Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A Partridge in a Pear Tree

Guest post by Bob Bowers

In spite of my obsession with birds, my true love never gave me a partridge in a pear tree or, for that matter, any of the other five birds mentioned in that old English Christmas carol. As a birder, don't you find it interesting that half the gifts immortalized in that old song are birds? With one exception, the other stuff is a bit strange, more like what you might expect at Lady Gaga's birthday party: guests dancing and leaping, noisy musicians and milkmaids. If you’ve ever wondered about the birds in this carol, read on.

The Twelve Days of Christmas originated in Europe, and was published in England 233 years ago, making it older than most of my friends. Surprisingly, the birds of the song are real, though mostly European. Considering that Europeans have a dismal record of slaughtering and eating birds, it's even more surprising that none of these are extinct.

Did They Really Mean a 'Pear Tree'?
The only partridges we normally see in the U.S. Are the Chukar and the Gray Partridge, both non-native game birds that were introduced from Europe. However, partridges are related to several familiar birds, including grouse, ptarmigans, pheasants, prairie chickens and wild turkeys. Until fairly recently, our Gambel's quail were also part of this large family. The bird of the song probably is the Gray Partridge. The French word for partridge is perdrix, pronounced 'per dree', suggesting that the pear tree of the song might be a typo. If the original version had been, 'A partridge, une perdrix' , it could accidentally have been transcribed 'A partridge in a pear tree.'

The European Turtle Dove looks a lot like our Mourning Dove, although, unlike our dove, it migrates to southern Africa each winter. Sometimes I wish ours would. Also unlike our dove, the Turtle Dove population has dropped by nearly two-thirds, in part due to the pathetic practice of shooting migratory birds for fun. On a lighter note, “Three French Hens” would have been a welcomed gift, since French chickens (Faverolles) are gentle, make good pets, lay lots of eggs and are delicious. Well, maybe not the family pet.

I always thought it was “Four calling birds”, but in researching this article, I discovered it's “Four colly birds”. Live and learn. It turns out that a colly bird is really a blackbird, specifically the Common Blackbird, a European bird that is actually a thrush, unrelated to our blackbirds. It also turns out that this bird is somewhat of a celebrity. It was considered sacred in classical Greek folklore, and it's the subject of 'Sing a Song of Sixpence.' In that song, two dozen blackbirds were baked in a pie, a dainty dish to set before the king. In medieval times, they actually put live birds under a pie crust just before serving, which explains how the birds were able to sing when the pie was opened. The Common Blackbird is even the national bird of Sweden. I wonder if that had anything to do with the pie.

The final two birds of the song are action figures. Maybe 'six geese-a-laying' and 'seven swans-a-swimming' was just a way to transition from perching birds to leaping lords. In any event, these are more familiar birds. We once lived on a river in Oregon, and didn't have to travel far to see Tundra Swans in the winter. Our Canada Geese fit the song well, laying each spring and raising dozens of goslings in our backyard. In SaddleBrooke, you get a backyard full of quail. Sort of like geese, quail lay lots of eggs, raise dozens of chicks and run around eating your flowers. On the other hand, Canada Geese stand three feet tall, have a wingspan of five feet and perpetually pump out fertilizer. Be thankful you're in Arizona.

(This article, which has been updated, originally appeared in the Saddlebag Notes newspaper on December 1, 2011.)

Monday, December 30, 2013

Volunteers of the Year!

Congratulations to Sherry Massie, Dennis Weeks, and Deb Vath for their recognition as Tucson Audubon's 2013 Volunteers of the Year!

In the current issue of the Vermilion Flycatcher, you can read all about Dennis, Sherry, and Deb's amazing contributions to the birds and communities of our region, but with three volunteers to recognize in the Flycatcher, that didn't leave much room to highlight anything else about these stellar volunteers. So, here's an addendum to that feature!

Dennis Weeks

 Dennis Weeks and his wife, Bonnie (who is also a star Tucson Audubon volunteer!), started volunteering with Tucson Audubon a couple of years ago, when they moved to Tucson from Washington. They had been devoted volunteers at the shop of the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge in Olympia prior to making the move, and when they came to Tucson, the fit seemed a natural one. Dennis thinks Tucson Audubon is a great place to make friends and meet people, too!

The first time Dennis and Bonnie went birding was in 1999, and they haven’t looked back. The fateful event occurred at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. Now, their favorite to go birding is Madera Canyon. It’s close, relaxing, there is a wide elevation range, and they can bring their dogs too!
Sherry Massie

In Sherry's words: I got started with TAS through my neighbor, Sherry Kistler.  I had done some birding with Sherry and also some of the TAS weeklytrips.  She mentioned a couple of years ago that the then current librarian was thinking about retiring and the society was looking for someone else to fill in.  The timing was perfect, because I needed a project to put my mind to at that time.  Plus I’ve always been impressed by TAS’s focus on conservation and legislative issues.  I was lucky to have TAS's enthusiastic  staff to back the project, and three excellent volunteers (Hal Myers, Olga Habour, and Carol Eagle) to help with the processing once the cataloging was completed. 

I wish I had a birdy experience; I just haven’t been birding much lately!  Last night I had two great horned owls wake me up at1:30am hooting back and forth to each other on my roof.  Quite a nice wake-up, but once they left, I had to find my way back to sleep!  Not much of a story!

Deb Vath
Deb Vath is a retired teacher from the Sunnyside school district, and her passion for youth birding led to an increased engagement with Tucson Audubon. A few years ago, Deb and another Deb from Sunnyside, began exploring what a youth birding program would look like for Billy Lane Lauffer middle school in conjunction with Tucson Audubon. From that fateful first exploration grew the SASUN (Sunnyside Audubon Student Urban Naturalists) program and many more volunteer experiences.

Deb birds all around and will enthusiastically go birding with those young and old. You can often find her at the local hotspot, Sweetwater Wetlands, where she leads family and beginner bird walks.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Winter Gardens bring Spring Birds and Coyote Herds

Kendall Kroesen, Urban Program Manager

At 10 a.m. there is already 0.35 inch of rain in the rain gauge at the Mason Center from today's storm, bringing renewed hope for ironwoods, saguaros, gardens, wildlife and spring wildflowers. Life is abundant here at Tucson Audubon's nature preserve and urban sustainability demonstration site.

Since the two-inch rain in November many tiny annuals have poked up their seed leaves and continued to grow. Today's is the second smaller storm since then serving to keep those wildflower hopes alive.

Restoration Program Manager Jonathan Horst, expert in teeny weeny plants, says that in this small patch of ground in the hummingbird garden (on the east side of the house at Mason Center) there are at least the following genera: Amsinckia, Cryptantha, Bowlesia, Lesquerella, Filago, Pectocarya, Eschscholzia and Schismus. Bear in mind that none of these is more than about an inch high!

Four coyotes just chased a cottontail through the grounds, losing it under the narrow hiding space below the stage in the classroom ramada. Unfortunately for rabbitdom, but happily for coyotedom, another cottontail lost such a chase some time earlier.

Our hummingbirds seem content, visiting flowers and feeders around the grounds. Costa's, pictured below, will nest here in late winter and early spring. Here's a map of Costa's Hummingbird distribution in Tucson from the Tucson Bird Count. Anna's, here year-round, will also nest on the grounds.

Costa's hummingbird this morning, perched on a night-blooming cereus (Peniocereus greggii)

Chuparosa (Justicia californica), still blooming in winter since we haven't had a hard freeze, providing forage for hummers

The rains are also keeping water in the soil around our native wildlife-friendly landscape, moisture in our heritage food garden and water in our rainwater harvesting tanks. I've been careful to water gardens from the tanks during dry weeks to keep plants moist and so that there would be room in the tanks to hold water from new storms like today's.

The winter vegetables in the heritage food garden are doing well, except the beets which seem to have been eaten by something in spite of the protective frost cloth we've kept over them. (The thin Agribon frost cloth protects them not only from frost but also from herbivorous critters and from drying out).

Part of our winter heritage food garden

I'itoi's onion

Mostaza roja (mustard greens)

There's more here at Tucson Audubon's Mason Center than can fit in one blog post! Plan a visit to look around for yourself. More information at our Mason Center page. You can keep up with Tucson Audubon's Urban Program (including our nest box pilot program) and other Tucson Audubon programs by subscribing to program-specific emails or weekly news emails from Tucson Audubon.