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June 13, 2001

New in Town

Baby birds,
that's what it's come down to.
Most of the migrants have passed through, but a few will stay to nest, and the residents have already fledged their first broods. Most publicly, the Red-tailed Hawks on Fifth Avenue play to admiring crowds below, with three young ones making their first flights in the last week. People were cheering the Hawks on, in their ongoing confrontations with the Crows, although the corvids are said to be among the most intelligent birds, and the raptors are known killers. Nobody roots for a Crow. But there you have it, the intellectual as villain (black, no less), against the blithely murderous action hero. It sells in the Park just as well as Hollywood.

Actually, the Hawks' parental attentions are impressive, and it's hard not to write our emotions on their instincts. Still, most birds show the same tenacity when it comes to their offspring. Nesting is a delicate and highly fraught endeavor, and those who can accomplish it in the Park are to be congratulated.

The Hawks may be heroic, but it was a little Trickster took my heart, as I came upon a family group of Carolina Wrens, on what must have been one of the fledglings' first outings, in the Conservatory Garden last Saturday. I mentioned the parents back on Valentines Day, extolling their monogamy, but I didn't really explain what wonderful birds they are. Chief among their virtues is that they help me make it through the Winter. Not really migrant, they winter in the Park, and unlike most species, the male sings all year long. In those short, sere days of little to look at, and less to hear, there is nothing like the ringing Wren-song to summon my soul from hibernation.

I started birding in the Fall of '99, and the Carolina Wren was one of the first birds I got to know. A pair spent that Winter along the Loch, but they disappeared in the Spring, or maybe I lost track of them among the more exotic migrants. This time around I was aware of a good number early in the Winter, but they seemed to thin out as the season progressed, until the pair at the Garden were the only reliable ones. This is perhaps in keeping with their natural history profile, which claims that the northern edge of their range expands and contracts, depending on the severity of the Winter. Whether some perished, or just left town, I can't say, but at least this one pair made it through the worst Winter we've had in several years. I dared to hope they would nest here, but it still came as a surprise when I pointed my binocular at the high-pitched, sibilant twitter coming from a Yew, and found myself looking at four little ones, huddled on a single branch. They already had their parent's pattern, but with the juvenile proportions which automatically evoke our "oh, they're so cute!" response.

The parents soon appeared with food, and they're pretty cute themselves, but there's something about Wrens that goes beyond cuteness. Compact and cocky, they're bold and noisy birds, belying their small size. The ancient Celts considered them sacred, and told how the Wren became the King of the Birds. A contest was held, with the highest flying bird to be named the ruler. It looked like the Eagle would soar to the kingship, but the Wren hid away in his tail feathers, and used the raptor as a launching pad to the crown.
A Trickster, indeed.
Some strange remnant of Wren sacrifice still goes on in Ireland today, but our local species have sacrificed enough just getting through the Winter.

Birds cannot afford the long childhood we enjoy. Wrens and Hawks alike must quickly learn to fly and fend for themselves. In these brief weeks we gain a little insight into the speed of their lives, while pausing for a moment in our own. Cheering for Hawks, or peering into brambles after Wrens, is no more attention than we would give our children, or wish for from our parents. An appropriate attitude towards Nature will put us in both positions, yet leaves us ever viewing from afar, like Eagle-lofted Wrens, carried beyond our bounds.

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