Urban Life

The city is no place to raise a family, and with avocets it usually holds true

06-01-2001 // NWF Staff

We knew the seasons had changed as soon as we stepped out of our townhouse. From the wetland just beyond our complex came a shrill, drawn-out "ple-eek! ple-eek!" that meant our avocets had returned. We affectionately call them "our avocets" because they have brought so much pleasure into our lives. We share them with only our closest friends, as if we are bestowing a great honor.

The summer home our avocets have chosen—a small park in the Denver metropolitan area—is a several-acre island of natural habitat in an ocean of asphalt and concrete. A year ago, the last vestiges of open space at the edge of the park were buried under a new city government complex, shopping center and library—all of which will come in handy if the birds wish to complain about their property taxes, buy groceries or check out something to read. If their only desire is to live as they have always lived—eating, courting and raising minuscule, downy chicks into long-legged replicas of themselves—the loss of open space is one more obstacle the birds must face in a life increasingly full of burdens.

Each spring we expect our avocets to relocate to somewhere more private. We’ve all heard the cliche, "The city is no place to raise a family," and with avocets it usually holds true. In this part of the country, they generally prefer the shallow, alkaline lakes and marshes of the plains and Great Basin as their breeding habitat. No one seems to know why they only picked this urban lake, or even when. It appears much the same as the lakes in many local parks.

When my wife Cathy and I discovered the avocets living here in the midst of Denver a few years ago, we knew we had also found a place for us to nest. We moved into our townhouse shortly thereafter. Now, a two-minute walk from our home enables us to watch the birds and marvel at their remarkable behavior. At first glance, an avocet’s bill appears to be the result of some terrible genetic mutation—something that will surely doom the birds to death by starvation. But as author Annie Dillard points out in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, there is nothing so far-fetched and outlandish at which nature will draw the line—a coot’s feet, a mantis’ face, a banana or even an avocet’s bill.

Every year during their breeding season, these beautiful shorebirds share with us some of the most intimate aspects of their lives. We watch as the females invite the males by stretching their necks low above the water. At the sight of such courting behavior, a male begins preening like mad. He also begins splashing the water with his bill, first on one side of the female, then the other. This may go on for what seems like an eternity to a photographer trying not to run out of film before the ballet is complete. In fact, if a male takes too long, the female may wander off to feed, and both the male and the photographer are out of luck until the next time she’s in the mood.

Immediately after mating, the birds cross bills like pirate cutlasses in a swashbuckler movie. Then the male puts a wing around the female’s back and they dance. Though we’ve seen it many times, we could watch that dance over and over again. It’s always different—and always the same. One day after a pair’s chicks hatched, we watched as a hatchling with an injured leg struggled to keep up with its siblings. Avocet chicks are precocial; they leave the nest within hours after hatching. The parents try to protect them, but the fledglings must feed themselves. Dragging its back leg, the injured chick struggled to keep up with the family while also trying to eat enough to maintain its strength. The next day, it was gone.

There are days when my wife and I are almost overwhelmed by the sheer volume of environmental bad news we hear. When we are tempted to close the doors, draw the blinds and hide from all the problems of the world, we remember this lesson: Even though young avocets often lose in their fight for survival, it is never because they just gave up.

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