Monthly Archives: July 2013

Hoopoe, Israel, and that Dickcissel again

Illuminating Birders! I’ve been blessed with a number of brilliant birding pals (and blog readers!), but this weekend, they outdid themselves. A while ago, I related my encounter with the wondrous Hoopoe (Upupa epops) at Donana national park in Spain. While marveling at its majestic and otherworldly crest, I innocently compared its spectacular physique to Queen Elizabeth I’s regal attire, but delved no further into Hoopoe-related lore. This weekend, Rick Wright pointed my attention to the fact that the Hoopoe is Israel’s national bird, and Meera Lee Sethi further noted that the bird also appears in the Tanakh. (In Deuteronomy 14:18, the hoopoe is listed among the birds that strictly forbidden since they are not kosher. Included in the vast list are also pelicans, owl, gull, storks, magpies, cormorants and herons, and bats, in case you were curious.)

And so, I did a little googling of my own. As it happens, Israel crowned the Hoopoe as its National Bird in May 2008, after a grueling six-month contest wherein it beat out nine other contenders (including a warbler and a goldfinch) with 35% of the popular vote. According to Dr. Uzi Paz, head of Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority, the Hoopoe “is not a songbird, but chirps when it wants to take over territory. There is no external difference between male and females.” Can you imagine? Even female hoopoes are allowed as exquisite a plumage as males! A bird that instinctively believes in equality between the sexes.

The LA Times’ Babylon & Beyond Blog had illuminating insight about the bird’s history: “The hoopoe, with its distinctive crest, is no newcomer to the land. It was mentioned in the Bible, its name is derived from Aramaic and it is said to have carried King Solomon’s invitation to the Queen of Sheba across the ancient lands. Appropriately, Ethiopian Jewry called it the Moses bird, hoping it would lead them to Zion.”

Amazingly, King Solomon and the Hoopoe had no problem communicating. Since King Solomon was the wisest man in the universe (such as it was), he ruled over everything, which included people and all the animals (and birds!) that existed. He even knew all their languages!

Not only is the hoopoe the national bird of the land of my ancestors, not only does it remind me of my favorite monarch, but its identity as a letter-carrier responsible for the crucial back and forth that went on between Solomon and the Queen of Sheba also might explain my curious fixation with the postal service. There are some days when everything miraculously comes together.

Photo from here.

Photo from here.

Would that I had King Solomon’s linguistic prowess to communicate with the Hoopoe! I have more than a few genealogical questions for this glam avian phenomenon. (If you look very closely at her facial features, you might notice a slight resemblance to me. But I’m willing to admit that could just be wishful thinking.) Hm… a trip to Israel might be in order soon.

And, in what will hopefully be my last mention of the Dickcissel for a while, I wrote about him over at Ontario Nature.

Some notes on (American) Robins

Bookish Birders! I’m a little bit in love with Diana Wells’ fabulous 100 Birds and How They Got Their Names.¬†Bird names are curious, and frequently downright odd. I mean a Red-winged Blackbird mostly makes sense — but wouldn’t Red-patched Blackbird make more sense? After all the wings are only 20% red. But so it is.

Who are these Robins — these harbingers of Spring? Named Turdus migratorius by Linnaeus, American Robins are literally “migrating thrushes.” In fact, the name Robin seems to be a misnomer (according to John Woolman’s 18th century primer about robins), since European Robins (Erithacus rubecula) aren’t even real thrushes; the only thing both New and Old world Robins have in common is their red breast.

Photo from here.

Photo from here.

I’m still shocked to learn that the taxonomies we take for granted as infallible — is it the Latin that endows them with gravitas? — are so often the result of human error. I’m only now starting to understand the real meaning of “natural history” — indeed, these names tell stories and provide us with layers of beliefs to sift through. Every species delivers a narrative of its very own. And like any history, it’s very much a work in progress, a tale being woven, configured from various perspectives, unraveled, and reimagined — so very much alive.

And the Robin’s name? It turns out to be a diminutive of Robert and apparently derives from the prefix Rob– (hrod¬†in Old Germanic, which means “fame”) and the Old French suffix -in (a diminutive suffix).

And how is it that Robins feast on earthworms? Wells’ enlightening explanation is that settlers reintroduced “Lumbricidae worms” to North America (they’d disappeared during the ice age). The American Robin population increased in response to the earth worm proliferation. For those of you seeking fabulous robin & earthworm related factoids, Wells informs us that a baby robin can consume 14 feet of earthworms in a single day. Slightly repulsive, yet deeply admirable.

The Problem with Expectations

In a sense birding is all about having expectations, and then adjusting and resetting those same expectations. Because nothing ever transpires as you’d expect it would.

This past week, my husband and I traveled to Winnipeg, and I got it into my head that I would see a Yellow-headed Blackbird. I couldn’t resist the bird’s bumble-bee attire and remarkable-sounding scientific name, Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus, which translates, even more remarkably, to “yellow head.”

Photo by Gemit Vyn from here.

Photo by Gemit Vyn from here.

I even wrote our hosts, who assured us that I’d have no problem seeing the bird, since the Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus (except our host referred to the bird by its more pedestrian name, which I totally understand) often made an appearance at their bird bath. This thrilled me to no end — not only would I lock eyes with a new life bird, but I’d also have the chance to experience¬† bird bath exposure. (Full disclosure: not only did I grow up with very little exposure to nature as a child, but my current living arrangement in a condo in Toronto means that I had to Google “Bird bath” because I began to imagine all sorts of peculiar scenarios involving bath tubs and birds, and suffice it to say that a few Google images cleared all of that up for me.)

My poor husband. The days leading up to our trip overflowed with yellow-headed blackbird/xanthocephalus this, yellow-headed blackbird that. A “bird bath” weaseled its way into even our most banal conversations. Let’s just say that my expectations ballooned.

We arrived in Winnipeg and headed straight for Grand Marais on Lake Winnipeg. The striking bird bath didn’t disappoint. I should have snapped a picture, but it looked much like this one here.

A BIRD BATH! The one I saw had a sculpted bird instead of a turtle on it.

A BIRD BATH! (Ours boasted sculpted birds rather than somewhat inexplicable turtles.)

And I waited. And waited. (In my brand new Tilley Hat, should you be wondering about my attire.) I watched a Catbird interrupt a flirtatious encounter between two House wrens. They tried their luck again — a few seconds later, on a higher branch — but it was not to be. The Catbird turned out to be a serious and somewhat creepy lurker; he refused to let the wrens do their mid-summer wren-like thing and obliterated their romantic tete-a-tete. I saw Tree swallows feeding their young, yellow warblers singing up a storm, barn swallows swooping downward frenetically, all sorts of sparrow-like creatures that I couldn’t properly identify, majestic American White Pelicans gliding over the lake, a woodpecker pounding away rhythmically. And, alas, no Yellow-headed Blackbird.

I know that part of thrill of birding is that things never happen as you expect. But couldn’t nature, FOR ONCE, deliver what I had flown two hours to see?

Well, ok, full disclosure again: the focus of our trip to Winnipeg was a visit with dear friends who had left Toronto three years ago — and here, nature delivered splendidly; we had a wonderful visit, almost as if no time had passed (I even got the chance to pet a rat named Beatrice, but that’s neither here nor there).

I never did manage to see the Yellow-headed blackbird. Instead, I saw what may have been the World’s Largest Osprey nest and, finally, the piece-de-resistance of our entire trip:

photo(2)That’s right — a BLACK BEAR. One hour north of Winnipeg, ambling happily along the highway, peeking in and out of the forest. (I nearly had a full-blown anxiety attack! It didn’t help that my husband rolled down our car window and claimed all was OK because he was fully versed in “bear psychology”!) Not exactly what I could have ever expected.

That’s how things happen in Magical Manitoba! Hopefully the Xanthocepalus xanthocephalus won’t be so shy next time we visit…