Birds Stressed

by Rex Burress

In the good old summertime?

... The little bird sits at his door in the sun,
Atilt like a blossom in the leaves,
And lets its illumined being o'errun,
With the deluge of summer it receives ...    --
James Russell Lowell

What is good for the poet is not always good for the bird, however.

The mid-July heat wave that struck California not only stressed the human population, but bird life was also challenged to even survive temperatures well into the hundreds. As if there aren't enough conditions birds have to contend with, including the constant pressure of avoiding predators, to an animal whose normal body temperature is already above l00 degrees, the added heat burden is severe, especially for baby birds in the nest.

My nature walk group was with me in the early cooler hours at Oakland Feather River Camp, and participant Pat remarked that she had found three dead birds that morning by her cabin. Headed up Toll-gate Creek, our route passed the bird site and we stopped to retrieve them from the garbage can and find out what they were. Baby robins! They had been trapped in a nest and perhaps sunlight had struck to generate a deadly end to all that effort the parents had made.

The robins had nested next to the Paul Covel "Q" cabin that Paul and Marion had occupied for over a dozen years when he was Camp Naturalist, and we paused to remember that interpretive pioneer.

We carried a dead baby robin along to give it a proper "burial," since normally animals that die due to a natural or unnatural cause will be consumed by some other form of wildlife. Protein is scarce in the out-of-doors - in whatever form - and a garbage can is not a proper solution. A dead baby bird is a bonus to many wild hunters. We laid it down to rest beside a small dogwood shrub, as a gesture to conservation and an offering to ant or eagle. A day later it was gone, and you always wonder what happened. "Who was there?"

During the hot camp, I noticed adult robins and other birds sticking close to the shade, wings open and feathers ruffled in an effort to shed heat. Many hung out near the alder shade along the creek, and I wondered why the kingfisher didn't take more plunges just to cool off. The water ouzel or American Dipper was unaffected, although the one I encountered at the Pause Overlook, sitting on its rock in midstream, seemed extra tame ... or lethargic ... seemingly unconcerned as I sat down to share the pine's great shadow.

The other ouzel (John Muir's favorite bird) was my companion at the camp pool before the sun rose. From some swampy place up Toll-gate Creek it had dropped down to the receding pond where the caddis fly larvae were concentrated and, not to be denied breakfast, it proceeded to wade into the shallows in spite of my presence. Finally, it emerged to slip away into the creek jungle. They don't always battle rapids and swift water.

The best-laid scheme of birds is not always a guaranteed success. Just as with mice, something unexpected may happen. The scrub-jays that chose our backyard pruned plum tree as a place to build their nest did not succeed in spite of extraordinary effort to incubate and hatch four little babes. How secretive they were in scouring the community for insect matter to accommodate their demanding prodigies.

The adults were very cautious, demanding that the babies be quiet. Once I climbed a ladder to peek in, and those four fuzzy figments were plastered onto the nest bottom and didn't utter a sound or movement as I parted the leaves. The adult jays knew sinister forces could creep in, and the forces arrived in the form of a crow family. Two adults and their nearly grown bold babies that were barely feathered appeared like dark shadows of death.

At first, the crows seemed cute as they walked around our backyard, dipping in the birdbath, seemingly to have adopted Jo's Garden as a place they could help out by devouring extra insects. The jays didn't like it, and once the male scrub shook dead incense cedar needles down on the crow as it bathed. The crow was furious, and made a sweep at its tormentor.

The crows knew the jays were nesting, and they were slyly watching to see where the delectable babies were hidden, pretending to be unconcerned. But then one day, the jay parents were gone, as well as the crows, and I climbed the ladder to find the nest empty. There was no human witness, but the crows were prime suspects. There is a lot happening out there in the fields of nature that we know nothing about. We only get a clue here and there, maybe fortunately finding a nest, or see the feeding activity.

There was a shallow pond down by the riverside that was drying, and I discovered that it was full of crayfish. I went down there to net a few, and five crows and an egret watched my approach. The egret had undoubtedly gorged, and quickly flew away, but the less aquatic crows sat in the dead tree watching me intently. They wondered what I was up to as I swooped up crayfish for transfer to the river, and I know they were contriving to find a way to share in the booty, or find one I left behind.

What goes on in a crow's brain? They survive, and they succeed in the perimeter of human civilization.

Crows found a cache of black walnuts somewhere, and being unable to crack those tough nuts, they carried them to the road in front of our house and let the car wheels crack them! I wondered what those crows were picking from the roadway until I discovered their plan. All day they scheme to nourish that considerable body, whether with black walnuts or baby scrub-jays. Birds are wonderful even as some practice, what seems to us, disgusting modes of survival when they eat cute living things! What is disgusting to some is a way of life to others.

"... Some call it evolution, and others call it God ..."   --William Herbert Carruth

2002 Rex Burress
July 28, 2002