Haven’t been birding or taking photos much lately, being beset by work and suchlike. The ever-faster funnel effect of planning to go way out of range for more than three weeks. But I did have a moment yesterday to pause and notice first one, then two, killdeer yesterday, on the ground across the street from my building, the one little grassy bit in the middle of a chaotic mess of construction and condos.
I was surprised to see shorebirds “in the city” at all, although I am just about a kilometre north of the lake as the… well, plover, flies. I stopped and looked at them for a few minutes, watching the pair hop around, navigating a pair of slightly raggy looking american robins. I snapped a picture with my iphone, but you can barely see that there’s anything there at all, let alone identify it.
Click to make it bigger and look inside my wobbly line (I had to do this in powerpoint, the most ramshackle way to do this at all) and you might make out that there is a bird there. I noticed right away that they were plovers (shorter billed shorebirds), and then the telltale dark bands around their throats and breast that make them killdeer. (Finch confirmed that killdeer are really the only plovers that breed in the city).
The photo isn’t the point here, obviously. But seeing these plovers, and taking a moment to stop and really look at them, even as I was trudging out in a moment between torrential downpours for about my fourth trip to the grocery store this week, made me think for a minute about birds and the city.
Mostly, in the city, you see “the usual suspects.” Canada Geese, of course, ubiquitous and bullying. Starlings, swallows, house sparrows, pigeons, robins, gulls (in Toronto, ring-billed gulls, mostly). Crows, sometimes. Mallards and mute swans on the lake. American goldfinch if you have a feeder. That tiny group represents about 90% of the ornithological life you see in the city. Occasionally, a cardinal or two, a jay.
As I’ve gained even a faint ability to distinguish bird shapes, I’ve been able to pick out cormorants in the sky, distinct from gulls, and to discern the flight of a swallow from other birds. Been delighted by the northern mockingbirds nesting in a condo garden half a kilometre east of me, by a black-capped chickadee in a tree, by my previous sight of these plovers a couple of weeks ago.
When I was watching these unexpected killdeer yesterday, I was anthropomorphizing like mad. They’re clearly a pair — once birds pair-bond, how do they decide whether they *like* each other? Is the relationship of one breeding pair pretty much the same as any other? Does the female know if she got a particularly strong, attentive male, or is the notion of comparison absolutely ridiculous? Does she compare this year’s male to last year’s?
I also remembered a study I read about on the bbc site a couple of months ago, which found that urban birds have bigger brains. It was a European study, but basically it found that that the species of birds that have adapted to living in urban areas have bigger brains that birds that haven’t. In other words, being a species that has to be able to live in a city as well as more wild areas, plus managing migratory patterns etc? Requires more processing power. Constant assessment of changing context, adaptation to what’s in front of you.
Sometimes I think that’s true for humans too.