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Alan Liere: Whether of prey or song, birds are wondrous

One spring, my 13-year-old step-daughter and I watched from the deck as three mallard drakes tried to impress a hen mallard. “It’s called a courting flight,” I told her. “The male ducks want the female for a girlfriend. The one who goes the fastest and busts the most moves attracts the hen.”

My step-daughter nodded knowingly. “It’s kind of like a middle school mixer,” she observed, “without the cologne.”

She watched the trio of males strafe the flooded pasture at Mach 1, then roll over in flight and fly upside down, hoping to dazzle the female who had set down in a pool of still water and seemed uninterested in the proceedings. “Do ducks know how great they are?” my step-daughter asked.

It made me think of all the other birds I have observed and some of the amazing things I have seen them do.

I sat above Duck Lake out by Harrington one October and watched lesser Canada geese by the thousands come to the water. They appeared over the lake so high they were mere specks, and then began a fast descent by folding in their wings and allowing their bodies to free-fall. In the process, they often rolled completely over.

Not all birds, of course, are as athletic as drake mallards or Duck Lake geese, but they are amazing in their own way – like the blue heron that shows up at Silver Lake every winter. We call him “Harry.” He is clumsy on the ice, and it takes him forever to launch into flight, but you have to be impressed by a bird that can swallow eight flopping perch in one sitting, turning each so they go down the gullet head first, thus keeping the spiny dorsal fin from impeding the journey.

I set up a rubber turkey decoy in Pend Oreille County one spring where two logging roads intersected in the forest. I had just finished making a few seductive hen calls when what sounded like an F-150 roared down from above, snatched my decoy, and flew off – a golden eagle.

A road-killed fawn on the side of the road near my house attracted a lot of interest from crows and magpies, but another golden eagle was the show-stopper. He swooped in right in front of my truck, grabbed the small deer, and got it airborne. I’m sure the fawn weighed more than he did.

Ospreys are always dazzling when they plummet from a hundred yards up, smack the water with a loud “crack!” and come up with a fish in their talons. Just as impressive was the falcon I saw in downtown Spokane that hit a pigeon in midair just above the Monroe Street Bridge, and sent it spiraling down to the rocks below, where I assume the raptor claimed his dinner.

I have no affection for woodpeckers because of their desire to destroy my log home. I admire them, nevertheless, for their toughness and tenacity. Left alone, I’m sure they could peck a hole into my living room. I have a round, three-inch hole in my plywood deer stand to prove they are capable.

One last bird I find amazing is the common robin that strolls leisurely through my yard in the spring, stops, cocks its head to the ground, plunges its bill into the sod and comes out with a squirming nightcrawler. He never misses, but how does he know? Does he see the worm or does he hear it? Perhaps he feels a subtle vibration.

I wish I had his powers, but I think I’d rather be able to fly upside down.

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