While waiting at the Clinton Ferry dock, I caught sight of a large bird swishing in the strong wind just off the unused loading dock. At first glance the bird looked like a Bald Eagle, but the flight pattern was odd and erratic.
On second glance I realized this “bird” was a fabric decoy suspended on a wire. I presume it was installed to ward off the flocks of starlings, gulls, cormorants and other birds that roost on the dock’s superstructure.
This “scarecrow” appeared to be working, since the dock was relatively free of unwanted wildlife.
(I hesitate to type those words, “unwanted wildlife.”)
During late fall and winter many species of birds gather into flocks. Last Saturday I led a group of Whidbey Audubon members to Nisqually Wildlife Refuge. While there, we experienced the phenomenon of thousands of Cackling Geese, smaller, darker cousins to the more familiar Canada Geese, flying in the air and settling to feed on the large open fields. Up north of us, another large flocking species, the Snow Geese, will soon gather for the winter.
Small birds also flock in winter. Chickadees and kinglets bounce through trees while softly signaling to each other to maintain their flock of perhaps eight to 20 birds. Bushtits, another under 5-inch bird, form into bunches while feeding in shrubs.
Shorebirds cloud together; starlings murmur into close flocks. And other birds like robins, sparrows and gulls form loose, gangling groups.
If the bird flocks are small or off in a salt marsh, we don’t mind and usually just enjoy them. But when the flocks descend in large numbers onto our field crops and structures or pack tightly into trees to rest during the day or roost at night, we become alarmed. And those birds turn into “unwanted wildlife.”
We go to great lengths to scare these densely flocking birds out of our fields or off our structures. We’ve added spikes or strings, shot off firecrackers and cannons, even blared music or predator calls.
It was years ago, while studying ornithology, when I began to appreciate that along with food and water birds need a safe place to rest during the day and roost at night. This is particularly true during winter after their busy spring northbound migration, summer breeding and fall southbound migration.
I was assigned to watch the behavior of one bird for hours at a time. I chose a Bald Eagle, which perched daily in a cottonwood tree near where I lived.
Each winter morning at around 10, the bird flew into the tree and sat for two to four hours where
I monitored how much time it preened or snoozed or just rested and digested. That big eagle required a large amount of resting time each day, not unlike the quiet time I require each day, working, reading and digesting.
Seabirds and ducks can find protected bays and rest on the water. Sparrows, wrens and other small birds can snuggle into protected trees and eaves of houses.
But some of our larger birds must settle onto human-made structures and therefore become unwanted. I hope we can be generous in allowing the birds to share our lives and our structures.
Nature or messiness: Sometimes we must choose, but let’s do so after considering both sides.
Frances Wood recently launched a website describing special places on Whidbey and the personal stories they hold. Please visit 41whidbeyplaces.com to read the growing collection of stories.