For the Birds

The sun is shining on this lovely March day in Nairobi–a rare occasion lately, as we have had seemingly nonstop rain for the past 10 or 12 days. But the rain has restored the color green to nature’s palette and the sun is being photosynthesized by a legion of happy plants cranking out rich, luscious oxygen by the bucketload. 

I’m drinking coffee, basking in the sun and watching birds from my deck. Java House Kenya AA is my go-to brand. It’s expensive, but so worth it. Life is too short for cheap coffee. Same goes for meat, cheese and toilet paper. If you go shopping for any of these items with a bargain in mind, it’s time to re-examine your priorities.

There’s a Hadada Ibis foraging on the carpet of green grass in my front lawn. They form part of my watchdog posse. Anything that startles them results in a cacophony of loud “ha da ba!!!!” calls, from which their name is derived. It’s tempting to think of them as trash birds, because they hang around humans (and we produce a lot of trash). But they actually serve a highly useful role in consuming insects, slugs and snails, and other pesky critters that we don’t typically like lurking about our houses. I saw one carrying a twig in its bill, so they must be nesting in the tall eucalyptus trees of our compound.

The air is filled with a litany of birdsong on this lovely morning. But sadly, I can’t identify most of it. It’s not that I’m incapable; I am a qualified birder, and can identify many of North America’s birds by ear. But whereas the entirety of the United States and Canada contains 914 bird species, Kenya alone boasts  over 1100! Kenya is roughly the size of Texas, which, by comparison, has only about half as many bird species.

There are sunbirds drinking nectar from the flowers blooming around my garden. Sunbirds are the Old World equivalent of the hummingbirds of the Americas, only a bit larger and less acrobatic. They are also nectar feeders, with the males being brightly colored like hummingbirds. They are a great example of convergent evolution. The two groups aren’t even closely related, but similar evolutionary forces led them to develop similar appearances and characteristics in isolation of each other. Another great example is how the Tasmanian wolf, a marsupial (think opossum or kangaroo) evolved to very strongly resemble the red fox, a carnivore. It wasn’t relatedness that caused this resemblance, but natural selection. I suppose convergent evolution is the rationale that science fiction writers use to explain how alien species are always bipedal and humanoid in appearance.

But I digress. There are 132 species of sunbird in the world, of which Kenya hosts 33. In the eastern United States, we have only one common hummingbird, the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird. I have a long way to go in identifying my bird neighbors, but I have a lot of coffee and a lot of time on my hands.

It’s frustrating to be a naturalist but to be unable to identify the species around me. That urge to categorize, to name, to place everything in neat taxonomic boxes, is what drives biologists. It’s sort of like being presented with a massive puzzle, and being unable to rest until you solve it. The biologist’s brain demands order, structure. We aren’t good with chaos. The biologist mentors I admired the most were the best naturalists. The type who were generalists, who knew every bird, plant, amphibian, reptile, mammal and fish in their surroundings, and a host of trivia to boot.

Once I get a grasp of Kenya’s 1105 bird species I will start in on its 400 plus mammals, and then maybe the 7000 or more plant species. If I am highly ambitious I can translate their names into each of the 68 languages spoken here. What a challenging, but wonderful opportunity, to live in a place of such diversity!

My freshly-minted definition of home is “when the exotic becomes familiar, you know you are home.” I think I still have a long way to go.

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