by Rex Burress


For those who watch, all kinds of wonderful things can be found along the trail, even in the drab-toned summer!

My privileged discovery for one July morning was a downy feather of the Great Horned Owl lying on the trail in Blue Oak Meadow. The marvelous cast-off sat lightly on the dried grass stems, so dainty and altogether different than the coarseness of the spiny meadow that I wanted to claim the bird's discarded treasure and take it with me.

In keeping with the regulations, I know possessing bird feathers is frowned upon and even officially prohibited by law, so I paused to admire the discarded appendage and then passed on by. The Federal Migratory law specifies that birds, including songbirds and game birds, other than English Sparrow and Starling, are either protected or supervised by regulations - and that protection extends to individual feathers since possession of any bird part is evidence.

On that same morning, I found a wing feather of an Acorn Woodpecker, strikingly designed in black and white. I scanned the shaggy gray pines where the woodpeckers have drilled storage holes in dead sections, expecting to see the gaudy bird swooping through the air, but all was quiet. It was no secret that many of the birds had finished raising young and now were confronted with molting.

Whether they like it or not, the feathers must fall from the body - every summer - as new shafts and downy filaments replace the worn remnants. You find a few signs of molted feathers around the woodland, but in most songbirds, they are replaced in spaced intervals during the summer so that the bird is never completely unable to fly. Not so with some of the waterfowl, especially Canada Geese, that replace all flight feathers in one shedding, leaving the birds flightless for a couple weeks.

When you stop and think about what a marvelous adaptation it is for an animal to grow feathers and fly, you realize what an accomplishment some creative process has bestowed upon the construction of the wild and wonderful. I look out through the woods and see the scrub-jay dashing effortlessly from perch to perch, gleaning the ground for insects and seeds, and I know there is a tremendous mystery about the creation of nature individuals that we take for granted. The mere fact that an assortment of feathers provides the lift-off material needed for flight, and that feathers provide the insulation needed to keep warm and cool in order for a scrub-jay to survive in a world where no food is guaranteed and where predators lurk, is little short of miraculous. All of that avian construction may have evolved from a lizard! We know very little of the complete story.

At almost any time of the year I can look out in our backyard - Jo's garden! - and see birds leaping lightly from branch to branch, or splashing in the bird bath, or hovering around the hummingbird feeder, or pecking at the seeds in the bird feeder, and I know it is a minute environment shared by at least thirty species. The entire area of Butte County, of Oakland, of the state of California!, is shared by many bird species. There is little nationality conflict among the songbirds. Each occupies a certain niche in the vegetative mosaic, and is designed to feed on certain foods in that area.

Not only does that mixed bag of beauty feature feathers, a common characteristic among birds, but each has a certain style of flight to meet the needs of its specialized occupation. Each has certain beak styles used to obtain certain foods, and each has a certain foot used for grasping, wading, or scratching. "Old Mother Nature" has provided for her children, and we can but stand by and study ... and wonder.

Then there are the predators. I found that faint clue of a Great Horned Owl feather on the trail, but there are other species of nocturnal birds of prey. Another set patrols the fields by day. One of those soaring searchers is the Red-tailed Hawk, and finding a red-tail feather is a prize for legitimate Indians who find a spiritual reason to possess them - legally, since an exception in the law has been made.

It was a Red-tailed Hawk nest that I investigated in the Lake Oroville foothills recently. A home owner called me to report a nest in an old gnarled foothill pine in their backyard, and it seemed something was wrong with one of the babies. When I got my telescope trained on the nest, I could see a youngster in a predicament; something about three inches long that resembled the shrunken body of a mouse, was stuck to its lower beak. The impaired babe cried in distress, and even as a dozen onlookers watched from below, the parent returned to the nest to hover over the juvenile in apparent puzzlement. There was no attempt by the adult to bite off the offending foreign substance, and finally she glided away, even as the baby's comrade watched from higher in the tree.

At such a distance, I could but speculate about the mishap. Perhaps the object was attached with a piece of monofiliment fishing line, one of the biggest hazards in the bird world. The decision was to let nature take its course, since interference might have been disastrous for the other nestling.

Three days later, the family called me to say that the young hawk was on the ground, and that the foreign object was the head-end of an alligator lizard firmly attached to the beak in a death grip! Somehow half of that lizard had attached to the beak in a strange encounter with destruction! Evidently, the bird wasn't getting enough food and had weakened. Those hard working parents are pressed to find enough food for their family. Imagine, stooping to a lizard! Parts of a mole also lay under the nest. The lizard was removed and the hawk was returned to the branches where hopefully it will survive.

Even in the bird world, all is not perfect, and disasters occur, sometimes in peculiar ways. Accidents. All life is prone to accidents and death, in a mode that would seem contradictory to the general appearance of a love of life where great effort is made for life to go on.

 © 1999 Rex Burress
July 2, l999