Friday, March 27, 2009

Little Robin Redbreast

American Robin family. Photo by Don Bartram.

Little Robin Redbreast sat upon a tree
Up climbed pussycat and down went he,
Down came pussycat, away Robin ran.
Says little Robin Redbreast, “Catch me if you can.”

Little Robin Redbreast flew upon a wall,
Pussycat jumped after him, and almost had a fall.
Little Robin chirped and sang and what did Pussy say?
Pussycat said, “Mew,” and Robin flew away.

– Mother Goose

The subject of myth and folklore, the robin has been popular in literature worldwide for hundreds of years. The robin is often viewed as a symbol of peace, charity and compassion and the origin of its red breast has inspired countless tales. There is one story of how the robin plucked a thorn from the crown that pierced Jesus’ forehead as he was on his way to be crucified, accidentally piercing his own breast, and staining his feathers red. Another tale tells that the robin’s breast was singed while the bird was fanning the fire to warm baby Jesus.

Robins are often viewed as indicators of spring. Their presence is a sure sign that soon birdsong will fill the air, trees and shrubs will burst forth with verdant vegetation, and all life will be renewed. They are viewed as a peaceful bird, minding their own business, pulling up worms, and caring for their families. Their image graces countless note cards, Christmas cards, and advertisements, a symbol that all is well. But, are fact and fiction one in the same with regard to the robin?

Our American Robin (Turdus migratorius), the bird that we see gracing cards, is actually a member of the thrush family (Turdidae), and closely related to bluebirds, mockingbirds, and Townsend’s Solitaire. It is found throughout North America, although the northernmost populations migrate south for the winter. It is not the bird of European literature. To the rest of the world, robins are small members of the flycatcher family. The European Robin (Erithacus rubecula), subject of much literature, is a small insect-eating songbird now considered to be an Old World flycatcher (Muscicapidae). That robin has a bright orange breast instead of red, and is found across Europe, east to Western Siberia and south to North Africa. The term Robin also is given to other species of birds with red breasts, including the Australian red robins of the genus Petroica, which are more closely related to crows.

Now that you are thoroughly numbed by the above paragraph and nodding off toward an extended nap, let’s think about the peaceful part. In general, we rarely see more than one or two robins and their families hopping about in our yards during the spring and summer. That’s because the male of the pair has ferociously defended your yard from all challengers. Only he and his mate can peacefully occupy that territory. This is not to say that there will be no challenges from others, for each robin must maintain enough precious habitat with an adequate food supply and interlopers lurk, waiting for their chance, that moment of inattention when Daddy Robin is looking the other way and the mealworm pan is left unattended.

Earlier this month, I watched a fierce battle over the less than desirable territory of my back yard (at least in my opinion). The two males stabbed with their beaks and grabbed with their feet until one fell from high in the elm tree to land on the ground on his back. That must have hurt! A few days later, I found a dead male in the front yard. Could they have battled to the death? It is a simple matter of survival for the male, his mate, and their offspring. And raise families, they do. A pair of robins can produce up to three clutches of young a year.

Then, there is the myth that robins are harbingers of spring. While this is true for those who live in northern states and Canada, New Mexico actually has far more robins during the winter than the breeding season. Those northern robins head south in search of food. It seems logical that xeric New Mexico cannot hold enough worms and other insects to feed all those wintering robins. So, some other food source must be the attractant. Those of you who have towering Russian olives in your yard, or a tangle of pyracantha with 6" thorns just waiting to shred your skin are the reason the robins thrive in our arid landscape. Berries are a vital part of their diet and both pyracantha and Russian olive hold their berries until they are eaten.

Robins thrive in an urban environment like your back yard. Populations appear stable or are increasing throughout their range. But, because the robin often feeds on insects in lawns, it is vulnerable to pesticide poisoning and can be an important indicator of chemical pollution. So, next time you are worried about that perfect lawn, do your wallet and a bird a favor and skip the pesticide company.

I was once lucky enough to have pair of robins build their nest on my front porch and I was able to spy on them from the safety of the bedroom window, in essence having a front row seat to watch the antics, fun for me but deadly serious to them. Even though they are a common bird, they can be uncommonly entertaining. I found a 10 minute film clip that shows robin family rasing a family from start to finish. Check it out.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

There's No Place Like Home!

Juvenile Harpy Eagle. Photo by Mark Watson
Scarlet-horned Manakin. Photo by Mark Watson

There’s nothing quite like a visit to a third world country to make one appreciate the lifestyle Americans take for granted. I currently have a special fondness for certain luxuries: hot water; potable water; meat that is recognizable; well-maintained roads, vehicles with adequate exhaust systems, and uninterrupted sleep. There are positives from the trip that I always will cherish: new and improved friendships, awe for the amazing diversity of flora and fauna of Venezuela; and an greater appreciation for a different culture.

We saw birds too! Many of them! While I didn’t see anything approaching the record 380+ species recorded by the top birder in the group, I tallied a remarkable 328 species, of which 281 were life birds for me. Yes, we did see the magnificent Harpy Eagle, one flighted youngster of 18 months, and both parents. Our Venezuelan guides led us right up to a viewing spot and there was the immature eagle, perched right in plain view. As we watched, the adult male flew over, likely checking to see if all was well with Junior. We later viewed the adult female who perched nicely for viewing through the scope as we were leaving the area.

We were asked to list our “top three” birds by our trip leader, Jim Black of Chupaflor Tours, so the group could determine the “top” bird of the trip. Indeed, the Harpy Eagles were a big score, but it seemed just a little too easy to find them, almost as if we didn’t earn the experience. We also saw rarities, birds that skulked in the dense undergrowth, and a wide variety of brilliantly colored species like the Paradise Tanager that looks as if it were colored by a child with a new box of crayons. We saw amazing hummingbirds, like the Crimson Topaz with its incredibly long tail, and a Sooty-capped Hermit on her nest. At a wetland, we found two Pinnated Bitterns in flight and a bird that is called, a Double-striped Thick-knee. Now, who would think up a name like that for a bird!? Fortunately, birds don’t care what we humans call them.

We found a Rufous Crab-Hawk in the mangrove swamp. To me, it seemed logical that the primary food of a bird called a Crab-Hawk would be crabs. As we motored through the mangroves on increasingly larger waterways, I kept expecting to arrive at the ocean, where there would be a beach with a flourishing crab colony. However, after at least two hours of boating, we didn’t appear to be anywhere near the beach. Eventually, our Venezuelan guide pointed to two large hawks perched high above the mangroves with no beach in sight. I wondered just where it was that these hawks could find enough crabs to sustain themselves in the unlikely crab habitat. That is, until we pulled over close to the mangroves to look at a flycatcher, only to discover the trees were literally crawling with crabs, big and small. They skuttled up and over the roots and raced up the tree trunks. They are a species of tree crab, at home in this aquatic environment, and so numerous they plunked into our boats with regularity.

As I think about all the marvelous birds of Venezuela, and choosing only three of them, there is one that brings a smile to my face each time, the Scarlet-horned Manakin. We came upon a male deep in the rainforest, a little fellow with a crimson head and a jet black body. We watched as he performed his unique courtship moonwalk dance in the style of Michael Jackson. I’ll never forget the abandon with which he danced – as if no one were watching. Check out another manakin species dancing.
If you are interested in more trip details, I’ve posted photos and stories about the trip on my other blog.

But, as exciting as my South American adventure was, there was immense comfort as I turned my car onto NM 4 and drove into the Jemez Valley. I stopped at the Highway 4 coffee shop for my favorite latte, and chatted with some of the folks there. Ponderosa Drive had just been bladed, for better or worse, and the birds at my place were hungry. My neighbors down the hill invited me over for dinner later this week, and I am thrilled to be back. There’s no place like home.