Q & A: MICHAEL MORRIS

Explaining local birds’ fascinating—but not crazy—behaviour.

Michael Morris is a local birdwatcher, bird listener and all-round bird admirer. The original theme of the issue was ‘crazy animals’ but Michael correctly pointed out that animals by nature are not crazy. “The word crazy doesn’t work with birds. They may do unexpected or impressive things but animals aren’t crazy because they cant be. An animal not functioning would end.” And that’s sort of how our conversation began.

Birds2—American Dipper with bug Main Loop pond Mt Macpherson Nordic trails Jackie Morris photo 2016-12-26Cinclus mexicanus, American dipper with a delicious bug on on Mt. Macpherson nordic loop. TOP: Ornitho Clickapictus, Canadian birdwatcher Michael Morris.

 

RQ: Why do birds sing?

MM: For two reasons, one, to attract a mate—males do most of the singing—and two, they want to defend territory from other males. Territories are important because within a territory is a lot of bugs. That’s why many birds migrate north this time of year, because we have a burst in insect activity.”

RQ: They’re like Nature’s rappers. (I think ravens also ‘rap’ to eulogize and mock, too.) You said in Reved Quarterly a couple years back that your favourite bird was the raven because it plays. Are they still your favourite or has some new bird topped that perch?

MM: Last night we had a storm and all the sensible birds hunkered down and waited it out. Ravens are the only ones that take to the air. You’ll see them playing in the wind. You don’t see a lot of playing in wildlife populations. There’s nothing to eat up there. It’s not a courtship ritual. It’s just soaring in the wind.

RQ: I read that birds can’t be astronauts because they have no esophagus and need gravity to swallow.

MM: Birds don’t have teeth but they have a gizzard that’s partway down their throat, which works as a grinder. We get many pine siskins around Revelstoke. They’ll go after a coniferous tree and pull the seeds out of the cones. You’ll see them in the winter going down to the road and then they peck at the grit that’s on the road. You need pieces of grit just the right size and this will accumulate in their gizzard, that will mush it up into something digestible that goes into its stomach. That’s what’s happening. Whether or not they can do it in space is not really important to them.

RQ: Siskins I call suicide birds. Why don’t they move off the road? Are they so laden with rocks? Or salt-drunk?

MM: Most of them do. Unfortunately not all get off the road fast enough. Most of the time. Yes, they are ingesting salt, and relative to their body size, that could be impairing their judgement. But not to worry, we have lots of pine siskins. We call them ‘grill birds.’ You can honk them off the road. Use your horn.

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ABOVE: Perisoreus canadensis, grey jay, Canada’s new national bird —where else—at the Mackenzie Outpost on top of the Mt. Mackenzie gondola.

 

RQ: What do you make of Canada’s new 150-birthday bird the grey jay?

MM: For reasons I don’t know the Royal Canadian Geographical Society thought that Canada needed a national bird … The most reliable place to see a grey jay is at the Mackenzie Outpost at the top of Mount Mackenzie gondola. There are four grey jays who make a living off of croissant bits.

RQ: They’re living large.

MM: They have no end of handouts. What they do with all this stuff they get given is they mouth it, cover it with saliva that has a preservative effect and they stash it underneath a bit of bark in the crotch of a tree. They have stashed thousands of bits of food for retrieval when they nest and have young to feed. I imagine we’re seeing croissant-fed grey jay chicks.

RQ: The opposite of a bird-lover is someone with ornithophobia. I think it’s a fair phobia. Sharp talons and beak and godless eyes, and what have you. I’m ornithophobic a bit after being attacked by an owl. What advice would you give someone currently freaked out by birds?

MM: That’s and extraordinary story, I’ve never heard anything like it. I have heard of another owl, an elderly man with a head of white hair and an owl whapped him from behind. Most likely, that white hair triggered a response, maybe he thought it was a rabbit.

RQ: I did have hair once upon a time.

MM: Another possibility could be that this was a juvenile bird. A bird that has just fledged on its own and doesn’t know what it’s doing. Sometimes a teenage bird in a search for food will try targets that are inappropriate. They just don’t know what they’re doing. Or it was a parent.  As for fearing birds, I think it’s the opposite. We’re a lot harder on birds than they are on us. Like, how often do you eat chicken?

RQ: What day is it, Wednesday? Wings?

MM: There you go. So who should be afraid of who?

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