Sunday, October 16, 2011

We Love Squirrels

I knew that all St. Louisans were bird watchers--specifically, Redbird watchers, but who knew they were squirrel watchers too? The yard art pictured above was created by one of my neighbors. It features "The Rally Squirrel" warming up before the big game. For those of you who are not from 'round here, or for those Americans who live under a rock, I have embedded video of the Rally Squirrel's moment of fame (posted by Andrewbeginning, Oct. 6, 2011).

Moaning about the economy has been replaced with chatter about the Rally Squirrel in my hometown. Of course, I had to have a St. Louis Cardinal's Rally Squirrel t-shirt. I found one at the grocery store. I've gotten so many compliments on it, I'm going to buy all my clothes at there from now on. It's so convenient--right next to the produce section.

Some years ago, I attended a lecture at the Missouri Botanical Garden, presented by Roger Swain. Swain was the science editor at Horticulture magazine, author of books about gardening, as well as a very entertaining host of the public broadcasting show, The Victory Garden, for 15 or so years. Swain discussed growing fruit in the home garden as well as nuts. That prompted a question from the audience about squirrels. Really, until recent sporting events, I thought everyone, particularly gardeners and bird watchers, hated squirrels. Swain answered with a story about a neighbor who--how can I put this politely--culled squirrels to protect her backyard nut crop. Another hand popped up immediately. "I'm an animal control officer in St. Louis, and I have successfully prosecuted a man who shot the squirrels in his yard for animal cruelty." Roger regarded the man through his spectacles for a beat, then announced, "If anyone in this audience is arrested for killing a squirrel, I will go your bail!" The audience exploded in laughter. (If you'd like to verify this anecdote, it's repeated in Bill Adler, jr.'s Outwitting Squirrels: 101 Cunning Stratagems to Reduce Dramatically the Egregious Misappropriation of Seed from Your Birdfeeder by Squirrels, 1996.)

The squirrel in the video was reportedly trapped, along with his buddies, at the stadium, then released in Castlewood State Park. A man who spotted my t-shirt told me that they trapped all the squirrels, but then let one go in the stadium again--just for luck. This is the kind of urban legend I love.

Perhaps it's a good thing they choose a large area like Castlewood's 1818 acres. Yesterday while walking the dog at a nearby college campus, I spotted a Red-tailed Hawk, sitting on the ground. As I approached, he took off, and I could just see a bushy, gray tail dragging behind. It seems from the Cardinal's performance against the Brewers (as I post this), the Rally Squirrel was spared once again.

Sunday, October 2, 2011


We could call it a "kettle," if they were hawks--a pretty good description of a flock where the individuals seems to boil from the top to the bottom over and over again. In that sense, I watched a kettle of Common Nighthawks over the dog park on September 20. I estimated at least 60 in the flock, but it could easily have been twice that. The kettle gradually moved west, the birds whirling and flashing like flakes in a snow globe. The birds never dropped as low as the tree tops, while below, a flock of migrating Green Darner dragonflies roiled in their own version of a kettle, 6 to 15 feet above ground. The Crossley ID Guide (Richard Crossley, 2011) mentions that they are often found along wooded streams, and the dog park is within sight of the Meramec River.

Nighthawks are not even close to being hawks, but they hunt on the wing, that is, they "hawk" for insects, and are most active in twilight. My dad used to call them "bullbats." If you use the word "bull" to mean "large or strong," they certainly would be large, strong bats, if they were bats. He told me they liked to hang around the lights at the ballpark and sometimes along the street. I used to see them in those places too as a kid, but I see fewer and fewer of them now flying erratically over towns. The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior, by David Sibley (2001), notes that Common Nighthawk populations have declined throughout their breeding range (p. 352). The breeding range covers most of the Canada and the US (excluding south and central California, Alaska, and areas near or north of the arctic circle), and the western portion of Mexico (excluding Baja California). Factors contributing to the decline include the use of insecticides, and the loss of open areas that they need for hunting and mating displays (Sibley).

Nighthawks don't build nests, laying their eggs on the ground in open, rocky areas. They have adapted to using flat roofs covered with gravel, but as these become less common and roofs insulated with smooth PVC coatings become the norm, nighthawks have lost an important resource. In her book 101 Ways to Help Birds, Laura Erickson (2006) discusses ways to accommodate nighthawk nesting sites (p. 169) by providing pads with gravel in shaded areas of flat roofs.

Besides their beautiful, haphazard flight, male nighthawks have an intriguing display. I heard it "in the wild" only once. I was sitting on the front stoop of a shop, enjoying a traditional St. Louis treat, a "concrete," when I heard it. Nighthawks had been flying overheard, calling with nasal, off-key notes, "beans...beans..." when I heard a sound that shouldn't have come from a bird. Greg Budney, audio curator of the Macaulay Library at Cornell, describes it as similar to "a truck roaring by, that suddenly disappears." Somewhere along the city street, a male nighthawk dove between the buidlings, creating that roar as wind passed through the long flight feathers. Perhaps he planned his display to take advantage of the echoes in the urban "canyon."

At the end of the recording below, you hear this mechanical sound. If you have 2 minutes, check out the video from Cornell's Lab of Ornithology which I embedded below it. Thanks to Bill Bouton for his great photo of a Common Nighthawk above, taken in northern California, and to Don Jones who recorded the species in New Jersey, and the Cornell Lab, all of whom licensed their work with Creative Commons.

You might also like:
Crossley ID Guide   
Macaulay Library of Animal Sounds
Mysterious Sounds of the Night