On the water On The Waterfront

On the water On The Waterfront

By Rod Myers, Naturalist

Every year I go down to the On The Waterfront Festival in downtown Rockford, and this year was no exception, but this time, I spent a couple hours watching how the wildlife in the festival area of the Rock River coped with the festival and all the people.

I arrived early on Friday to see the positions of various species groupings and interspecies groupings on the river before the hordes of people arrived. After disembarking from Rockford’s road system with my van, I embarked from my handicapped parking space on a set of four different smaller, more personal wheels. My destination was the riverbank in back of the Rockford Public Library. I had my calculator with me to add up the numbers for each individual species I was to see, and to count the number of times a young person referred to me as “Yoda.”

A large group of mallard ducks were on the riverbank and in the water near the bank in back of the library. A few were scattered farther out and under the Jefferson Street Bridge. Also, a strange-looking small duck was squawking in a high-pitched, relentless manner. As far as identifying the bird, I’d be hard pressed, but it looked like a partial melanistic, immature bufflehead. This species spends the breeding season from southern to mid-Canada, so what’s it doing here? Maybe he came to tempt Alice Cooper.

There was also a flock of Canada geese on the bank and a flock of pigeons (rock doves) on the bank. There was a group of rock doves mixed with mallards on the bank and rock doves on the Jefferson Street Bridge underneath. I counted 11 rock dove nests on the bridge underneath, some still with young. On one nest, a parent bird was shaking violently as it put effort into regurgitating food into the mouth of its offspring.

House sparrows were in attendance on the bank, in the shrubs and trees, on the bridge underneath, and on the boardwalk underneath the bridge. Also, two grackles were present on the bank, but no red-wing blackbirds, which was a mystery to me because they nested 100 trees north of the bridge in wild shrubs along the river earlier this summer. Their absence may be a sad tribute to the trimming done along the river by the Park District in July.

When the first festival goers arrived on the riverbank, most of the birds approached the people, hoping for a handout. This worked for a while, and the birds got theirs, but the crowds got too big, causing most birds to move away. Groups of mallards flew south towards the dam or north, but some moved to the middle of the river, dodging motorboats to chase tasty insects on and above the water. The geese vanished. I missed their exit, but the pseudo-bufflehead stayed at the bank’s edge in the water, squawking even louder, loving the attention, eating OTW handouts.

The rock doves took to the air for a while, flying in groups in large circles, masters of the downtown sky. Despite the problems rock doves cause, they are great flyers. They glide, hang in the wind, teeter with uplifted wings like vultures; they can fly with great speed, and they are great divers. Some of the males were doing showy mate flights, which are surprisingly similar to a portion of the Cooper’s hawk courtship flight.

Rock doves and humans have lived together for thousands of years, one representing Aves, the other Mammalia, the only two warm-blooded classes in the animal kingdom.

After 6:30 p.m., chimney swifts appeared in ever-growing numbers working the air for insects. It’s safe to assume the swifts were eating the insects attracted to the large number of people.

Soon nighthawks appeared, performing the same as the chimney swifts but at a higher altitude. But let’s not give people all the credit for the insects; the river is a great source for insect life. Before dark, anyone downtown who looked skyward should have witnessed the thousands of chimney swifts descending whirlwind-like into the bigger chimneys. What a sight. Many of the swifts were migrants.

The grackles and the house sparrows left when the crowd swelled, but they were the first to come back. Then back came the geese, then the rock doves, then the mallards. They had pushed their fears aside for the love of festival food. It’s been proven that people food is not healthy for wildlife, but like the humans, the wildlife didn’t give a squawk. So far, just the humans have the weight problem.

Many wild bird species have co-existed with man for years and benefited. However, many species are dwindling because of man’s actions. Then there’s the in-between species that are just starting to cope with man. Man has sped up bird behavioral evolution. Now some birds migrate using highways as maps and for thermals. Birds can identify human yard types almost as well as they identify wild vegetation habitats. Bird feeders are micro malls, and seven to eight species of birds will nest in the same tree in urban or suburban areas. And these are just a few examples.

I won’t end the story with a tongue-in-cheeker such as, everyone enjoyed the OTW, man and bird alike. I enjoyed watching the birds down at the OTW, but I prefer to watch them in wilder habitats. But if I’m going to be watching all those people, I might as well watch some birds while I’m at it.

There’s a rumor that Alice Cooper and Rick Nielsen were on the Rock River on Labor Day looking for the Byrds.

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