Wrangell festival caters to birders of a feather
Brian O'Connor/ Wrangell Sentinel
John Eiler and Mirage field questions from participants in a guest presentation on falconry Saturday night at the Nolan Center. The presentation was part of the Stikine River Birding Festival held last week in Wrangell.
WRANGELL - Hummingbirds are jerks.
That was among the messages, meditations, stories and sights shared at the 2014 Stikine River Birding Festival last week. The annual festival caters to those – like guest speaker and author Noah Strycker – with birds on the brain, and took place most visibly over the weekend. The festival receives funding in part from the US Forest Service's Resource Advisory Committee, which also provides funds for Bearfest in August.
As a conclusion to an hour-long presentation focused in part on insights drawn from the human study of bird behavior, Strycker drew a contrast between the beautiful, ill-tempered, and short-lived hummingbird and the faithful, monogamous, easy-going albatross.
"One question I often get asked these days, in my line of work as a full-time bird nerd, is if you were to die right now and come back as a bird in another life, which bird would you chose?" he said. "I might be tempted to pick something like a hummingbird. These guys are like the miniature fighter jets of the bird world. They're the only birds that can hover in place and fly backwards and essentially fly laps around pretty much any other bird."
Despite the agility, hummingbird reincarnation would have other drawbacks, Strycker said.
"However, have you ever really watched hummingbirds interacting with each other?" he said. "They are the most mean, vicious, aggressive birds I think I've ever seen in my life."
Male hummingbirds will attack even females of the same species who get too close to the feeder. Two males Strycker discovered fighting in a ditch in Costa Rica were so infuriated by each other he was able to pick them up with ease. Their temper is likely a function of the high caloric intake required to sustain their furious, lonely and short lives, Strycker said. Hummingbirds suffer from a high rate of heart attacks and strokes, and leave virtually no evidence that they existed.
"These hummingbirds are living right on the edge of possibility," he said.
By contrast, albatrosses mate for life, don't work hard to stay aloft, and live a life seemingly full of familial bliss, Strycker said.
"I think albatrosses have the greatest love affairs of any bird, and possible any animal in the world," he said.
The albatross divorce rate – counted as the number of albatross pairs that break off without one of them dying – could be as low as 0.1 percent, Strycker said.
"It kind of makes you wonder, do albatrosses feel emotional love for each other the same way we do?" he said. "I will say, there is no reason something like love ... should be limited to us. The same evolutionary forces that have been acting on us have been acting on albatrosses."
The distinction between the dazzling, intense short-lived hummingbird and the long-lived, comparatively plain albatrosses can offer a cautionary lesson for humans, who face similar decisions about how to relate to each other ever day, Strycker said.
If Strycker's presentation about bird behavior and how it provides models (to be emulated or avoided) for humans was poetic and abstract, Juneau falconer John Eiler's presentation about falcons was more utilitarian in nature.
Eiler brought his Arctic Gyrfalcon "Mirage" for a show and tell about the requirements and history of falconry in Europe and North America.
"She has her opinions, too," Eiler said at one point, when Mirage began to get a bit antsy.
Falconry started in Asia as a means of hunting, and spread to Europe in the Middle Ages, then to the United States and Canada in the early 20th Century, according to Eiler. Hawks, falcons, and eagles eventually declined as hunting tools with the rise of firearms as a means of hunting, since hunters could kill much bigger animals.
"It's not a great way to hunt game," he said.
Modern falconers must be able to pass a national exam in order to obtain their license, Eiler said. They must also be able to provide a suitable living space for the bird, Eiler said. Once obtained using either a trap, captive breeding, or from a stolen egg, the birds represent a significant time investment for those interested in training.
For those who enjoy their nature as much as their birds, Saturday morning's "Breakfast with the Birds" event allowed birders to get out and see birds in their natural surroundings. Bonnie Demerjian took a crew of dedicated birders around the golf course hunting for the odd sighting. Demerjian prefers to do most of her birding by ear, she said.
"It gives you a much broader sense of what birds are in the environment," she said.
However, newcomers to audio birding should be wary, Demerjian said. One member of the community heard a loud warbling shriek and asked what type of bird it was, only to discover that it was, in fact, a squirrel.
"I got made fun of on my first birding trip for asking what type of bird that was," she said.