Ruth Bass: From ducks to a puffed-up grouse, news stories are for the birds

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RICHMOND — The quackarazzi have descended on Central Park in New York City. The new word describes crowds with cameras and binoculars who are focusing on a duck of many colors, the gaudiest duck imaginable, who is swimming about making mallards and other species look a little dull.

This is the mandarin duck, regularly a resident of Asia, who is decked out in feathers of purple, orange, blue, white and red. It's not a costume — it's just who he is. And his North American cousin, the brilliantly feathered wood duck, pales in comparison. The scene was mostly peaceful, but when the quackarazzi included TV cameras at midweek, the lone mandarin started to aggressively bully the residents, provoking one mallard to shoot up from below the surface and bite the newcomer.

Some sophisticated bird people tried to pooh-pooh those who were flocking to the shores of the pond. It's not a migrant or an accidental, it didn't fly to New York from China, it's an escapee from someone's private property, they said. In fact, if that's the case, the New York mandarin probably did fly here from China — on a jet.

For the less snobby, it's a must-go situation. A one-of-kind bird that's not supposed to be here is providing a once-in-a lifetime opportunity — unless he has a wife hiding in a tree somewhere. And he could. He's a perching bird from a species that walks as well as swims and sits in trees. Sometimes, when the news of the day is forever breaking with some new awful story, it's good to have a duck, even if he's an illegal immigrant.

It's interesting, as a matter of fact, how often a bird can take your mind off the regular news. Reports last month said the evening grosbeak had been seen in the Berkshires. It must be 30 years, minimum, since this big, colorful finch ate at our house — in flocks. And now people are watching them at their feeders in New England again, apparently because the food they like is scarce in the far north. A moment of envy entered this house where, in the annual delay caused by too many bears, the only bird food has been offered at the second-floor bathroom window.

And then one drizzly morning last week, preparing to open the window (brrr) and refill the planter, I saw him. Rain had tousled the feathers on his head, but the white stripe on his back was bright, the yellow feathers brilliant and the masked face looking like war paint. He went on the 2018 list, getting it to a total of 92 birds identified beyond a reasonable doubt. Perhaps this week he'll bring friends.

The sage grouse is in the news, too. Never seen one, never thought about one before. But an internet image of this two-foot bird (big in the avian world) showed an imposing creature, tail feathers fanned out like individual spikes and chest proudly puffed. It turns out that corporate and environmental people crossed a divide a few years ago and made some rules that protected the bird but avoided calling it endangered.

Protection apparently came from good will on both sides, rather than a mandate. That worked until last week when the Environmental Protection Agency — now in the hands of people who put economy before environment every time — decided to pull restrictions on drilling and mining in a nine-million-acre area that is the sage grouse's favored habitat. One analyst pointed out that oil and gas companies "have thirsted" for years for the right to drill those acres.

Perhaps the grouse, if some sagebrush could be mapped out, would find Central Park a more welcoming place. The evening grosbeaks are already there. And the duck.

Ruth Bass is a former Sunday editor of The Eagle. Her website is www.ruthbass.com.

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