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Gulls and Terns and Sparrows,
Oh My!
 
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I’ve always appreciated birds, but only in a vague “isn’t nature amazing” kind of way. I’ll pause to admire a songbird belting out a sweet tune, but would struggle to identify it again a day later. And I’m pretty sure that I’ve routinely mixed up falcons, hawks, and other meat-eating birds. Even turkey vultures look like eagles to me from a distance. So when a popsicle-sized teal-and-emerald bird with a hooked beak crashed into my glass door a few weeks ago, it took me a beat longer than I’d like to admit to realize that this was likely not a rare local species I’d just failed to notice, but someone’s escaped pet. That became more blatantly obvious when the bird, luckily uninjured from its collision, flapped over to my husband’s shoulder and spent the next three hours with us outside, nestled into our necks.

Eventually Crash, as we called him, came inside to spend the night in our bathroom, and texts to bird-savvy friends confirmed that he was a lovebird. We gave him water from a shallow dish, and offered him every fruit and vegetable the internet recommended. (He was barely interested in those, but steel-cut oats excited him so much that he jumped onto the bag apparently to tear into it and then, when that failed, tried to gobble the oats midstream as I poured more onto his plate, like someone gulping water from a shower.)

It took a few days for us to connect with the bird’s owner with the help of an organization called ROAM (for Reuniting Owners with Animals Missing) and in that time I fell for Crash. He was, true to his name, damn lovable (despite his non-discriminate pooping habit). He scampered across the kitchen floor with the stiff-legged waddle of a toddler learning to run, and peered up at us. He hopped onto the handle of the frying pan to investigate what was cooking, and then assisted with peeling a clove of garlic. As I tried to wash dishes, he climbed fully inside the rubber glove. He helped himself to a bath under the leaky faucet in our bathroom sink, did relays up and down my arm as I tried to work, tucked himself into curtain folds or freshly ironed shirts when he was ready for a snooze, and damaged our high-octave hearing by chirping loudly every time he perched on our shoulders.

Getting to know Crash’s curious personality felt like a minor revelation. Perhaps all birds have their own personalities, and aren’t just species-specific carbon copies, as I’d somehow always sort of assumed. Maybe there’s much more individuality in those winged brains? Whether you’re a seasoned birder who can differentiate every LBB (birder speak for little brown bird—referring to small, dowdy songbirds that are difficult to tell apart) or a blank slate undergoing a bird-appreciation-awakening like me, this week’s trio of feature stories—which we’re calling the Birdopolis series—about coastal birds that are managing to make it in busy urban areas, could very well shift your perception of these inadvertent urbanites. We’ll be following up the Birdopolis series with a webinar focused on gulls, our noisiest avian neighbor, and the fascinating ways they’re adapting to city life. Register here to join us on June 29 at 11:30 a.m. Pacific Time.

Crash is home now—it turns out he had slipped out the crack of a window and flown about two kilometers before he arrived on our back deck. He shares his space with two budgies, and I like to indulge my anthropomorphizing tendencies to imagine that maybe he’s busy regaling them with his own version of this story.
 
Shanna Baker
Managing editor
 
 
 
This Week’s Stories
 
 
The City, the Sparrow, and the Tempestuous Sea
 
The saltmarsh sparrow survives the rattle and roar of one of North America’s most populated areas, but its greatest challenge comes from the sea.
 
by Joseph Quaderer • 3,800 words / 19 mins
 
 
 
The Gull Next Door
 
Your obnoxious neighbor or just a misunderstood, displaced seabird?
 
by Sarah Keartes • 3,300 words / 17 mins
 
 
 
Honolulu: A Seabird’s Surprising Five-Star Destination
 
The white tern—Manu-o-Kū—has excited ornithologists, its population growing within the busiest of Hawai‘i’s urban landscapes.
 
by Joe Spring • 3,200 words / 16 mins
 
 
 
The Sound Aquatic Episode 5: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
 
The anthropause has shown us that we’re too noisy for the ocean’s animals.
 
by Elin Kelsey, Katrina Pyne, and Amorina Kingdon • 26 mins • Listen here or with your podcast app
 
 
 
A Mining Code for the Deep Sea
 
The clock is ticking on the International Seabed Authority to finish its new exploitation regulations for deep-sea mining.
 
by Elham Shabahat • 1,300 words / 6 mins
 
 
 
 
What We’re Reading
 
A car in Russia, an apartment in Hong Kong, even a gun if you’re in West Virginia—you might find some of these vaccine incentives fishy, but none more so than what’s being offered in the Netherlands. People signed up to get their vaccine will be able to get a side of pickled herring alongside their jab. Hollandse nieuwe is a traditional delicacy made of young, fatty herring that’s gutted, soused, and consumed raw. Barrels of this season’s Dutch herring will be distributed among vaccination clinics this month. (The Guardian)
 
Herring aren’t just on the menu in the Netherlands. In San Francisco Bay, California, 5,000 to 10,000 tonnes of the little fish show up to spawn, usually at some point between November and April. The mass forms a sort of underwater column of frenetic fish. “If you are a pelican, a gull, a cormorant, a salmon, or a sea lion … it is Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Mardi Gras at once. If you are a herring, it is your world’s biggest orgy, your life’s purpose, and quite possibly the end of your days.” (Sierra)
 
For fans of seafood, Nova Scotia is launching its own seafood quality certification program. The program says it will require standards for traceability, handling, processing, and food safety for 17 seafood species. One Nova Scotia company, Fortune Oysters, is already touting its new certification. (CBC)
 
The US Congress is poised to make a decision regarding a US $26-billion megaproject designed to protect Houston, Texas, and surrounding areas from rising sea levels. Balancing societal needs, environmental impact, cost, and engineering capability gives the behemoth project mounting tiers of complexity, and no one is sure what the final project will look like. (Undark)
 
And finally, baby squid are off to space! On a SpaceX resupply mission earlier this month, 128 adorable little bobtail squid were sent to space. The baby mollusks have a symbiotic relationship with bacteria that help them regulate their bioluminescence, and researchers are interested in knowing how the relationship might be impacted in a low-gravity environment. (CNN)
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Behind the Story
 
 
Joseph Quarderer, author of “The City, the Sparrow, and the Tempestuous Sea,” gives some background on his story and the one thing that certain ornithologists say makes a field trip to saltmarsh sparrow habitat legit. 
 
My first idea for this story was to show how climate change was affecting the breeding, winter, and migration ranges of birds in the United States. I wanted to show how rising temperatures were forcing the ranges north. I planned to view this hypothesis through the prism of the New York City birder community. As I was fleshing out my idea, I interviewed Gabriel Willow—an environmental educator, ecologist, and urban naturalist from New York City. After Gabriel heard my idea, he said, and I paraphrase, “Yeah, well, we know climate change is happening. We don’t really need birds to tell us that.”
 
I felt foolish for focusing on a story with such an obvious conclusion, but as we chatted, Gabriel told me that there was a bird, the saltmarsh sparrow, that would likely go extinct in the next few decades directly because of human climate change and habitat destruction.
 
Although I had never heard of the songbird, I was excited to discover that some of them breed in the salt marshes surrounding New York City. A few weeks later, I was traipsing through salt marshes from Jamaica Bay to Hammonasset Beach State Park with researchers and ornithologists. From there the story wrote itself.
 
Although biologist Alex Cook told me there were “hidden mudholes and waterholes that can engulf you up to your waist,” nothing prepares you for the moment you fall thigh deep into a smelly, muddy hole of indeterminate depth. I did manage to fall in a mudhole, as this GIF attests, but, according to the researchers that muddy act, and the soggy day that ensued, meant that my trip was “official.”
 
 
 
 
American dippers aren’t your typical songbird. Sure, they sing like a songbird. But the slate gray, stumpy-tailed dippers have a special talent that sets them apart—they can swim. Dippers live around gravelly, fast-flowing streams in western North America from Alaska to Panama. Their adaptations to aquatic life include waterproof feathers, an extra eyelid to help them see underwater, a nasal flap to close their nostrils while diving, and strong claws for walking along the stream bottom in search of insect larvae to eat.
 
This photo of an American dipper feeding its impatient offspring in Goldstream Provincial Park near Victoria, British Columbia, is one of thousands of photos captured by a crew of field technicians who are using iNaturalist—a global community science database—to document species throughout British Columbia’s provincial parks and protected areas in an effort known as the BC Parks iNaturalist Project.

Photo by Thomas Barbin
 
 
 
 
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