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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

April 1998

Goose and red-winged blackbird. © DNR Photo

Coming back home

Even the birdlife is feisty in Wisconsin.

Steve McLain


Goose and red-winged blackbird.

© DNR Photo

When people ask why we moved back to Wisconsin from North Carolina my stock answer is: We couldn't stand the nice weather and low taxes!

In truth, it was what we missed and not what we had that brought us back. Things like great state parks nearby, long skeins of migrating Canadas, kettling sandhill cranes, clean waters, the Horicon Marsh, bald eagles on the river, and so on.

We lucked out in our search for a lake lot when we found our 65-acre Willow Spring Lake in the Town of Mukwonago. Laws prohibiting gasoline-powered outboards, snowmobiles and power augers assured us of the quiet refuge we were seeking, at least from the noises of motors.

The wildlife were another matter.

I've identified 122 different species of birds in just two years. On the list, I've had the thrill of watching an osprey dive from 80 feet and hear it "scree" as it takes a fish at the lake's surface. Loons stop here for a two-week layover on their northbound trip. We've heard great horned, screech, barred and long-eared owls at one time or another.

Being semi-retired allows me many hours to observe and photograph wildlife. I've watched a Cooper's hawk pluck a fleeing red-winged blackbird in mid-air; a blue jay fly off with a fledgling warbling vireo in its beak and ma vireo in fruitless pursuit; a sharp-shinned hawk nailing a Northern junco right on our deck! And I'll never forget the evening a great horned owl took his cottontail apart in our largest cottonwood tree.

A lot of the birds will dive, scold and swoop at us. We know there's a red-winged blackbird nesting in the cattails near the pier. The male chases away intruders with warning shrieks and outstretched wings showing brilliant red "invasion stripes." I guess he sort of trusts us, as we found out one day.

We were feeding corn to a family of Canada geese off the pier. The dozen or so birds enjoyed gobbling niblets off the bottom. Obviously, the redwing felt threatened. Out of the blue, the male redwing took a stance on the sentinel cattail and unbelievably began dive-bombing assaults actually landing on a goose and plucking feathers off its back. Even an underwater swim by the offended goose failed to deter the charging redwing. That bird darn near hovered over the submerged goose waiting for the next hit. The last shot must have been a dandy as the goose swam away soon followed by all the others.

The whole battle lasted about a minute and the few-ounce "David" protected his domain from the 12-pound "Goliath." I still wonder what prompted the redwing to challenge the goose with such bold force.

After the skirmish, we were a little uneasy standing on the pier. The redwing blackbird never confronted us, maybe because we were fortunate enough to have good seats and film the battle, so the bird knew we'd bear witness to his tough stance.

Sure, it can be bitter in winter here in Wisconsin, but it got awfully hot and humid in North Carolina for months at a time. I know one thing for certain, we might quietly grumble about the weather, but no Wisconsin songbird is ever going to hear me complain about "noisy" dickeybirds; they're too tough.

Steve McLain writes from Mukwonago.