time an acorn woodpecker kept them annoyed for days and nights. I shared these tidbits with her; but she wasn’t buying it.

Four afternoons later, she came by my dwelling with a case of Black Butte porter.

Why did the chicken …

“What? No way! You gotta be joking!” Big exclamation marks. Big question marks. All back at me and I heard each one. Sometimes I deserve them. Sometimes I toss bird trivia toward her that really does reach the border of mythical heresy. But usually when I get to the point of telling tall tales, she’s grasped the profundity of my words and ignores me.

But not this time. So I was off running. “Over 300 feet and it took her 13 seconds. Three times the distance and a second longer than Orville first flew the Wright Flyer at Kill Devil Hill at Kitty Hawk! That’s what she did. And her name was Renunka. A chicken!”

I’ve never learned her total history, her parlance or her reality in chicken speciation, but she holds the world record for flight within her birding group. This I shared. And it was the look on her face that was a treasure buried. The smile behind her eyes was decimating me bit by bit. Or was it bird fact by bird fact?

Predator and prey

The male robin came down from the top of apple tree in a beeline toward the crow perched on the fence. The robin flew so close to the crow, when it ducked, it slipped off the fence, tumbled over and down to the ground.

By now the female robin was at the crow, too. Harassing. Diving. Noise of devils incarnate everywhere as robins and crow swore and screamed at each other.

As we watched, I said to her, “There’s a thrush that poops on them when they do this harassing thing, you know.” Them being the predator.

“Who?” A simple, easy word. One inviting the tale to be told.

“Fieldfares. They’re found throughout Europe. Nest in colonies. When a predator invades a nesting area, they gather and scream and harass and when they get a chance they fly in and poop on the predator. Effective. A nasty way to be chased out of an area. But also potentially lethal as the fieldfare’s poop saturates a predator’s feathers.

“This weakens them and, therefore, the bird is against weather’s rain, wind, mist — chilling the predator into a bad situation. Never mind the turmoil when the failed predator comes back to its own territory or nestlings empty-billed and smelling of fieldfare poop.”

The look she gave me said it all.

Siege of herons

We were searching through a horde of sandpipers at 3 Crabs looking for a semipalmated among all the Westerns when she said out of the blue, “So, it’s a siege of herons. Why?”

That caught me up. Thinking on it a bit, I said, “It’s from how they doggedly wait for prey at their feet. A siege is about patience.”

She has a way of tilting her head when ready to pounce.

“OK, oh wise-one, what’s the venereal term for them?”

Pointing to three mallards flying by. “Sord! It’s from the Old French sordre meaning to rise up in flight.”

She just stood there, looking at me, then laughed, “WHERE do you find these things and why do you remember them?”

I just shrugged my shoulders, and said, “Did you know that Caspian terns …”



Reach Denny AFMJ Van Horn at


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