A Place to Perch

by Rex Burress

As twilight time came, the storm that had been predicted was finally arriving, and dark clouds flew overhead where the first blast of wind was whining. I walked up the street to feel that fresh intensity of air that is so invigorating and tinged with a wild feeling like wind in the mountains that John Muir wrote about: “... the winds will blow their freshness into you, and the storms their energy ....”

The dark crows in the dim light probably didn’t want to wax poetically about such things as they thrashed against the wind, searching for a tree to spend the night. The neighborhood crow flocks have a number of trees they roost in, including the silver maple over our house on occasion until I get the beeper out. Two hundred crows can be a bit disconcerting.

A dozen settled into the tallest tree along the streets - a gallant redwood that has stood its ground in spite of being alienated from coastal environs. The wind was whipping those branches, and the crows gripped the limbs tightly. "What a night you’re in for," I mused. How could you get any sleep 100 feet up in the top of a tree being attacked by the wind? How could you hold on? How could you even doze? But where else could they go? A perching bird has to perch and keep off the ground where crawling predators lurk.

Shortly after I got home, the rain arrived. The rain came down in torrents as if long pent in the clouds. "Now the crows have to hold on to swaying branches and take a pounding from rain," I thought. There is something to be said for shelter such as the roof I have over my head. I would perish out there trying to hold onto a branch in a pouring rain, but then, I don’t have feathers.

I saw robins and blackbirds spinning in the storm streams too, where they were also seeking a solution to lodging for the night. I thought of the Anna’s Hummingbirds gathered around the blooming red-flowered eucalyptus along the river, and what stress the wind and rain would put on their tiny bodies.

When I was a boy in Missouri and thunderstorms would blast the night world, and when freezing rain would coat the forest, I would lie in bed and wonder about the Blue Jays, cardinals, juncos, and owls. They were all resident perching birds and subjected to the rigors of wicked weather. The Bobwhite quail were somewhat better off, but think of being huddled on the ground when water comes pounding down. I developed great sympathies for the birds and was truly amazed after destructive forces had passed to see the cardinal next morning, perched in the tree, maybe among ice-coated limbs, and singing. It is amazing that birds survive the nights at all, being cut off from food and vision. Some do succumb to severe weather, and nocturnal predators are always out there looking for an easy mark. But the bird has wings ...

Be like the bird which on frail branches balanced
A moment sits and sings;
He feels them tremble, but he sings unshaken,
Knowing that he has wings.
            -–Victor Hugo

Most of our birds are perching birds. All the songbirds and birds of prey are perching birds. Even ground birds like quail and turkey can perch in trees; in fact, turkeys regularly roost in trees, like peacocks and chickens. Those feathered delicacies want to get off the ground where the fox and mink lurketh. The wading egrets can perch in trees. The African ostrich cannot perch, but it has developed a 300-pound body with knockout feet for compensation. The penguin is not a perching bird, but who needs to perch in a habitat without trees? Waterfowl do not have perching feet, although a few like Wood Ducks, tree ducks, and goldeneye do a fancy balance job on the branches when they nest in cavities. A real percher has that “thumb” to tighten a grip on a limb.

Just how are the perching feet constructed? Research equates to review, and The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds elaborates on feet and legs in birds. Three-fifths of earth’s 8,650 or so bird species are passerines, or "perching birds," and as such they typically have four toes - usually, as with crows and robins, three forward and one backward, "with all on the same level and easily movable, and adapted to gripping a perch. Also, the muscles and tendons of the legs are so arranged that if the bird has a tendency to fall backward, they tighten its grip on the perch (flexor tendons)."

Nearly all birds have four toes, except the ostrich with two toes, although some may be modified like the pheasant whose first thumb-toe-"hallux" is elevated to a small form above the ground. The four toes take on a variety of appearances according to the bird’s habitat needs. Ducks, of course, have webbing between three toes (palmate), and the pelican is webbed between four toes (totipalmate), and so forth. There are long toes (Jacana) and clawed toes (eagle). Each species has a different foot arrangement as well as a different beak structure, all designed to accommodate its feeding habits. Thus you have a sampling of bird lore; your info for the day!

During early morning, a terrific drenching thunderstorm struck, adding to the perils of the dark night for those perching birds. But as daylight developed, I looked out in our backyard, and it was a bird-hive of activity! Goldfinches, Golden-crowned Sparrows, Spotted Towhees, and hummingbirds were plying the bird feeders and garden duff furiously as if they were hungry! They also acted like they were joyous to have a new day of life and be able to gather nourishment once again.

From what perch did they come? Where had each one spent the night? They had all faced the same terror of storm and predator to reach another day of life. Life goes on, and the smallest perching bird displays a love of life right to the end, whatever its fate may be.

© 2003 Rex Burress
November 8, 2003