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Baby Red-tail, Prairie Chickens, Woodcocks, etc.

by Sally Blanchard

Back in 1975, I took a course in Ornithology at Central Missouri State University (now University of Central Missouri) in Warrensburg. At the time I was married to an Air Force officer who was stationed at Whiteman AFB. I had studied birds extensively before I took the course but was always interested in learning more. The professor’s name was Dr. Hawksley – really! To me one of the best parts of the class was the field trips. There was a wonderful state park nearby that I loved to visit and the class took several bird walks there. I think I was probably the oldest student in the class and it seemed to me that most of the kids were taking the class for credit because they thought it would be easy. Those that thought that were disappointed.

On the bird walks, I usually lagged behind everyone else because they seemed to be out for a hike while I was really looking and listening for birds.  During one afternoon walk, the rest of the class was way ahead of me and as I slowly meandered, I heard something moving around in the weedy grass on the side of the path. I stopped and slowly walked a couple of feet off of the path and there right in front of me was a baby Red-tailed hawk. The night before had been quite windy and I presume he had fallen from the nest. He had quite a few real feathers mixed in with his pin feathers but certainly wasn’t at the stage where he had been ready to fledge. I scooped the baby up and put him in my jacket.  He didn't seem to be injured but acted as if he was very hungry.  I saw the nest up in a nearby tree but couldn’t see if there were any other chicks in it and did not see the parents. I looked over the area to see if there were any other babies but didn’t see any.  Then I moved quickly to catch up with Dr. Hawksley and the group because I knew he would know what to do about the baby red-tail. For a short time, my find became a live visual aid. Then class was over and Dr. Hawksley rushed off to take the hawk to a wildlife rescue.

One of the more involved field trips was to a prairie chicken booming grounds (or lek) out in the country somewhere. I don’t think I have ever been a morning person but a good bird watching adventure has been one of the few early morning motivations in my life. We had to get to the area where the lek was so we could be there and be settled in before sunrise. It was chilly early Spring and we met in the parking lot before 3 am and headed out. About 45 minutes later, we parked the cars along a country road, got out and walked for about a quarter of a mile. Then we got down on our bellies and crawled up a slight incline to position ourselves for when the sun came up. As I was crawling, I flushed a short-eared owl out of the grass right in front of me and he came within about a foot of crashing into my face. Needless to say, I was quite startled but did my best not to make a ruckus since I didn’t want the prairie chickens to hear me. Once we were in position, we waited for about 15 minutes or so and the breaking light revealed about a half a dozen or more birds moving about getting ready for their dance. Then the booming started. The booming noise comes from the bright orange inflatable air sacs on the sides of their necks. They also make a noise when their tails “snap.” During the dance, the wings are stiffly held out and tail is rigid and erect as are the tall feathers on the head. The competition was intense with the male’s fancy footwork as they strutted and rapidly stomped their feet. The males were all trying to out-do each other as a few hens stood nearby watching. One hen quickly moved out of the way as two males jumped at each other in what appeared to be a mock attack. This happened several times and, after awhile, it became apparent that one male had several hens interested in him. The other males didn’t get nearly as much attention but they kept trying. I really couldn’t tell the subtle differences in the performances of the various males but then I was not a prairie chicken hen.  As I recall, he did mate with two hens but it seemed to me that the foreplay was just about everything.

The ornithology course ended with a final exam. The room was set up with over 110 ornithological displays. It was a tough test with questions about taxonomy, identification, anatomy and habitat. If I recall correctly, Dr. Hawksley set it up so that if a student got 90 of the questions right, he or she would still get an A. I was quite upset with myself for the one question I missed. It was a skeleton of a water bird. I don’t actually remember what answer I gave but it was wrong. I should have known that it was a loon because its legs were so far in the back of its body. I had heard that if a loon lands on the ground instead of in the water, it will not be able to take off because of the position of its legs. (This is semi-true since one loon species can take off from the land.) I remember what I had heard but failed to notice the position of the hips on the skeleton. It amazes me how to this day I clearly remember the one question that I missed but don’t remember any of the specific ones I got right.

During the short time I lived in Missouri, we had a yard that bordered a large wooded area in the back but across the street was a large grassy field that was a hangout for bobolinks, meadowlarks, indigo buntings, and various sparrows. I also had an active purple martins house. Our back yard went back about 250 feet and we kept it all wild except for 25 feet next to the house. There was a lake at the bottom of the hill so I could also count the water birds I saw there as part of my yard list. It was a perfect yard to see birds that lived in trees, in fields and on the water.  I had a lot of bird feeders and it was amazing to me the number of wild bird species that I saw in and around the yard. There were several species that nested in the yard including a pair of yellow-breasted chats and a pair of American redstarts (Sculpture by Sally Blanchard). Both of these quickly became my favorites. 

It would be difficult to name my favorite bird from my yard there but I loved the chickadees and the spring warblers. I would sit out on the deck and had the chickadees come down to take sunflower seeds from my hand. I could sit so quietly that I even had a Carolina wren land on my sunglasses and peck at one of my eyebrows for 10-20 seconds. Perhaps he saw his reflection in my glasses and thought it was another wren competing for one of several hens in the area.  

Wild turkeys walked through the yard. It always amazed me how quickly they disappeared when I tried to get a good look at them. The bobwhites brought their adorable chicks into my yard to feed. However, the birds that I probably enjoyed the most were the resident woodcocks. The male’s spectacular spiral flight display was a special treat. He explodes into the air and flies up more than 100 feet into the air and then comes down in ever tightening circles to show off for a hen. As he does this, his wings make a twittering sound. My neighbors who were not birdwatchers had this happening in their back yard and they never even noticed. (Woodcock sculpture by Sally Blanchard)

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