Ah, spring in the American Midwest, when our thoughts turn lightly to, um, housecleaning.
If there were any justice, somewhere in our cities, surrounded by flapping and squawking starlings, would be statues dedicated to Eugene Scheiffelin. The European starling owes its presence in America to said Mr Scheiffelin, who in the late 1800's set out to introduce to America all of the birds depicted in Shakespeare's writings1. He imported and released a number of the birds in New York City, where they made themselves at home. The phrase 'made themselves at home' here means 'disgraced themselves on impressive buildings and statues, and didn't clean up
afterwards'. Over the next century they did what birds do best, and today they're found from Alaska to South America. Meanwhile our civic leaders and public health officials wring their hands and mutter imprecations as they repeatedly try and repeatedly fail to discourage
large flocks of birds from congregating in the downtown areas.
Cincinnati, Ohio is typical of most cities in that it continues to fight a losing battle with the birds. Back in the 1980's someone came up with the idea of introducing peregrine falcons into the city to help keep the starlings, pigeons, and other undesirables under control. This is not as far-fetched as it may sound.
The peregrine is a beautiful bird. About the size of a crow, with a dark grey head, back and wings, and a white breast, the peregrine is built for speed and power. It has long, pointed wings and a streamlined body which enable it to fly faster than any other bird. When it is hunting, it first picks up speed until it is flying above its prey at about 50 miles (80.5 kilometres) per hour. Then it dives, wings folded tightly against its body, reaching a speed of 200 miles per hour; the prey has little time to escape. The peregrine generally hunts smaller birds and rodents, although it is also skilled at catching larger birds such as ducks, earning it the nickname 'duck hawk'.
In the 1970's, the number of peregrines had plummeted due to pesticides, particularly the banned DDT, in
the food chain, and the birds were placed on the Endangered Species List. At one point, only 39 breeding pairs were spotted in the United States, and it was thought that the species was doomed. Fortunately, a number of breeding programs established urban nesting sites within
the US and Canada, and the peregrine population began to recover. Peregrines adjust well to city life; they like nesting atop skyscrapers, and the cities' 'pest' bird and rodent populations
provide an ample food supply. In addition, their main predator, the great horned owl, nests outside of the cities and so there are fewer dangers facing peregrine chicks. One such urban nesting site is located at the Kodak Tower in Rochester, New York. Each year around this time, interested folks can follow the activities of Mariah and Kaver as they raise their new brood at the Birdcam Web site. Four
cameras surround the nest box and transmit updated pictures every five minutes or so. The parents are currently incubating their eggs; the chicks generally hatch during the latter part of May and take their first flights in early July.
The Cincinnati program wasn't quite the rousing success officials had hoped for. The birds just didn't seem to get the idea. Instead of doing their jobs and eating the pigeons and starlings, they'd wander the downtown area with them and hang out on Fountain Square, looking
for a handout. One young male named Stryker was completely unafraid of humans and used to stroll along the sidewalks, window-shopping and stepping inside any shop with an open door. He probably attended the opera and the theatre in the evenings. Eventually city officials gave up and sent Stryker to live in a raptor centre elsewhere in the state, away from the distractions of city life. I hope someone remembered to take away his credit cards.
The Rites of Spring
The middle of the United States has a reputation for being, well, dull. The writer Mark Twain once noted that he wanted to be in Cincinnati when the world ended because everything happens ten years later there. People living in the middle of the country do seem to have different priorities compared to those living on either coast. The following story is illustrative.
Each year on March 19th, St. Joseph's Day, the swallows return from their winter feeding grounds in Argentina to their traditional nesting sites in San Juan Capistrano, California. A few scouts precede the main flock by a few days, but early on the 19th, the birds begin to
arrive en masse and start rebuilding their mud nests in the ruins of the Old Mission. Touristscome from around the world to witness 'The Miracle of the Swallows', and the city residents host a Swallow Day Parade and celebrate the Fiesta de las Golondrinas (Festival of the
Swallows), with parties, dancing and food.
The return of the swallows adds a bit of romance to the coming spring. According to an old superstition, swallows nesting near your house will bring good luck: 'In whatsoever house the swallow breedeth, the goodman of the house is not there made cuckold.' -- Gerard Leigh, Accedendence of Armory (1562)
In the Midwest we're a more prosaic lot. The word 'prosaic' here means 'wary of any emotion we suspect makes us look like sissies'. No dainty swallows for us, no sir, we celebrate 'The Miracle of the Buzzards'.
Turkey vultures ('buzzards') return each year with almost clocklike precision to Hinckley, Ohio from their winter stomping grounds down south. The traditional 'Buzzard Sunday' celebration takes place annually on the Sunday following March 15th. Like the buzzards,
visitors have been returning to witness their arrival since the first Buzzard Sunday in 1957.
Pretty they're not, the buzzards. Large birds with a six-foot wingspan, they are a two-toned blackish colour with lighter flight feathers. They fly unsteadily, rocking on the air currents and tilting their wings. Unlike most other birds, buzzards lack a syrinx (voice box): their calls are mostly hisses and grunts. Their diet consists mostly of carrion; they usually eat dead raccoons, opossums, skunks, snakes, turtles, frogs and fish. If carrion is not readily
available, buzzards have been known to kill small mammals and young birds. (My apologies to anyone who is reading this before breakfast.)
Legend has it that the buzzards were first attracted by the tons of refuse and unwanted game left behind in the Great Hinckley Hunt of 1818. However an old manuscript written by William Coggswell, one of the first white men to set foot in the area in 1810, described an
expedition through the Hinckley area, and told of finding the 'vultures of the air' at the gallows at Big Bend of Rocky River around the foot of the ledges where the Wyandots had hanged a squaw for witchcraft two years before. So the turkey vultures had made their home on Hinckley Ridge long before the white men settled the area.
According to the good folks at Cleveland Metroparks, the scavenging buzzards of Hinckley Reservation are an important part of the natural environment of northern Ohio. 'The birds remind us of the once abundant wildlife in north-eastern Ohio, and their return each spring is a celebration of nature as it once was, and will continue to be.'
So there you have it. In California, people celebrate the romance of the returning swallow. Around here, we get excited when the 'garbage collector' shows up.
And rightly so. For yet another rite of the season is Spring Housecleaning. You know it's time to break out the mop and pail when:
- You can't remember what colour the rugs are. (Oh. Those aren't rugs.)
- You can’t find the cordless phone unless it rings .
- The dust mites have built condominiums under your bed.
- The residents of the fridge are holding elections.
Fortunately I came across this little gem in The New HOUSEHOLD DISCOVERIES (published in 1908):
'Most women, after constant confinement during the winter months, are more or less run down in the spring, and the change from the bracing temperature of winter to the enervating warmth of the first spring days is likely to result in a lowering of tone that may
expose them to serious mischief from overexertion.'
We certainly don't want any lowering of tone around here - what would the neighbours think? - and there are more entertaining forms of serious mischief to be had, so the next time I feel like picking up a mop, I'll just wait until the feeling passes. Maybe I'll do some serious bird-watching instead.