Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Birds on minds over the holidays

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MONTGOMERY COUNTY, Md. -- On Christmas Day, someone shot a bald eagle a mile from our house and left it to rot in a field.

"Police with the natural resources agency are scouring Montgomery County," reported the Washington Times, when the bird was found. But they came up empty-handed, even after offering a reward.

Then the same someone (or someone else) shot and killed another bald eagle while it was feeding on the remains of a white-tailed deer in a backyard a half-hour away.

"You see a bird sitting on the carcass of a deer and somebody might think they're shooting at a vulture," a police spokesman said, excusing the incident as a possible case of mistaken identity. But who would shoot a bird while it was tearing at carrion and call it sport?

Perhaps the killers are the same persons who, in the summer of 2010, opened several nesting boxes of eastern bluebirds at a county park and mutilated the chicks inside with nail guns and staples. Or maybe they are gunning for a reality show starring a family of camouflaged Conservative Christian eagle slayers.

It has not been a good season for America's national symbol. In December, the lame-duck Obama administration announced that -- "to spur development and investment in green energy" -- it would allow developers of wind-power farms to destroy without any penalty all the bald or golden eagles that might fly into their turbines for the next 30 years, as long as they duly report to the Department of the Interior the quotient of collateral slaughter.

In lukewarm sympathy, on the Maryland shore of Chesapeake Bay, a company called Pioneer Green Energy recently agreed to erect a mere 30 of its 50 permitted towers in an attempt to measure just how many birds of prey get swept into the rotors and die.

Meanwhile, airport authorities in New York City were said to be "mulling alternatives" to shooting the irrupting snowy owls that are mistaking JFK International for Arctic tundra. Three birds were assassinated in mid-December after five more of their species were sucked into aircraft engines, limiting the options for mercy for one of the most haunting winged animals of all.

So birds were on our minds during these holidays:

Just 61/2 hours after 2014 rolled in, a Carolina wren started advertising his manhood in the myrtle tree outside our bedroom window.

He Belushi'd cheeburger cheeburger cheeburger chee over and over again. And then hamster hamster hamster hamster so fluently it sounded like some local kid was calling home a gerbil.

A minute later, the crows started rasping up in the old poplar trees that survived hurricane Sandy, and a big V of Canada geese flew east toward the county reservoir, honking like madwomen. I heard a chorale of chickadees and juncos and then the plaintive scream of the red-shouldered hawk that soars, his banded tail flaring, over our street all year.

I hauled my family out of the house and led them on a private New Year's Day bird count through our brushy suburb. In some tangled gnarls by a sewage pond poisoned with pop bottles and dead basketballs, we saw downy and red-bellied woodpeckers, heard a dirge of mourning doves, and spotted a pair of mallards floating in the fetid slime.

Back home, another of the feckless Carolinas was climbing, out of season, into and out of one of our nesting boxes. Inspired, I quoted Blake:

He who shall hurt the little wren

Shall never be beloved by men.

I headed to the reservoir to continue the census alone. The very instant I walked down to the water, a very large and dark brown bird with wings fringed with winter sunlight glided high over my head. It was a young bald eagle, practising the skills it will need to survive its first winter, not yet possessed of pure white head and tail. I followed it with my binoculars as it banked to an aerie in an evergreen on the far side of the lake.

On branches above and below the young bird were a pair of perfect adults, proud -- in my imagination -- of their child's flight.

"Thought to mate for life but will switch mates if not successful reproducing," explained my Field Guide to Birds of Maryland & Delaware.

"Every morn and every night, Some are born to sweet delight," answered William Blake.

Allen Abel is a Brooklyn-born Canadian journalist based in Washington, D.C.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 4, 2014 A13

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