Wednesday, March 12, 2008

An interesting question

Owlman has raised an interesting question to me: "Birds in Florida seem to be so used to people; is it just because there are a lot of people around and great habitat for the birds?."

I don't know why it is that so many of the larger waterfowl and/or shore birds are so tolerant of the human beings on their turf. Perhaps it is that they simply have become accustomed to us and have developed methods of carrying on their daily chores in spite of our presence. When I lived in southern NJ, I was often at the beach on Long Beach Island, Tuckerton, or Mystic Islands, or out on the waters of Great Bay. Anyone who fed the gulls, egrets or herons quickly learned that they were now in it for the long haul. Many gulls and Great Blues did not migrate for the winter; however, the white egrets did. Yet every Spring the same egrets would show up at our back doors looking for the handouts they had come to expect. And, as is common everywhere, gulls, herons, and egrets, become fast friends with fishermen along jetties, docks, and shoreline.

Now, here in Florida, they have made it into an art form. While walking along the sidewalk or bike path of my complex, I often turn a corner and "bump into" a Snowy or Great Egret walking along, checking in at each doorway that has proven to be lucrative in the past. A couple of Wood Storks stand on a nearby rooftop each morning for 3 weeks in the Autumn and 4 weeks in the Spring, waiting for the woman who feeds them when she's on vacation here twice each year. I have sat reading on my patio trying to ignore the egret standing about a foot away staring at me, willing me to toss over a chicken liver or scrap of leftover fish - no bread, though, thank you very much. The Laughing Gulls are usually hovering nearby, one of them cackling loudly every now and then. They, of course, will eat anything. Out and about town, I have seen Cattle Egrets standing on street corners literally waiting to cross to the other side. Great Egrets hang out like teenagers outside of Dollar Stores, waiting for a handout. For a birder, this is unbelieveably delightful, comical and absurd. Little blue herons will come and drink water from the pool not 3 feet from me.

I try to discourage newcomers and tourists from feeding these wildlife, but it is pretty much a lost cause. I myself have succumbed a couple of times, and once scared myself in the process. I had collected a Lightening Whelk seashell with a live animal inside - that animal being a giant sea slug. I boiled the whole thing in water, removed the dead and obscenely protruding critter from the shell, and cut it into pieces. It actually smelled pretty good, although not good enough that I was tempted to taste it. My friendly neighborhood egret had been lingering about for some time, so I went out back and began tossing the pieces of meat to him. Well, one of the pieces was kind of large, and it took a while for him to work it around and get it down his mouth. I was regretting my actions by then, but I could do nothing about it. He got the piece down his throat, and then it seemed to just stop in his neck! I thought, "Oh no, I've killed it! It's going to choke! Oh, my God!" But the egret just stood there, and I saw the lump from the chunk of meat slowly move down his long neck. After a minute or so, the lump finally disappeared, and I heaved a sigh of relief. I'll write more on this in another post.

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