“Ten Birds” Part 3

The Roadrunner, Geococcyx californianus, is everyone’s sentimental favorite Southwestern mascot. Of course, they are not much like the cartoon version– I think they are the most dinosaur- like of the non- avian dinosaurs that I know. They eat EVERYTHING– lizards, snakes, small birds like House finches. When I try to imagine how a Deinonychus moves, I think of a Roadrunner. Paleontologist and wonderful novelist John McLoughlin, who has dinosaurian characters in this and other novels, thinks so too. He used to shoot diseased sparrows off his bird feeder with an air rifle and the ground cuckoos would run off with them. He once sent me this postcard:

The Nighthawk (Chordeiles minor)is not a hawk, of course– it is a “goatsucker” or nightjar, a bird that flies through the night engulfing insects with its great maw like, as Libby says, a whale cruising through plankton.

This is the perfect Nighthawk image– the graceful bird swooping through an urban summer night as crowds pass obliviously below. Nighthawks are the only native birds to connect my youth in urban New England with my life in rural New Mexico. When I was young we would sit on apartment roofs in Cambridge and the Back Bay, drinking horrible cheap Greek wine and smoking even cheaper nastier Mexican weed and watching the Nighthawks courting overhead. They would flap erratically through the dusk, uttering occasional “peents” not unlike a woodcock’s, then dive at the rooftops to pullout at incredible angles, making a loud humming boom with stressed primaries. Wing song!

Now they come, not in spring but in the monsoon rains of summer (we’re waiting!) to make the same flights over the desert town. There they nested on rooftops; here, they can nest on the ground. The wine is better and I don’t smoke any more, but the birds are exactly the same.

Last for now: two birds really, because I can’t decide between them: the Temminck’s and Satyr Tragopans, Tragopan temmincki and Tragopan satyra. These are increasingly rare “primitive” pheasants from the increasingly deforested deciduous slopes of the Hymalayas. You can take your Birds of Paradise and your hummingbirds– I consider these two species the most beautiful birds in the world. I have only seen them in captivity, but they top my “most wanted to see” list for the wild.

The images below are from an advance brochure for William Beebe’s magisterial 1920’s Pheasants of the World. I had to go with the Temminck’s for the color– the only Satyr image is in the actual book, and I wont risk breaking the binding. But look at the display “bibs” they can inflate, even in black and white! (The actual markings are red on blue).

I hope you have enjoyed these. Eventually I would also like to do ten songbirds. And ten pigeon breeds. Boring? Complain to Darwin!

Oh and: tag! to Pluvialis, Rebecca, Jonathan and Matt?

10 thoughts on ““Ten Birds” Part 3”

  1. I have always loved Roadrunner’s x-shaped feet and the distinctive tracks they leave. They used to come screaming through our property in Tehachapi all the time hunting lizards.

  2. I thought I was the only one who used to nighthawk-watch in Cambridge — the only person who ever noticed them.

    Used to sit on the fire escape of the graduate dorm while they peented about and ate moths from the parking-lot lights/nighthawk feeders.

    Thanks for bringing that back.

  3. I can’t disagree with much of that. I once worked at an aviary with Cabot’s, Temminck’s and Satyr Trags. In the spring I used to neglect all kinds of responsibilities to sneak peeks at the displaying cocks. What amazing birds! If I can see one in the wild i can die a satisfied man.

  4. When I was running digs at Mancos Canyon in SW Colorado we used to it in camp and watch the nighthawks around dusk. It was so quiet there you could easily hear that strange sound of the air rolling over their wings when they pulled out of dives.


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