• Last modified 331 days ago (June 21, 2023)


Another Day in the Country

Ornithology 101

© Another Day in the Country

After 80 years of bird watching, I’ve found a bird that I’ve never ever seen before right here in my own backyard in Kansas.

We were duck watching, and my sister said, “Can you hear that bird? What kind is it?”

She has a lot more faith in my ability to identify birds than my experience really warrants.

Maybe it’s because I’m the older sister, with all the authority that entails. When you are only 5 years old and your big sister often has the final word — even bucking Mom at times — it’s natural to be impressed.

I did hear the bird but I hadn’t the foggiest idea what bird it could be.

I know what red-winged blackbirds sound like — and meadowlarks, killdeer in distress, raspy blue jays, feisty cardinals declaring turf, chippy sparrows, replicating mockingbirds, and cooing doves.

This bird was none of the above — different. He was a soloist with a clear, distinctive, melodic song. Hmm, what could it be?

Several days later, I caught sight of a little jet-black bird sitting on wire tomato cages singing his heart out. The sun was going down, and he was still singing.

Black with a red breast — real red, and not orange, like a robin — smaller than a robin, bigger than a sparrow, sleeker than a meadowlark, slimmer and more delicate than a blackbird.

I combed through all the birds I’ve seen and finally got out bird books and started scouring through them.

I even Googled the description of the bird and came up with a lot of ideas but no exact confirmation.

Opening yet another bird book, I discovered there are lots of different oriole variations that I’d never known about.

I’m familiar with the Baltimore oriole, with its striking black and orange coloring and distinctive basket nest. But it turns out (as far as I can tell) that this little bird, smallest of the oriole family, is called an orchard oriole.

Its habitat is the Southwest but ventures into the Midwest, and here he is with his mate in my backyard in Ramona, Kansas.

Love of birds comes from my mother’s side of the family.

Grandpa Schubert planted a hedgerow when he first bought a farm west of Ramona. It included all kinds of fruit trees that proved to be wonderful habitat for Kansas birds.

My mother’s sister Anna was an avid birdwatcher, and my Mom got the bird-watching bug from her.

I love to paint birds, but my mother loved recording their songs. Her favorite was the mockingbird. There always seemed to be mockingbirds around wherever she lived.

My “spirit bird” is the red-winged blackbird. I love their call, how they build such creative nests in cattails along a ditch or lake, and the scribbly design in dark brown on their clutch of eggs.

I used to have a tipi in my yard, and when I finally painted it with my power symbols, the red-winged blackbird protected the entrance.

Right about that time, I found a red-winged blackbird dead in the road — probably hit by a car, but in perfect shape.

“I’m going to have it taxidermied,” I said to myself as I examined it, “and mount it in my tipi.”

But, sadly, that never happened. 

I parked the bird in the freezer and went looking for information about taxidermy — how much it would cost — and then discovered it’s against the law in California to preserve wild critters by taxidermy, even if they are road kill. 

That bird stayed in the freezer for a long time. I was in Singapore doing a contract job. My sister was living-in and caring for my house. She called from California.

“You need to get a new refrigerator, pronto,” she said. “This one died. They can deliver one this weekend. Is it OK to put it on your credit card?”

She took a deep breath.

“And by the way, I was going to make cookies and thought I’d found dark chocolate chips in the freezer….”

There’s another pause.

“It was that silly blackbird you found on the road. Can I get rid of it?”

My grandson has caught the bird-watching bug from me. A big fire in the Napa Valley displaced wildlife, and had a heron family is nesting in a tall sea pine in his family’s front yard.

It’s on a mountain, quite a ways from a lake, but the heron are in their third year of raising offspring there.

All kinds of skeletal bones end up at the foot of that tree. It’s like a seafood graveyard. The herons are noisy, raucous neighbors — especially at night, when one of the parents returns with dinner.

“Yesterday, an eagle got one of the two half-grown heron babies,” Dagfinnr texted, “and today it came back for the other one. It feels so helpless. There’s nothing I can do but watch. And then the crows showed up. They took after that eagle and they are trying to chase it away.”

The video was amazing.

The crows won that battle. The baby heron fell from the nest but managed to catch itself halfway down the tree. It took a while, but it managed to climb back up to the nest, and the front yard was quiet and peaceful again, as days should be when you’re spending them in the country.

Last modified June 21, 2023