Bird Watcher's General Store

Rare Red Footed Falcon - 08/20/04


Dear Bird Folks:

I just came back from a trip to Martha's Vineyard and couldn't help but notice all of the hoopla over a rare bird that was spotted at the airport. I enjoy birds and even have feeders in my yard, but that's where it ends. Don't you think it's a bit odd for people to take time off from work to run off to see a bird that's too stupid to find it's way home?

-Don, Springfield

Hey Don,

In nearly twenty-two years of answering questions about birds, you are the first person to use the word "hoopla". Back in '93 we had a lady from Syracuse say "hot-diggity-dog", but this is the first hoopla. You people in Springfield sure are trendy.

Now, about that male Eastern European falcon being too "stupid" to find his way home. That's a bit presumptuous, don't you think? For all we know the bird flew to the Vineyard on purpose. Perhaps he was tired of waiting in the long lines in Russia or maybe he finally wanted to meet Carly Simon. If that's the case, and we can't be sure it isn't, than that little falcon is a pretty sharp bird. One wrong turn while crossing the Atlantic and he could have ended up on some totally out of the way place, like Nantucket. That would be awful, since they've never heard of Carly Simon over there.

Just in case you are one of the few people who haven't read any of the 600 newspaper articles about the bird of which we speak, let me bring you up to speed. About ten days ago a Red-footed Falcon was spotted at the Edgartown airport. Not much larger than a Blue Jay, this small bird of prey is usually found in Eastern Europe in the summer and Southern Africa in the winter. This is the first record of this bird ever being seen here in the Western Hemisphere. How it ended up on the Vineyard is anybody's guess at this time. The most common thought is that it was simply in the middle of its fall migration back to Africa, when it was caught up in a westerly wind an became lost. Since the bird is a male, it was not about to stop and ask for directions. Instead, it continued on to instant fame at the Edgertown airport.

It is hard to know how long this alien has been on our continent. In theory, it could have been around in other locations for a while. What if this falcon settled in Springfield, for example, where people feed birds, "but that's where it ends"? It may have never made it into the history books.

That brings me to your next question, "why would anyone take time off from work to see a bird?" Bird watching serves two distinctly different functions. First of all, it is nothing more than a hobby, something that fills the time between being at work and waiting for the lottery commissioner to call. Like all hobbies, whether it be birding, knitting or Star Trek, there are those who are passionate about it and those who scoff at it. A hobby is something you just enjoy, you don't need to explain or defend it. Heck, I know people who think golf is fun.

The other thing that birders do is that they provide the scientific community with millions of hours free field observations. If it wasn't for birders, occasionally missing a day of work to pursue their hobby, many important observations and trends would be missed. If there were more birders around a hundred years ago, maybe they would have noticed that blowing up flocks of Passenger Pigeons with dynamite was adversely effecting their population.

I can certainly understand where you get your image of birders, Don. I read all six hundred newspaper accounts of the Red-footed Falcon and most had a sentence or two about the bird and endless paragraphs about the birders. They devoted the bulk the space to stories about who came from where, what time they got out of bed to leave and how they had to snorkel across Vineyard Sound because they were too poor to take the ferry. We learned far more about the chosen freaks than we ever did about the bird.

Keep an eye on those feeders in Springfield, Don, you never know what you might see. You may even want to take a trip back to the Vineyard to see this amazing bird in person. But don't go this week, wait until all the hoopla dies down.

Artwork by Catherine Clark


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