Bird life intent on conquering our winter
“Life … will find a way.” That’s one of the lines I remember best from the movie Jurassic Park. It was spoken by the sometimes-obnoxious mathematician Dr. Ian Malcolm, played by actor Jeff Goldblum. The character was stating his belief that no matter how cleverly humans strategized to prevent the park’s dinosaurs from reproducing and getting out of hand, Nature and her creatures always have the last say.
I thought of that line this past week, as I, like many other Minnesotans, tried to keep a smile on my face and suffer through the remains of this winter that seems to be without end. Yet, in what seemed almost a defiant counterpoint, I was also a spectator to the will and hope of Nature, as wild creatures were going about the business of migrating and preparing to breed and raise the next generations; weather or no weather.
Canada geese have been both visible and audible along the open water of the Mississippi River for several weeks. But this week, when I brought my young Labrador to some open fields near the river for exercise, in a small pond-like depression ringed with cattails we found sentinels on duty, their necks erect, heads turning to look in all directions, and honking loudly in what could only be interpreted as a goose alarm. They were staking their claim to a nesting spot, despite the fact that the pond still had ice and meltwater on it, and snow ringed the little wetland completely. Sooner or later, they knew, winter’s grip would be broken, and they would be ready.
On this same day, as the young Lab and I headed back to our vehicle parked near the river, I spotted a flock of large, dark birds, silently wheeling in a roughly circular pattern above the open water of the river. Were they geese? No, too small for that. Ducks? Too large. Besides, the proportions were not quite right. Wings too long, and set too far forward; not the right neck or wing beat, either.
Finally it dawned on me; they were cormorants. Besides having a shape that sets them apart from ducks and geese, these virtually all-black birds were silent, which is far from the typical behavior of geese or ducks in such circumstances. Their silent black shapes had an almost ghostly quality to them, perhaps my impression being conditioned by scary tales of black creatures, from ravens to black cats, and bats to witches.
More than a few Minnesotans probably see cormorants as evil, and their black garb appropriate. They are premier catchers of fish, and have been blamed for the depletion of walleyes and other game fish in several Minnesota lakes, including the fabled Leech Lake. Measures to eliminate their high-density nesting colonies there, and elsewhere, have been undertaken to help protect both immature game fish and the prey that game species feed on. Despite their unpopularity with sport fishermen, cormorants are well-adapted, interesting birds. No doubt they’re as eager as we anglers are for open water on our northern lakes.
Another game bird, this one on the opposite end of the size scale from Canada geese, has found its way north; prematurely, perhaps. That bird is the American woodcock, a small, palm-sized bird with a long pointed bill adapted to probing soft earth to catch earthworms.
They’ve been seen occasionally long the shoulders of dirt roads where the snow has melted away. It seems unlikely that they’re finding many earthworms yet, unless it might be in areas where springs emerge from the ground and have kept the soil thawed. Woodcock eat insects, too, but there can’t be many of those around yet, either.
A friend who lives in a rural area near some young aspen woodlands was surprised one evening when his young wirehair pointing dog brought in and delivered to his hand a small woodcock; small typically means it’s a male. It appeared unharmed by being carried in his dog’s mouth, so he placed it where it wouldn’t be bothered, and it eventually flew off.
Woodcock often will remain immobile to avoid detection when they sense danger, a habit that makes them an ideal game bird for hunters with pointing dogs. Apparently this one tried that tactic, and didn’t bail out in time when the dog approached. My friend noted that it was nice to know that his young hunting dog has such a “soft mouth!”
Those who spend time around water know that great blue herons are most often seen wading in the shallows of streams or lakes, standing on docks, or perching on boat lift canopies along the shorelines of our lakes. But, several days ago, when I was again along the Mississippi, I spotted a large, gangling bird perched in a huge poplar tree along the shore. Even before it took flight when I got too close for its comfort, I recognized it.
A heron perched high in a tree seems out of place, like a fish out of water. But trees, too, are part of their habitat. Though we usually see them when they are wading and hunting for food, or loafing near water, their nesting takes place in trees. In fact, herons usually nest in apartment-like density very close to one another, often in flooded timber, in what are called “rookeries.” Herons have little in common with the crow-like European “rook” that has given such sites their name, except this colony-like nesting behavior.
Other birds are ready and waiting, from the grackles eating cedar and juniper berries to get by ‘til the ground is bare, to gangs of robins gathering the few remaining withered crabapples atop the snow banks, to the sad-sounding mourning doves, who this year really do have something to be mournful about.
This could end up being dubbed “the lost spring,” for it could be May by the time the snow banks have melted and the thawing earth greens-up, the first blooms appear, and the lakes are ice-free. Then, all of us, wildlife and humans alike, will be making up for lost time.