Circle of life: Hawk preys on fallen starling

Starling-on-starling violence: A dead starling in its winter coat -- proof it is hardly a “black” bird. This darling died over the course of two hours after a vicious fight with another starling at my feeder in December 2011. The next day, I recorded it getting picked apart by a juvenile Cooper’s hawk. See video, below. Sorry it's so long, but this PC-based video-editing software didn't let me edit the music, so I just filled up the time. The starling's last gasps for breath occur around 2:38, and there are some nice follow-up moments with the cardinal near 14:40, at end.

A starling gets its 15 minutes of fame. Co-starring: a female cardinal as Florence Nightingale.

The orchestral work I used as accompaniment for this backyard drama, shot on a cold December day, is Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “The Lark Ascending” (1914), inspired by this poem by George Meredith. Also long. And I call myself an “editor.”
HE rises and begins to round,
He drops the silver chain of sound
Of many links without a break,
In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake,
All intervolv’d and spreading wide, 5
Like water-dimples down a tide
Where ripple ripple overcurls
And eddy into eddy whirls;
A press of hurried notes that run
So fleet they scarce are more than one, 10
Yet changingly the trills repeat
And linger ringing while they fleet,
Sweet to the quick o’ the ear, and dear
To her beyond the handmaid ear,
Who sits beside our inner springs, 15
Too often dry for this he brings,
Which seems the very jet of earth
At sight of sun, her music’s mirth,
As up he wings the spiral stair,
A song of light, and pierces air 20
With fountain ardor, fountain play,
To reach the shining tops of day,
And drink in everything discern’d
An ecstasy to music turn’d,
Impell’d by what his happy bill 25
Disperses; drinking, showering still,
Unthinking save that he may give
His voice the outlet, there to live
Renew’d in endless notes of glee,
So thirsty of his voice is he, 30
For all to hear and all to know
That he is joy, awake, aglow,
The tumult of the heart to hear
Through pureness filter’d crystal-clear,
And know the pleasure sprinkled bright 35
By simple singing of delight,
Shrill, irreflective, unrestrain’d,
Rapt, ringing, on the jet sustain’d
Without a break, without a fall,
Sweet-silvery, sheer lyrical, 40
Perennial, quavering up the chord
Like myriad dews of sunny sward
That trembling into fullness shine,
And sparkle dropping argentine;
Such wooing as the ear receives 45
From zephyr caught in choric leaves
Of aspens when their chattering net
Is flush’d to white with shivers wet;
And such the water-spirit’s chime
On mountain heights in morning’s prime, 50
Too freshly sweet to seem excess,
Too animate to need a stress;
But wider over many heads
The starry voice ascending spreads,
Awakening, as it waxes thin, 55
The best in us to him akin;
And every face to watch him rais’d,
Puts on the light of children prais’d,
So rich our human pleasure ripes
When sweetness on sincereness pipes, 60
Though nought be promis’d from the seas,
But only a soft-ruffling breeze
Sweep glittering on a still content,
Serenity in ravishment.
For singing till his heaven fills, 65
’T is love of earth that he instills,
And ever winging up and up,
Our valley is his golden cup,
And he the wine which overflows
To lift us with him as he goes: 70
The woods and brooks, the sheep and kine
He is, the hills, the human line,
The meadows green, the fallows brown,
The dreams of labor in the town;
He sings the sap, the quicken’d veins; 75
The wedding song of sun and rains
He is, the dance of children, thanks
Of sowers, shout of primrose-banks,
And eye of violets while they breathe;
All these the circling song will wreathe, 80
And you shall hear the herb and tree,
The better heart of men shall see,
Shall feel celestially, as long
As you crave nothing save the song.
Was never voice of ours could say 85
Our inmost in the sweetest way,
Like yonder voice aloft, and link
All hearers in the song they drink:
Our wisdom speaks from failing blood,
Our passion is too full in flood, 90
We want the key of his wild note
Of truthful in a tuneful throat,
The song seraphically free
Of taint of personality,
So pure that it salutes the suns 95
The voice of one for millions,
In whom the millions rejoice
For giving their one spirit voice.
Yet men have we, whom we revere,
Now names, and men still housing here, 100
Whose lives, by many a battle-dint
Defaced, and grinding wheels on flint,
Yield substance, though they sing not, sweet
For song our highest heaven to greet:
Whom heavenly singing gives us new, 105
Enspheres them brilliant in our blue,
From firmest base to farthest leap,
Because their love of Earth is deep,
And they are warriors in accord
With life to serve and pass reward, 110
So touching purest and so heard
In the brain’s reflex of yon bird;
Wherefore their soul in me, or mine,
Through self-forgetfulness divine,
In them, that song aloft maintains, 115
To fill the sky and thrill the plains
With showerings drawn from human stores,
As he to silence nearer soars,
Extends the world at wings and dome,
More spacious making more our home, 120
Till lost on his aërial rings
In light, and then the fancy sings.

Bye-bye, blackbird profiling

(Un)Common Grackle gets his hackles up in my front yard. (April 18, 2011, photo by Terry Byrne)

My podmate at work expresses pure disdain for the grackle, the starling and, most vociferously, the parasitic cowbird, lumping them all into a generic “filthy blackbird” category. I wouldn’t call him bigoted. Just unenlightened.

A male brown-headed cowbird flits from the feeder, spilling some seed. (April 4, 2011, photo by Terry Byrne)

I feel compelled to speak up for a class of birds widely scorned just because they fill a niche of avariciousness, through no fault of their own. Like the harsh misnomer for “black” humans, avian color is relative. These birds aren’t black; they are iridescent and richly hued.

Technically, a European starling is not even in the blackbird family — it’s like a maligned stepchild, an immigrant, no less. And, surprisingly, such prized specimens as orioles, meadowlarks and bobolinks are blackbirds. Close cousins, anyway. Don’t even talk to me about crows; they’re members of the Corvidae family — think Mob rule.

As ubiquitous as blackish birds are, so too are the musical tributes to them: The Beatles’ “Blackbird” (notably off The White Album) has been covered untold times. The jazz standard “Bye Bye Blackbird” is about as familiar as the patter of “Sing a Song of Sixpence”:

Sing a song of sixpence, A pocket full of rye. Four and twenty blackbirds, Baked in a pie. When the pie was opened, The birds began to sing; Wasn’t that a dainty dish, To set before the king?

DUCK! A grackle launches from the fence straight for me. (April 24, 2011, photo by Terry Byrne)

Familiarity sure breeds contempt — shame on us for proposing to make pies of these winged wonders. I want nothing to do with the “Bye-bye, blackbird” mantra.

I recall the ominous serial outbreaks of red-winged blackbirds falling from the sky in Arkansas ringing in both 2011 and 2012 — eventually blamed on man’s fireworks fetish — and those shocking reports that the USDA is behind mysterious bird die-offs. Who are the villains here, Master Hitchcock? We all know you glued the crows’ feet to the roof of the schoolhouse to make them more menacing.

The only horror here is an act of man … that authorities would ever endorse shooting down innocent birds, as if the biosphere were our personal arcade. One Kentucky town opted for non-fatal cannon shoots as a more humane solution to controlling its avian explosion. “Humane.” Wonder how “human” came to occupy that word. I propose a new term: “Aviane.”

OK, I get the idea of too much of a good thing, but who can watch a murmuration and not be awestruck?

A flock of red winged blackbirds, Kansas, Nove...

A flock of red winged blackbirds, Kansas, November 2006. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What I love about blackbirds, and birds in general: They never disappoint.

Consistent in its behavior, a cowbird predictably will poach another nest by sneaking in her oddball eggs, perhaps freeing her from the perceived drudgery and responsibility of parenthood — much like Mayzie in Horton Hears a Who. Talk about a wild chick.

But we mustn’t judge. They’re just being cowbirds, the only way they know to be and what has proven successful for the species’ survival. Think of them as the 1%, hiring cheap labor as nannies. On second thought, that could breed more contempt.

Think of them, instead, as an energy-saving alarm clock. I thrill waking to the shrill, steady peals and squeals of grackles, like gleeful children grabbing the squeaky swings in our backyard playground.

Microraptor, covered in iridescent plumage. Art courtesy of Jason Brougham/University of Texas.

Birds, after all, help stem humanity’s loneliness. Even in tight times, when I can’t afford to refill the premium seed that has made my yard a five-starling oasis, “my birdies” rouse me each blessed morning in cheerful chitchat, a chorus of hope, like the Whos of Whoville who, even without presents, know you can’t keep Christmas from coming, nor the dawn from breaking.

Turns out, the most ancient birds looked a lot like grackles — the microraptor, a dinosaur bird with iridescent plumage and those same beady yellow eyes.

So have some respect for your elder species. Jesus, by the way, was also black. Black is the beginning and the end of the universe. Black is the color of my true love’s hair. Black is beautiful.

Here’s my humble tribute to these colorful black birds — especially the grackles — as viewed in my yard and that of my mother-in-law in Kentucky:

Not your father’s Search Engine Optimization

The train has left the station.

Today’s ABCs of journalism require a Ph.D. in SEO: the science of applying tags or keywords onto digitally delivered stories so that readers get their Googly eyes on them.

I’ve been polishing my skills for a few years now, but still marvel at the algorithmic mysteries.

Here is an assortment of the bizarre search phrases people have used to stumble upon my blog the past few days.

Did I say stumbling? Trippin’.

  • les beatles lsd

  • when did weed become illegal

  • eunice esteves big brother isn’t watching you

  • a glass of juice not gas the jews

  • beer wench stag

  • spider mouse

  • jai rodriguez girlfriend

  • is a toungue a living thing

  • writing wall of terror

  • plump deviant

  • legend that is terry byrne

Those last two are about the same.

(I am not making this up. I live only to teach people how to spell “tongue.” Couldn’t quite replicate the hits; ‘course now that I’ve listed them, I should get a lot more readers.)

Splendor in the grass: The 5-Second Mile-High Club

A rite of spring played out in my front yard last week: robin kama sutra. At first I thought these two were fighting. Then it continued, ad nauseum. Now I get where “round robin” comes from. And baby robins, of course.

Oh, the red, red robin goes bob-bob-bobbin’ … (needle scriiiiiiatch). No. Rockin’ robins don’t dig rock ‘n’ roll. Their dish is ballet.

UPDATE: Turns out these two WERE fighting. An ornithological expert has since contacted me to set me straight on the territorial behaviors of male robins. Sigh.

Signs from God at the Reason Rally

This was the photo used on the cover of the National Atheist Party’s newsletter … and there we are! Me, proud in my Northwestern U purple T-shirt, hands on my hips and smiling, with my husband midsentence behind me. Our redheaded girl is to the right in photo — you can see just part of her head, standing in front of her tall friend Andrew (black hair and sideburns).

A popular — rather, prolific — sign at the Reason Rally read: “God Hates Bags.”

Upon arriving at the National Mall, we overheard someone explaining that sign, meekly saying they couldn’t get away with writing the word that rhymes with “bags,” blah, blah, blah.

Well, I wasn’t sure how I felt about it, as I wasn’t sure where they were coming from or who was mocking whom. We are so trained to try to put people with signs in boxes before deciding what to think.

One of the speakers saved me the trouble, giving it the right context: “I see there’s a typo on your sign. Should say: ‘God Hates Facts.’ ”

(And I have removed the entertainment I’d posted here previously, because it seems a certain madcap genius is also litigious. Sorry, Tim Minchin fans. )

Proof of passion at Reason Rally in D.C.

Try Googling “Reason Rally” today and you get a tapestry of takes, from NPR’s ” ‘Woodstock for Atheists’: A Moment for Non-Believers,” to Fox News’ “Why the Reason Rally Is Unreasonable.”

The Drudge Report straight-out snubs it, leading instead with: “Dick Cheney Gets New Heart” (talk about a resurrection). Then there’s The Huffington Post’s straight-up “Atheists to Gather for ‘Reason Rally’ on National Mall”; someone there did their search-engine-optimization homework, but it’s been more than 22 hours since anyone updated it.

This blog probably won’t appear in your search results. Yet this blogger was there, in proud attendance with my hippie husband on a gloomy, rain-gummed day … and not entirely for rational reasons.

Sure, we were enthused about the lineup of speakers, including the original and inimitable zoologist Richard Dawkins. My 1980s copy of “The Selfish Gene” remains the most dog-eared title in my collection or, as one speaker put it, “We’ve read them so often the pages stick together.” Oo-er … Another big draw: Tim Minchin, the madcap-genius songwriter who seems an irreverent George Carlin-esque comic for this generation.

What made our selfish genes go all gooey and emotional was seeing our daughter — who is a founding president of a Secular Student Alliance chapter on her Northwestern University campus and who’d traveled all night by bus to be there with a cadre of friends — stand up for something she believes in: non-belief; rational thought; self-actualization; herself.

Our daughter, the THINKER!

Could we find her amid 20,000 people? Even in a sea of like-minded folks of every stripe and rainbow, she stood out.

I confess I mostly videotaped Tim Minchin (footage to be posted separately), and didn’t properly “cover” the event. But as a member of the Mainstream Media, I was drawn to the fringes, those areas of the Mall where not everyone was so like-minded.

Despite its Tower of Babel feel, the discourse was refreshingly civil. Nothin’ evil. What else might one expect from a crowd of open-minded, science-stoked, reason-soaked thinkers?

(Click video link, at top — where you see the Christ banner — for a few video clips, including exchanges between the godless and the God-fearing counter-protesters who violated the rules and left their designated area to witness.)

Don’t let those other publications tell you it was all militancy or mockery on display. As with any rally, slogans were in fashion, stark differences delineated, some offense intended, but most done here with cleverness and humor. What stuck with me: Every speaker spoke of love for his fellow man and the planet, of morality, of doing good for goodness’ sake, of truly being a friend to the friendless.

Exiled Muslim-born Taslima Nasrin, who has fatwas on her head for speaking out for women’s rights and today is without a country, can tell you that. She looked out over the crowd of secular humanists and, voice cracking, thanked them for making her feel at home.

Woody or wouldn’t he? Only Mel Blanc knows for sure

No disputin’, Rasputins, that Tweety Bird is a canary. Cock-sure Foghorn Leghorn’s a rooster. And the Road Runner? Sold, even if live-action Greater Roadrunners don’t make any sort of “beep-beep” sound (the male sounds alternately like an owl playing maracas, the female like a yapping monkey); they aren’t remotely blue — well, maybe a little on the crown and around the eyes; and any self-respecting wily coyote would snap one up as a dessert in a hot desert minute.

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So it’s time to settle once and for all the mystery of Woody Woodpecker. In March 2009, NPR’s All Things Considered bird commentator, Julie Zickefoose, first considered it was “obvious, with his shaggy crest, long beak and wild laugh, that Woody was supposed to be a pileated woodpecker” until, by the end of her column, she regurgitated evidence ascribed to creator-illustrator Walter Lantz — evenly corroborated and refuted on Wikipedia — that he was modeled after the acorn woodpecker. The story goes that Lantz was either entertained or annoyed by acorn woodpeckers on his honeymoon making that hilarious sound … when, in fact, he wasn’t even married on that famed trip, and the sound we associate with Woody was vocal artist Mel Blanc’s sloppy seconds, originally designed for Bugs Bunny.

What’s up with that?

The Birdchick blog followed up with her own investigation:

"As a kid, I always thought he was an ivory-billed woodpecker.  Okay, the ivory-bill isn’t blue and Woody’s white patches don’t match up, but you can’t argue with Woody’s size, his crest and his light colored bill.  When I worked at a wild bird store and we had to listen to bird identification CDs all day, I heard an acorn woodpecker call and it gave the “Ha ha ha HAAA ha” call.  I realized that sounded a little familiar.  Here’s an example that you can hear over at Xeno Canto."

Pretty remarkable that she was pondering toon taxonomy as a kid, when I had trouble keeping Daffy and Donald straight. Turns out that Sharon’s instincts were on target, as she goes on to credit Chilean birding expert Alvaro Jaramillo with solving the mystery by digging through Looney Tunes cartoon cells to find, in a 1964 episode called “Dumb Like a Fox,” Woody’s own discovery that he is of the species Campephilus principalis, or the ivory-billed woodpecker — almost as storied and elusive as Sasquatch, but with far more documentation.

I bring it up because, in today’s Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “March Migration Madness” face-off between the pileated woodpecker and the great blue heron, I wouldn’t want anyone voting for the woodpecker on the basis of preschool propaganda alone. Woody is that rare bird, an amalgamation of our imagination that also most closely resembles the ivory-billed woodpecker.


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Just ducky: A bird bracket buster

Birdwatching at Nestucca Bay NWR

Sporting their team colors are birders at Nestucca Bay NWR (Photo credit: USFWS Pacific)

The white-breasted nuthatch’s 12-vote margin over the peregrine falcon in Game 5 has the birding world ruffled today. Someone’s demanding a recount — an examination of Florida’s hanging chads. Someone else is flinging accusations that the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “March Migration Madness” is somehow rigged. My, my! Do you think there’s no basis for these upsets? Take a look at Lehigh over Duke, you’ll get your answer.

This passionate rivalry is more exciting than the “real” March Madness, because in birding, everyone wins. How can you not be happy for the creeping nuthatch, dressed up in his mini-butler suit, hanging upside down for his bow? The peregrine falcon looked nifty in jumper suit and goggles, but you can’t fault science. I mean math.

I’m proudly 4 for 5 in my brackets, but today’s duel between two painted trollops, the wood duck and cedar waxwing, has me waffling. Adult daughter Cassy, who first added the CWW to her life list last December looking out my dining room window while she was Baby-sitting (pet cockatiel named Baby), is pressuring me to stick to my guns and the waxwing, as she waxes poetic about the bird she has picked to win it all. It didn’t choose me, I protest.

Wood Duck

Look! It’s a Wood Duck. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Then I look at this duck, all spit-shined, helmeted and ready for battle. I salivate. Sure, I didn’t originally have it winning Game 6, but can’t I change my mind? As the only poultry in the competition, it needs to carve out its own niche. Who would know if I just scribble out the waxwing and pencil in the wood duck? That, my friends, is a mighty fine duck. I still have the winner of Game 6 losing to the nuthatch in Round 2, anyway.

As of this writing, this flashy duck is sitting at 594 to the waxwing’s 844 points and could use a little goosing. Is it not impressive that these baby ducks can jump from their nesting cavity high up into a tree? That they live in trees at all. That they fought their way back from the brink of extinction in the late 19th/early 20th centuries after crazy hunters, coveting them for their home decor, tried to beat them down for good.

The cedar waxwing has enough fans. Am I lame or daffy for wanting to “slum it” in the scum with the duck?

Or desssssspicable for switching midstream. Oooh, got a little wet there. Ain’t called Mommy Tongue for nothin’.

As a decoy while I stall, here’s a photo my sister texted me on her road trip from Baltimore to Delaware yesterday. You know the old joke: Why did the peacock cross the road …? Not gonna vote until someone provides a punch line.

A wild peacock crossed my sister’s path, causing her to consider turning this year into her Big Year. (Maybe just a Big Day.)

Reminds me of my favorite Elephant Joke.

Q: “How do you get down from an elephant?”

A: “You don’t. You get down from a duck.”

Of course, the joke was on me, because when elephant jokes were in fashion, I was very young and laughed at them even if I didn’t get them. That was the point, right? Not to get them. So I used to picture someone climbing down from a ladder leaning against a duck. Isn’t that sad? Don’t you feel sorry for me … and my duckie?

Those baffling squirrels


“I’ll be back,” threatens the squirrel. (Photo credit: Rich Jacques)

Who was it who first said: “Necessity is the mother of invention”? Was it a squirrel?

Shoulda known by the look the clerk gave me at the Wild Bird Center when I bought this bird feeder, declaring, “It really looks squirrel-proof!” She knew. Nothing is squirrel-proof.

My industrial-strength, copper-clad, widget-filled tube feeder looked askew this morning, so I went out to inspect. The squirrels had previously figured out how to lift the locked lid, chewing a spout into the plastic tube, and with just a small shift in weight, apparently had been gulping the seed like jujubes at the movies. But I duct-taped that problem.

This time. Unbelievable. They musta been working on this for weeks, like Tim Robbins’ character’s escape hatch in “The Shawshank Redemption.” Three of the four lug nuts holding together the bottom of the feeder were missing — I later found them buried in the ground. The feeder was hanging on by just one lug nut, which had gotten lodged in the corner of the wire mesh. In frustration, I imagine, the squirrels had rammed the tube to one side of the cage, where it got stuck. NUTS!!

I think they had outside help. Must be working with the crows.

It took me, a human with a mostly evolved brain, a half-hour to figure out how to put the thing back together. I realized too late I should have taken a picture to amuse you.

Next time, squirrels, next time!!!!

Simply baffling. And here’s video of the most ingenious squirrel baffle I’ve seen. But does it work?

Torn between two hovers

Snowy owl vs. Yellow warbler.

Snowy owl.

Image via Wikipedia

I have no real-world experience with either of these birds, so rather than argue for one over the other to snatch a perch in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “March Migration Madness” Airborne 8 bracket as I have for previous contenders — fairly persuasively, if I do say so myself, and I do, totally alone on that  — I think I’ll use a lifeline.

HELP!! I can’t choose.

(I really think the snowy owl should have gone up against the bald eagle; might have been a fairer fight, two raptors, white heads, golden eye orbs and all …)

OK, FOCUS. Don’t forget this isn’t just a popularity contest, be scientific, there are scientists behind it, ya know.

We’ll compare in list form.
Both the snowy owl and yellow warbler have their pluses and pluses.

The Snowy Owl

1. Served as a pivotal plot device last year in “The Big Year,” a movie just out on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital Copy … and sorely snubbed by the Academy Awards, Golden Globes, SAGs, Critics’ Choice, Rotten Tomatoes, MTV, Rondo Awards, etc., etc. In 1998, the snowy owl was the one bird eluding champion birder Sandy Komito, represented as Kenneth Bostick in the flick, played by Owen Wilson. The quest canned his marriage. If he’d just waited about 15 more big years, global warming would have made spotting a snowy owl much easier.


2. Deep in the Hundred Acre Wood, one of the best characters was indubitably Owl. What kind of owl was he? A brilliant one. Could spell his name: Wol. I loved his squiggles, and his throat-clearing.

3. The whole Harry Potter thing. Honestly, though, the U.S. Postal Service might take note.

4. They are possessed by the devil and their heads spin around.

5. Before my aunt Susie was into eagles (see previous post, “Stateliness vs. Subterfuge: A slam-dunk”), owls floated her boat. She collected anything and everything owl-inspired, and for each holiday gift, uninspired relatives fed her addiction. Note to self: Don’t ever tell people what your favorite species is. Susie had owl hand towels, owl corkscrews, owl running mats, even owl sunglasses. This was before those hoarding shows became popular.

The Yellow Warbler

1. It is yellow.

2. It warbles.

SEE? Feels like a sequel, Hedwig and the Angry Finch, Oh, I know it’s not a finch.

It’s clear I need help. Someone, please, buy my vote.

Yellow Warbler

Yellow Warbler (Photo credit: A. Davey)

English: Male Yellow Warbler (Dendroica aestiv...

Stateliness vs. subterfuge: A slam-dunk

Bald Eagle

Not as flashy, but far more stirring than “The Colbert Report” fanfare opening. Image via Wikipedia

Today’s showdown is between the showy bald eagle and the show-off northern mockingbird. Up until now I’ve been siding with the dark horse in Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “March Migration Madness” game, but this prediction seems a safe bet.

Known for linguistic mimicry and intimidation tactics — sometimes defending its territory by attacking house pets or people Hitchcock-style — the mockingbird is a formidable foe to the bird that has been the symbol of our country since 1782. The symbolism-laden cardinal did not win Round 2 yesterday, but it seems un-American not to go through hoops for the bald eagle in Round 3.

The eagle nest at the Norfolk Botanical Garden in Norfolk, Va.

As an editor ever striving for eagle eyes, I refuse to listen to the mockingbird, ha-HA. Conniving plagiarist!

Don’t wanna prey on your patriotism, but our communal bird of prey needs your prayers. A solemn tale: In late fall of 2003, a pair of glorious eagles nested in the Norfolk (Va.) Botanical Garden; 19 eaglets have hatched and 15 have fledged since then. Their majesties became the darlings of the park, with flocks of visitors craning necks for a glimpse, and, eventually, an eagle-cam was trained 24/7 on the love nest.

On April 26, 2011, while dining on sushi at Lake Whitehurst near Norfolk International Airport, the mama eagle, nicknamed “Mom Norfolk,” was struck and killed by a landing jet, thrusting her mate and the community into gloom. The next day, three surviving eaglets were rescued and sent to the Wildlife Center of Virginia to be raised and released to the wild when mature.

Eagles, of course, mate for life and can live 40 years in the wild, even longer in captivity. Grief-stricken Mr. Eagle lingered, then surprised and delighted all by luring a new mate to his lair last fall. The birding community couldn’t forget Mom Norfolk, though, and, on Oct. 15, Eagle Tribute Plaza was dedicated in her honor.

I visited the site with my aunt Susie and sister, Patti, in early October, before its installation. Up in the garden’s observatory treehouse, we spied a crew unloading the centerpiece 8-foot-tall statue.

Spying through the brambles: Will she be standing, not flying? we wondered.

That’s the spirit! Eagle-eyed Susie reconnoiters.

Later, Susie told me, Daddy Eagle took a similar interest. During the ceremony, a hushed crowd heard his call and saw him whoosh in, alone, for a better look, bringing tears to onlookers.

The eagle statue, unveiled. (Photo by Patti Davidson-Gorbea)

A mother’s cry. (Photo by Patti Davidson-Gorbea)

Although Ben Franklin reportedly lobbied for the turkey to be our national bird (Thanksgiving and all), the bald eagle is a sacred treasure to all Americans, especially Native Americans. But recent news of the Fish and Wildlife Service giving authorization for the Northern Arapaho Tribe of Wyoming to kill two eagles in the name of religious liberty — mostly to add feathers in their caps — had to give one pause.

Birders, this goes beyond team spirit. In defense of God, country and hovering mothers everywhere: Let us prey.

Northern cardinal vs. Downy woodpecker? Madness!

A female cardinal and a male downy woodpecker go head-to-head on Day 2 of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “March Migration Madness.” Stock photo by

How dare the Cornell Lab of Ornithology — in its annual March Migration Madness showdown — pit the renowned “red bird” against the upbeat downy!? Tough call.

Let’s look at the stats.

No fewer than seven states have adopted the cardinal as state bird: Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia. Only the western meadowlark (six states) and the mockingbird (five states, once six) can boast anything close to that level of per-capita popularity. Coupled with its “season’s greetings” rep, the “card” rivals the dove as a symbol of serenity.

Yet male cardinals can look like angry birds™, my daughter Cassy observes, and it’s not just the whole “seeing red” thing. To me, the cardinal seems most palatable in its female form, as intriguingly painted as the Mona Lisa. Given that the Cornell Lab’s photo leans toward blatant sexism, I may have to lean downy-ward.

Wait. Its downy photo is also male. What gives? Why are males perennially the poster birds?!

For Christmas 2011, I gave my 80-year-old mother her first bird feeder. The whole world knows what a cardinal is, but the discovery of new birds opens new worlds even for our elders who have seen it all. Mom has since marveled at the downy’s strikingly stark black-and-white design, but seems partial to a particular female so dingy she looks gray, clinging to the suet cage defensively, almost in a death grip, for 5-10 minutes at a time.

I love that little bird for delighting my mother.

On the cuteness factor: Sure, “cards” are cute dipping and bobbing their tails in a comic balancing act. But once you’ve seen a baby downy, you can never go back.

On technicalities, both birds are non-migratory; odd in a migration race. Yet it seems I’ve picked the quintessential non-migrant, the tufted titmouse, who lives out its entire life within miles of its birthplace, to win it all. (Note to Lab of Ornithology: Maybe next year, “Migration” Madness should choose only migratory birds?)

Anyway, for today only, my pick is the downy woodpecker, hands down.

Your turn to vote for the Day 2 match-up of the Tweet 16. For inspiration, watch this downy being hand-fed. Awwwwww. Worms are adorable.