My Wings Big Year… an hour each day gnawing away at the question: what is a bird? One aspect of that multifaceted question is: how big are they? Noah Strycker, in “Birding Without Borders,” offers a typical stylish answer: “The smallest, the Bee Hummingbird of Cuba, could perch comfortably on the toenail of the largest, the Ostrich.” Ever since I read that, I’ve pictured that petite hummingbird resting for a moment on the gnarled toenail of an ostrich. Such an image is a much stronger mnemonic than 5 centimeters compared to 2.75 meters.
How many ways can we ask: What is a bird?
Musing on this question, I’d like to figure out what, to me, a bird MEANS. Here’s what Melbourne birder and writer Harry Saddler says, in his wonderful book “The Easter Curlew: The Extraordinary Life of a Migratory Bird”:
The world is vast and no birds encompass this vastness more than shorebirds. Yet by navigating the world so consummately, by isolating and utilising those landscapes that find parallels across the world, by shaping the ecosystems of that world as they go, perhaps shorebirds also, unwittingly, make and have made the world – or parts of it, at least.
Wings Big Year: Boring? No!
The technical specs of birds (and animals and everything) sounds boring and is boring until it isn’t and you want to figure out “what a bird is,” that is, how it sits as a species among the 10,000-plus species.
I’ve been reading various books but the best and best-written one so far is Colin Tudge’s “The Secret Life of Birds.” I can’t pretend to have mastered any of the technicals but here is how a particular bird of interest, the Brolga (one of the fifteen crane species), is classified:
Phylum: Chordata (don’t know what this is and don’t care to learn)
Class: Aves (now we’ve got down to our feathered friends, the birds)
Order (there are 31, I think:) Gruiformes
Family: Gruidae (the family of fifteen crane species)
Genus: Antigone (this puzzles me because most people seem to use Grus or another genus name)
Species (my Brolga!): Antigone rubicunda
Amazing! I know something!
Wings Big Year: How many families?
When I tick sighted birds off a list, I’m ticking off a species. But species fit into “families.” How many families? In 1984, Simpson and Day showed this map. It’s interesting that the most number of families in one continent is 86 in South America, which also has a staggering number of 31 families found on no other continent. Australia has the second largest number of endemic families, namely 15.
Here I’m merely nibbling at the edges of the question of how many families exist, and will need to find a different book/text. I hope I don’t get confused.
What a bird isn’t
Such a pleasure putting everything else aside each afternoon (or sometimes at night) to spend my Wings Big Year hour musing on this:
What’s a bird?
When we were holidaying recently, we stumbled across a copy of the Simpson & Day bird guide incarnated in its 1984 edition. Here’s the start of its influential words and I like the practical orientation: “When you see a bird, it is going about one aspect of its day, its year, its life.” A bird is a bird. It is not “cute” or “friendly” of “happy” or any other human-oriented adjective. Birds are birds and humans are humans.
Wings Big Year: What then is a bird?
That’s the quandary to ponder an hour each day. When I begin on something like this, you’d think I’d use a systematic approach but no, I stab at the topic.
Why not use a “proper” approach? Under such an approach, I might go to Wikipedia or a dictionary, or I might Google looking for a reference work or textbook. In other words, find the definitive masterpiece tackling the topic. I’d then examine its bibliography and select a dozen books that address the topics I’m interested in exploring. I’d buy them and get to taking notes. Great, yes?
No, not great, at least for me. It seems far too daunting to tackle a big reading list. Instead, I seize a book I have or have glanced at or have heard about, and just zip through it. If it’s a waste of time, I try something else. If it adds something, I rather haphazardly pick one of the references in the book and repeat the process. In other words, I “have a go” and flail away. In my experience, what then happens is that my brain starts ordering my activities. Over time, some kind of logic of data collection or of initial thinking reveals itself. Over time, I become more organized. Over time, order emerges from chaos.
Does this method waste time? You’d think so but no, again in my experience, this process is pretty efficient. It gets me into the meat of the subject fast, it produces data fast, it gets my thinking up fast.
Anyway, that’s my methodology and I’m sticking by it.
Wings Big Year: An hour’s work
Let’s zero in on this exploration of what a bird is. What is a crane? With only fifteen species, I’ll see what I can do as fast as I can. A summary, that’s what I’m after. The go-to book (though not necessarily the best kind-of-textbook; we shall see) is The Birds of Heaven: Travels with Cranes by legendary naturalist and novelist Peter Matthiessen. This hardcover, which I bought when it came out in 2001, is one of my few remaining physical books.
First things first: 11 of the 15 are of the species Grus, 2 are Anthropoides, 2 are Balearica. 14 of the 15 are called “crane,” while Australia’s predominant species is the Brolga. Andres, memorise, please.
The first notable in the book is a map inside the front cover, “Cranes in the Western Hemisphere,” which is essentially North America and some of Greenland and Siberia (why isn’t South America included?). Only two cranes appear, the Whooping Crane, shown as breeding only in a Canadian national park; and the Sandhill Crane, of which Matthiessen says it breeds from Eastern Siberia to Canada and northern USA, plus a few permanent populations shown down eastern U.S.A. The map shows eight protected sites and six other locations with unfamiliar names.
Inside the back cover is the flip map, “Cranes in the Eastern Hemisphere,” which is far more busy. Europe has the Eurasian Crane (or the Common Crane, the one we probably noticed in kids’ books), possibly more in the Urals than in the populous areas. Africa has the Black-Crowned Crane up in the northwest, in countries I know nothing about; the Gray-Crowned over in Ethiopia and down south; the Wattled all through the south and east; and the Blue only in Botswana. Australia has the Brolga (this is the only crane I’ve seen!) and up in the remote north, the Sarus Crane. The Siberian Crane is where you’d think it is. Mongolia is where you’ll find the Demoiselle (what a name!), go to Afghanistan or Nepal for the Black-Necked, the Hooded is near Lake Baikal in most remote Siberia, and the White-Naped seems to be in most northern China. The only crane I’ve read a little about, the Red-Crowned Crane, is in a couple of spots, north and south, in Japan. Confusingly, this map says “winter ranges not indicated” (more complexity!) Triumph! After an hour, I now know something. If I’m bored tonight, I can memorise and mentally recreate maps. Tomorrow: how many of each of these 15 species fly the skies of the world?
The murky terror of 2019
My fourth year of the Big Decade commences tomorrow. It’ll be nothing like the first three years. This time I have no exercise component, this time I’m putting all my eggs in one basket (almost). My Author Big Year is, frankly, much like the writing Big Years of 2016, 2017, and 2018, but now it looms even larger. Make or break, that’s what it is.
For those of you unaccustomed to the seriousness with which the obsessives of the world take their obsessions, you may not understand why I use the word TERROR. But right now, looking forward, that’s what I contemplate.
Announcing a Wings Big Year for 2019
A big success in 2018 was my Tractor Big Year. I spent an hour each and every day gradually learning how to self publish a book. Steady, unruffled learning… education with a purpose… not too much and no dramatic pressure (beyond the stress of “fitting it in,” which, quite frankly, is enjoyable)… I loved it! And it worked.
So next year I’m going to repeat the bountiful pleasure. Each and every day I’ll spend an hour learning about and musing over the big picture of the world’s birds. How many birds are there? How many bird species? Where are most of the Earth’s birds? What are the broad categories of species (I think they’re called families)? What countries have killed the most birds? How many of our bird species will survive to 2050? What are the major migration paths of birds (even more fundamentally, why do birds migrate)? In other words, can I summarise Earth’s birds in a manner that helps me write about them on an ongoing basis?
I know you’re as delighted as I am at this decision. You can look forward to a torrent of educational jewels over the months of 2019.