Column: Forget science -- let's just watch the birds outside
WORTHINGTON -- It is my impression people do not pay attention to birds as once they did. Oh, scientists pay attention with their spades and screens. They tell us that in the paleobaleocalico era (whatever), 350,000 years ago, there were giant bi...
WORTHINGTON - It is my impression people do not pay attention to birds as once they did. Oh, scientists pay attention with their spades and screens. They tell us that in the paleobaleocalico era (whatever), 350,000 years ago, there were giant birds with claws on their wings big as antlers on a moose. In more recent times birds were a part of our songs and our lore, but this seems to have faded.
Do you remember, “Listen to the Mocking Bird?” (It’s a sin to kill a mocking bird.)
Do you remember, “…when the red, red robin comes bob, bob bobbln’ along…”
Burl Ives (singer) was a master troubadour who remembered birds:
“…go tell Aunt Rhody her old gray goose is dead…”
“…bluejay pulled a four-horse plow, sparrow why can’t you? ‘cause my legs is little and long and they might get broke in two…’”
“Oklahoma!” (1943, 2,212 performances) is where we like to “sit and talk and watch a hawk making lazy circles in the sky…”
A thing that got me started on this is the change of seasons. “By all these lovely tokens September days are here…” I can’t remember when last I saw a robin. It has been a while. A month at least. Those television news readers will begin digging out their winter scripts, and they will tell us anew that wind and cold do not send robins fleeing south. It is want of food that gets to them. If you were to dump a can of wiggle worms on a backyard snowbank each morning, you soon would have more robins than a commercial chicken farm in the yard. Uh, huh. So where are the robins now?
I have been watching out my picture window closely. I really don’t see many birds at all, save for the crows. I think the crows are getting prepared for their annual Thanksgiving day. They spent the summer in the countryside hatching and training the new crows. Now they are coming back to town, picking over squirrels and rabbits and kittens they find flattened on the streets. Well in advance of the cold November winds, they will have their annual Crow Thanksgiving Day.
Thinking of the birds brings to mind some of our original Chinese immigrants. I think Scott Rall noted that it was 110 years ago last year that Chinese ringneck pheasants were introduced to our area. Numbers have been up, and numbers have been down. I was with Jerry Raedeke when he stopped at the wildlife area that he helped to develop on Worthington’s east side. Three pheasant roosters lifted from the tall grass. Pheasants here are sufficiently abundant that Gov. Mark Dayton chose Worthington for Minnesota’s 2014 season opener. But 2014 hunters did not find birds like hunters in the autumns of the 1930s, when pheasants lifted from Nobles County cornfields by the scores. Nevertheless, pheasants abound more than a century since first they settled here.
This raises the questions of where and what were our native birds? Robins, to hold to this example, seek out crotches and branches on trees for their nests. They don’t make their homes at the roots of prairie grasses.
So, did the robins hang around Storm Lake until the worms began to wiggle in and above the tall grass and then take off cross-country until they came to Lake Okoboji? Then, when conditions were right, could we have spotted them newly arrived along South Shore?
I wonder as well about the crows. Crows seek out trees. But crows don’t usually feed on worms. You think they waited for a wagon wheel to flatten a squirrel? There’s that problem again. Crows want to be where the trees are. So do squirrels. Do you believe settlers could find squirrels pushing through the grass in search of a walnut tree? And did the crows keep watch for a distracted squirrel who slipped off a walnut branch directly in the path of a prairie schooner? Not likely.
Those scientists might profitably take a day off from their paleobaleocalico studies and learn what went on here with the crows and the robins when they dropped their giant claws and started moving onto the prairies and into the tall grass.
Ray Crippen is a former editor of the Daily Globe. His column appears on Saturdays.