Sinister Bird Cheerleading

I realized that as my life has shifted to more professional writing, I don't write for my blog like I used to. Once I've written something that ends up over at Outdoor News or Audubon, there's no need to put it here. But I do a lot of writing for other things like Encyclopedia Shows so rather than just leaving that to be scratches in one of the myriad of notebooks Non Birding Bill and I keep, I thought I might as well put it out here for better or for worse. So here is this week's Encyclopedia Show entry on Cheerleading. There is some profanity (gasp).

 If they chose to do so, red-winged blackbirds would probably make an ok cheerleader. 

If they chose to do so, red-winged blackbirds would probably make an ok cheerleader. 

I don't get cheerleading. I'm not disparaging people to have cheered or currently cheer but I don't get the concept as a whole. But then again, I'm often perplexed by sports ball. We cheer for people with tremendous athletic ability who can tackle each other, or throw and catch an oddly shaped ball from one end of a field to another, or for being able to dodge of bunch of dudes while bouncing a ball and periodically tossing it into a round net. I find the find the sports industry as strange as I find the spectacle of the fashion industry. 

Maybe it’s because most of the things I do aren’t cheer related events like birding or paint by number. No one ever cheers you while birding:

“2-4-6-8!

Who just got a magnificent frigate?

Birdchick! That’s right, bird-bird-bird-bird Birdchick!”

 Me at a running event. 

Me at a running event. 

For me personally, I don't find cheerleading useful. Every now and then I get in my head to do a 5K. I'm not great at it. My rules for a 5K are:

1. Finish.

2. Don't die.

3. Don't be last. 

My reasons for doing 5ks isn’t any deep spiritual thing. It’s to keep eating in the manner in which I have become accustomed and if there ever really is a zombie apocalypse I'll have a reasonable chance of surviving the first round of killings. I've never experienced the "runner's high" that people talk about, but then again the people who tell me about it tell I need to do a longer run and that you really feel it at the 8k mark. Blah. I'm lucky to make it to the 5k mark. 

When you run at events, there are people who are cheering you on...complete with cowbell, usually at the halfway mark or towards the finish. When I get to that point I'm not that thrilled with the cheering because my brain is generally to the point of, "Hey, you know a walk/run is a perfectly valid way to finish this and would probably burn more calories...aw, fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck, people are cheering us, we can't stop and walk now we have to show them their cheering is working, keep running. Fuck. Keep running."

 Cranes at dawn in Kearney, Nebraska. 

Cranes at dawn in Kearney, Nebraska. 

But I have had occasion to see birders cheer odd things like actual life and death instances. I was co-leading a trip to Kearney, Nebraska to see a million snow geese and about 40,000 sandhill cranes pausing in their northward migration to their arctic breeding grounds. The highlights are going to the roost at dawn and at dusk to see the massive congregations of birds. When you aren't in the crane blinds you drive around to watch the birds forage for waste corn in the surrounding farm fields. Our group was watching a large flock when the birds suddenly spooked and took to the sky forming a huge gray crane tornado.

We soon saw what panicked the birds--an adult bald eagle was making tracks for the center of the tornado, its sites clearly set on one particular crane. The eagle made contact and clipped the crane, the bird flipped, the eagle rounded again and went to catch it. Meanwhile, everyone in my group was cheering. Half the group was cheering for the eagle and the other half were cheering for the crane to get away. As opposed to a football or a basketball game, they were literally cheering a life and death situation. One bird was trying to avoid starvation, the other bird was trying to avoid being eaten.

The eagle again dove for the crane and this time made actual contact. The crane was literally upside down and the eagle had at least one foot-full of talons lodged in the crane's belly. Bald eagles and sandhill cranes are roughly the same weight, averaging about ten pounds (give or take a pound or two). Even if this had been a twelve-pound eagle, it can only carry half its weight in flight. The captured crane flapped its wings and was able to dislodge itself from the eagle's grasp. The crane managed to right itself and fly away from the eagle.

Then it did something interesting—the crane made a beeline for our cheering group. The eagle turned and was in hot pursuit. The crane left the flock and flew right over our bus, meanwhile the eagle paused and went around our screaming group giving the crane some much needed distance to try and flee the eagle. In hindsight I wondered if the crane sensed the eagle would be wary of humans or was just so terrified of being eaten that it didn’t notice us? The surrounding din of thousands of cranes would have easily drowned out our voices. Eagles do not like to fly over anything dangerous so our group would have given it pause. But the eagle increased speed and continued after the crane. Both birds flew well out of sight and we never saw the finish but that adult eagle seemed determined and depending on how injured that crane was, it was very likely the eagle caught up to the exhausted crane and finished it off. 

The adrenaline of the group wore down but we all noticed how strange it was to cheer and shout for that battle. What did say about each other and the side we chose?

I wondered if there were instances of birds cheering. I scoured my bird books and wondered if perhaps parent birds cheer on their kids when learning to fly?

No, not really, they either kind of sit aloof watching what happens. If anything, they taunt their young by not feeding them. And then perching some flight distance away starving the kids into flight.

Birds definitely scream and yell, usually when a predator is present and they are screaming and yelling: “Hey guys, there’s a thing right here that’s trying to hide and kill us!”

But I think the closest I came to finding a bird cheering is from a book called Mind of the Raven by Bernd Heinrich (which is a fantastic book).

 Beware the mind of a raven. 

Beware the mind of a raven. 

The story is about a 98 pound woman who didn’t even clear five feet in height. One evening she was working behind her Colorado cabin. For about twenty minutes a raven had been annoying her because it was “putting on a fuss like crazy.”

“I never paid much attention to ravens,” she told me, but this one was so noisy it was downright irritating. The noisy raven kept coming closer…Hannum had never before noticed ravens “cackling like crazy.” Was this raven trying to say something? She started to listen more closely.

The raven was close, and it made a pass over her calling raucously then flying up above her to some rocks, where she finally saw a crouching cougar, twenty feet away, ready to pounce.

The lion moved his head just a bit as the raven flew over. That’s when I saw him. I never would have seen him otherwise. He was going to jump me. That raven saved my life.”

The event was declared a miracle in the news.

Heinrich saw a miracle but not the way Hannum saw it. Ravens have no interest in helping people, especially someone who never paid them any attention or fed them. That raven wasn’t warning her. That raven was cheering on the cougar. The idea is that the raven saw the woman as a source of food. Not having the talons or teeth to kill her itself, it noticed a cougar nearby and called it in to kill her. The cougar wouldn't eat her all but would open her carcass enough and leave enough behind for the raven to feed on. 

That raven noticed a cougar nearby and a small human that raven was cheering that cougar. Perhaps it sounded something like this:

“Hey, you could kill this right now!

Go Cougar go!

Pounce Cougar pounce!

Kill Cougar kill!

Go! Pounce! Kill!"