One Wild Bird at a Time
Portraits of Individual Lives
Bernd Heinrich
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
There is a certain madness that takes us over when it comes to dogs, cats, birds - - - or in extreme cases, with pot-bellied piggies, geckoes, and (in China), crickets, lizards, grasshoppers and trained krill, carried about in a tiny golden bucket.

You and I have shared that lunacy at times, no? Dazzled by dogs, cats and - - - in my case - - - high-class chickens, the ones they call "the fancy." This goes back, I suspect, to the time when I, as a fairly lonely kid, developed a passion for ducks. These were my two two buddies, Pekin white females, those we installed next to my father's Victory Garden.

One was named Pete, the other Repeat, and I was the only one who could tell the difference between them.

But even I with all my useful perspicacity couldn't tell if they were male or female until one day there appeared, right there on the ground in front of their ducky hand-built duck house. It was the first in a long procession of would-be babies, an egg.

My sisters promptly suggested that they could be renamed Kate and Duplicate. Not a chance. To me they would always be Pete, and her gentle sister Repeat. From that day on, they were pets who helped to keep their keeper: I fed on their pending babies, over easy with toast and bacon.

These were my pals from the time I was ten to twelve-and-a-half. Until one day, our family dog, a rotter named Rover, remembered his calling as a retriever. While I was off to school, he decided to hunt down my buddies and murder them.

I was heartbroken, but have forever, since that day, found solace with those who go balmy over their favorite pet, especially oviparous ones with wings.

Comes now Bernd Heinrich, who seems to have a love going on with the dozens of wild birds who come to visit his cottage in the wilds of Maine, far from what we call civilization. The Yellow-rumped Warbler, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, Black-capped Chickadees, and my own personal favorite, Quiscalus quiscula, the Common (and noisy) Grackle. He lists a total of thirty-three wild birds in the appendix of One Wild Bird at a Time, presumably his favorites; of whom seventeen get their own chapter in the book.

This Heinrich is no amateur bird-watcher. He studies his charges in detail. The nest building of flickers. The drumcall of the sapsucker. The crowding of jays. The seed-storaging of the chickadee. The odd eating habits of grosbeaks. And, gorp . . . the leavings of your common ruffed grouse.

For several pages of one chapter, we get to go about the forest with Heinrich, counting their "scat." Don't ask why. Ours is but to do or die.

The author explains that the grouse buries itself in the snow at night, in winter. And he, being curious, wants to know the average amount of time that they spend buried in the snow. An hour? Five? Seven? Twelve?

He figures that if he went thorough each den, counting the droplets of scat, he could determine their "den residency times."

You and me? We are probably not very interested in the dozing habits of your common ruffed grouse, much less the size and color of their pellets, but remember what I've just told you. Holden's thought was that all mothers are crazy. We bird nuts are, too, all mad . . . and if we are not collecting their eggs for breakfast, we are counting dots of birdshit to learn more of their nap-times.

And this Heinrich is thorough!

    By March I had surveyed ninety-four dens. I found that dens that were made shortly before dark and spontaneously left shortly after dawn contained forty to fifty-five scat. Thus, given a night of around twelve hours, the grouse produced about four scat per hour. Further, I flushed eleven grouse from their dens at various times in the day from morning until late afternoon. By plotting he number of scat left in these dens with respect to the time the birds where flushed, I found that scat numbers increased linearly: from none at 7 a.m., meaning that they had very recently entered the den rather than overnighting there, to near thirty by early afternoon . . .

He then goes on to further use what he calls a "scat clock" to reason that "in January and February the grouse fed mostly in the early morning and at the end of the day and spent a large part of the day under the snow."

Finally, leaving no dung unturned, and in case we were not sure about the these aforementioned sausage-like pellets ("1-2 centimeters long and weighing on average 1.2 grams"), he reveals that in a den

    they were piled side by side and on top of one another into a tight stack, so the bird apparently did little turning after it had settled. The pellets were not messy; even when thawed, they did not soil my fingers.

Stop curling your lips now. This guy cares, and does shit that the rest of us would never dream of doing. All of us have obsessions, even though there are people in the world who would high-hat even your most innocent and kindly and driven bird book authors.

This volume is complete and thoroughly in every way even a casual bird watcher would want. Heinrich's list of "Further Reading" includes over 100 titles, arranged to expand on each chapter in One Wild Bird, - - - eleven books or articles for the chapter named "Barred Owl Talking," eight for "Chickadees in Winter," four for "Woodpecker with Drum," and seventeen for his obvious favorite, the European starling.

And these aren't your general consumer feel-good titles; rather it's the stuff of experts: "Siblicide aggression and resource monopolization," "The use and function of green nest material by wood storks," and "Social interaction, sensitive periods, and song template hypothesis in the white-crowned sparrow."

With all this, it isn't too strange when Heinrich chooses to upend his life to study some other avian friends who gained entrance between the outer wall and the onner wall of his cottage, right next to his bedroom. In that space these birds begin to build a nest. And we wonder, do these birds somehow sense that. if they are going nesting area, do they choose the homes of some guy who will go out of his way to care for and protect them? Do birds magically tend to flock to the homes of birdheads - - - arriving on site through some kind of strange transmission that the rest of us are unaware of? The only creatures that want to nest at my house are Argentine ants, skunks, and Norway rats (and occasional in-laws). What does that say about me?

Heinrich's new friends in between the walls, he decides, are northern yellow-shafted flickers.

    With my chainsaw I removed a section of the inside wall covering its anticipated location. I fixed boards to the bottom and sides below the entrance hole to create a possible next cavity, cushioned its floor with sawdust and woodchips . . .

And then?

    In order to watch the birds from up close without their knowing, I covered all the windows to darken the bedroom and inserted a pane of glass into my viewing hole.

This is bird-love of the most intense: he cuts a large hole into the wall of his own bedroom and carefully sets a window so he can watch their doings. Would you do that: cut up one of the walls of your own bedroom to watch a couple of flickers and their mini-flicker babes?

Me? I love birds, but there are limits.

The result? When Heinrich heard the birds first baby cries,

    If I had to describe them I'd say, "Just like you'd expect baby pterodactyls to sound, only cuter." And for that matter, the little pink bodies with their tiny heads on long snakelike necks probably didn't look much different from reptiles either.

§   §   §

Something else we birdheads all have. Whether it is flickers, or roadrunners, or even something twitching about in the backyard - - - there always has to be something that ties it all together. These guys are taking us back into our prehistory, the way life must have been in the Mesozoic Era, perhaps one of those leathery winged Archaeopteryx loping about in the mosses and vines outside, making what the author calls the "upward-inflected whining calls." It's all in our genes, in our pre-history, in our blood.

Heinrich and I and maybe you too, have that link . . . one we'll never lose. Our affection for the prehistoric godparents going all the way into the tiny hatchlings of the world.

--- Carlos Amantea
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