(Originally published in the May-June 1996 issue of the Albatross, Vol. 41, No. 5)
A Rocky Start To Springtime Courtship
By Bob Merrill
The junco, standing on a small jumble of crumbled sandstone at the side of the road, was insistently probing into the rubble beneath its feet. Undeterred in its mission by a newly-arrived human observer, the junco repeatedly repositioned himself (indeed, it was a dark-hooded male) and urgently continued to delve headlong into the center of the accumulated debris; sometimes, he spread his tail, presumably for added leverage, as he thrust forward into the pile of rocks. This behavior was occasionally accompanied by an extended single-note utterance, which, to the human's ears, was a joyless buzz-like sound quite contrary to a junco's customary jubilant trilling signaling the onset of Spring (and this was March 24).
The object of this unwavering, incessant attention, it then became apparent, was the upside-down, feet-up, unmoving form of another junco, more specifically, the paler head of a female junco was being targeted by the male. The observer watched for several minutes, even taking time to jot down some notes: "prone, seemingly lifeless junco ... crushed by rocks?..small rock slide? ... being pecked... pulled by another DEJU around bill, eyes, etc." He watched the male several times grasp the open bill of the other junco and yank upward, then release its grip; then grab feathers anywhere on the head and tug again...but, and this seemed strange to the observer, no feathers were being extracted in doing so.
The observer usually elects to keep his distance from interactions among the feathered realm but on this occasion he intruded. He approached until he loomed directly over both juncos. Only then did the male yield his position, agitatedly opting for the closest, lowest tree limb above the intruder. The intruder looked down at the still, open-mouthed form of the female, then lifted a slender slice of sandstone from atop her breast, there was no fluttering, no movement except ... her breast was pulsing. She was alive. There was just one other sliver of stone directly on her, atop her belly, near her rigid, upright legs. It was an ounce or so, certainly no more, and it, too, was cautiously removed. . . and justlikethat, freed, she turned over and bolted, directly up to her original rescuer; reunited, they paused for maybe a moment and then they flew, chattering, away into the security of the wooded hillside above Spanish Ranch Road.
Probably, the female had been trapped in a mini-slide while feeding along the road, and the observer and friend later that day blithely theorized that the male junco, in his rescue strategy, would have been better served by trying to remove the debris instead of resolutely tugging at the head of his disabled friend. But what sort of thoughtfulness and caring can you expect from a bird brain, right?