Going through hoops: 9 alternatives to March Madness

What drives Americans’ March Madness mania? Is it a love for the game of basketball — or merely a love of games? Team bragging rights or the individual’s need to always be right?

Humans are compelled and impelled to make choices. When presented with empty boxes to check or blanks to fill in, we cannot resist. Combined with social media madness, our penchant for picking and sharing is off the charts these days — the act alone is satisfying, as if pressing the button is what presses our buttons, not the treat that gets dispensed or the victor’s glory.

Facebook itself has its roots in a simple either/or flow chart: It sprung from Mark Zuckerberg’s simple face-off program to determine the “hotter” Harvard chick.

democracy---people-votingIf only such selection fever translated to 100% voter turnout come election time. If democracy went 100% digital, maybe voting, too, would prove irresistible.

In the meantime, to fill the check-box void before Round 3 of the NCAA basketball tournament begins Thursday, I’ve scoured the universe for interesting alternative brackets for non-hoops fans to play favorites.




  1. Only hours to go before the Philadelphia-area public media provider WHYY wraps up its NPR vs. PBS “Public Media Madness” contest. Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey host Neil deGrasse Tyson seems on top of the edutainment world lately. Can he rule as brainy talking head? Your other three Final Four contenders: Mister Rogers, Terry Gross and Peter Sagal. I pick Tyson over Rogers because he’s a LIVING legend (or soon to be).new-trailer-for-cosmos-featuring-neil-degrasse-tyson
  2. Minnesota Public Radio steps up the pace with music match-ups every half-hour from 9 to 5 through Friday’s final round. “The Current March Madness” started with 64 recording artists, featuring close shaves between such bands as U2 and Hüsker Dü, The Roots and Public Enemy. Today, see who challenges Elvis. Keep in mind: Times listed are Central Time.
  3. Pearl JamBeckA catty rivalry pits female characters from a defunct TV drama. The “Dallas” Divas Derby will keep you occupied through April 14. Or not. Like life down under in Dallas, it moves pretty slowly.DallasDivas


It’s not quite natural selection. These two popularity contests are playing out on Facebook, where you simply “Like” the picture of the species you prefer. Trash-talking takes place in the comments sections.

4. You’d think there’d be more kittehs at odds in the cybersphere, but drooling dogs drool in NatGeo Wild’s “Doggie Breed Bracket,” licensed by Cesar Millan of “Cesar 911.” This inaugural struggle is pretty much an ad for his show.


5. Anyone who knows or reads me knows I’ve plugged Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “March Migration Madness” before. But someone over there finally listened to my complaints: In previous years, organizers picked birds who don’t actually migrate. This year, there are nifty baseball cards detailing the birds’ feats. Visit today for a chance to vote in the “Airborne 8” round between this year’s vastly popular snowy owl and the spectacular painted bunting.


6. OK, OK. I found a bracket featuring cats. But it’s something you need to register for, and we all learned our lesson with the Warren Buffett-Quicken Loans Billion Dollar Bracket, did we not?  A glimpse of Apartment Therapy’s Pet Madness entrants, just to satisfy you rabid pet owners.



7. Sweet! This is just a sampler of what’s out there.  Foodsided.com’s “Starch Madness” will surely whet the appetite. In fact, this game can be played alongside the NCAA tourney. Spread out a spread of these and watch your points spread. Recent highlights from the blog:

  • In the Entree Region, an epic battle of cheese. 4-seed Grilled Cheese takes on upstart 5-seed Mac & Cheese, who is coming off a decisive, yet somewhat unexpected, Round One victory over Boneless Wings.

  • After years of being paired together in perfect harmony, Peanut Butter and Chocolate will face off as Peanut Butter Anything takes on Chocolate Cake in the 4/5 match-up in the Dessert Region.

Starch madness8. Somebody alert Chris Christie. The Trentonian is sponsoring an eat-off among New Jersey pizzerias. This one requires some insider knowledge. You wonder if it’s helping to boost the newspaper’s restaurant ad sales.



9. That last one was touristy, but no one can trump The Washington Post‘s“Monuments Madness” for places that “place.” This civil civics war features 15 statues and one obelisk. The Elite 8 begins today, and a champion will be crowned on April 1. Which begs the question … why?monumental

Sheer madness.

P.S. Go, Spartans.basketball_data







Birding is a bit like hitting the lottery

As folks in 42 states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands scramble for a piece of tonight’s record $550 million Powerball jackpot — that’s a half-billion dollars — I can’t help but consider the odds: 1 in 175 million.

Kinda like bird-watching, amiright?

Honestly, what are the odds, on any given day, in any given instant, I might glance out my window to spy a bluebird on the wing? What odds would you give me on spotting three? AND YET …

I had never seen a live bluebird outside of aviaries or protected conservation areas in my life, and even then only glimpses, like a distant flip of a sparkling SOS signal.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned as a sophomore participant in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Project FeederWatch program is that timing and luck are everything. A bird might grace your yard for just 5 to 11 seconds in its lifetime, because, especially in winter, it may be only passing through. The planets must be aligned just right — first, the rare bird has to wander into the exact global coordinates of your bit of earth, then you have to be near a window, have enough clarity to notice it, enough knowledge to recognize what you’re seeing and BAM! Your life is instantly richer.

Like the other day, Nov. 14 at 11:18:27 EST (all good Powerball picks), when I absentmindedly walked downstairs and opened the front door to see how cold it was, thinking I might get the mail or take a walk, and saw something new perched on the curved iron pole holding the feeders. It sat a little cocky, like a house finch, but it was bigger, rounder and an odd shade of … gray? It bobbed delicately, vogued this way and that, just to show me it was something I’d never ever seen, not in a million years. Not gray, no! Blue! Oh!!! It darted down to our semi-circle of sod destined to be a future English garden, joining two others like it, one bluer than anything I’d known in nature. That one, the obvious male, hopped to the corner near the stoop, showed off its orange and white breast while I tried not to blink or breathe, before I squealed, that high-pitched, teeth-gritted-in-the-dentist-chair kind: “CAMERA!” Whirrrrrrrrrrrr.

By the time I had the camera raised and was switching it on, the three Eastern bluebirds wove a Disney dance, loop-de-loop in the air, sayonara, chica, harp glissando … and they’d vanished, magic.

Not quite that way, it was a little more dramatic. I floated on air the rest of the day, feeling touched by angels. A zip-a-dee-doo-dah day!

When I mentioned to workmate Tom how birding was like the lottery, with probably 1 in 175 million odds of seeing the birds I’ve seen, he begged to differ. “No — 1 in 175 million odds would be when you look out the window and see a 14-karat-gold ostrich wearing a diamond-studded bra crocheting on your lawn.”

Party pooper.

Well, I know money can’t buy happiness. I’ll take a bluebird … or a yellow-bellied sapsucker … any day.

“The bluebird carries the sky on his back.”

– Henry David Thoreau

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?

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 123rf.com.

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.

Black-capped chickadee vs. Dark-eyed junco: I’ll take the underbird, with the pretty underbelly

Scout first visited my deck on an unseasonably warm Thanksgiving Day 2011.

Day 1 of March Migration Madness, and there’s tension in the air. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has pitted last year’s champ, the beloved black-capped chickadee, against the low-seeded dark-eyed junco, a phantom bird of winter.

C’mon, peeps. “Migration”! It’s in the game’s title! Have you all been conned by the charming chickadee, who is brave and smart enough to light on your heads or feed from your hand? Close encounters with curious chickadees, though wondrous, are a dime a dozen … plus, can you be so sure that the “black-capped” chickadee you so admire isn’t a genuine impostor from down South, say, Carolina? Like twin cousins of “The Patty Duke Show,” they will charm and con you.

That bird you swoon over is not always what you think. And blink, he’s gone, and yet … always there. A commoner, a year-round, non-migratory bird.

The dark-eyed junco is just as brave, if understated, and needs courage for his long journey ahead, back to wherever he goes off-season. When I first encountered this jewel last Thanksgiving Day, a lone scout junco poked his blushing-pink, pearl beak right up to my back door and sunned himself on the deck, a true blessing. First describing the species as a chocolate-coconut macaroon, with more familiarity I’ve begun to think of them as quarter-moon birds, or sparrows dressed for a masquerade ball. He will always surprise you; when you’re looking for something else, he hops into view. I’ll take the underbird, with the pretty white underside and the tux-like “tails,” any day. Especially TODAY.

The C/BC chickadee, or whatever it is, has had its day in the sun. Knock him off his perch (oh, he’ll be back) and give a bottom-feeder a taste — just a nibble — of the limelight.

Get in on all the action at Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Facebook page. And to vote on today’s matchup, peep here. At the time of this writing, chickadee had the home-cooked advantage, 509-236.


Tweet THIS: March madness for bird brains

A Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) perched ...

Superhero Cedar Waxwing. Image via Wikipedia

While the chirp of squeaky sneakers, sports commentators flapping their gums, the howl of the crowd and shrill buzzers and whistles invade our home this month, I’ll heed a different breed of calls: the call of the wild.The Cornell Lab of Ornithology reminds us it’s not only peak hoops season but peak beak season … something for the rest of us grousers. It will unveil its organically “seeded” brackets  March 12 (tomorrow!), for a March 13 tip-off of its second annual “March Migration Madness.”

Last year, the Black-Capped Chickadee ruled the roost, fending off a full-fledged threat from the wild card Cedar Waxwing. Who will horn in this year — an actual Gamecock? A mutant Jayhawk? An Oregon duck?

I’ve traditionally been pretty flighty filling out my NCAA brackets — picking my favorite colors and mascots first. But an entire bracket dedicated to colorful birds? Close to heaven. The beauty is, Cornell plucked the top 8 seeds from last year’s fittest and tossed in 4 wild cards, leaving the rest of the Tweet 16 up to us fair/foul-weather fans. We’re being asked to nominate our top bird, then move the flock through its paces with “likes” on Facebook, all the way to choosing the Final Feathered Four and ultimate Chirpion.

Don’t wanna ruffle any feathers here … so which bird is my pick?

Lately I’ve become enamored with the Carolina wren, but as an anti-Tar Heels fan, that’s bad karma. Looking at the actual NCAA brackets provides little inspiration: Louisville Cardinals, Long Island Blackbirds, Creighton Bluejays, Temple Owls, Lehigh Mountain Hawks, Marquette Golden Eagles … hmm.

What birder can forget the thrill of spying an unknown species through the glass? That happened when I first recognized a yellow-bellied sapsucker out my bay window. But as the official mascot of the Cornell site, that cries fowl.

Most recently, my eyes and heart were opened to a lowly (not really) sparrow — dismissing what at first I thought was a song sparrow, until the wondrous jolly beard and clownish crown of the White-Throated Sparrow materialized in my backyard, then again in my mother’s backyard this past weekend. Let’s lift up this sparrow to the Tweet 16. (Below, is the discovery as seen in my mother’s Norfolk, Va., yard yesterday. S/he eventually hops up onto the little pedestal s/he so deserves.)

Meanwhile, back to the NCAA mating dance. One thing’s clear: My birds and I are rooting against all cats — domestic and wild. (Sorry, Hubby, whose Kentucky Wildcats are top-seeded; I’ll overlook the whiskers on the mascot of my own alma mater — good ol’ Sparty of Michigan State — who is both top-seeded and seedy.)

Perhaps this year I’ll have more than March Migration Madness to crow about. Comparing the view outside the window to my husband’s 60-inch flat screen, though … no contest.

Click here (starting March 12) to view the full Cornell Tweet 16 bracket. And here’s an early halftime show: