Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Birds at Large: Adorable Little Kids


My friend Ali teaches fourth graders in my home state of Maine.  A few weeks ago she posted a request to the teacher crowdfunding site DonorsChoose.org looking for some magazine subscriptions she could share with her students.  Being the selfless, helpful friend that I am, I chipped in to help the project along.  Soon after I was updated via email that my contribution, along with others, had helped the complete the project: the kids would be getting their magazines.  Good deed done.

But teachers being teachers and kids being kids, my meager contribution would not go un-thanked.  In fact, Ali (ahem, Ms. Roberts) told her students a few facts about me and had them write honest-to-goodness Thank You notes.  One of the facts about me Ms. Roberts told her kids was that I liked birds, and into my mailbox today arrived a set of lovely notes, fretted over and laboriously colored and spelled out by a bunch of innocent nine-year-olds.  On some of them were drawings of birds.

The worst bird drawings I've ever seen.

Look, I'm not here to pile on to the American educational system.  I'm sure these kids are trying as hard as they can.  But the fact the remains that none of the "birds" these kids drew resemble anything close to a real species.  Have any of them even seen a bird before? Isn't there a window they can look out of?

Maybe we should just take it one bird at a time.


Unbelievable.  I don't know all 10,000 of the world's bird species, but I can say with complete certainty that there is no rainbow-colored bird that craps Stars of David from the air.  I've tried to do the world a service by spreading the word about the myth of rainbow-colored birds, but apparently I'm not getting through to the younger generations.


A first cycle gull with a beak deformity?  A brown jay, also with a beak deformity?  Maybe this guy is allergic to bees and just got stung in the beak...but then why would he be smiling?  How can he even smile? Ugh.  


The reason this bird looks to uncomfortable is because he's shaped like a tube of toothpaste and only has one wing and a puff-ball tail.  He's a complete disaster, and I'm amazed he's even in the air.  Other than that, he sorta looks like a white-crowned sparrow.  Maybe he got stung by the same bees as the bird above, but they got him in the body.  And the tail.  And bit off a wing?


"Bird's rock" sounds like an eBird hotspot, or maybe the geologic feature that this unlucky creature is about to plummet into, beak-first.  They've named it in his honor, some sort of creepy preemptive memorial.  What's even happening to this guy?  Is that a butt wing?

Look, these kids are sweethearts for trying, but clearly the systemic cuts to STEM courses have prevented them from learning anything about actual bird species.  PLEASE CLICK HERE AND DONATE TO MS. ROBERTS' CLASS, maybe she can buy them some dang field guides.


Thursday, March 27, 2014

Making Avian Major League Baseball Logos More Accurate


God I love baseball.  It's the greatest American sport because it is a big fat apple pie baked with all the most American ingredients: quasi-athleticism, belts, anthems, expanses of green grass, bubble gum, sitting around, boozing, and fresh air.  It's the only sport I know where players can eat food while they're playing.   I've loved it forever.

Loved it longer than I've loved birding, in fact.  But that's another great thing about Major League Baseball - it treats birds pretty well.  There are three MLB teams named after birds: The Baltimore Orioles, the Toronto Blue Jays, and the St. Louis Cardinals.  First, these are great choices because they're specific.  No invented baloney "Thunder Falcons" or anything, not even generic "hawks" or "eagles." These are classic, small, passerines.  These are real birds.

In addition to the names of the teams, the logos do these birds justice.  For the most part they're accurate, ornithologically speaking.  For the most part, but not completely.

I wanted to take this opportunity to offer some edits to the logos of bird-named MLB teams, to see how different they'd look if given full respect to their avian inspirations.  Let's see how it'll look.

Toronto Blue Jays

The Blue Jays have a beautiful set of logos.  They'd tried to "toughen it up" a couple years ago, using logo showing an animated Jay angrily gripping a ball...but everyone knew it just wasn't them.  The side-facing Jay with the split blue and white lettering is the Blue Jays, and it came back to stay.  I grew up with them in powder blue, and I wouldn't mind it that came back full time.



Anyway, the Jays logo, frankly, takes few liberties with the actual Blue Jay.  The biggest difference - the only difference - is that the bill and neck stripe of the Blue Jay is black.  Well, the bill for sure.  The neck stripe is a bit tougher to see.  It's interesting, Blue Jays are such an easily-identified bird that field guides don't seem to pay much attention to the details.  It's tough to tell whether the neck is a midnight blue or a black, but most images see it as black, so I'll go with that.  A simple shift leads to a slightly different logo.



Interestingly, the Jays had shifted to black uniforms a few years ago, part of the "black for black's sake" (or BfBS) uniform trend highlighted by UniWatch.  The Jay's black uniforms were roundly criticized, partly because black wasn't a traditional part of their color scheme.  If the Blue Jays had simple changes their colors to more accurately reflect real Blue Jays, they could have adopted black uniforms with no problem.  Alas.

St. Louis Cardinals

One of the oldest and most storied franchises in pro baseball, St. Louis has been making cardinals cool for decades.  Northern Cardinals are an interesting case, they're not an intimidating or tough bird, but they're so colorful and common that they're one of the few birds that everyone knows.

As I've covered before, despite their ubiquity Northern Cardinals are frequently misrepresented in broader culture.  No one can seem to get the colors right, mostly insisting that they have bright yellow beaks.  They don't.  They just don't.


Friday, March 21, 2014

New Birding Movies


Hey folks I just wanted to post here that I've got a new article up on Slate.com today about two new movies that do a pretty durn good job at relating birds and birding: The Birder and A Birder's Guide to Everything. 

It's not this movie:


Thursday, March 13, 2014

Boutique Big Years


Completing a Big Year is every birders dream.  Fame!  Adventure!  Blog posts!  The entirety of the American birding community watched with jealous anticipation as Neil Hayward took the ABA Big Year crown last year, and we all imagined what it would have been like if it were us instead.

Aside from the obvious financial and time-commitment obstacles to taking on a Big Year (seriously I don't know how anyone can do it), there's the equally-daunting shadow of not setting the record.  Can you imagine putting forth all that time and money and then finishing, like, 12th?  Yeah yeah experiences and all that, but it's hard!

As we've seen in the immense interest in the cool Biking for Birds Big Year, other versions of this tradition can also be fun.  One of my favorite ideas is something I read about in The Big Year Book, where some guy was sick (or old?) and bedridden for a long period, and he did a Big Year based on all the species he saw on TV.  I love that idea, and kinda can't wait to be a worthless old piece of crap so I can sit on my couch but tell my grandkids to leave me alone because I'm working on something important.

So when the ABA record is too much to chase after, here are some ideas for different kinds of big years.

Place-named Species Big Year

OK, by my very brief count there are 45 or so birds found the ABA named after geographic locations in the ABA area.  Tennessee warbler, Savannah sparrow, California towhee, etc.  The challenge of this Big Year is to see as many of these species as you can in the place they are named for.  You get it?  You've got to see a Mississippi Kite in the state of Mississippi, then scoot down to Louisiana to see a Louisiana waterthrush.

The first tricky part would be figuring out the ground rules.  In the above-mentioned 45-ish species I counted birds you'd just need to see in "America": American white pelican, American oystercatcher.  I also counted Pacific loon and Atlantic puffin, figuring that they're named after those oceans.  I didn't include "eastern," "western," "northern" and "southern" birds, even though they're still named after parts of the US - just relative places not specific ones.  But if someone were taking on this Big Year I wouldn't hold it against them if they wanted to count the sighting of a western kingbird in California or a northern cardinal in Pennsylvania.  Some agreement of what to consider "west" and "north" would be needed.

I also didn't count birds named after pieces of their habitat - boreal chickadee or cactus wren - though if someone wanted to count the sighting of a cactus wren on a cactus, we could consider that.

I think this would be a lot of fun.  It might not take all year to complete, though I like the idea of some hapless birder frantically driving around the city limits of Nashville in December desperately looking for a wayward, late warbler.

State Bird Big Year

This is the same idea as above, but probably even easier: see every state's State Bird in that state in the shortest time possible.  The travel!  Regular Big Year participants do a crazy amount of travel - but I doubt they go to all 50 states (and yes, pushy "include Hawaii in the ABA" people, the aloha state would count).  How patriotic!  The downside, of course, as we've covered here before, is that the list of state birds is completely terrible.  Oh cool, I saw another cardinal!

Heard Only/Nocturnal Flight Call Only

Two variations on an "experts only" theme.  This one's perfect for those birding snobs out there who are above having to lift optics to their faces to get a closer look at a bird.  It would be a lot like a normal big year, really, except way way harder and with a lot fewer pelagic trips.

Alphabetical Big Year

Hahaha can you even imagine this?  You would have to start with the first bird in the ABA checklist - alphabetically - and had to move bird-by-bird.  I love it.  You can get an alphabetical checklist by downloading and resorting the .xcl from the ABA website.  So, you'd have to start on Jan. 1 by finding an ... anyone know it without me telling you? ... think ... an Abert's towhee.  Once you saw one, you couldn't count Bird #2 unless it was an Acadian flycatcher.  Bird #3 is back to the southwest for an acorn woodpecker.  This would be so fun.  There might have to be a rule that, like, code 4 and 5 birds don't count, otherwise you'd get stuck on #8 Amazon Kingfisher and never make it anywhere.  Someone do this c'mon I dare you.

OK are there other ideas? 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Thoughts on New Sibley


I mean, what do we want in a field guide?  What's the point here?  

sibley guide

I'm amused by all the griping about the new Sibley guide.  Not because I don't recognize that there are obvious changes in the color and texture in a lot of the plates but because, so what?  Will we lose the ability to identify a Scarlet Tanager in the field?

The holy status earned by the Sibley guide has perhaps worked to its detriment here, as the only place it can go is down.  Nevermind that this new edition has added more than 600 new paintings, enlarged most of the images and fully updated range maps, there's a hint of fallibility in this edition and people are overreacting.

Let's just relax for a second.  Let's take a second to remember that there are imperfections in this look like there are in every single field guide - imperfections that, for me, result in a much less complete and useful guide than Sibley.  Stokes has lighting issues and not enough poses.  Crossley doesn't have enough text or ID points.  Peterson and National Geographic are too limited.  Yet I don't hear people demanding refunds when those books come out.

The fact remains that even in this second edition - especially in this second edition - Sibley remains far and away the best guide on the market.  No guide is more complete, no guide is easier to use, no guide presents as many plumages.  It'll remain the go-to guide for identifications, and it's still be the first guide I'd recommend to a new birder looking to learn the scope of American birds.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

All Of The Things Wrong With The WGN.Tv "Article" About Sea Ducks


Man oh man oh man.  Oh man.  As tipped off by BirdChick on Twitter, an article about sea ducks and/or the Slaty-backed Gull has appeared on the website of the Chicago-area news channel WGN-TV today, and it's a doozy.


This article is an absolute wreck of journalism, managing to squeeze misinformation, factual errors, and spelling and grammar mistakes into its measly few sentences.  I can't let it pass.  I just can't.

So, in keeping with great online traditions, I am now jumping on my High Horse of Internet Ridicule and taking this article on, sentence by sentence, Fire Joe Morgan-style.

Firstly, because I suspect it may get taken down or edited, here is a screenshot of the article, in its entirety (click to enlarge):

 
Harsh Winter brings sea ducks to Chicago area

The hook!  Not a bad headline, actually, except for the bizarre capitalization of Harsh Winter.  We're talking about this winter season, correct?  And "harsh" is the adjective describing the severity of said season?  Maybe Harsh Winter is a thrash metal band that makes ends meet as an exotic bird importer.  As BirdChick pointed out, at least they avoided the "birders flock" cliche.

[photo of a mallard duck]

Splendid.  Just beautiful.  So much about what the general public knows about birds is summed up in this image.  You would think that even folks casually interested in nature would know that this is a bird they've seen before.  Isn't that the same kind of duck that I feed at the park? They might wonder.  Is this a sea duck?  Is this a rare bird?  No, dear readers, it is not.

Some rare birds are showing up in the Chicago area.

Nice first paragraph.  Factual.  Brief.  Is Hemingway writing for WGN-TV now?

Experts say many of the ducks have flown far from their usual habitats in search of food.  But some were grounded by recent snowstorms and unusually brutal weather conditions.

Who are these experts?  No time for introductions.  What kinds of ducks are we talking about?  Who cares. Did the storms "ground" the ducks in Chicago?  Well, I guess, but the better connection is that the weather has frozen most of the Great Lakes, forcing birds into the remaining open water.  Should these two sentences be combined into one, with a comma between "food" and "but"? Yeah.  Does the use of "some" here create confusion about whether it's referring to the ducks or the experts?  A little.

The Slaty Backed Gull is usually found near Japan and the Aleutian Island, but the duck was spotted a in Libertyville

Oh.  Wait what are we talking about?  Ducks?  For the record, the Slaty-backed Gull (note spelling) is usually found both in and near Japan and, less commonly, among the many islands that make up the Aleutian chain, but the gull (it says gull right there in the name, it's not a duck) was spotted in (removed the "a" typo) Libertyville

a couple days ago.

Woodward, to Deep Throat: I'm tired of playing these chickensh*t games, I need to know what you know!  Names, dates.  When exactly did this bugging go down?
Deep Throat: A couple days ago.
Woodward:  Good enough!  Print it!

In less harsh winters, many of the ducks would be farther out on the lake where few would see them. 

"Milder winter" might sound better, but OK.  An understandable, if debatable, conclusion.  Carry on.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The New Orleans Pelicans Should Be The Official Team of Birders


As you may know, the exclusive club of sports teams named after birds got an unexpected new member this year, the New Orleans Pelicans of the NBA.  The oft-moved team had been called the Hornets (the only member of the club of teams named after insects!), but Charlotte, NC wanted that name back (it had been the original name of their NBA team, now called the Bobcats [sorry, mammalogists]), so New Orleans decided to change.

Surprise of surprises, they didn't go with something stupid, they went with Pelicans.

I've covered this ground before, discussing how pleased I am with choosing such a not-really-tough nickname and mascot.  But I think it's more than that.  I think the birding community should adopt the New Orleans Pelicans as our official sports team.

What does it mean to be the official sports team of birders?  I don't know, really, I'm doing this off the top of my head, but I don't think it's much different than any city's fanbase liking their team.  It's a rallying point, a vehicle for unification.  A method for the various subspecies of birder - listers, feeder-watchers, gull-dorks, banders, chasers, old cranks, bread-throwers, migratiphiles, radar-watchers, patch-listers, night-flight-nerds, photographers, pelagic seafarers, Sunday strollers, museum specimen perusers, shorebird geeks, subspecies maniacs, car birders and others - to come together and support a common cause.

It'll be a secret handshake.  See that guy in the park wearing a cool Pelicans hat?  We're nowhere near Louisiana, must be a birder.




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