Birds are Aliens and Endangered

When I was about ten, I remember waking early in the morning to high-pitched, alien-sounding cries outside my window.  I looked out to see a young red-tailed hawk perched on the low wood fence about five feet from my window.  He had a limp, dead gopher in one claw and was delicately pulling bits of gore out of its abdomen and swallowing them, then crying out in what I interpreted as joy or victory with each bit of meat that he swallowed.  I watched quietly for several moments.  Suddenly, he looked up with his strange golden eyes, his eyes met mine, and he stayed very still for a long moment, then took flight, his meal firmly held in one claw.

I have known people who were afraid of birds, and also heard that as soft as their feathers are, and as clean as they may appear to the naked eye, they carry nearly-invisible mites and pests and can spread disease. 

Another time, much more recently when I was living in Woodland Hills, Badger woke me in the middle of the night due to “nature’s call.”  Groggy with sleep, I let him out in front of our house, which had a circular driveway beyond which was a small dirt road and a small hill between our house and our neighbor’s house, which was covered with ivy and tall pine trees.  It was a dark night, with a new moon barely peeking through the cloud cover.  As Badger sniffed about in the ivy, I had the strangest feeling of foreboding and the hair did stand up on the back of my neck.  I looked up to see the biggest wingspan I’ve ever seen.  Absolutely silent and ghostlike, an enormous owl soared over my head from somewhere on our roof toward the pine trees – and of course, Badger.  

Species-Strix-nebulosa-5 It was very dark, so I could see few markings, except that it wasn’t a horned owl – his face was rounded and smooth.  He might have been a Great Grey Owl, which is a widely-distributed species, or a very large spotted owl.  I’m sure the wingspan grows with each memory I have of the owl’s silent flight.  I will never forget those opalescent eyes, looking dispassionately down at me, and most certainly, determining that Badger was a bit too large to snatch up and carry off into the trees.

Thank goodness Badger is a 20 pound dog – for if he’d been a Chihuahua, I think I would be writing his memorial right now.

Anyone who’s had a pet parakeet or parrot knows that birds can be very bright, have distinctive personalities.  Small, social birds like parakeets and parrots act curiously monkey-like.  They climb, chatter, play and exhibit great curiosity.  Bigger birds of prey are completely different.  From the silent, ominous owl to large raptors like the red-tailed hawk or eagles, their lives seem, at least to me, to be spare and solitary, spent in the wide-open spaces of the air, or on high perches dispassionately observing the busy ground-based life below, waiting for their chance to swoop down upon unwary prey and feed.

A curious artifact of conservation efforts dating from the 1970’s until today is that – some have worked.  Some situations were so dire that the progress that has been made seems very small.  For example, California Condors had dwindled to such a low population level that it was uncertain if they could be saved from extinction.  As of January, 2009, there are 167 condors in the wild, and another 154 in zoos or several captive breeding programs, with the birds intended to be released into the wild. 

Calliopem I saw this little fellow, a Calliope hummingbird, on my patio the other day.  He spent quite a bit of time with the bright flowers, then buzzed around my shoulders and flew away.  I don’t have a hummingbird feeder, but I do have brightly-colored pots and flowers that would attract him.  Hummingbirds are one of the species that nearly everyone likes. This webpage is a great resource for hummingbird enthusiasts no matter where you live.  Much like the barn owl, who is a welcome feature that keeps the vermin population in check in urban and rural areas, the hummingbird peacefully coexists with humans — it even feeds well from the millions of hummingbird feeders that are sold and put into action on porches and balconies every year.

Now that I live near the ocean, I see many different pelagic birds that I’d never seen before, in addition to the familiar seagull and brown pelican.  These small birds appear numerous and not-endangered.  However, even with the improved conservation and environmental situation in Southern California, with open space (I live near the Ballona wetlands), problems still occur.  Last night driving home, I saw a brown pelican crumpled on the shoulder of the road near the wetlands.  I thought he must have somehow collided with a car, and thought of the impact that a large bird like that would make – costing the pelican his life, and the driver, likely a windshield.  But that was not the case.  I think the pelican fell prey to a mystery disease that’s stumping animal rescuers. 

Birds, in general, are extremely sensitive to environmental changes and human pollutants, as Rachel Carson pointed up to great effect in Silent Spring. The most recent Audubon Society report (note: a large PDF file) on the top 10 endangered bird species in the US was issued in 2006, but it still contains good information. The report also has a separate section for the top ten endangered Hawaiian birds.  Hawaii, despite its natural beauty and the environmental concern on the islands, has the greatest number of endangered species per square mile of any location on earth.  Here is a good link to resources on Hawaiian endangered species, including many rare and unique birds.  The list of extinct birds from Hawaii offers an interesting insight.  While it is frequently cited that many of Hawaii’s lost species became extinct after European contact was made, and the extinction list shows that most were lost in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, who is to say what species lived there previous to European contact – and possibly became extinct due to other, nonhuman environmental factors?  Not to excuse the attitude of Europeans ranging through the world’s oceans in the 18th and 19th centuries – from whalebones, whale oil, and seal fur to clubbing dodos to death for the sheer joy of it, it’s not a pleasant record.  It is also possible that Hawaii is the world’s endangered species capital because there – people are watching, while in other parts of the globe, no one is watching at all.

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Birds are Aliens and Endangered — 2 Comments

  1. We have a magpie that nests in a mulberry in our back yard who has learned to mimic car alarms. He is both alien and immensely entertaining as he expresses his joy by running through the entire litany of hoots, tweets, pings, sirens and blats filtered by bird throat.

    I like his expression of joy far better that some human ones.

  2. The noises they make are amazing, Maya. I guess that’s what I write about with these things. How much we can understand about other living creatures, if we just look and listen.