- Yellow head, yellow head (John Cassady)
A year ago, a small article about Project Passenger Pigeon (P3) appeared in Birdwatchers Digest. Among those who read the piece was Susan Wegner, an art historian at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. She was born and raised near Fond du Lac, WI and has passenger pigeon in her blood. Susan immediately became as enthusiastic about P3 as any of us and even began incorporating it into her own work. She authored and submitted a really cool proposal to the College Art Association meetings in NYC in Feb. 2013 for a paper entitled “From Venus’ Chariots to Chicago’s Wild Game Market: Imagining Wild Pigeons and Doves in Western Art.” It addresses the changing meanings ascribed to birds in images from ancient Egyptians up through unrelenting harvest and extinction of tourtes voyageuses (aka passenger pigeon).
When Susan saw our new website (passegerpigeon.org) she felt compelled to contact me. It was so gratifying to receive such a message, especially from a scholar like Susan. And it came at a perfect time as I was tasked with submitting a P3 themed proposal for an upcoming conference which would have been difficult for me to do. So when I spoke with Susan about the need for a proposal she whipped out a fine draft. Her mother lives in Fond du Lac, WI, only three hours north of here, Since she was planning on visiting, she asked if we could meet to finish the proposal and, maybe even do some birding. When I was done leading my Friday morning bird walk, I headed north and we met that evening, finished the proposal, and left the motel at 4:30 Saturday morning for a place as magical as its name, El Dorado Marsh, 6,300 acres of marsh and woods that supports an array of birds that puts most of our Chicago wetlands to shame. It was created by the same glaciers that left us the much larger and more famous Horicon Marsh to the southwest.
The oonk-a-chunk of American bitterns greeted us. Later as the sky took on the character of day, we say one flying across the marsh, its protruding legs and dark primaries highlighted by the low sun. Yellow-headed blackbirds, a bird whose appearance, scientific name (Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus: yellow-head, yellow-head: as if you might miss the point the first time), song, and habitat all leave me enthralled. They populated the marsh in conspicuous numbers: they are the gold that dusts the waving green cloak. Susan spotted a string of distant black-crowned night-herons emerging from a distant grove. Wood ducks and blue winged teal darted low over the cattails before plopping down in the small openings.
Susan informed me that this was a place where her family visited often. For her, then, this oasis of vibrant life has special meaning. And it does for me as well.