“The Bird Detective”

“I’m searching for a falcon…a “Maltese Falcon.”

He was one of the original two-fisted guys. Humphrey Bogart, AKA Sam Spade. Hero of the 1941 film classic, The Maltese Falcon. Roger Ebert—a two-fisted movie critic—called it one of the best films ever made. But that’s not the point. The point is this: if anybody says that the words “Bird” and “Detective” make an unlikely pair, we say: yeah? Bogart was two-fisted, quick with a .45, and in the business of finding a rare bird. The jewel-encrusted Maltese Falcon. This raptor ain’t in any field guide so don’t try looking there. But if you’re in the mood for a hard-boiled trip into retro film noir, you can find the falcon on DVD. For other bird detective stories, keep an eye on this site.

private eye door

The case of the naked jaybird.

Sunday, July 8th, 2012

You’d be surprised what people ask a bird detective. Or maybe not. It’s hard to surprise yourself these days.

But this case isn’t about being surprised. It’s about a silly simile…

I was meeting a college professor buddy for a drink. He usually has all the answers. This time the prof turned the tables.

“Got a bird question.”

I said what no detective should say. “Shoot.”

“This morning, after my shower,” he said, “I walked into the kitchen with no clothes on.”

He added, “Been workin’ out. I’m proud of the old bod. But my wife gives me this shocked look.”

I sipped my shot and beer, a current combo of choice.

“Well, you were giving her a look,” I said.

“Then my wife shouts the words I need to ask you about. She says: ‘Why are you walkin’ around naked as a jaybird?’

Hmm, I think, interesting…

The prof slaps the bar and says, “Where’d that expression come from? Solve that, and your next boilermaker’s on me.”

This got me thinking about why a shot and beer is called a boilermaker, another mystery.

“Meet me here tomorrow.” I said. And get ready to buy.

I went to the detective’s best friend, Mr. Google. He had nothing. Just theories: baby birds being naked, jailbirds being stripped, some others that were too bird-brained to mention.

Nobody knows where the freakin’ phrase started.

But nobody had asked a bird detective, until now.

Didn’t take me long to crack the case without even cracking a field guide.

I just thought of the last blue jay I’d seen.

Or the Scrub Jay in California, the Steller’s Jay in Arizona. Even a tan and blue Jay in Europe.

Each stuck out like a hooker at grandma’s bingo party.

The phrase “naked as a jaybird” came about because people noticed, as I have, that a jay is indecently exposed.

It’s so loud in color and voice, that it can’t hide. It’s uncovered, revealed, naked to the world, wherever it goes.

Naked as a jaybird.

The prof will recognize the naked truth. But will he honor our deal and buy the boilermaker? I have no doubt.

The only doubt I have is that I’ll get to the origin of the phrase “boilermaker.” That’s my next job. But, before I start, I’ll need to soak up a little research.

The case of the flying scream.

Friday, August 13th, 2010

“I’ve got a problem,” she said. “I think I need…a bird detective.”

She smelled good. Jungle Gardenia, or something. I don’t know a gardenia from a garbanzo, but I like jungles. “How can I help you?” I said.

“Every night I walk Derek,” she answered. “And now we’re afraid. We can’t do it any more.”

“Derek?” I asked.

“Come on,” she said. “You and I are neighbors, Mr. Bird Detective! He’s my German Shepherd. You’ve seen him.”

Of course. I knew him. I knew her. She was the pretty woman who worked in our community as a theater director. I said, “Of course. Please go on.”

"I've got a problem..."

"I've got a problem..."

“Well,” she said, “a few nights ago I was walking Derek, rewarding him with Yogurt Yummies when he does his business. And there was this unholy scream behind us! Scared us out of our socks!”

“Where did this happen?”

“End of the street. By the woods. Gave me chills. Then I figured, hey, we have a coyote in the neighborhood, right?”

“Right out of a cowboy movie,” I said.

She said, “I remembered poor Cheech.”

Cheech was a cat who lived on our block. He disappeared recently and we were all warned about coyotes.

“Could a coyote be what howled at us? She asked. “Doubt it,” I said. “Coyotes wouldn’t get close.”

“And they don’t fly!”

“And coyotes don’t fly, do they?” She said, leaning forward, eyes wide. That got my attention. I said, “Fly? What are you talking about?”

"...they don't fly!"

"...they don't fly!"

“Mr. Bird Detective…here’s where the story gets weird,” she said. “The shriek happened again, louder, but this time over my head. This is why I’ve come to see you. What kind of bird scared us?”

“Hawks scream pretty loud,” I said. “But not at night. And there’s no motive.”

“Then I heard it again!” she said. “A block away. Still blood-curdling, still high in the sky.” She raised a shapely arm, with a shapely hand and a shapely finger pointing. Up. “Since then, I’m afraid to walk Derek at night. He’s not getting exercise.”

“Or Yogurt Yummies,” I added.

It sounded like she was describing the scream of a cat. They can make a loud caterwauling. Hey, could that be where the word, “caterwauling” comes from?

“Ever hear a cat scream?” I asked.

“Yeah, it was kinda like that,” she said. “But cats don’t fly. Besides, we haven’t had a cat in the neighborhood since Cheech was eaten by the coyote.”

“I’m not so sure,” I said. I was getting an idea about what had happened. I’d seen something at the end of that street, too, a long time ago. Sometimes the only clue a detective needs is a memory…

It was a black silhouette against a black sky, right out of a Halloween story. I’d shined a light on it, back then. Big yellow eyes stared back, unafraid. A Great Horned Owl doesn’t get afraid.

"...this wise guy was involved..."

"...this wise guy was involved..."

I had a feeling this wise guy was involved. Owls don’t do screams, but they sure can cause them. “It was an owl,” I said. “Great Horned. And great big.”

“Why would it screech and scare us like that? Hey, was it a Screech Owl?” she asked. “There are Screech Owls, right? I’ve heard of them.” I nodded. This babe knew birds. “Yeah, there are Screech Owls. But this was a Great Horned, and deadly quiet.”

“So what made the noise?”

“There’s more than one way to skin a cat,” I said. “And more than one cat in this neighborhood.” She was all eyes. Nice eyes. “Hmmm,” she said, “I guess there could be other cats…poor Cheech couldn’t have been the only one.”

I said, “One of those other cats must have got out, and had been following you as you walked Derek. Probably smelled your Yogurt Yummies. Cats hunt at night, and they’re quiet.”

I reached for a field guide. Opened to the owl page and showed her The Great Horned. I said, “This guy grabbed that cat, the cat that was tailing you.”

She studied the page. I said, “Take a look at those talons, madam director. They steal the show.” The illustration showed a large skunk skewered in the owl’s claws. A cat would’ve fit even better in them.

“And the cat,” she said, “…made the noise!“

“He caterwauled,” I added. She said, “Poor thing. Those talons must have hurt. And he kept screaming as he was carried up, and away…”

“Which explains why the screams were flying,” I said. “No bird made them. But a bird caused them.”

"Derek will be pleased."

"Derek will be pleased."

You’re good, bird detective,” she said. “And Derek will be pleased.”

“Because now he can walk at night again?” I said.

She shook her head. “Not just that. I think you exonerated a relative of his.”

It took me a second, but I saw her point. And I said, “Aha…the same owl probably got Cheech. A coyote wasn’t the culprit, after all. You’re pretty good, yourself, madam director, take a bow.”

~

A word about “The Bird Detective” and his adventures:

They’re an homage to two-fisted detective writing made popular by guys like Robert B. Parker and Mickey Spillane. But there’s a difference. Even though the pieces in this “Bird Detective” category seem playful, they’re all based on events that are entirely true. The story about the Cardinal that banged on a door, the cop who let a speeder go free because of a Pileated Woodpecker, the crow that got eaten thanks to a misguided tuna sandwich…the scream that flew…all these things really happened. How could they? It’s a mystery.

“A Knock-Knock Mystery.”

Wednesday, April 21st, 2010

She was my neighbor and had a problem. This is the meat and potatoes of a detective’s life. Or I should say the donuts and coffee. I’m a bird detective. In the world of two-fisted dicks, that makes me a strange bird. But it’s a living. Yeah, right.

"Knock. Knock."

"Knock. Knock."

“Tell me,” I said.

“Well, it’s some neighborhood kids playing a prank,” she said. “Crazy, damn kids. They come around every morning and knock on my door. When I answer, they’re gone. Then it happens again. Knock, knock. Nobody! It’s driving me crazy.”

She knew my non-detective job involved writing on a computer during the day, at home. She figured that since I’d be around, I could hide out and catch the knocking culprits.

That would be neighborly. But not my thing. I was about to say “no way,” then I saw the pleading look in her big browns. She was my neighbor, and had a problem.

“I’ll give it a try,” I said. Little did I know that this case would turn out to be right up my alley. Another story for the bird detective files.

Next morning I staked out her house. I had store-bought donuts and a mug of coffee. If there was a little Jack in the coffee, it was for flavor only. Sugar’s bad, right? I’d come prepared for a long stakeout. But it wasn’t. I was hunkered against a tree, enjoying a swig when I  heard, “Knock, knock.” Then again, “Knock, knock. Knock, knock.”

I drew my binocs. No kids at the door. But a flash of red. Hmmm. Then the knocking. And another flash of red. This was getting interesting. But all too easy to solve.

A flash of red...

A flash of red...

It was a case of another head-banging bird. I’d seen these kinds of things before. They can get ugly. But in this case, it wasn’t. The culprit was a bright red male Cardinal. He perched in a bush outside my neighbor’s home. Every few minutes he’d fly up and bang into the glass panel alongside the door. He’d flap and hover, pounding his beak into the glass like a woodpecker, then lose altitude and go back to the bush.

My neighbor opened her door and looked. Nothing. She slammed it. The Cardinal didn’t mind the slam and didn’t leave the bush. After a minute, he repeated the attack, banging his strong, seed-cracking beak against my neighbor’s glass. “Knock, knock, knock, knock.” But why?

Well, they don’t call me a bird detective for nothing. I looked at the attacking bird again, and could see that at this time of morning, with the sun at a certain angle, the glass reflected him perfectly. He was flying into a mirror-image of himself, doing battle with another big, red, tough and territorial Cardinal.

A Cardinal that looked just like him. This reflected bird would rest in a bush, then fly in a flurry toward him, head-to-head, beak against beak. It was all about territory. This was Spring and he was keeping other males off his turf. Not easy, when the other male is you.

Okay, mystery solved. Neighborhood kids exonerated. But how do we nix the knocks?

I told my neighbor to tape brown construction paper over the glass. It wouldn’t hurt her home’s curb appeal. And would be temporary. When mating season ended, the knocking would, too.

She did as I suggested and quiet returned to our street. My payment? A platter of home-made donuts. She was a pretty good baker, and grateful. Being a bird detective may sound odd, but hey, don’t knock it.

"Don't knock it."

"Don't knock it."

One hard, one not. A “Curry Club” case.

Wednesday, March 10th, 2010

It was late winter. Almost spring. The Curry Club was meeting. We do that on Sunday nights. We were hanging around a hangout called the Curry Nut. I’m not into curry, but the guy who owns the place makes a decent vodka martini. That and a basket of Nan bread is all I need.

"And you can hold the Nan"

"And you can hold the Nan"

Others in the club are adventuresome eaters. The dean’s a culinary show-off who just ordered curried goat.

The Curry Club is an informal think tank. We get together to kick around ideas and solve problems. Each person brings a different brand of savvy. We have a doctor, a rap promoter, a book critic, theater director, university dean and me, bird detective. On some nights the conversation turns to my odd calling. Bird questions fly.

"Big, round and high."

"Big, round and high."

The doctor told me he’d been wondering about oversized nests he noticed in trees on his property. His rap promoter neighbor chimed in saying that she’d been wondering about them, too. The nests were big, round, and high. I sipped my martini and smiled. This was too easy. But what do you expect from civilians who don’t know a cuckoo from a clock.

The doc said, “What kinda bird makes those? Gotta be big. We talkin’ crows?” I set down my drink, tore off a piece of Nan, and was about to answer when the dean butted in.

“Hey, speaking of crows, I’ve got a question,” he shouted.

Doc’s question about big nests was left hanging. The dean’s pushy. He went on, “I saw strange black birds in my trees and thought they were crows, but they weren’t.

Crows. Or were they?

Crows. Or were they?

The dean paused, waiting to make sure everyone was listening. I turned toward him, enjoying the chewy Nan. Nan and vodka. No need for curry. Or yogurt. Did I mention yogurt? It’s in the curries they make at Curry Nut.

“So, mister bird detective?”

“Big. Black. Sitting in your trees. Sounds like crows,” I said. The dean steamed. I worried that bits of curried goat would start shooting out of his mouth. “You say I’m wrong?”

“Give me a little more to go on,” I say, chewing Nan.

“Look,” he says, “I know they’re not crows because they had crooked necks, and their bills were kind of crooked. Crows don’t look like that. Although these guys are big as crows, maybe bigger.”

This was a stumper. The guy lived in Chi-town’s ‘burbs near the river. Not a lot of suspects fit his description. Unless…

“I think I’ve got something,” I said.

But the doctor was getting impatient. He said, “What about my big nests? You were going to tell me what made them when our esteemed dean butted in? The theater director leaned into the conversation, her blonde hair bouncing as she said, “Maybe he butts because he keeps ordering goat when we come here.” The group laughed, but the doctor still wanted to talk nests.

"Maybe he butts because he keeps ordering goat."

"Maybe he butts because he keeps ordering goat."

“You’ll both get answers,” I said. “These are my kinda cases. One’s hard…” and I nodded to the dean. Then turning to the doc, I said, “…and one’s not. Now, doc, in the case of your big nests….”

But I was interrupted, again, this time by the book reviewer. “And I’m sure the dean doesn’t even finish his curried goat. Don’t know why he takes it home. Bet he just tosses it out after a few days.”

“Can we forget about the damn goat,” cried the doctor. “Okay, I said. “The nests were built by….”

And before I could drop this bomb on him, the dean broke in: “Don’t tell me they’re crows, they’re not.” I tossed back my martini. I have a pal who says one martini’s not enough, two are too many and three’s not enough. I like that. Not sure what it means, but that’s not my job. Bird detective is my job. I signaled our waiter to bring another.

I turned away from the doc and dealt with the domineering dean: “You’re right. They weren’t crows. They were Double-crested Cormorants. Big, black, curved necks and beaks. And you’re near water. Mystery solved.” Everyone looked at me. They were good at their things; I was good at mine. I faced my friend the doctor and said, “Now, as for your big nests….”

Once again, before I could illuminate this group about the nest maker’s I.D. and M.O., the dean jumped in.

Cormorants! Or where they?

Cormorants! Or where they?

“Aha! Got you! They weren’t cormorants!”

“And you know this, how?” I asked.

“I’m familiar with cormorants. At my condo in Florida I see them every day. I’m more familiar with cormorants than with crows. These were neither.”

Hmmm. I believed him. He was rarely wrong, which is how he got to be a dean. Where’d that second martini go? I don’t remember drinking it. Should I get a third? No. I’m working. I reached for the Nan. Was I stalling?

“Well, you can’t win ‘em all,” said the doctor, trying to regain the floor. “But I’ll bet you do know about my big nests. Lay it on me.”

I could do that. But it didn’t feel right. I didn’t want a consolation prize. I had unfinished business with the bossy dean. And I had the inkling of an idea. Something that was mentioned earlier nagged at my vodka-soaked brain.

“Give me a moment,” I said to the group.

The book reviewer dug into her spicy seafood. The pretty theater director speared a piece of tofu. The doctor and the rap promoter were eating curried chicken. The smell of hot yogurt wafted. The dean pushed his goat around. And it came to me in a flash, that’s it!

“Friends, I can I.D. the big black birds for the dean, and then I’ll get to doc’s big nests. All before dessert.” I turned to the dean and said, “Not only will I tell you the kind of bird you saw, but I’ll tell you when you saw them. Last Wednesday, right?”

“How could you know that?” Then, softly, he said, “You’re right. Wednesday. I remember because….”

And I finished his sentence. “It was garbage pickup day. You noticed them when you brought in the cans.” He looked at me and mumbled, “Right…”

“You brought last Sunday’s goat home in a doggie bag,” I said. “And after a few of days you threw it out. It was in your garbage, smelling as only goat can smell. Goat with yogurt. In your trees, attracted by this tangy garbage, there were a couple of… vultures.”

Case closed! Turkey Vultures.

Case closed! Turkey Vultures.

Turkey Vultures with dark heads. They don’t all have red skin on their heads. Some immature birds have dark coloration. And looking at them against the sky, they’d appear all black. With crooked necks and beaks. Turkey Vultures. Attracted by old goat to the home of an old goat.”

The dean was quiet, for once. He was smart enough to know when he’d been bested, and he whispered “Wow.” He raised his iced tea in a toast. I raised my empty and we nodded at each other.

“All well and good,” said the doctor. “But as you were saying….my big nests are made by what kind of bird?”

“Oh yeah,” I said. “No bird.”

“No bird?”

“Yeah, no bird made those. They’re squirrel nests. They’re common. And they’re easy to see now, before leaves grow back and hide them. They’re called ‘dreys.’ Another word for squirrel nests. And for crossword puzzle nuts.”

“Squirrel,” the doc said, looking pensively at his curried chicken as he put another chunk onto his fork. “Squirrel, huh. Imagine that.” And took a bite.

Watching him eating and muttering, I couldn’t help think: don’t they always say squirrel tastes just like…..naw, don’t go there. Maybe it was time for the third martini. And another basket of Nan.

***

To see all the cases in The Bird Detective category, click here.

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Pillow fight on the 40th floor.

Sunday, February 14th, 2010

My buddy Randall and I were having a beer. He says he saw a pillow fight that afternoon. Feathers flying outside his window. Explain, I say.

He’s at work in an office. He gets distracted by fluttering outside, but ignores it. Snow? Shredded paper? Forget it. He goes back to work. Then there’s more. Now he turns to look. Feathers.

Two Feathers

This reminds him of a movie with sorority girls in a pillow fight. He’s all eyes. But the scenario is unlikely. He’s forty floors up, and slumber parties rarely happen in Chicago office buildings.

More feathers. A blizzard. Curious, he moves to the next window and presses his face to it. The mystery of the pillow fight is solved. And a bloody mystery it was.

There’s a Peregrine Falcon on the window ledge, pinning down a fat Chicago pigeon, one of millions. The pigeon’s being plucked and torn into strips of meat.

The beak on the Peregrine is dripping and stuck with feathers. The bird glowers. This makes Randall think of the mobster expression “wetting your beak,” which means sharing profits. A bird-eat-bird city this is.

But a Peregrine sighting is my thing. Randall knew I’d care. He described the bird: its facial marking, blue-gray coloring, spots and streaks. Strong and compact, with a razor beak.

I knew Peregrines hunt in wild country. But wild country’s scarce and big cities serve the purpose. There’s even a Peregrine release program on Chicago skyscrapers. Civic pigeon control.

This is just another way that wild things mesh with our things. There are coyotes walking into sandwich shops in downtown Chicago (see it on Youtube) and mountain lions being shot by cops on the north side of town (happened last year).

Why not have wild-eyed wild raptors with bloody beaks on a forty-story ledge? And a pillow-fight of feathers? A natural way to break up the workday.

Bye Bye Blackbird

Thursday, June 18th, 2009

I was at Manny’s, Chicago’s lunchtime hangout for cops, political hacks and sharpies. A guy I knew called me over. He was known as The Tuna (nicknames are big at Manny’s).

He invited me to join him in a back booth. “Got a story for you,” he said. “About a good deed I tried to do.”

“A good deed that went bad?”

“How’d you know?”

“I can see it in your face, Tuna.”

“Well, I bet you’ll like this,” he said, “You bein’ a birdbrain and all.”

Tuna was the birdbrain as it turned out. But I’m getting ahead of the story. Let him speak.

“We found this little crow in the backyard. Couldn’t fly. Just sittin’ in the grass, not moving. It had spunk, though. Nipped my fingers.”

7478BA27025D489B9666409FBAC123D5-500

“A young one,” I said. “Since it’s spring and all.”

“Yeah, even I knew that,” Tuna said. “Now I figure the bird might not make it overnight, out in the open. We got animals comin’ around, you know?

“It’s a jungle out there.”

“Raccoons, coyotes, we have to lock up our garbage cans like bank vaults.”

“So what’d you do? Take him inside?”

tunaSandwich

I bit into my bagel, a Manny’s specialty. Tuna chomped into his usual. A sloppy tuna sandwich. Between bites he continued the sad story.

“Nah, wife wouldn’t let me. So I hid him behind some bushes, up against the house. A good hideout, y’know? Then, around 3 A.M. we hear squawking. Next morning, just black feathers and some blood. I feel terrible.”

“Well, at least you tried.”

“Yeah, I did. I even left a midnight snack for the little guy in case he got hungry. So he could build up his strength.”

“Midnight snack? You didn’t say anything about that before.”

“I was tryin’ to do a good deed, y’ know?”

He was getting heated up, leaning across the table as he spoke. I had to back away from the fish breath. That was the clue I needed.

“Tuna, I know what you gave him.”

He slumped against the back of the booth. He stopped in mid-chew. And he said, “So what? Birds are fish eaters, right?”

raccoon

“Pal, you can smell canned tuna for blocks. You sent out a message to the neighborhood animals, loud and clear. It said ‘come and get it.’”

Tuna looked down, knowing I was right and that he messed up.

“You made that crow a sitting duck.”

 

~   ~   ~   ~  

Mystery in the Sonoran Desert

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2009

My daughter called to say she’d seen a bird she couldn’t find in her field guide, a mystery bird, and asked if I could help. “Sure, just describe it.” After a lifetime of birding I was pretty confident. I’d only had one bird that threw me (I’ll get to that in a moment). But first, here’s what my daughter said. “It’s brown and kind of big, like a pigeon, but it’s no pigeon; it’s got a long beak. Kind of funny looking. It walked a lot, but when it took off it had pretty big wings. I can’t find it in my book anywhere.”

Ah, an easy one for the bird detective in me. “You saw a woodcock,” I said. “Look under ‘American Woodcock.’” A moment later, after some page rustling she squealed, “Yeah, there it is, that’s what I saw!”

americanwoodcock

Being a bird detective is fun. Maybe you’d like to try it. Let me tell you about the bird that threw me. I’ll give you some clues. While you’re taking a minute to process them I’ll step aside and ramble a bit about a subject that’s somewhat related to the mystery. Then I’ll reveal the answer.

Here are the clues: Sonoran Desert, fade of day. I was hearing a piercing Wheep! Not much like any bird call I knew. It would be followed by silence, then another Wheep! I located its source without binoculars. A tan bird, robin-sized, but thinner. It had a black face, making it look somewhat like a female Cardinal, but no crest. It was on the ground and seemed unruffled by my approach.

I went to my Peterson’s Western Birds. But for once, I wasn’t sure where in the book to look. I could rule out the first half. This wasn’t a water bird, hawk, hummingbird or woodpecker (the bill was unremarkable). It wasn’t thrush-like, or dove-like, and it was too big to be a sparrow. It might have been a flycatcher, but it was on the ground. It looked a little like a Catbird, but not enough to be a relative.

This was like searching a dictionary for the spelling of a word, but you can’t find the word since you don’t know how to spell it. It’s kind of fun to be stymied like this. Other problems…an upcoming business presentation, financial woes, the waistline consequences of eating dessert five nights in a row, a recently discovered bald spot…these momentarily disappear.

Most of us enjoy detective stories, but how often are we given the chance to be in one?

The clues again: Arizona dusk. A clear, penetrating Wheeeep! A well-proportioned bird, suggesting a Catbird. Tan except for the face, which is black; no crest. It walks on the ground with no dovish head bobbing. When approached, it flies to a nearby bush and soon returns, not much concerned about people.

What is this species? Go ahead, think about it; check your bird guides if you want. Meanwhile, there’s one piece of the puzzle I didn’t mention: The bird wasn’t actually in the wilds of the Sonora Desert. It was on the grounds of a hotel in Scottsdale, Arizona. This is somewhat significant because it adds a bit of irony. You see, when you finally locate it in the field guide, this bird is described as a “secretive bird of the desert.”

Its range is correctly shown as a narrow swath of purple overlaying a part of the southwest which includes Scottsdale. But it’s supposed to be a desert bird. And secretive. What was it doing hopping around and singing next to guests and lawnmowers in the manicured gardens of a suburban hotel?

When I’d been birding in the arid back country earlier that day, I’d seen virtually no birds; the desert was big, hot, and stone silent. Yet here in a smoggy Scottsdale sunset, this “secretive” bird was openly going about his business and calling out as though he owned the place. And who could blame him? Why would a baking wilderness be preferred to a hotel’s tended grounds?

The same question could explain why my early morning hikes into the back country revealed adventurous landscapes but no interesting wildlife. But when I jogged at dawn around our hotel, I saw Anna’s and Broad-Tailed Hummingbirds, Canyon Wrens, Gila Woodpeckers, Gilded Flickers, Steller’s Jays, Mockingbirds, Gambel’s Quail and even a Golden Eagle.

But, enough suspense:

The mystery bird is Abert’s Towhee. Pipilo Aberi. Did you get it? And would you have expected to see it in a populace suburb? Well, maybe the spread of fertile human habitation has caused wild birds to change their preferred habitat. Should our expectations also change? And our field guides be rewritten, maybe lose the “secretive bird of the desert” description?

Will wilderness become even more silent, while suburbs get exotic birdsong, and also provide new habitat for deer, bobcats, coyotes, bears and other opportunists? That’s not much of a detective story. It seems this case has been closed.

abertstowheewithmap

An Unusual Defense

Monday, June 1st, 2009

I’m driving along, doing a fairly legal forty-three in a thirty-five zone and an impossible bird flies alongside, going faster. It disappears into the trees ahead. Let’s not say impossible. It’s something better. It’s a mystery. Not because I don’t know what kind of bird it is.

But because I do.

And I know it doesn’t belong here. I live near Chicago. Yeah, we’re in the mystery bird’s range if you believe the maps. But urban areas don’t count. Everyone knows that. City life isn’t this bird’s style. I gotta check him out. And fast.

I speed up to try for a glimpse.

Quick hit of siren behind me. I check the mirror and there’s a patrol car lit up like the Fourth of July. Red, white and blue flashing in the grille and all over the roof. I’m busted.

"...I'm busted"
“…I’m busted”

Damn. I should’ve known better. You can’t drive at the speed of a bird. I’d figured he might’ve settled on a tree up ahead, and lost my head. I knew his type: Roller-coaster flight, typical of the family. Skinny neck. Black & white body, big as a crow. Huge beak. And a red crest like nothing you see back in civilization.

I’d seen his compadres in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula where I looked for bears. Never saw bears, although they left evidence. Bears in the woods, and all that. I wasn’t wrong. Although he was. He was in the wrong place. He should’ve been in deep woods, where there are trees with strange oblong holes.

I pull over and the cop parks behind, gets out and walks to my window. I hand him my license. No point in arguing. I was probably doing fifty.

“(Looking at my license) Michael, you know how fast you were going?”

“Too fast, I guess. Sorry, officer.”

“But do you know how fast?”

Okay, time to spill it:

“I was trying to catch up to a Pileated Woodpecker. A very unusual bird. But you’re right, officer, I was going too fast. Sorry.”

(Was that the second time I said “sorry?” No more.)

“You were trying to catch up to what?”

“Sounds crazy. I know. A Pileated Woodpecker. It’s not supposed to be around here.”

He bent down to get a better look at me. He was old for a cop, with friendly eyes. He let out a big laugh.

“Buddy, that’s a new one. I never heard THAT excuse before, and I’ve heard ‘em all.”

He handed my license back, laughing.

“You get going, Michael, and slow down. Even if you see another one of those birds.”

He walked back to his car, shaking his head. I could hear him laughing. The Pileated Woodpecker defense. I don’t suggest you try it. It’ll only work once, I’m sure.

Footnote: The story you just read was true. To protect the innocent (nice guy cop) no roads or municipalities were named.

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The Boy Detective

Tuesday, May 26th, 2009

We were part of a busload of tourists led by a bossy park ranger in a Smoky Bear hat. As we hiked, he pointed out birds and acted like he’d put them there for us to see.

We were on a family vacation a hundred miles from home. Could have been a thousand miles. There were canyons and deep, old woods. It was early morning. I was ten.

My dad had signed us up for this guided tour. My mind wandered. I was looking for arrowheads in the leaf litter, and hoping that bears or mountain lions would show themselves.

I saw a bird on the ground, rooting around in the leaves, a large, mostly beige bird. As I got closer it flew to a nearby tree. There was white on its back, and I thought I saw a bit of red on its head. But these weren’t what grabbed my attention. I’d seen unexpected golden flashes as it flew.

The bird landed on the side of a tall tree further up the trail. As it settled, the undersides of its wings revealed themselves: bright yellow.

I knew what this bird was. I’d seen that wing color before. It was in a schoolbook that I’d been forced to study. I didn’t like studying. But those yellow wings stayed with me. They were unexpected on this generally light-brown bird. The unexpected is the heart of a good mystery.

I said to our Smoky, “What bird has yellow wings?”

My question seemed to annoy him. I was a punk who’d been looking for arrowheads. He sighed, saying, “No bird has yellow wings.” And he resumed lecturing to the group. I interrupted. “What if it’s under the wings. He said, “Son, no bird has yellow under the wings.” The ranger turned away. I was dismissed.

Under my breath, I said, “Flicker.”

My dad, who would later tease me for life because I once identified a Titmouse, looked at me and said, “What’d you call him?”

I shut up. Eventually, we neared the tree where the bird landed. The group looked up and saw it. As it fluttered from place to place the bright yellow under its wings was obvious.

Our guide said, “Okay, everybody, please notice, we have a bird called a Flicker here.”

And he went on to describe how this was a kind of woodpecker, sometimes found on the ground eating ants, but mostly up in the trees, blah, blah. There was the implication that he’d found the bird for us, that we’d been given our money’s worth.

“Flicker,” I said smiling. My dad gave me a curious look. “Yellow-Shafted,” I added.

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