The living and the dead

I walked north 8 blocks to Central Park and on the way saw countless house sparrows and starlings – I won’t keep going on about them but it is really striking how common they are here.  Indeed, Greg Butcher, from National Audubon, made a good suggestion – that Audubon and the RSPB should do a joint study of the species to try to elucidate the reasons why they do so well over here in the middle of big cities which look, on the face of it, very similar to our big cities.

More by luck than judgement I came across the part of Central Park which is best for birds – The Ramble.  So I rambled.  There were plenty of others rambling too – with cameras and binoculars.  Earlier there had been a Bittern (that’s an American Bittern) apparently but I think it had gone.

I met a man who said it was rather quiet because after 4 days of rain and northerly winds there was nothing about.  A good birder yesterday had, apparently, only seen 15 warbler species in the day and that had taken a lot of effort.  The norm would be around 20 or so.

Well, I saw 11 and they were: Redstart, Yellowthroat, Bay-breasted, Chestnut-sided, Black-and-white, Yellow-rumped, Black-throated Blue, Ovenbird (sounding like a very loud Marsh Tit – Wallace Kornack taught me that one in Rock Creek Park), Canada, Blackpoll and Nashville.  Of these, I had my best-yet views of Black-and-white (which is a little like a Treecreeper or Nuthatch in manner – always edging along the branches and trunks) and Nashville (one of which was singing its little heart out).  And I added Black-crowned Night Heron to my USA list.

One birder told me that when he starts seeing Blackpoll Warblers it signals the coming end of  the migration season.  I thought it appropriate that a black-capped warbler marks the coming death of migration until the fall season, or for these warblers, in their finery, until the next year’s spring. 

Rather luckily my ramble ended just where I wanted it to finish and I was facing an imposing statue of President Theodore Roosevelt sitting astride a horse with two native Americans by his side at the entrance to the American Museum of Natural History.

Roosevelt lived from 1858-1919 and served two terms as President.  He set up the USA’s National Parks, with Yellowstone (where I intend to be in early June) being the first of all.  As I queued to buy my ticket I read inspiring words from the great man on the walls around me.  I’d be hard-pressed to think of a single UK Prime Minister who has been eloquent about the environment – but they haven’t been a very eloquent bunch since Churchill.

I eschewed the dinosaurs and went straight to the gallery of ‘Birds of New York’ which was a dry old exhibit of the stiff and the stuffed, the dull and the sad.  I walked quickly through here only pausing to look at the Passenger Pigeon case which was rather well done with 11 PPs in it and a nice commentary.

Onwards to the display of American birds.  This was rather good – including, as it did, a number of tableaux of scenes from different habitats  with the relevant birds in them.  There were Bald Eagles and Limpkins, Sage Grouse and Cormorants and I enjoyed looking at them.

But the warblers came out badly in their little display.  They looked so small and lifeless.  The Black-and-white somehow looked half the size of the one which had been clinging to a tree trunk 10 feet from me not half an hour before.  It was as if the absence of life had drained the birds of their very essence – which I guess it had.  And the Cerulean Warbler – the only one on display which I have not yet seen – certainly did not send my pulse racing as I am quite sure a live one would.

I then spent some time in galleries dedicated to eastern American woodland native Americans and Plains Indians.  Is it just me who finds it bizarre that these peoples of the continent are rather treated as another form of wildlife alongside African Mammals and Primates?

So it was with mixed feelings that I enjoyed gathering some knowledge about Native Americans.  I was particularly struck by the Societies of Native American culture.  I knew nothing of these and was struck by the Arapaho Dog Society (whose members had to remain fixed to the spot under certain circumstances – whatever the personal danger) and the Arapaho Crazy Society whose members acted in bizarre ways and said the opposite of what they meant – that does take us back, perhaps, to UK politicians.

As I left the Museum I was thinking of live and dead warblers and live and dead native Americans, and live and dead Presidents but as I walked down the West edge of Central Park, heading to meet my niece for lunch (nice niece, nice lunch, not for this blog) my mind turned to another day when presumably Central Park was full of joggers and tourists, the streets were full of yellow New York cabs, NYPD officers were directing traffic, the sharp-suited were walking briskly through Manhattan, people were picking up coffees from Starbucks and two planes crashed into the skyline and the world changed.

Presumably some, perhaps many, of the people I passed were here then, having a normal start to the day which then went apocalyptic.  I’ll go to Ground Zero over the next couple of days to…I don’t know what exactly.  But it would seem wrong to mourn the passing of the Passenger Pigeon, as I do, and not mark, in some way, the much more recent and personal extinctions which took place on 11 September 2001 a few blocks from where I am writing this blog .


6 Replies to “The living and the dead”

  1. hi Mark

    just heard you’ve left rspb. what you up to now? can i interview you for a feature in Cage & Aviary Birds mag?


    Nick West
    Dep Ed

  2. Hi Mark,thank you for your book and we both think it very generous of you with a very nice piece about Sooty,politely glossing over puncuation,feel sure lots of others had better education,rather touching that you cared whether I praised or disagreed with you.Whatever consider you a good friend whether knowing you in person or not.For sure even when I disagree with you I still recognise your great contribution to our wildlife which you were bound to see in a different light to someone who sees food production as priority with wildlife being a sympathetic partner.Have not mentioned before for fear of it looking like I wanted sympathy but Ann myself had to start right at the bottom working for a very nice farmer who during our 10 years working for him we built him two good dairy herds and a barley beef unit on two seperate farms before getting a rented Council farm.We have always found it very hard starting by keeping hens and pigs while employed and luckily had a very good bank manager who gave us the benefit of putting a £1 in for every £1 of ours.Suppose this has in some way made me very hard in judging others and also me having strong opinions.End of life story.

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