Postcards from Tradocia

Category: birds

Passer Domesticus

There isn’t much bird life on the camp here, unlike many places in Iraq. Despite occasional sightings of interesting things, there are really only three species of birds here: Laughing Doves, pigeons, and the ubiquitous House Sparrow. Having nothing else to watch, I watched the noisy little sparrows, since unlike any other form of animal life, they have flourished here, even with little to eat and less water. I never paid much attention to them at home; they are so common and unexciting compared to other birds in the U.S. that they simply blend into the cacophonous background of city life. But watching them here – with a laser-like focus borne of sheer boredom – has taught me a few things. These things are summarized below for your reading pleasure.

  1. Like most birds, they forage early in the morning and late in the afternoon, especially during the brutally-hot summer. They especially like to perch on the bathroom trailers and fences near the dumpsters, behind the DFAC, and swoop down to the dumpsters, where discarded food ends up on the ground.
  2. Much like rats, the sparrows will eat almost anything they can carry off or tear apart with their beaks. As far as I can tell, they mainly subsist on old grease, orange peels, peanuts, and french fries. (The latter food item is limited to the populations that hang around the food courts. The sparrows at the LSA seemed particularly bonkers for McDonald’s fries – they seem to have much the same preference as humans!) The exception to this is beef jerky – though I suppose because they simply can’t eat it. (I have a full set of teeth, and it’s a difficult task for me.) I’m pretty sure a discarded piece of jerky sat next to our building for several weeks, untouched, until I guess someone threw it in the trash.
  3. Unlike their North American brethren, males here never lose the black color to their bills. They seem to maintain breeding plumage all year long. (Back home,the males’ bills take on a beige or “horn” color during the winter, changing to black again in the spring.)
  4. The breeding season here starts at the beginning of February and is still ongoing. There might be two seasons – one in late winter and one in the fall, when temperatures are low enough to avoid roasting eggs in the nest, but warm enough not to freeze the chicks when they hatch.
  5. Males entice females with a little mating dance, where they droop their wings, raise their heads, and hop around, chirping frantically. The females then rush the male, chasing him off, and he repeats the dance, and the female attacks, until apparently she gets tired and invites the male to mount. It’s a funny little show of hard-to-get that seems oddly appropriate for the urban environment in which they live.
  6. Males spend most of the day on a high perch, chirping to get attention and broadcast their territory. On our living buildings, they’ll space themselves evenly, one at each corner and one in the middle, and chirp away.
  7. Before dawn, the males will chirp from lower perches, like chain-link fences and the supports for our air conditioners. I suppose it’s because they can’t be seen, so don’t need to be high up. Also, it makes it easier to wake up stupid humans who unwittingly leave windows open, since those windows are right under the A/C units.
  8. Despite their inability to sing, the sparrows do have different voices, and some males even string different chirps together in a sort of performance (akin to a toddler banging on a piano). One even managed a bit of a trill between chirps, which gives me hope that in 100,000 years or so they’ll evolve a song or two. Females just make a loud chittering call when agitated or when chasing others around.

Waxwing madness!

A crowd of waxwings drinking up

A crowd of waxwings drinking up

Today an invasion of Cedar Waxwings descended upon the neighborhood – apparently our birdbath was prime drinking water, despite our proximity to the river. (Click picture for bigger version.)

Golden State Chronicles (day 8)

Somewhat surprisingly, BT Collins is a hotbed of wildlife activity. You won’t expect such a small post to have much in the way of biodiversity, but strangely, there are distinct zones along the perimeter of the base where certain birds and animals congregate.

The northern and eastern edges are sort of a arid grassland type of environment, with coyotes and giant hares (some as big as a house cat) roaming the land. Western Meadowlarks spill their watery, warbly songs from the razor wire fence and from the light poles, while Red-Tailed Hawks circle overhead, rising fast on thermals in the hot afternoon. There’s at least one rooster pheasant out there, too – we’ve heard him in the mornings, cackling at the rising sun.

The western side of camp is more of a pine woodland environment, with Western Scrub Jays flitting among the trees and foraging on the cracked asphalt and Mourning Doves sitting in pairs along the power lines, cooing in the evening. There’s a woodpecker of some kind out there too – I can hear it hammering away, faster than any woodpecker I’m familiar with. A few days ago I saw a White-Crowned Sparrow dart from the fence into the woods, the bird sitting just long enough for me to identify it.

The southern edge is a combination of the arid grassland of the north and east boundary and a quasi-wetland situation, with a long drainage ditch outside the fence and a seasonal marshland (according to the environmental sign posted along the road, telling us soldiers to keep off the proverbial grass). Red-Winged Blackbirds flit among the grasses and trees, the males displaying their fire-red epaulets and uttering their familiar, grating oke-a-lee call (though I can hear the regional dialect – their call isn’t quite as harsh as those further east). Last night I saw a Black-Crowned Night Heron fly overhead in the twilight and dive in to the drainage ditch. Some kind of finch and its mate can be seen perched on the southern fence; but the most surprising resident there is a pair of burrowing owls.

I never expected to see burrowing owls in California, least of all on the Army Reserve base – I always associated them with the Great Plains. And yet there they are, every day, perched by their burrow or along the fence, following me with their yellow eyes, sitting patiently.

I’ve seen more birds than listed above – there have been Western Kingbirds, some kind of small dark flycatcher (probably a Black Phoebe), Brewer’s Blackbirds, a pair of American Kestrels who seem to live nearby…it’s a veritable birder’s paradise! And me without my binoculars…

fall migrations?

It’s been a veritable birder’s paradise in north Minneapolis these last few weeks…

Probably most unusual (to me anyway) is my frequent sightings of sharp-shinned hawks in the city – they’re typically suburban or forest dwellers, but I’ve seen several lately.

Yesterday I just stood at the front door and watched no fewer than nine goldfinches (in winter plumage) feast on whatever tasty seed-filled plants Melobi has growing outside; they were soon joined by a pair of white-throated sparrows, who looked really fat and clumsy compared to the tiny goldfinches flitting about. Later a female cardinal showed up, and then a couple of dark-eyed juncos started pecking at something at the bottom of the steps.

Of course, Mouse (one of our two dumb cats) was sitting at the window, fairly salivating at the sight (having tasted finch flesh the day prior, though I find it unlikely that with his bulk he was able to kill anything – maybe it died of a heart attack or he sat on it or something).

From boring war stories to birdwatching to cat tales! Nothing escapes my dorky writer’s eye!

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