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Jack Smith

Not to beat a dead grackle, but is a bird in Long Island worth two in Mt. Washington's bush?

March 18, 1987|Jack Smith

In a recent Page 1 story the New York Times expressed its amazement that an Azur gallinule had been found on Long Island, albeit dead.

The Azur gallinule, the Times noted, had never before been seen in flight north of Venezuela.

As the Times put it, "What was the Azur gallinule doing in Angela Wright's backyard?"

A measure of the story's importance, in the eyes of the Times, was its presence on the front page along with stories about the National Security Council's undercover operations in the Iranian arms affair, a Wall Street takeover whiz kid's plea of guilty to illegal insider trading, cannibalism among Vietnamese boatpeople, and more gunfire in Beirut.

The Times described the gallinule as "an ungainly bird," though a photograph of one in life showed it to be rather pleasant-looking, if somewhat plump, not unlike a coot or a rail in conformation; and in flight, I imagine, it might be quite beautiful. One should not casually dismiss any bird as ungainly.

Another measure of the story's importance is that Mrs. Wright found the bird in her yard at Fort Salona, L.I., last December, yet it is still regarded as Page 1 news. She put the bird in a plastic sack and placed it in her refrigerator, and only recently did the news get out to the ornithological world.

"Word of the find, which might be the first sighting of the species in North America, has spread beyond this quiet North Shore community," the Times said.

There are some unanswered questions.

First, of course, is how did the bird get there? And how did it die?

Suspicion first fell on Mrs. Wright's cat, a calico nicknamed Killer Cat, which Mrs. Wright admitted "pounces on everything that moves."

However, she is sure the cat did not kill the gallinule. The bird was in perfect condition, showing no signs of tooth and claw.

"It looked too good to be dead," Mrs. Wright said candidly.

The bird's condition gave weight to the theory that it had flown 2,500 miles from its Amazonian habitat, and perhaps perished in the harsh Long Island winter.

Gallinule , by the way, is derived from gallinula , diminutive of the Latin gallina; it means little hen.

Naturally, all the region's ornithologists and bird watchers are terribly excited by the appearance of this rare find, and have undoubtedly beaten a path to Mrs. Wright's door.

How different from the skeptical indifference that followed my own sighting, several years ago, of the only common grackle that had ever been seen west of the Mississippi River. He flew over our birdbath while I was out on the patio writing a column about spring.

Though I mentioned this event in the column, not then realizing its importance, the Los Angeles Times took no notice of it in its news pages. But bird watchers are an alert group, and the story spread.

Among dozens of other letters, I received one from the Audubon Society apprising me of the fact that no grackle had ever been seen west of the Mississippi River, and that I must be mistaken in my identification. I took this to be a shockingly unscientific position for the society to hold. The true scientist does not rule out any phenomenon until he has checked it out.

If indeed there were grackles on the other side of the Mississippi, I pointed out, what was to keep one from flying across it and coming on out to Los Angeles.

My argument was met with aloof disinterest, until several months later, when I saw another grackle--like the first one, in my backyard.

That galvanized them. They made me an honorary member of the society, invited me to be guest of honor at their annual banquet and named a bird walk for me at Descanso Gardens.

The moral obviously is that the Audubon Society is much more likely to believe two grackles than they are one.

This is only reasonable, since grackles, like other birds, are sexual animals, and it isn't likely that a grackle would fly all the way out here from Kentucky, or wherever they live, without its mate.

How the grackle got into my backyard is easy enough to explain. It got there like Mrs. Wright's Azur gallinule got into her backyard. It flew there.

Since then, by the way, I have seen a Steller's jay, an orchard oriole, a rufous hummingbird, a Lichtenstein's oriole and a peacock--all birds that have no business being in my backyard.

There are people who think that my backyard lies in the path of some natural phenomenon--perhaps a magnetic field--that causes birds to seek it out, far from their usual paths.

It wasn't long after my second grackle that a broad-billed hummingbird turned up at the Trimmer house, just over the top of the hill from ours. Now the broad-billed hummingbird, like the grackle, had never before been seen in Los Angeles. Mrs. Trimmer alerted the Audubon Society through its hot line, and before long dozens of birders were trooping to her doorstep. The hummer hung around for two or three days, coming every 20 minutes to feed, and Mrs. Trimmer became a celebrity.

It has always seemed odd to me that no such excitement attended my sighting of the grackle. I'm not bitter about it. After all, I have my bird walk.

But I wish I'd put that grackle in a plastic sack and stuck him in our refrigerator.

Then maybe I'd have some respect.

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