Bird of the Year

In 2011, the Crossroads Bird of the Year was the Northern Cardinal. In fact, most years the Crossroads Bird  is the Cardinal,  with Black-capped Chickadee usually  the runner-up. In 2006, the Penguins came in as the most popular bird, but the movies “March of the Penguins” and “Happy Feet” came out about then.  In 2012, at this writing, the front-runner is the Dove.

What is this Bird of the Year thing anyway?  Well, it turns out that a lot of people are at loose ends during the day on Christmas Eve. So, Crossroads schedules a family activity in the morning and in the afternoon, it has been our tradition to offer a multimedia presentation called  “Holiday Card Birds.”  I collect all of the greeting cards my family and Crossroads receives, sort cards with birds from without birds,  and then, sort again by bird species. The lecture focuses on the interesting facts about the most popular five birds of that year.

So far this year, I have not received a single cardinal card. Strange. But a whole flock of dove cards have descended in my mailbox. Maybe in this year of animosity, my friends are all longing for peace.

And talking about doves will be complicated,  to say the least.  In the extensive list of state symbols, Mourning Doves are celebrated as the Wisconsin  Bird of Peace. But the holiday cards do not have images of mourning doves, or for that matter, Turtle Doves which are probably the species which is mentioned  more than fifty  times in the Bible and the is the  symbol of undying love, as “On the second day of Christmas….my true love gave to me….”

And  the complications get more complex.  The words “dove” and “pigeon”  have been  used for have been used interchangable since the beginning of recorded history. So in Israel, where doves and pigeons are native,  the distinction used to be that doves migrated and pigeons were permanent residents.

The migratory Turtle Doves  were considered more precious, so they were the birds  captured and kept as pets or used for sacrifices. But Rock Pigeons (a.k.a Rock Doves) also lived in the Holy Land. According to an article by Laura Erickson, “Mesopotanian cueniform tablets and Egygptian hieropglyphics suggest that pigeons were domesticated more than 5,000 years ago. ”  She explains that the birds were selectively bred for interesting plumage, strength, homing ability, and meat.

Over the centuries, many domesticated pigeons escaped and and their decendants now populate cities throughout the world.  Mary Poppins famously recommended buying food (“tuppence a bag”)  to  feed them on the steps of St. Paul,  but  feeding pigeons is now banned at St. Mark’s Square in Venice and many other European cities. Domestic pigeons were brought to America in the early 1600s, and like many invasive species,  they spread throughout the continent and now are nuisance birds in parks, under bridges, and  in the lofts of farm buildings  throughout our land.

But people still raise, train,  show and love pigeons. And as best as I can tell from the stylized images on the cards, the “doves” are fancy domestic pigeons….amazing birds, really, with the ability to find their way home when released.  These birds have been used as messagers for thousands of years and curiously, these “birds of peace” have been used during wars ( from the time of Genghis Khan until the globalization of the Internet) to carry messages.

How do homing pigeons  find their way home?  I remember back in grad school, sitting around with my classmates joking that pigeons probably had little compasses in their brains.  Imagine my surprise when I learned that the joke was on us. Researchers at Baylor College of Medicine, Le-Qing Wu and David Dickman, discovered that specialized cells in a pigeon’s brain [or maybe the inner ears]  respond to the earth’s magnetic field.  And then, Charles Walcott from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology not only verified that an awareness of the magnetic field helped pigeons find home, but also that they could use the angle of the sun, patterns of stars, and maybe even a sense of smell to navigate.

The “dove of peace” or the “pigeon of war ” or two turtle doves may be the topic of the Bird of the Year lecture”, or maybe, last minute card senders will “nominate” a different species. At any rate, the lecture “Holiday Card Birds” will be offered at 2:00 on December 24.

For families with restless children, we will offer a family program at 10:30 on the morning of December 24.. “Do Animal Talk onChristmas Eve?” was inspired by a Scandanavian legends.  When it comes to the mounts in our Wisconsin Wildlife Exhibit, we sincerely doubt it.  But Crossroads is closed at midnight, so nobody really knows. But kids will get to learn about our “critters” and then have a chance to decorate animals cookies during this free program on the morning of the 24.

Thursday, December 20, 2:00 Lecture: The History of Christmas Trees

This multi-media presentation will describe the evergreen tradition and then will explore the characteristics of native conifer trees. This program is free and open to the public.

Saturday, December 22,  7:00 “Introduction to the Night Sky

Join the members of the Door Peninsula Astronomical  Society as they offer a free class to teach the basics of stargazing, such as locating constellations and reading a sky map. Dress warmly.  A planetarium presentation will be offered if the skies are cloudy. To reach the Astronomy Center, use the Utah Street Entrance to Crossroads (at the Cove Road intersection.)

Monday, December 24,                                                                                                                                                                                                10:30 Family Program: “Do Animals Talk on Christmas Eve?”

Sometimes, it’s good to get the children out from underfoot on Christmas Eve morning. In this holiday event, children can visit the animal exhibit in the lower level of the Collins Learning Center, have a short lesson on animal behavior, and then go upstairs to decorated animal cookies. Intended for children 4-10 (but siblings will be welcome too.) Free and open to the public.

2:00 Lecture: Holiday Card Birds

For some reason, holiday greeting cards feature  images of a variety of birds. In this annual lecture, the naturalist will reveal the Crossroads Bird of the Year—the bird which appeared the most often  on a greeting cards received in the 2012.  The program is free and open to the public.

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