We Should Like Birds Better
Just this morning I was leading a birdwalk here in the Many Glacier Valley. It was a beautiful, overcast morning. Clouds were topping the peaks, covering them in a greyish-yellow, backlit blanket. It was cool enough for a light fleece and my twenty-two birdwalkers were listening to, then excitedly pointing out a Common Merganser with eleven chicks scurrying (can you scurry across water?) across the corner of Swiftcurrent lake right in front of the boat launch. It was cute and beautiful; funny and lovely. Mothers and fathers thought of their own offspring and how cute they used to be. Science geeks were developing hypotheses – was it us or the Barrow’s Goldeneye that made the merganser family flee? Bird nerds were interested in the raspy, guttural call she was making. Novice birders were counting the eleven heads in disbelief. But we were all excited and had pulses quickened by the sight. Two upper teenage boys came running down from their car in the pullout above, cameras in hand, ready to document the scene. “What are you looking at?” one asked. Someone in my group began pointing out the brood and explaining what we’d just witnessed. And that’s when it happened, as I, and probably the rest of my crew knew it would.
“Oh, we thought you were looking at a moose or something.” Dejected. Almost looking down their noses at the crazy group of people that were excited about a duck, they left.
Later, we watched a Red-naped Sapsucker feeding its young in the perfectly excavated cavity of a heart-rotted aspen. The adult male swoop-flew in from across the road carrying a grub – not to the nest tree, but next door, as always. He looked around, hoped across to the nest and squeezed into the romper room of screaming children. Then, made the impossible turn around in no space at all, emerging with a white fecal packet in its mouth and quickly flew off, bombing an unsuspecting car that had pulled alongside to see what we were seeing. “What are you looking at?” Can you guess what they did when they heard it was a bird? A woodpecker, no less?
They drove on.
Later, we were listening to a rarely-heard White-winged Crossbill on the way back from viewing a Dipper feeding its young by Wilbur Falls and seeing the needle-bill of a Calliope sticking out of a perfectly formed nest: a silver-dollar size upside-down coonskin hat of tightly-weaved lichens and spider silk. This Crossbill, the last bird of a fantastic morning of birding, where there were more exclamations of delight than on the fourth of July – at glorious views of a Calliope male, Yellow Warbler, White-crowned Sparrow, Macgillivray’s Warbler, and a Wilson’s Snipe, no less. A fantastic morning of birding in a reach-out-and-touch-them mountainous setting where we stopped to enjoy the romping of the Columbia Ground Squirrels as well as the bubbly-wren song of the Lincoln’s sparrow. We were having fun! All of us, from 8 to 80 years-old. Adorned with Aunt Eula’s cheap opera glasses to the near-infinitely perfect Swarovski glass. From the first-time birder excited about the orange-breasted, black headed thrush to the hard-core list-er enthralled with the Dipper baby-feeding frenzy. We were having fun, seeing the trees bejeweled with life, color, behavior, music, questions, and answers. And we didn’t notice the car that had pulled alongside.
“What are you looking at?”
We’re looking for the crossbill. Perfectly adapted to opening up pine cones and extracting the seeds. Big as a Robin, but bright red and white and black. A musical tinkling song that goes on and on. A modern day dinosaur – everyone loves dinosaurs! Right?
“They’re looking at a bird.” Is what we heard as they rolled their windows and their eyes at us and headed on.
It’s not a mammal.
What is it about the mammals? Why is it that when people ask me about what wildlife I’ve seen, they only mean big, furry wildlife? Why is it that the Ranger slide show on mammals is standing-room only while the bird talk, which my mother claims is the best she’s ever seen, always has at least a few empty seats. Why is it, that when I ask my audiences at these “Glacier is for the birds” slide shows, what they were hoping to see in Glacier, they mention bears, sheep, moose, goats, and, finally, Osprey, thanks to the one pair of birders in the room.
Why are we so enamored with the mammals? What is it about the mammals?
They are bigger than birds. Right? Wrong. Ask a shrew, or deer mouse, or bat, or vole. They don’t call them pocket gophers cause they are big. Stand next to a Sandhill crane and you’ll see a big bird.
They are easier to identify. Right? Nope. How do you tell a black bear from a grizzly bear? Color? Black bears can be brown, blond, cinnamon, or black. Grizzly bears can be brown, blond, cinnamon, or black. Grizzlies have a hump of muscle at their shoulders that tends to be the highest point on their bodies, whereas black bears are tallest in the rump when they stand on level ground. But, have you seen any level ground since you got to Glacier? Grizzlies have a dished face whereas the black bear’s snout is more dog-like. But it’s a judgment call and very variable. Grizzlies are bigger on average than black bears. But, have you ever talked to anyone who has seen a bear on the trail and not described it as at least huge if not ginormous? At least 500 pounds? Sometimes it’s just hard to tell what species you are looking at, even if you’ve been looking at them for the last 20 years. And that’s the biggest, baddest, predator mammal out there, that everyone wants to see. Even it is often difficult to identify. Unless you check the third molar on the top. If it’s over 1 ¼ inches, (a) it’s a grizzly, and (b) you are too close.
If Bears are hard to identify, how much harder are voles? Deer mice? Shrews? Even the three species of chipmunks are hard to ID. You have to use scientific names with most mammals because everyone calls them whatever their Daddy called them. E.g. woodchuck, groundhog, marmot are all Marmota monax. So, our three chipmunks are the least (Tamias minimus), yellow pine (Tamias amoenus), and red-tailed (Tamias ruficaudus). They are small, medium and large, respectively, but the overlap is huge. The least chipmunk is usually grayer and smaller than the other two, so it can often be teased apart – especially if it is in your hand. The red-tailed has a red tail, but so does the yellow pine. In fact, everything about the two is virtually identical or at least their variations overlap. So, what do you do to tell them apart? You examine the baculum, of course! That’s the penis bone… Are you frantically searching your mind for memories of this structure from your sex-ed classes in middle school? Don’t bother, we don’t have one.
If the penis bone is straight, it is the red-tailed chipmunk. If it has an arrow head at the end, it is a yellow pine chipmunk. Or, I should say, it “was” a chipmunk. Now it is dead and dissected. Mammals are not easier to identify than birds.
Mammals can kill us, and do more often than birds. So, I guess there is that. I’ll give you that one. Not sure why that would make us enjoy them, though.
Maybe we like the mammals because we are mammals ourselves? The taxonomists tell us that we have some pretty significant things in common with the mammals, like hair. All mammals have hair. Is that why we like other mammals so much? The hair? Then, why do we like looking at each other’s naked, almost hairless bodies, I wonder. At least boys do. I hear there is a major industry based on this fact.
If it’s not the hair, maybe it’s the ears. Almost all mammals have pinnae, or ear flaps sticking out of the sides of their heads. Is this what is so attractive about mammals? Kinda doubtful. Maybe it’s the mammary glands. Do we like mammals because they have such lovely mammary glands? I hope not!
I would suggest that we have some pretty important things in common with the birds as well. And, really, at least on the surface level, some of the things we have in common with birds might be more significant than what we have in common with the mammals. For example: What is the main sense that most mammals use to perceive their environment?
Smell. Most mammals use smell as their primary way to explore the world. Think about your dog. When you come home from being away, especially if you’ve seen another dog while away, what does your dog do when you first open the door? It smells your leg. And from smelling your leg it knows where you’ve been, what other dogs you’ve seen, what breed of dog they were, their gender, whether they were in reproductive condition or not, all this just from smelling your leg.
What about humans? Our main senses are sight and sound. Compared to other mammals we have such a pathetic sense of smell, that, from a dog’s perspective, it is almost worthless.
What about the birds? What are their primary senses? Sight and sound.
That’s why birds are brilliantly colored. Reds, yellows, greens, blues. Bright colors in striking combinations. Have you seen a Western Tanager? It’s like looking at the sun, a bright red head with sun-yellow below and a black wing. They are like looking at the sun, but rather than being blinded by brightness, you are blinded by beauty. And we appreciate that. We love beauty. Sunsets. Mountains. “Purple mountains majesty.” Visual art. Flowers. Even makeup.
What about mammals? They are black. They’re brown and white. They’re drab. They’re ugly! Compared to flowers? Compared to sunsets? Compared to…birds? They don’t hold a candle to what we consider beautiful.
We should like birds better.
That’s why birds sing beautiful songs. Because they have two vibrating surfaces in their sound-producing syrinx, they can sing two songs at the same time. They can sing harmonics on top of those two songs. They can fit in more changes in pitch and amplitude in a period of time than we can even discern. And we appreciate that. We love music. Classical, rock and roll, dance music, even rap.
What about the mammals? They squeak, they grunt, they growl…they sound terrible. Compared to classical music? Compared to rock and roll or even rap? Compared to…birds?
We should like birds better.
When are most mammals active? Day or Night? Most mammals are nocturnal, they are active at night. What about humans? I mean, other than high-schoolers… We’re diurnal, active during the day. What about the birds?
Most birds are diurnal. That’s why, when you go outside in Glacier, the behavior you see, if it’s not a squirrel or a bear on the slopes of the Many Glacier valley, is the birds. Birds are the ones behaving out there. Flitting through the trees. Flying overhead. Divebombing other, bigger birds in a “best defense is a good offense” strategy. They are singing, catching insects in their mouths as they fly twenty miles per hour. Or, if you are a Peregrine nesting on Haystack Butte, catching Robins in their talons as they stoop at speeds of up to 200 miles per hour.
We should like birds better.
What about diversity? How many mammal species do you think are on the mammal list for Glacier National Park? It’s a high number, considering it is one of the only parks in the lower 48 states that has all the top mammal predators that were here 200 years ago. Only two mammal species have been lost since that time: the woodland caribou and the mountain bison. Without these two, we still have 64 species on the mammal list for GNP. Can you guess how many bird species there are on the bird list?
Two-hundred and eighty. Four times as many as there are mammal species. Birds are hugely more diverse at over 9000 worldwide compared to the 4000 mammal species found across the globe.
We should like birds better.
In this blog and website, I hope to give you a sense of the diversity of birds in this park. You’ll learn where to find interesting species and the best birding hotspots. I’ll give identification tips that help me and hopefully will help you, too. Information about conservation, natural history, and human history may be interspersed as well.
But most of all, I hope you come away with a greater appreciation for birds and realize, if you haven’t already, that we should like birds better.
Top of page photo by Randy Patrick
David Benson Ph.D.
White-tailed Ptarmigan researcher and National Park Service Ranger Naturalist in GNP since 1995. "The Bird Ranger"