Circle of life: Hawk preys on fallen starling

Starling-on-starling violence: A dead starling in its winter coat -- proof it is hardly a “black” bird. This darling died over the course of two hours after a vicious fight with another starling at my feeder in December 2011. The next day, I recorded it getting picked apart by a juvenile Cooper’s hawk. See video, below. Sorry it's so long, but this PC-based video-editing software didn't let me edit the music, so I just filled up the time. The starling's last gasps for breath occur around 2:38, and there are some nice follow-up moments with the cardinal near 14:40, at end.

A starling gets its 15 minutes of fame. Co-starring: a female cardinal as Florence Nightingale.

The orchestral work I used as accompaniment for this backyard drama, shot on a cold December day, is Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “The Lark Ascending” (1914), inspired by this poem by George Meredith. Also long. And I call myself an “editor.”
HE rises and begins to round,
He drops the silver chain of sound
Of many links without a break,
In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake,
All intervolv’d and spreading wide, 5
Like water-dimples down a tide
Where ripple ripple overcurls
And eddy into eddy whirls;
A press of hurried notes that run
So fleet they scarce are more than one, 10
Yet changingly the trills repeat
And linger ringing while they fleet,
Sweet to the quick o’ the ear, and dear
To her beyond the handmaid ear,
Who sits beside our inner springs, 15
Too often dry for this he brings,
Which seems the very jet of earth
At sight of sun, her music’s mirth,
As up he wings the spiral stair,
A song of light, and pierces air 20
With fountain ardor, fountain play,
To reach the shining tops of day,
And drink in everything discern’d
An ecstasy to music turn’d,
Impell’d by what his happy bill 25
Disperses; drinking, showering still,
Unthinking save that he may give
His voice the outlet, there to live
Renew’d in endless notes of glee,
So thirsty of his voice is he, 30
For all to hear and all to know
That he is joy, awake, aglow,
The tumult of the heart to hear
Through pureness filter’d crystal-clear,
And know the pleasure sprinkled bright 35
By simple singing of delight,
Shrill, irreflective, unrestrain’d,
Rapt, ringing, on the jet sustain’d
Without a break, without a fall,
Sweet-silvery, sheer lyrical, 40
Perennial, quavering up the chord
Like myriad dews of sunny sward
That trembling into fullness shine,
And sparkle dropping argentine;
Such wooing as the ear receives 45
From zephyr caught in choric leaves
Of aspens when their chattering net
Is flush’d to white with shivers wet;
And such the water-spirit’s chime
On mountain heights in morning’s prime, 50
Too freshly sweet to seem excess,
Too animate to need a stress;
But wider over many heads
The starry voice ascending spreads,
Awakening, as it waxes thin, 55
The best in us to him akin;
And every face to watch him rais’d,
Puts on the light of children prais’d,
So rich our human pleasure ripes
When sweetness on sincereness pipes, 60
Though nought be promis’d from the seas,
But only a soft-ruffling breeze
Sweep glittering on a still content,
Serenity in ravishment.
For singing till his heaven fills, 65
’T is love of earth that he instills,
And ever winging up and up,
Our valley is his golden cup,
And he the wine which overflows
To lift us with him as he goes: 70
The woods and brooks, the sheep and kine
He is, the hills, the human line,
The meadows green, the fallows brown,
The dreams of labor in the town;
He sings the sap, the quicken’d veins; 75
The wedding song of sun and rains
He is, the dance of children, thanks
Of sowers, shout of primrose-banks,
And eye of violets while they breathe;
All these the circling song will wreathe, 80
And you shall hear the herb and tree,
The better heart of men shall see,
Shall feel celestially, as long
As you crave nothing save the song.
Was never voice of ours could say 85
Our inmost in the sweetest way,
Like yonder voice aloft, and link
All hearers in the song they drink:
Our wisdom speaks from failing blood,
Our passion is too full in flood, 90
We want the key of his wild note
Of truthful in a tuneful throat,
The song seraphically free
Of taint of personality,
So pure that it salutes the suns 95
The voice of one for millions,
In whom the millions rejoice
For giving their one spirit voice.
Yet men have we, whom we revere,
Now names, and men still housing here, 100
Whose lives, by many a battle-dint
Defaced, and grinding wheels on flint,
Yield substance, though they sing not, sweet
For song our highest heaven to greet:
Whom heavenly singing gives us new, 105
Enspheres them brilliant in our blue,
From firmest base to farthest leap,
Because their love of Earth is deep,
And they are warriors in accord
With life to serve and pass reward, 110
So touching purest and so heard
In the brain’s reflex of yon bird;
Wherefore their soul in me, or mine,
Through self-forgetfulness divine,
In them, that song aloft maintains, 115
To fill the sky and thrill the plains
With showerings drawn from human stores,
As he to silence nearer soars,
Extends the world at wings and dome,
More spacious making more our home, 120
Till lost on his aërial rings
In light, and then the fancy sings.

Bye-bye, blackbird profiling

(Un)Common Grackle gets his hackles up in my front yard. (April 18, 2011, photo by Terry Byrne)

My podmate at work expresses pure disdain for the grackle, the starling and, most vociferously, the parasitic cowbird, lumping them all into a generic “filthy blackbird” category. I wouldn’t call him bigoted. Just unenlightened.

A male brown-headed cowbird flits from the feeder, spilling some seed. (April 4, 2011, photo by Terry Byrne)

I feel compelled to speak up for a class of birds widely scorned just because they fill a niche of avariciousness, through no fault of their own. Like the harsh misnomer for “black” humans, avian color is relative. These birds aren’t black; they are iridescent and richly hued.

Technically, a European starling is not even in the blackbird family — it’s like a maligned stepchild, an immigrant, no less. And, surprisingly, such prized specimens as orioles, meadowlarks and bobolinks are blackbirds. Close cousins, anyway. Don’t even talk to me about crows; they’re members of the Corvidae family — think Mob rule.

As ubiquitous as blackish birds are, so too are the musical tributes to them: The Beatles’ “Blackbird” (notably off The White Album) has been covered untold times. The jazz standard “Bye Bye Blackbird” is about as familiar as the patter of “Sing a Song of Sixpence”:

Sing a song of sixpence, A pocket full of rye. Four and twenty blackbirds, Baked in a pie. When the pie was opened, The birds began to sing; Wasn’t that a dainty dish, To set before the king?

DUCK! A grackle launches from the fence straight for me. (April 24, 2011, photo by Terry Byrne)

Familiarity sure breeds contempt — shame on us for proposing to make pies of these winged wonders. I want nothing to do with the “Bye-bye, blackbird” mantra.

I recall the ominous serial outbreaks of red-winged blackbirds falling from the sky in Arkansas ringing in both 2011 and 2012 — eventually blamed on man’s fireworks fetish — and those shocking reports that the USDA is behind mysterious bird die-offs. Who are the villains here, Master Hitchcock? We all know you glued the crows’ feet to the roof of the schoolhouse to make them more menacing.

The only horror here is an act of man … that authorities would ever endorse shooting down innocent birds, as if the biosphere were our personal arcade. One Kentucky town opted for non-fatal cannon shoots as a more humane solution to controlling its avian explosion. “Humane.” Wonder how “human” came to occupy that word. I propose a new term: “Aviane.”

OK, I get the idea of too much of a good thing, but who can watch a murmuration and not be awestruck?

A flock of red winged blackbirds, Kansas, Nove...

A flock of red winged blackbirds, Kansas, November 2006. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What I love about blackbirds, and birds in general: They never disappoint.

Consistent in its behavior, a cowbird predictably will poach another nest by sneaking in her oddball eggs, perhaps freeing her from the perceived drudgery and responsibility of parenthood — much like Mayzie in Horton Hears a Who. Talk about a wild chick.

But we mustn’t judge. They’re just being cowbirds, the only way they know to be and what has proven successful for the species’ survival. Think of them as the 1%, hiring cheap labor as nannies. On second thought, that could breed more contempt.

Think of them, instead, as an energy-saving alarm clock. I thrill waking to the shrill, steady peals and squeals of grackles, like gleeful children grabbing the squeaky swings in our backyard playground.

Microraptor, covered in iridescent plumage. Art courtesy of Jason Brougham/University of Texas.

Birds, after all, help stem humanity’s loneliness. Even in tight times, when I can’t afford to refill the premium seed that has made my yard a five-starling oasis, “my birdies” rouse me each blessed morning in cheerful chitchat, a chorus of hope, like the Whos of Whoville who, even without presents, know you can’t keep Christmas from coming, nor the dawn from breaking.

Turns out, the most ancient birds looked a lot like grackles — the microraptor, a dinosaur bird with iridescent plumage and those same beady yellow eyes.

So have some respect for your elder species. Jesus, by the way, was also black. Black is the beginning and the end of the universe. Black is the color of my true love’s hair. Black is beautiful.

Here’s my humble tribute to these colorful black birds — especially the grackles — as viewed in my yard and that of my mother-in-law in Kentucky:

Not your father’s Search Engine Optimization

The train has left the station.

Today’s ABCs of journalism require a Ph.D. in SEO: the science of applying tags or keywords onto digitally delivered stories so that readers get their Googly eyes on them.

I’ve been polishing my skills for a few years now, but still marvel at the algorithmic mysteries.

Here is an assortment of the bizarre search phrases people have used to stumble upon my blog the past few days.

Did I say stumbling? Trippin’.

  • les beatles lsd

  • when did weed become illegal

  • eunice esteves big brother isn’t watching you

  • a glass of juice not gas the jews

  • beer wench stag

  • spider mouse

  • jai rodriguez girlfriend

  • is a toungue a living thing

  • writing wall of terror

  • plump deviant

  • legend that is terry byrne

Those last two are about the same.

(I am not making this up. I live only to teach people how to spell “tongue.” Couldn’t quite replicate the hits; ‘course now that I’ve listed them, I should get a lot more readers.)

Splendor in the grass: The 5-Second Mile-High Club

A rite of spring played out in my front yard last week: robin kama sutra. At first I thought these two were fighting. Then it continued, ad nauseum. Now I get where “round robin” comes from. And baby robins, of course.

Oh, the red, red robin goes bob-bob-bobbin’ … (needle scriiiiiiatch). No. Rockin’ robins don’t dig rock ‘n’ roll. Their dish is ballet.

UPDATE: Turns out these two WERE fighting. An ornithological expert has since contacted me to set me straight on the territorial behaviors of male robins. Sigh.

Signs from God at the Reason Rally

This was the photo used on the cover of the National Atheist Party’s newsletter … and there we are! Me, proud in my Northwestern U purple T-shirt, hands on my hips and smiling, with my husband midsentence behind me. Our redheaded girl is to the right in photo — you can see just part of her head, standing in front of her tall friend Andrew (black hair and sideburns).

A popular — rather, a prolific — sign at the Reason Rally read: “God Hates Bags.”

Upon arriving at the National Mall, we overheard someone explaining that sign, meekly saying they couldn’t get away with writing the word that rhymes with “bags,” blah, blah, blah.

Well, I wasn’t sure how I felt about it, because I wasn’t sure where they were coming from or who was mocking whom. We are so trained to try to put people with signs in boxes before deciding what to think.

One of the speakers saved me (the trouble), giving it the right context: “I see there’s a typo on your sign. Should say: ‘God Hates Facts.’ “

(And I have removed the entertainment I’d posted here previously, because it seems a certain madcap genius is also litigious. Sorry, Tim Minchin fans. )

Proof of passion at Reason Rally in D.C.

Try Googling “Reason Rally” today and you get a tapestry of takes, from NPR’s ” ‘Woodstock for Atheists': A Moment for Non-Believers,” to Fox News’ “Why the Reason Rally Is Unreasonable.”

The Drudge Report straight-out snubs it, leading instead with: “Dick Cheney Gets New Heart” (talk about a resurrection). Then there’s The Huffington Post’s straight-up “Atheists to Gather for ‘Reason Rally’ on National Mall”; someone there did their search-engine-optimization homework, but it’s been more than 22 hours since anyone updated it.

This blog probably won’t appear in your search results. Yet this blogger was there, in proud attendance with my hippie husband on a gloomy, rain-gummed day … and not entirely for rational reasons.

Sure, we were enthused about the lineup of speakers, including the original and inimitable zoologist Richard Dawkins. My 1980s copy of “The Selfish Gene” remains the most dog-eared title in my collection or, as one speaker put it, “We’ve read them so often the pages stick together.” Oo-er … Another big draw: Tim Minchin, the madcap-genius songwriter who seems an irreverent George Carlin-esque comic for this generation.

What made our selfish genes go all gooey and emotional was seeing our daughter — who is a founding president of a Secular Student Alliance chapter on her Northwestern University campus and who’d traveled all night by bus to be there with a cadre of friends — stand up for something she believes in: non-belief; rational thought; self-actualization; herself.

Our daughter, the THINKER!

Could we find her amid 20,000 people? Even in a sea of like-minded folks of every stripe and rainbow, she stood out.

I confess I mostly videotaped Tim Minchin (footage to be posted separately), and didn’t properly “cover” the event. But as a member of the Mainstream Media, I was drawn to the fringes, those areas of the Mall where not everyone was so like-minded.

Despite its Tower of Babel feel, the discourse was refreshingly civil. Nothin’ evil. What else might one expect from a crowd of open-minded, science-stoked, reason-soaked thinkers?

(Click video link, at top — where you see the Christ banner — for a few video clips, including exchanges between the godless and the God-fearing counter-protesters who violated the rules and left their designated area to witness.)

Don’t let those other publications tell you it was all militancy or mockery on display. As with any rally, slogans were in fashion, stark differences delineated, some offense intended, but most done here with cleverness and humor. What stuck with me: Every speaker spoke of love for his fellow man and the planet, of morality, of doing good for goodness’ sake, of truly being a friend to the friendless.

Exiled Muslim-born Taslima Nasrin, who has fatwas on her head for speaking out for women’s rights and today is without a country, can tell you that. She looked out over the crowd of secular humanists and, voice cracking, thanked them for making her feel at home.

Woody or wouldn’t he? Only Mel Blanc knows for sure

No disputin’, Rasputins, that Tweety Bird is a canary. Cock-sure Foghorn Leghorn’s a rooster. And the Road Runner? Sold, even if live-action Greater Roadrunners don’t make any sort of “beep-beep” sound (the male sounds alternately like an owl playing maracas, the female like a yapping monkey); they aren’t remotely blue — well maybe a little on the crown and around the eyes; and any self-respecting wily coyote would snap one up as a dessert in a hot desert minute.

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So it’s time to settle once and for all the mystery of Woody Woodpecker. In March 2009, NPR’s All Things Considered bird commentator, Julie Zickefoose, first considered it was “obvious, with his shaggy crest, long beak and wild laugh, that Woody was supposed to be a pileated woodpecker” until, by the end of her column, she regurgitated evidence ascribed to creator-illustrator Walter Lantz — evenly corroborated and refuted on Wikipedia — that he was modeled after the acorn woodpecker. The story goes that Lantz was either entertained or annoyed by acorn woodpeckers on his honeymoon making that hilarious sound …when, in fact, he wasn’t even married on that famed trip, and the sound we associate with Woody was vocal artist Mel Blanc’s sloppy seconds, originally designed for Bugs Bunny.

What’s up with that?

The Birdchick blog followed up with her own investigation:

"As a kid, I always thought he was an ivory-billed woodpecker.  Okay, the ivory-bill isn’t blue and Woody’s white patches don’t match up, but you can’t argue with Woody’s size, his crest and his light colored bill.  When I worked at a wild bird store and we had to listen to bird identification CDs all day, I heard an acorn woodpecker call and it gave the “Ha ha ha HAAA ha” call.  I realized that sounded a little familiar.  Here’s an example that you can hear over at Xeno Canto."

Pretty remarkable that she was pondering ‘toon taxonomy as a kid, when I had trouble keeping Daffy and Donald straight. Turns out that Sharon’s instincts were on target, as she goes on to credit Chilean birding expert Alvaro Jaramillo with solving the mystery by digging through Looney Tunes cartoon cells to find, in a 1964 episode called “Dumb Like a Fox,” Woody’s own discovery that he is of the species Campephilus principalis, or the ivory-billed woodpecker – almost as storied and elusive as Sasquatch, but with far more documention.

I bring it up because, in today’s Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “March Migration Madness” face-off between the pileated woodpecker and the great blue heron, I wouldn’t want anyone voting for the woodpecker on the basis of preschool propaganda alone. Woody is that rare bird, an amalgamation of our imagination that also most closely resembles the ivory-billed woodpecker.

Ha-ha-ha-HAA-ha!

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