Thursday 11 July 2019

When I was researching endangered birds in Southern California 40 years ago, there were only two numbers in the phone book (remember phone books?) that had anything to do with wildlife: The National Audubon Society, and me, the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Before the days of the Internet, local people looking for information on bird or beast, fish or fowl, would often end up calling one number or the other. We tried to help everyone who called, but sometimes we didn’t have an answer, and passing the call on was done regularly: “Did you try the Audubon Society with that question?” Of course, turnabout was fair play, and I got regular referrals on my phone: “You might try Fish and Wildlife Service.”

   I should clarify that passing on the calls was not always a heartfelt gesture to help the inquirer. Sometimes, it was just puckishness – why not share the “fun” with the other guy, particularly if the call was weird or unusual? Case in point: One hot summer afternoon, my phone rang, and the caller proceeded to tell me a long story. It seemed that exactly at four o’clock every day, a large bird with a long tail would fly from the east, circle around the man’s eucalyptus grove (calling loudly all the while), then fly on to the west.

   My response could only be one thing: “Did you ask the Audubon Society about this?” The caller scoffed impatiently: “That guy,” he said, “He tried to tell me that I was seeing a heron, and that the long “tail” was actually its extended legs. I think I know the difference between tail feathers and legs!”

   Despite myself, I was intrigued. The caller could be a complete nut; it could be that he and the Audubon guy were setting me up with this outlandish story; or he could be witnessing something interesting. (I had no idea what the “interesting” thing could be.) I told his story back to him. “Is that right; every day at four o’clock?” Yes, he confirmed it; every day. Well, I didn’t have anything in particular on my schedule for the next day, and the location was only a couple miles from my office, so why not? I told him I’d check out his event.

   Next day, I met him in his driveway at about 3:45. He showed me the route the bird would fly, and pointed out the eucalyptus grove. He really acted like he was expecting things to transpire as he had described. I was a little wary of a trick being played on me, but he seemed quite sincere.

   We chatted, looked, and listened, and suddenly it was four o’clock. Nothing. No birds in the air, no loud calling over the eucalyptus trees. The man seemed embarrassed, like he was really surprised no bird had appeared. We stood around a few more minutes, then I started sidling toward my truck, ready to make my get-away.  Suddenly, we heard the loud calls, and there was a large parrot – a macaw – circling the trees one last time before flying on to the west. It was 4:05.

*   *.  *

   [So, you need an explanation, right? Many parrots have escaped from captivity, and found it possible to survive in the Southern California environment. I’d never heard of a macaw doing it, but why not? As to the regularity of the bird’s movements, I suspect it had an overnight roosting spot somewhere to the west, flew east to some good feeding location during the day, and returned to its roost in the late afternoon. Why the ritual circle around the eucalyptus trees? No idea.]

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