North Coast Journal



Bye, bye, birdie

by Lisa Ladd-Wilson

WHEN I WORKED AT THE Union newspaper in Arcata, my friend and colleague Paul DeMark had a handmade sign hanging in his cubicle that read,

"Think globally, act microscopically."

Very wise, very pithy. And so now I must kill the cowbird in my back yard.

It would be a global act -- signifying my concern for Planet Earth and its apparently hell-bent decline, environmentally speaking -- yet microscopically local: instead of dodging bullets fired by angry Norwegian whalers on the open seas or throwing myself between the soft fuzz of a baby harp seal and the cold thwack of a Canadian club, I need only toss a heavy object from my bedroom window onto the cowbird's head. A shoe perhaps -- Just Do It. Or one of the 50,000-count bottle of analgesics we got at Costco -- little, yellow, different, deadly.

The cowbird saga began this spring on the wooden dowels that are the barstools to the truck stop/diner we like to call our bird feeder. On those dowels usually rest the tiny feet of house finches, goldfinches and a variety of sparrows.

They are all small birds, and the minor skirmishes that break out among them remain so -- a twittering fuss here, a shrill push there, followed by the resumption of a feverishly hushed cracking of millet and sunflower seeds.

But this spring I noticed a new pair of toes on the feeder bar, belonging to a larger bird. My husband ID'd it -- a male cowbird. His mate showed up the next day.

A pretty brown bird with a distinctive dark cap, the cowbirds were a welcome break to the monotony of finchdom. But my joy at new visitors was quickly dampened by the nasty word ascribed to their behavior -- parasites.

Some words are so foul-sounding that you don't need to know their meaning to know they're up to no good: say, "pustule" or "sewage." You don't have to know what a nematode is to know you don't want one in your colon.

And so it is with parasites. But the cowbird is even worse than that, because it's a nest parasite: It makes no nest of its own, but lays its eggs in the nests of smaller birds. When the cowbird babies hatch, they dominate over the nest's legitimate youngsters, snagging food and attention, often to the point of starving its "siblings" out.

The cowbird is widely blamed for the startling decline in population of many songbirds, including warblers and vireos.

I liked looking at the cowbirds, but I was grateful when the pair disappeared and didn't return. The finches and sparrows were old hat, but they weren't nasty old hat. (It was like spending a few hours with Bob Dole; suddenly George Bush doesn't look so bad.)

It's August, and breeding is essentially over. Our regular customers are joined at the feeder by their young. The house finches and goldfinches jostle on the dowels; the white-crowned and house sparrows peck at the ground below. And there among them, shoving and pushing, is the biggest sparrow I've ever seen. Lurch the house sparrow. Andre the Giant house sparrow. Cowbird the house sparrow.

It's "The Tale of the Ugly Duckling," starring Lyle Menendez.

The global part of this tale is a lesson in dominoes. The cowbird used to live only on the prairie, often riding on the backs of bison. They did not cross paths with the songbirds of the dense forest areas.

But now we have too much "prairie," too much open space. Smaller and smaller patches of forest have put the songbird's nest within reach of the cowbird's grasp. It's a battle the cowbird is likely to win.

We all know the domino theory, the theory of chain reactions: If this happens, then that will happen, causing this other thing to occur ä

Well, bears are in the front yard tree, mountain lions are killing house cats in the Oakland hills, and house sparrows think a cowbird is their big brother Al. Globally microscopic. Or at least microscopically global.

I can't go to Norway and I can't sit on an ice floe. But I can hang out my bedroom window, frozen cheesecake in my hand.

Nobody doesn't like Sara Lee.

Lisa Ladd-Wilson is a Eureka free-lance writer.

Comments? E-mail the Journal:

The North Coast Journal Table of Contents

North Coast Journal weekly banner