Outdoors

Birds still doing what they always do

Wildside column: Great time to get out and watch them sing, eat, brood

Canada geese disregard social distancing as they feed March 23 in a Buchanan County cornfield. (Orlan Love/correspondent
Canada geese disregard social distancing as they feed March 23 in a Buchanan County cornfield. (Orlan Love/correspondent)
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QUASQUETON — During this Stephen Kingesque reality show, for temporary COVID-19 relief I come out of my bunker to see what the birds are doing.

With death tolls and anxiety mounting daily, it’s comforting to see the birds are doing what they always do — eating, singing, nesting, mating, brooding and traveling.

The robins in my yard and garden are yanking worms, banging their heads against basement windows and doing some kind of aerial pas de deux that I prefer to think of as a mating ritual, though it’s probably a territorial dispute.

Outside of town, rooster pheasants display their handsome selves and cackle for the attention of future mates. At the approach of a passing vehicle, they duck and disappear into foliage that would seem too sparse to hide them.

Meanwhile, the red-winged blackbird, among the most common birds in the rural Iowa landscape, is not the least bit leery of motor vehicles.

Along suitable roadside ditches, they perch on almost every available bush, weed and road sign, barely maintaining appropriate social distance as they stake out nesting territories

Unlike the robins, which expend most of their energy finding food, the redwings reserve theirs for singing, and they put themselves into it.

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They lift their wings, thrust out their heads, and let it rip — threeet, threeet — as if their future domestic bliss depends upon it, which it probably does.

Unlike the pheasant, which is loath to be photographed, the redwing strikes pose after pose, seemingly oblivious to anything but its song.

While Iowa nesting birds prepare to reproduce, other birds pass through en route to northern nesting grounds.

A wetland south of town provides a welcoming stopover for thousands of ducks and geese, as well as a couple of dozen trumpeter swans, all of which seem to mix amiably both on the water and in nearby cornfields. It also provides a home for local geese, already in inseparable pairs.

Of all the traveling birds the most memorable was a large flock of turkey vultures that soared over town ahead of a storm on the last Saturday in March.

As I sat in the basement at the repeated urging of local emergency management officials, my cellphone rang. I expected another recorded storm warning, but it was my friend Arthur Clark asking if I had witnessed the phenomenon. If by that you mean the ongoing turkey vulture flight, the answer is yes, I said.

Up close and on the ground, turkey vultures, with their wrinkled, red, featherless faces and hooked beaks, rank near the top of many “ugliest bird” lists. But in flight and in large numbers, they make my list of most spectacular wildlife sights.

When I first spotted them wheeling and circling over the town, I thought they were gathering to consume a dead animal, but they just kept coming and coming. I whipped out my phone to photograph them but could soon tell it was a scene more suited to the human eye than to the lens of a camera.

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While I could see hundreds of them dipping, banking and soaring, the camera could see only one or two at a size large enough to register as a bird rather than a black speck.

Unlike geese, which honk as they fly and fall when they coast, the vocal cordless vultures make no sound and seem to go where they please without flapping a wing.

And with a strong north wind pushing them away from their destination, they looked like they were doing it not to get to any place in particular but for the sheer fun of it.

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