Saturday, March 27, 2010

Birds Without Borders

The 40th anniversary of Earth Day is next month and a group of us had met over lunch to plan some activities/projects to commemorate the day. But before the work began, the topic of birds came up. One friend from the shoreline was already well-acquainted with the monk parakeet, which has been steadily moving up the coast since it was first noticed in Long Island in the '70s. Indigenous to South America, this species was introduced to the US by the pet trade; large numbers of them are now living in the wild, in many parts of the country. These colorful birds are noisy and messy, and they build huge, rather unsightly nests from sticks. A pair of them had just appeared in the front yard of two other friends in New Haven’s Beaver Hills neighborhood, and quite clearly were contemplating building a nest in a tree next door. The nests are huge to start. The birds live in them year-round, and once the family has established itself, the nest gets bigger and bigger and bigger; it is not uncommon for one nest to house seven pairs of birds, each with their own living unit. This did not bode well for neighborhood relations. The adjacent neighbor liked to keep his car in the driveway and always blamed our friends (who feed the birds) for any mess that happened to sully his car’s shine. Our advice was to our friends was to quit filling the feeder at once in the hope that the parakeets would fly away.
We returned from lunch to a close encounter of our own. We were just about to reach for the gate to the yard when we heard a loud thud of something banging against a window and beheld a swirling profusion of gray feathers. A large hawk had nabbed a lunch of his own. Startled, as we were, believe me, he soared off with his prey, pausing in the hawthorn tree, frozen, staring down at us. Too close for comfort, he left the yard, landing a few feet away in the callery pear tree on the other side of the hedge. We took a few steps in his direction, and off he flew to dine undisturbed on the other side of the highway. One less mourning dove will now be frequenting our back yard feeder.

Marsh Hawk, or Cooper’s Hawk? It's likely one of these, but I can’t be certain which one because we didn’t see it’s face — we were too startled by the proximity of the struggle to get a good look. Both are year-round residents in Connecticut. Both are good-sized birds. The book we keep handy for such occasions, a gifted copy of The Reader’s Digest Book of North American Birds, points out that the hawk’s greatest foe is the plate glass window. “When Cooper’s hawks see a window, they see whatever the glass reflects, be it sky or trees. They think they can just fly through it. Sadly, they sometimes even succeed, but the price of success is still a broken neck.” This hawk was lucky. But, then again, so were we. A hawk with a broken neck, clutching a dead mourning dove, lying in the kitchen sink in a sea of broken glass, would not have been a pleasant welcome back.

Our tiny yard is littered with gray feathers, a reminder that the boundary between civilization and the wild is ill-defined. It’s a line we cross more often than we realize.

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