Birds of A Feather: The Flocking Part

Scroll to the end for how to get rid of flocking birds. Better living through technology…

But first, a remembered gathering of blackbirds in autumn, more than a decade ago…

Vox Populi

The house was chilly when I got home—cooler inside than out. A somber October sun only a few shades paler than sky offered little light, and less heat. I stepped into my rubber boots—a country-dweller’s slippers—for the short walk to the woodpile for an armload of kindling. A small fire through the glass doors of the woodstove would cheerify the dark afternoon, would take the edge off the damp-cold before Ann got home.

Standing in a fine mist, I zipped up my jacket on the stone walkway outside the back door, and breathed in the familiar smell of mid-autumn’s demise in a mulch of molding leaves. And then I heard it.

Truth is, the dog heard it first. His ears perked, suddenly alert. The unsettling commotion above us was not our repertoire of familiar country sounds; we put up our guard. It came from beyond the bare maples, from the near ridge behind the house.

From somewhere hidden in those young pine trees on the broken hillside came the anxious, ventriloquial voices of birds. Thousands of birds. Their angst filled the valley, louder even than the babble of the creeks.

Grackles, probably, maybe mixed with other blackbird kin—the loathsome, hapless starlings. But I could see not a one of them. Their invisibility only added to the eeriness of their thousand opinions: Listen to me! I have an idea! Let’s go that a’way! each one squeek-chirped to his incorporeal companions.

Rising, falling, they turned on their perches as each new spokesman, spokesbird, took the podium, a hundred giant rainsticks inverted over and over, tinkling waterdrop metallic voices that swelled just before they all took wing, became suddenly visible, followed the advice of the most insistent speaker; and they were gone from sight, then from sound only to rise and swirl and return to the same two trees out of hundreds of trees on the same ridge. Together, they vetoed their twentieth or twenty-first itinerary—undecided voters, uncertain of where or when, sure only that they must go, more or less south, more or less soon. And at once they flushed, and headed north.”

Excerpt From: Fred First. “Slow Road Home ~ a Blue Ridge Book of Days.”

► I am expecting, perhaps this week, to spot the first uneasiness among the corvids passing down our valley. In some places, starlings and grackles gather in huge, unwelcome flocks in trees of urban parks and suburban boulevards. Banging pots and Roman candles do little to roust them from their roosts.

But this sure works. Bird brains are not prepared for any response but avoidance of a moving light that might be a predator. Lasers are being used effectively to protect fruit and vegetable crops from bird damage.

Cuckoo for Caterpillars

They look awful, and seem to threaten the forest with ultimate consumption–the fall web worms whose unsightly tents of silk tatter the margins of roadways and fields in autumn.

What many people don’t realize is that, in the end, the caterpillars generally don’t kill the trees they make their webs in; and second, that there are predators whose numbers rise in relationship to the numbers of caterpillars. And if you pay attention, you can hear them–the black-billed cuckoos who eat them by the thousands. They are related to the western roadrunner.

We are hearing both yellow and black-billed in abundance this summer.

Here’s an interesting fact I did not know, according the first link below, and not corroborated yet by other references:

“…cuckoos are true dietary specialists adapted to eating the hirsute larvae whose multitudes have overrun our parks and woodlands in many places. Over time, a cuckoo’s stomach becomes matted with caterpillar hairs that stick in the lining. Eventually this felt becomes so dense that it inhibits digestion, so the cuckoo sheds its whole stomach lining and grows it anew.

I suggest you click the audubon field guide links to listen to the songs of these two birds. And I’ll bet at least some of you (that is if there’s more than one person who reads this post) will say “Hey! I’ve heard that!”

The yellow-billed song sounds more like something that would come off a Tarzan movie. It is also referred in some parts of the south as the “rain crow.”

Black-billed Cuckoo | Audubon Field Guide
Yellow-billed Cuckoo | Audubon Field Guide
Black-billed Cuckoo | John James Audubon’s Birds of America
Yellow-billed Cuckoo | John James Audubon’s Birds of America

Seventeen Years Not Wanting to Know

I am reading the NYT special called “Losing Earth. The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change.” If you want a video summary, here is an interview with the author, Nathaniel Rich, on Democracy Now.

It portrays the choices we once almost made to act on the facts we agreed on  back then that humanity was fouling its own nest. We had the body of evidence; many had the will.

But the currents heading us towards a safer future were soon diverted during the time frame referenced in the essay–from 1979 to 1989. The Reagan administration was for me the most blatant and visible evidence that my generations’ hopes would not be realized–maybe in our lifetimes.

The flow shifted, pushing back on progress made since the first Earth day in 1970. Progress became regress as the Merchants of Doubt rebranded their successful campaign to obfuscate the dangers of cigarette smoking to include other possible assaults on our health: climate change; plastics; BPA and other hormone disruptors; threats to entire phyla of plants and animals. Doubt and denial became effective tools that easily confounded our increasingly science-illiterate public.

These environmental crises, according to some, were all questionable, deniable “hoaxes” if you listened to the industries that would have had to change if the truth were known. According to Big Ag, Big Pharma, and Big Oil, they were making America great.

Better living through chemistry. They were bringing good things to life. And they wielded their wealth to “prove” it through corrupt science and the power of mind-molding, behavior-shaping advertisements and campaigns of intentional deceit.


I think about this history as an overlay to my own, as I consider a chapter in a possible book I’m half-heartedly working on. In that chapter, I think out loud about all the factors that brought me to Goose Creek in 1999, with my peculiar set of passions, skills, fears and hopes.

The period addressed in the NYT article reminds me of many of those motivators to leave where we once were happy in our small universe, but heart sick about the larger world–a complex, ordered and resilient living planet, once almost redeemed from our poisons, then sold in pieces as fodder, the carnage to feed the stockholders.

I remember the pain in 1980 of having seen the pieces of a global reversal to climate change within grasp, only to be nibbled to death by people (almost all men, almost all white) who to me seemed willfully evil. Anyone who sells the future health of the planet out from under their own children–can they be anything else?

I left teaching biology in 1987 for a lot of reasons, but this corporate-political assault on nature was high on the list of the main reasons we packed up and moved from the mountains back to the city–from a daily immersion in the state of the planet as a teacher into 17 years of willful blindness towards a dismemberment I could not bear to watch.


That willful ignorance ended when I agreed to return to the classroom, teaching Environmental Biology at Radford University in 2004 and 2005. That blindness and deafness to the plight of the world ended when I discovered that, with the new weapon of the written word discovered only in 2002, I was not powerless to face the debacle of the out-of-control Growth Economy.

But then a new and even more sinister chapter began in November 2016. Its force and focus and intent has been a kind of Kryptonite to those of us who come from where I come from, given the history recounted here. It is almost lethally discouraging and depressing–the turning of the prior “lost decade” of NYT focus paling in comparison to the callous hopes of this administration.

But maybe at the end of the book, even this blatant attack on all that is holy to biology watchers like me will be shown to have feet of clay. Things really are going the way the inconvenient facts have suggested they probably would if we did nothing.

Cities are consumed in flames, entire regions use the last of their groundwater; glaciers melt and babies in India die from the heat; and entire populations of once-familiar and essential plants and animals disappear. Millions are displaced by eco-crisis, hunger, and lifeboat desperation of their local despots who feel the boat rocking more each day.

Even deniers share a common biology. It’s a shame it has taken another three decades to begin just slightly to get their attention. As we rush to the edge, I hope we act as if we remember that putting on the brakes needs to happen before becoming airborne–not pushing even harder on the gas.

Common But Commonly Overlooked: Horsehair Worms

The FB post a few days ago about the Siberian worms (nematodes) that revived after 30k years in permafrost made me remember, back in my teaching days, of seeing similar-looking horsehair worms (or having students bring them in for extra credit).

They were rather common around farms and wet margins of yards. Often they’d be found in a tight ball resembling the mythical Gordion Knot, giving them one of their common names.

You can see how they move in this video:

 They are not nematodes, but superficially resemble them and are in their own Phylum, Nematomorpha. There are some 300 species; some grow to more than six feet long–far in excess of the length of their host grasshopper et cetera.

They are very simple creatures but can have complex life cycles—including the zombie effect of making a host beetle or grasshopper commit suicide by jumping into water, since this is necessary to complete the worm’s life cycle.

And no, they do no harm to humans—except weird them out. It is freaking to hold one of these in your hands—like a stiff animated strand of the world’s strangest pasta noodle.

If you have seen these before, please tell me if it was recently and in what kind of habitat. Did you identify the host that filled the role that you see in this video of three large worms emerging from an unfortunate praying mantis?

Plant Ballistics: Mountain Laurel’s Explosive Pollen Bullets

Mountain Laurel, Terrys Fork, Virginia

The intricate design of the Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia) was a marvel for me in 1970 when I was a student on a field trip to the Smokies from Auburn University. Systematic Botany was a wake-up call to a budding zoologist who should not think there was little to learn from fixed, do-nothing greenery. I declared a botany minor after that field trip.

Laurel’s ten spring-tethered anthers (the pollen package) are arranged radially around the receptive stigma–the female part–in the very center of the flower.

A visiting insect would typically land on the disk and walk around the center in search of high-calorie nectar. And zap! the tension in the tethering “filaments” would shoot pollen onto the bee who would fly off with pollen from Plant A to deposit it on the female parts of flowers on Plant B.

But wait. Is this REALLY the strategy and method Kalmia uses to maintain genetic vigor? High-speed filming has revealed some answers.

Another similar method is used by a dogwood called Bunchberry–but the anthers additionally are able to swivel at the end of the filaments–creating more of a trebuchet force than a simple catapult like Kalmia.

Watch this short video of explosive Bunchberry pollen at 10k frames per second.