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Selected Podpieces


The other day Pippin and I got a late start on our morning walk. It was pretty darned cold, so we strode briskly down the hill through the bright sunshine. As we came to the end of the street, I heard a screech owl calling, what the Cornell Lab of Ornithology refers to as its Agitated Bark and Bill Clap.

Goodness! I said to Pippin. What's a screech owl doing up at this hour?
He replied that he had no idea, and stopped to smell the stop sign.
The owl called again, and again, and I thought, There must be something going on! Perhaps the owl is in trouble!
We rounded the corner. There on the road beside the pond a car was parked, and nearby a man with binoculars was prowling along the edge of the woods.
Ah. It was the Christmas Bird Count.

The owl continued to bark and clap, and I saw that the little brown jobbers – the sparrows, the wrens, the titmice, and their buddies the robins, even the jays – were all a-flutter back under the trees.

And set up on the fence post was a little bendy tripod that held some electronic doodad, from which endlessly emerged the screech owl's Bark and Bill Clap.

As we approached the man did his best to appear intent on scanning the woods. You're supposed to be quiet when birding, but I said good morning, a little loudly to be heard over the screecher.
“You know,” I added, “no screech owl worth its salt would sit there calling so constantly.”
“We're hoping for a yellow-bellied sapsucker,” he said, and Pippin and I strolled on down to the town landing.

Now, who am I to judge hardcore birders? But when I was involved in the Christmas Bird Count in various chapters on the west coast of this country, using recorded bird calls to attract your prey was frowned upon. It was fair to whistle, or to make pishy sounds, or to cluck or chuckle somewhere deep in your throat in an attempt to sound avian, but to deceive the birds by using recordings of their relatives was considered not just cheating, but perhaps deleterious to their welfare in winter.

Why, look at what was going on that icy morning! A couple of dudes all bundled up in wool and fleece were standing around watching while the little woodland birds were using up their hard-earned energy, gleaned from shriveled berries and scattered seeds, flapping around in alarm about a nonexistent mortal enemy!

The Christmas Bird Count is a wonderful thing. It began over a century ago in an effort to transform a competition involving the wanton killing of birds into one involving the benign counting of birds, and over the decades has become a valuable tool for tracking trends in bird populations.

I suppose needlessly alarming birds in the heart of winter kills far fewer of them than shooting them, or polluting their air, or building tall buildings into whose brightly lit plate glass windows they smash during migration. I suppose the playing of a recording of a scary screech owl isn't a huge crime in the great scheme of things.
But it doesn't seem very fair.

I saw in the news that six yellow-bellied sapsuckers were spotted that day, as well as 24 screech owls. I hope the hard-core birders I met were happy. And I hope the agitated little birds found their way to my yard, where there's always a supply of fast food available for hungry visitors.

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