There is a Little League ballpark a few blocks from the ol’ Cracker Box. It has the usual 50-foot poles topped with an array of lights. On several of the poles, among the light supports, there are clumps of sticks about three feet in diameter. These are the nests of Monk parakeets, a naturalized species that has gotten what appears to be a permanent — and very fertile — foothold in our part of Florida. It is a pleasure to look up and see a flight of green, squawking parrots go by. They seem to have found their niche, eating palm seeds and other tropical fare. I have not heard anyone complain about them, so I have to assume they are not eating anything that their human co-habitants think is especially important.
An interesting thing about this species is that their preferred nesting place is in the tops of tall, thin trees like Royal palms. The colony used to nest in Royals that were part of a nearby orchid nursery. The land is now occupied by condominiums, unfortunately without the palms which, at 80 to 100 feet, were remarkable old trees but apparently in the way of progress. When the trees came down, it was not long before the ‘keets had relocated to the ballpark. Apparently the accommodations provided by the tall, thin substitutes are quite satisfactory, because those “clumps of sticks” survived four hurricanes that I was certain would send all the little parrots to the big cracker barrel in the sky.
<>The same amazing resiliency is found in an osprey nest that occupies the top of a cell tower next to I-95. I do not know if there were any chicks in the nest at the time of the storms. The big raptors usually nest in the early spring down here, so the kids may well have been fledged and able to take care of themselves. The nest, however, is completely exposed to rain, wind and whatever. Nonetheless it remains intact, as far as I can tell from the ground.
I am thrilled by this sort of thing. Here are creatures that we think of as wild, adapting well to the changes we have made in their world, even in areas where there’s not all that much of it left. Their ability to put together a nest of sticks that will withstand hours of battering by 80 – 90 mph winds is close enough to a miracle for me.
The small herons called Cattle egrets are another case of adaptation — in this case, twice. These beautiful little birds stand about 20” tall, with long greenish-yellow legs and snowy white feathers, trimmed with orange during the mating season. Now common all over the temperate US, they originally came from Africa. On the veld they follow herds of grazing animals and feast on the insects that the larger creatures stir up in their passage.
It’s not uncommon for European and even Asian birds to be carried to North American shores by storms, and Africa and South America are even closer together than the northern landmasses. Nor are the waters in between subject to the nasty weather of the North Atlantic, so it is inconceivable that Cattle egrets never reached the Western Hemisphere during the first couple of million years they existed. They failed to become established, however, because South America has no native animals that travel in herds.
Enter the Spanish and Portuguese immigrants in the late Sixteenth Century. The climate proved perfect for ranching, and by the mid-Eighteenth Century the plains were covered with vast herds of beef cattle.
The Cattle egrets appeared in the early 1900’s. Herds of imported cattle on the pampas created the ecological niche that the birds needed, satisfying their inborn imperative to follow big slow-moving objects and eat bugs. The little herons moved in, were fruitful, and multiplied. They have, in the past fifty or so years, spread into North America — where they also follow cattle, and where they have discovered yet another niche. They follow tractors now, and threshing machines, and lawn mowers.
Lawn mower egrets. Amazing!