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Match Play is a golf/suspense novel. Dust of Autumn is a bloody one set in upstate New York. Prairie View is set in South Dakota, with a final scene atop Rattlesnake Butte. Life in the Arbor is a children's book about Rollie Rabbit and his friends (on about a fourth grade level). The Black Widow involves an elaborate extortion scheme. Doggy-Dog World is my memoir. And ES3 is a description of my method for examining English sentence structure.
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My newest novel, Happy Valley, can be found here.

Sunday, July 13

Arizona Birds

I can’t get over the oddity of the bird population here in Arizona. We have a variety of Egyptian blackbirds (I call them Egyptian because they look like they belong carved on a stone next to Nefertiti). They're really boat-tailed grackles and they have a comical mating ritual. The male, who has a very long tail that acts like a rudder in the air as it opens into a V, puffs up and does a little stiff-legged dance around his sweetie (who ignores him completely), all the while giving her these shrill whistles. A few days ago I saw a smaller blackbird, not the same kind as the grackles, trying very hard to impress his love. She was on the ground and he would fly a few feet above her, hovering like a hummingbird, his tail pointing down at the female and his wings going like sixty. Quite a feat. But she was oblivious to him. He did it three times before he finally flew away. As far as I could tell, after all that foreplay, he’d probably be too pooped to do any effective mating.

Since we’ve been feeding birds in our backyard, we’ve acquired quite a host of different species. We now have five pigeons who regularly arrive in late afternoon for their snacks. They’re such big healthy birds, and quite pretty in a wide variety of colors, although our five all look exactly alike, sort of purplish with that iridescent sheen of oil on water. Lots of quail families come through. One group had eight little ones, eight little tan puffs greedily working on the quail block. A few days ago as we were pulling into the garage, we noticed four babies unaccompanied by parents scurrying across the street from our house. And since then there have been only four in our backyard. So we figured the parents either kicked half of them out or the four just got tired of living with mom and dad and decided to cut out on their own. In Sun City West they’ll do quite nicely. I’ve never seen such a place for easy animal living. In addition to the quail and pigeons, we have red-breasted finch, lots of dove, an odd little brown pair who look and act much like cardinals, and a number of cactus wren who hunt bugs on our back patio. Other than an occasional one who comes by and has a sip of nectar before darting away, we haven’t had much business at the hummingbird feeder. The finch love it, though. I don’t see how they can get their beaks down far enough to get anything, but they seem to be doing all right. They sit on the edge, their feet slipping and sliding, and peck into the feeder holes, and the liquid level seems to be going down. We have quite a few of the white-winged singers who sit on one tv antenna or the other and sing their hearts out. They’re Arizona mockingbirds whose song is so lovely and varied during their mating seasons. But they also have the irritating habit of singing throughout the night. Thank goodness their song is as pleasant as it is. I remember visiting a friend in Florida a few years ago and getting a taste of my first whippoorwill. Now that bird is a real pain in the butt: I quote from the Columbia Desk Encyclopedia, “North American nocturnal bird of goatsucker family. Weird song is monotonous repetition of its name.”

I watched three families of mallards at one of our golf courses, eight or nine in each bunch, and the familial closeness of them was touching. In all three cases the father and mother were right there to shepherd the little ones around the ponds. One group was engaged in practice dives. These little walnut-sized bits of fluff would tip their heads down and pop under the surface for two or three seconds, then pop up again. So cute. I couldn’t help but wonder what it was they were diving for. Some subsurface food, maybe? Or more likely, just for the fun of it. But I was reminded of that brutal scene I witnessed a month or so ago. The state conservation people have taken most of the female mallards out of the PB ponds, so the remaining males tend to get horny with no resources available. That leaves the weak and the strong, or any port in a storm, so to speak. All of a sudden I noticed a male attacking another male out near the middle of the pond. He was literally riding the other’s back and pecking him fiercely on the head, even holding his head under water as he had his way with him. And right behind this duo were another three or four males. Whenever the weaker one managed to get away momentarily the other four would fight over whose turn it was. I can’t imagine anything more brutal taking place in a prison shower room. He managed to free himself and fly to shore, but the others were right behind him and proceeded to nail him there as well. My point is that here I am, so enamored of this idyllic scene of mallard family life and just a month earlier I saw mallards behaving like cell block bullies. It didn’t matter to them if they killed the one they were attacking as long as they got their sexual way with him. No sweet, comic little Disney characters these guys. We tend to romanticize creatures in nature, and every now and then nature has to slap us in the face to remind us that it’s still a jungle out there, and that we’re not so far removed from that jungle we can ignore the brutality inherent in nature as well as in human nature.

At a nearby golf course, I noticed four red-winged hawks in the backyard of one of the houses along the fairway. They were hunting in concert in a pack (pack?). According to Eric Partridge in his book Usage and Abusage, it would be a flight of goshawks. But that applies to them only as a group, not as a hunting team. The curious thing is how they cooperated. One was on the ground acting as herder or harrier, scouting out an oleander hedge, one was on a fence post, two others were on the edge of adjoining roofs, all keeping interested eyes on the oleander. Then a rabbit made his timorous way out of the bush. Two of the hawks rushed him and he scampered back into the safety of the bush. So all four of them hung around for a while, then flew away. They were quite beautiful in a savage sort of way. They were rusty brown on the body, more reddish on the wings, with white backside and belly. I found out months later, when we went to the San Diego Zoo, that they were Harris hawks, one of the few birds of prey that hunted cooperatively.

I love our Arizona birds.

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