Monday, January 12, 2009

Lesson of the timid diving bird: It's OK to make it on your own

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel January 12, 2009)

I'm curious about a bird.

This winter, a pied-billed grebe has returned to our lake as it has done for several winters in a row. The bird -- an unobtrusive creature that doesn't make much noise or have fancy displays of feathers -- is shy and skittish. It's also alone.

Every day it swims around the lake, intermittently taking long, underwater dives. Although finding food is the obvious objective of these frequent aquatic forays, they suit another purpose as well. The bird submerges itself to escape potential enemies.

I guess I'm the bad guy in this scenario, at least from the grebe's perspective, because as soon as this pigeon-sized creature perceives the slightest sign of my approach, it disappears underwater.

Grebes must have incredibly sensitive hearing. If the bird is swimming along the shoreline closest to our house, all I have to do to trigger its flee mechanism is open the porch door. With barely a splash, the brown-feathered bird retreats to the aquatic environment in which it seems so at home.

Grebes are built to dive. They have thick, waterproof plumage and legs set far back on their bodies, making it difficult for them to walk on land but easy to dive underwater. Their feet are not webbed, but flaps of skin on the sides of their toes enable grebes to glide effortlessly through the water. Their well-designed anatomy allows them to catch fish easily.

Sunfish, perch and small catfish, aquatic insects, crayfish and invertebrates make up their diet. And, apparently, our lake provides enough of these tasty tidbits to support at least the one grebe that returns annually.

But why only one?

As I observe this interesting little bird from the comfort of my kitchen, I can't help but wonder why a lone grebe has decided to make our lake its winter home. Is the bird a scout seeking out potential feeding or nesting grounds for a flock of other grebes? Or is it a loner without need of like-minded company?

From what I've been able to glean online and from library books, grebes are for the most part solitary birds. Their nesting season is in the spring and, following an elaborate mating dance, which I have yet to observe, they settle down into monogamous pairs.

They raise their young on floating nests that take the couple up to 10 days to build. Like their human counterparts, some pied-billed grebes live year-round in Florida, while others are migratory, flying south to enjoy the warmer weather when ice and snow threaten northern climes.

I'm not sure what intrigues me most about this small, unassuming bird, but I find the fact that it seems so content to travel alone fascinating.

The grebe is not the only bird to frequent our lake without like-species companions. A single great blue heron, a tri-colored heron and a lesser blue heron all visit the lake regularly.

But these birds tend to interact with each other despite being different species. I'll often look out and watch the three types of herons follow each other from one feeding spot to another. Although they too lack same-species companions, they exhibit what appears to be a need to interact to some extent with other wading birds.

That's not true of the grebe. He or she -- I can't get close enough to determine for sure -- contentedly navigates the lake without a discernible longing to interact with other birds. A flock of wood ducks also visits the lake in the winter, but neither the grebe nor the ducks demonstrate any desire to interact with each other.

Some might look at the little grebe circumnavigating our lake and feel sorry for him because he's alone. Not me. I've never been one to associate being alone with loneliness. The way I see it, the pied-billed grebe exemplifies independence, survivor skills and contentedness.

How different the world would be if people were as content with themselves as the pied-billed grebe appears to be. We wouldn't always be sticking our noses in other folk's business or be continually struggling to secure a spot in one group or another in order to feel fulfilled and accepted.

We could each go our individual way, separate but content, finding food, thinking for ourselves and evading potential threats rather than provoking conflicts.

Sometimes the best examples of how we should live life come from the most unexpected sources. A modest little bird that is too skittish to let me come close may be an unlikely but compelling source of elucidation.

Our job, as fellow inhabitants of this awesome shared planet, is to observe other species and apply what we learn from them to our own humble lives. Listen, look and learn -- that's the objective. With a little grebe as the teacher, consider class in session.

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