The Accidental Bird Watcher

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Published on: Dec. 2, 2002

Last revision: Nov. 12, 2010

western sky in dramatic colors, I watch flocks of mallards coming in to a lake to roost after they've spent the afternoon in some corn field. They fly in high at first, then circle and finally drop to the surface of the water with cupped wings. They seem to struggle to remain upright. These are big ducks that catch the last rays of sun on flashing wings.

Little winter wrens often entertain me while I'm wading a stream. The brown and tan birds with black bars seem to love picking in, around and under the tree roots that often jut from river banks. The wren's scientific name is Troglodytes troglodytes. A troglodyte is defined as "one who creeps into holes, cave dweller."

My wife, Carolyn, and I once launched a canoe on a sunny fall day for a last of-the-season cruise when we spotted a large bird wheeling over the lake. I had never seen such a bird here before. It occasionally plunged into the water as if hunting fish. The bird did not have the bulk of an eagle, but was more streamlined. Going home to a birding field guide I discovered we had been watching an osprey, an individual that was probably pausing on our local lake during its migration.

The Conservation Department now has an active program to reintroduce osprey with birds brought from northern states and "hacked" on Missouri lakes. Descendants of those birds now nest in Missouri on their own.

How many of my hours in the outdoors have been filled with the sound of crows? I doubt anyone keeps track, but it seems to me that there are more crows now than there were in the past. I see them in rural areas, and I see them walking in the grass along urban interstates.

Crows may be the most intelligent of all Missouri birds. They share a family with more than 15 other birds, including bluejays. They are said to be able to do a variety of incredible things, such as counting. One often repeated story has them learning how to steal fish from holes made by ice fishermen.

I often see, and hear, crows "mobbing" a hawk or an owl, alternately diving and screaming at it. Crows are noisy, but not always. Last spring I saw a pair of crows silently fly into the strip of woods behind my house. I was suspicious, and later went to investigate. I found a large nest halfway up an oak tree. As spring progressed I watched these birds come and go, tending their nest without ever making a sound. This uncharacteristically silent pair were the "black apparitions" that Henry Thoreau often wrote about.

I am fortunate to live in an area that includes a fair amount of green space. Beside the strip of woods between me and the next row of houses are undeveloped lots covered with mature trees. The houses are nicely spaced rather than cheek by jowl, and we have a large park nearby. The deer that sometimes appear in the yard can easily pass from one strip of forest to the next. I owe my joy at seeing hawks at close range to this green space. One recently landed in a large oak near the house, its white breast glowing in focused sunlight. There are owls, too. My son and I once met in the kitchen early on a morning after we had both been jarred awake by the sound of a great horned owl calling from the yard. I tried to figure out where the bird was. Chris said it was on his side of the house, in the wooded lot directly across the street.

On another winter day, a small group of mourning doves settled on the deck as I sat drinking my morning coffee. Sitting as still as any turkey hunter, I watched their gray, pear-shaped bodies negotiate a thin coating of ice on delicate, bright pink feet. They were foraging seeds thrown from my feeders by smaller songbirds.

Watching one bird fluff his feathers against the cold, then waggle his tail, I thought that I might not ever have any valuable art hanging in my house, but I've got birds - living art - everywhere I look.

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