By Keith Michael
“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes—and ships—and sealing-wax—
Of cabbages—and kings—
And why the sea is boiling hot—
And whether pigs have wings.”
From The Walrus and The Carpenter, Lewis Carroll
Sunday morning glass. The river stretches out, at a stasis between the tides, placid as an Adirondack lake. Sitting on a bench, I can’t decide which is clearer, the Jersey City skyline or its looking-glass-world doppelganger below. Millie, too, stretches out at my feet, gnawing on a twig, corgi chin to corgi paws. This November week is draining away.
A scarecrow cormorant poses on a piling. How many times have I told someone that cormorants stretch out their wings because they make their living diving for fish? Right from this bench, I’ve seen one wrestling a plate-sized flounder, and another, a two-foot eel, each deploying their respective wiles to be the winner of the tournament. Cormorants don’t spread oil on their outer feathers like most water birds (this helps them stay underwater during fishing expeditions without bobbing to the surface) but it does mean that they get waterlogged, having to drip-and-dry before they are able to fly again. Hence this post-Halloween spectacle.
Ah, the random bird facts in my repertoire.
Did you know that the ubiquitous neighborhood Starling can be traced to Central Park’s Shakespeare Garden? In 1890, one Eugene Schieffelin, a purportedly eccentric drug manufacturer and member of the American Acclimatization Society, released the 60 ancestral birds from England as a celebratory introduction of all of the birds mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays to the New World. (He thought that this was a good idea.) Within 50 years the European Starling had bred its way to California, and now, the number of starlings in North America is in the hundreds of millions. Of course, we all know that the common pigeon (or Rock Dove) emerges as a fully-fledged adult from building cornices and storm drains.
Hummingbirds fly 18-24 non-stop hours over the Gulf of Mexico during migration, whereas Bar-tailed Godwits (a kind of shorebird—no, I haven’t seen one in the West Village) have been recorded flying non-stop for eight days, a distance of 7,200 miles from Alaska to New Zealand (and back the next spring)—true marathoners. And our own Common Terns, that nest on the piers of Governor’s Island during our summers, migrate to southern Argentina and Brazil (taking separate winter vacations than their partners), only to return the next year, rekindle the flame with their mates, and scrape together a nest mere feet from their homestead of the previous summer!
Birds have three eyelids on each eye: one that comes down from the top (like ours), a second (more mobile than ours) that flicks up from the bottom, and a third nearly transparent nictitating membrane that swooshes across the eye from the beak-side out, protecting their eyes like goggles while swimming underwater (for the Cormorant) or flying through branches (for a hawk).
Golden-crowned Kinglets, birds so small that four of them could be mailed with a first class Forever stamp, have been discovered in crevices during frosty weather huddling together to stay warm, and can fluff out their feathers to more than an inch thick down comforter. (This sounds great, but an inch thick down comforter wouldn’t keep me warm in the winter.)
Pembroke Welsh Corgis trace their linage to 12th century Pembrokeshire, Wales, where they were bred for herding ducks and geese, sheep, horses and cattle. They are considered the eleventh most intelligent dog. (Millie threw that one in.) However, some studies consider parrots and ravens to be even smarter than dogs. (Shhh, don’t tell Millie.)
Mockingbirds have been recorded with over 150 bird tunes in their songbooks as well as being proficient at imitating dogs and cats, insects, cell phone rings, car alarms and backing-up beeps. Does this make them sexier to their mates? The jury’s still out.
Sapsuckers were named because they type out rows of holes in tree bark and then return to suck up the sap and eat the bugs attracted to the sap. The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker barely has a yellow belly and the Red-bellied Woodpecker barely has a blush of red on its belly, but the moniker Red-headed, perhaps the more obvious choice for both, was already taken, in both cases, by a more red-headed species.
Groups of birds together have charming names: a charm of finches, a murmuring of starlings, a muddle (or murder) of crows, a kettle of hawks, a gaggle or skein of geese, a raft of ducks. And a group of corgis? A very bad idea.
Millie hruffs. I shiver. A wedding-cake tiered tug churns upriver against the turning tide—its wake rolling out toward the shores.
Keith Michael’s NEW book Let’s Go Out! is now AVAILABLE! For more information about his books, nature walks, and photographs, visit www.keithmichaelnyc.com.