Black-and-White Birds

The combination of the colors black and white is considered elegant and classy, not only with regard to fashion, but also when it comes to feather arrangements, as many posts by fellow bird-loving bloggers attest. When I assembled my avian portraits a few months back, my only intention was to share a selection of Colorado’s bicolored resident and migratory birds. I hope you will enjoy their beauty with me. But when I finally scheduled this post a few weeks ago and realized how close to an eagerly awaited yet at the same time anxiously dreaded event it would be published, my mind took me into directions altogether different, and it is also my hope that you will allow me to digress.

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The bird in the topmost photo is a Black-throated Gray Warbler (Trauerwaldsänger).

I stay away from politics as much as possible because most of the time nothing good comes from discussing it. Only with some trepidation did I allow my pen and keyboard to follow my mind in this instance. All of us have strong convictions and are reluctant to have them questioned. Polarization and radicalization have increased not only in this country, but across the globe, whereas nuanced discussion and civil discourse have gone the opposite way. What does it say about our societies that people are not only ostracized, but are sent hate mail, death threats—or even poison—merely for expressing their opinions, or for stating scientifically accepted facts? It’s so bewildering it beggars belief.

I know one thing. While black-and-white fashion or plumage might be beautiful, black-and-white thinking is not. Polarizing is not. Claiming that white is better, smarter, or more superior than black is not. Asserting that every human being has the same potential and that people who don’t succeed didn’t try hard enough is ignorant at best, cruel at worst. To declare that systemic racism doesn’t exist is to wear blinders, is to deny that many humans don’t grow up on a level playing field or with the same privileges.

Indigenous lives matter. Black lives matter. White lives matter. It should go without saying that ALL lives matter, but this self-evident statement has been misappropriated and distorted in the most insidious way. A clarification: While feathers may be black or white, human skin is not. It might be pink or brown or countless other shades. But because we have reduced the world to black and white, I am manacled by reductive language.

Each day we see where prejudice and polarization have brought us—to a dead end. It will take all of us to correct centuries-old and deep-seated misconceptions and biases. To return to the birds which started this train of thought, we need to acknowledge and affirm that, while black and white might stand alone, they complement one another and become more beautiful when they exist side by side.

A selection of signs I have recently come across in people’s yards.

Moon of the Yellowing Leaves

Some days assume an ethereal quality during the living, and October 1 was just such a day. In search of fall colors, my husband and I traveled to Mueller State Park in neighboring Teller County, about 30 miles (48 Km) west of Colorado Springs. 9 o’clock in the morning found the thermometer flirting with a refreshing 39 degrees F (4 degrees C), inducing us to don an extra layer. At nearly 9,000 feet (2.700 meters), our favorite aspen trees were busy with their annual endeavor of turning into gold.

This year’s haphazard weather, characterized by searing heat and parching drought, made it difficult for experts to forecast the pinnacle of this avidly anticipated autumn spectacle. And while a fraction of the trees was still green and another had already shed its leaves, plenty of aspens were in the midst of their miraculous transformation, delighting us not only with cheering sunshine hues, but also with a euphonious symphony of rustling foliage, in addition to a pleasing choreography of pirouetting leaves on their way to converting into a crunchy, crispy carpet. The sky, after being obscured by haze from wildfires repeatedly in the preceding months, was nearly as blue as is its wont, and the sun raised the temperature to a very-comfortable-at-this-altitude 60 degrees (15 C) .

Enchanted with what we found, we scrapped our plans to return to Colorado Springs via a loop road, which, on account of being gravel, would have taken us many hours to drive. Instead, we hiked a nearly 7-mile loop that undulated through expansive meadows, scattered strands of trees, and dense forests. We took our time enjoying the vistas and the balminess of the sun’s rays, but also the intermittent breezes hinting at harsher times to come. Next to a verdant pond in an otherwise desiccated meadow we sat cross-legged and savored our lunch, with squirrels chattering and birds calling.

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Ending the afternoon at a picnic table with coffee and pumpkin muffins, we were accosted by the curious, always-hungry, and at-times-brazen avians aptly known as camp robbers—the irresistible Canada Jays. When the crumbs that drop from visitors’ picnics aren’t sufficiently sating, they will help themselves to whatever edibles aren’t nailed down.

As the westering sun dappled the light, warmed our aging bones, and made us appreciate the simple pleasures of the moment, from high in the sky came a vociferous reminder of the passing of the seasons. Craning our necks, we espied a flock of migrating Sandhill Cranes on their way south. In tandem with our earlier experiences, they uplifted our souls with another token of nature’s comforting, recurring cycles in otherwise disturbing, unsettled times.

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PS: Thanks to my husband for coming up with this post’s title. It was inspired by author Mari Sandoz, whose books include descriptive names for the different months used by the American Indian tribes she wrote about. I have introduced her in a previous post.

PPS: Mueller State Park was also the topic of another previous post.

Fledgling Summer

If eggs are beautifully wrapped gifts with beguiling potential and naked hatchlings are the unsightly presents precious to the giver but not necessarily the giftee, by the time nestlings have put on fluffy down and are begging for food with wide, brightly colored gapes, most recipients would consider them at least acceptable, if not downright attractive offerings.

Once fledglings leave the nest and learn the ins and outs of being birds, it would take an uninterested or hardened soul not to feel at least a smidgen of sympathy for the remarkable creatures that have transmutated from yolk to feathered beings capable (or almost capable) of flight.

Nature’s predictable (which does not equal uninteresting) patterns have the ability to anchor and ground us in what are otherwise unsettling and unsettled times. It is with gratitude that I received this summer’s fledgling gifts, and with gratitude that I am sharing them with you.

Red-winged Blackbird–very recently fledged

Killdeer–very recently fledged (but already trying out those wings!)

Spotted Sandpiper siblings–recently fledged

Wild Turkey–recently fledged

Bullock’s Oriole–still has its sweet baby face, but already takes care of itself

American Robin–already quite independent, though usually with one of the parents nearby

Say’s Phoebe–fairly grown-up already

PS: The featured photo above shows three fledged Barn Swallows perched on a branch, already capable of flight, but still quite happy to be fed by their parents.

Falco

DNA testing is revolutionizing our understanding of the relatedness between different species. Among the avifauna, one of the surprises has been the discovery that falcons are close relatives of parrots and share a common ancestry with songbirds. This is one of the reasons you will find falcons next to parrots in your printed bird guide (at least if it’s of recent vintage), instead of next to hawks, those other diurnal birds of prey whom they resemble most.

Falcons tend to be smaller than hawks, have more slender and pointed wings, and more rounded faces. They are swift predators that mostly capture their prey on the wing. Sadly, their diet consists mainly of other birds. They reach impressive velocities, with the Peregrine Falcon able to plummet out of the sky at speeds of up to 200 mph.

Of the nearly 40 global falcon species, and the 7 that occur in North America, I’m still hoping to make the acquaintance of a Crested Caracara, Gyrfalcon, and Aplomado Falcon in the wild (I have seen one of the latter as a captive bird). The 4 species I enjoy semi-regularly in Colorado are the American Kestrel, Merlin, Peregrine Falcon, and Prairie Falcon. I hope you will, too.

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Here Comes The Sun

Among our migratory birds, one of the more color- and cheerful representatives is the Western Tanager. As the name implies, it does not typically frequent the eastern part of the Americas, but from its winter quarters in Central America or Mexico journeys to US states and Canadian provinces west of the Great Plains, where it raises its brood in coniferous and mixed forests at elevations of up to 10,000 feet.

Even though tanagers are chiefly insectivorous, their diet also includes berries. This partial sweet tooth is responsible for their appearance at feeders supplied with oranges and grape jelly. For the first time this year, these foods have been part of our offerings and have been well received—by more than the species in question. While tanagers and similarly brilliant birds were replenishing their fat stores for a few weeks following their northbound travels, flickers and flashes of color fluttered regularly through our yard.

As is frequently the case in the avian universe, males are more flamboyant. The understated females are outfeathered by their mates with their bright yellow bodies and orange to red heads. Interestingly, in contrast to other species whose orangeness results from dietary carotenoids, Western Tanagers absorb the rarer pigment rhodoxanthin from certain insects. Often described as flame-colored, for me they evoke the shades of the sky during sunrise—as if from the black of night emerge the lemon, peach, and apricot hues of a new dawn.

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To learn more about Western Tanagers, and to hear their vocalizations, please follow the link to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology:

https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Western_Tanager/overview