September 8, 2022
Oregon Junco
Occasionally we catch an NPR program called “Live Wire” during which the host and hostess tell listeners the best news item they saw or heard all week.  The segment began when the pandemic hit and its bad news was then compounded by the attack on the capitol, the war in Ukraine, and inflation.  We all needed any snippet of good news, and Live Wire’s tend toward random, heartwarming incidents from daily life.

A story recently related to me by a birding friend in the Pacific Northwest reminded me that with all the bad news about global warming, habitat degradation, drought, and fires, birders could use similar snippets of good news too, whenever and wherever they can be found at the intersection of human and avian activity.  This might become an irregular feature of the column.

My friend’s story goes like this.  On her back patio she has a large, wheeled garden cart with several leafy potted plants which she waters daily.  One day, shortly before she had scheduled a workman to power wash the patio, she was stunned as she watered to be “attacked” by two small but fierce birds that flew out from the leaves in one of the pots.  She investigated carefully and discovered she had a pair of “Geiger” birds.

Her Geiger birds, Oregon Juncos actually, had built a nest among the leaves in the pot and earned their sobriquet because whenever she got too close they would begin to scold with a wide frequency, short duration, single syllable, best transcribed as “Tic . . . tic . . . tic,” and the closer she got the louder and more frequent the alarm calls became.  Like a Geiger counter.  It was all fascinating, and hilarious too, but my friend kept her distance except to water, knowing that if the plant died, the nest would be exposed.

The day the workman came to power wash she was moving the cart off the patio when he arrived.  She knew both junco parents were foraging in her front yard, so she explained why she was moving the plants and carefully showed him the nest, now with two hatchlings, while explaining how important it was not to disturb them.  A middle aged non-birder, he was amazed when he saw the babies and immediately sensed and appreciated my friend’s care and concern for the little family’s well being.

She came out later, after the work was finished and discovered, to her surprise, that the workman had taken it upon himself to move the cart back to its original spot, assuming the parents might abandon the young if the nest wasn’t exactly where it had started out in the morning.  It’s likely the man wouldn’t know an eagle from a sparrow and had never seen baby birds or a nest until that day, but my friend had shown her day laborer a doorway into the natural world and perhaps had inadvertently recruited one more person to the cause of conservation.

He told her he had also warned his two assistants, who came later to help, about the nest and the importance of keeping their distance.  The best case scenario would be three non-birders will become birders, but at the very least these three men might start noticing birds, realizing their actions do impact the planet, and our species is responsible for good stewardship.  As you bird through the fall and the coming winter be mindful of the myriad ways you interact with non-birders and how you explain your passion to them.  Strike a chord.  Make some small good news.