Monday, October 17, 2011

Migrating birds often disappointed with land they fly to when it no longer meets winter-habitat criteria they ancestors enjoyed

Please click on image to ENLARGE view of Joe Neal's photo of a Virginia rail.
WHAT RAILS REMEMBER October 17, 2011

Birds remember landscapes fundamentally invisible to us non-birds. I am reminded of this by a telephone call on Saturday night from a gentleman who lives at Garfield north of Beaver Lake. He is an experienced outdoors person, but near his home he has encountered a stranger: in size and general coloration, reminds him of quail, but the bill is longish and pointed; dark eyes large, short awkward flights. Nothing pops up for me while we talk. But then I remember Doug James’ wife Elizabeth Adam finding a Viriginia Rail in a parking lot at Northwest Arkansas Mall (1987), Bruce Roberts finding one at a storage unit in Centerton (2005), and Calvin Bay’s strawberry patch bird in Fayetteville (2008).

Virginia Rail is today exceedingly rare in northwestern Arkansas, though I suspect the rarity is recent and entirely artificial. Habitat-wise, northwest Arkansas is divided between Ozark forest in the east and former tallgrass prairie in the west. Rails have been flying through our former prairies for eons, from nesting areas to our north, to wintering south. They have many thousands of years of experience with our grasslands that can be suitably wet and marshy in season. In their genes, they “remember.” When in migration they come down, they do so in “belief” of suitable wet grassland. Nothing prepares them for what genetically-speaking, is a mere twinkling of an eye: urban sprawl, asphalt parking lots, big boxes, empires of chicken and cattle, all so very recently consuming our seasonal wetlands.

A rail in a parking lot is the dramatic crash between what has taken so long to prepare in an evolutionary sense, bird migration, and exploitation driven by the self-defeating idea that our self-interest is all that matters. Lucky rails, like the one I saw in a spring-fed marshy patch at the state fish hatchery in Centerton (2006), still find suitable mid-journey respite.

Lost rail with genetic memory of a different land seems a good fit for Garfield. When I pass this on to my caller, and he has a chance to see Virginia Rails on the internet, he agrees.

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