Why is Our Logo a Grackle?
"The nonreading children are
the greatest problem in American education."
Sometime before 1968 Jack spotted a Common Grackle in his back yard and wrote about his find in his Los Angeles Times column. Although the Great-tailed Grackle was known to range into California, the Common Grackle was not. So, Jack's siting was a first. Members of the Los Angeles Audubon Society challenged him and claimed that he couldn't possibly have seen a Common Grackle in the backyard of his Mt. Washington home. This ongoing dispute was referred to in many of Jack's columns over the years. Some of those columns are reproduced below.
In February of 1976, the Los Angeles Audubon Society presented Jack with a pen & ink drawing of the "mythical" California Common Grackle - Quiscalus quiscula smith drawn by Mary Ellen Pereyra. The inscription on the back of the drawing reads "Presented to Mr. Jack Smith, With affection and amusement. Los Angeles Audubon Society, 12 February 1976." It is this drawing that we have adopted as the logo of the Jack & Denny Smith Memorial Fund for Literacy.
Wednesday, March 18, 1987
Not To Beat A Dead Grackle, But Is A Bird In Long Island Worth Two In Mt. Washington's Bush?
View, Page 5-1
By Jack Smith,
In a recent Page 1 story the New York Times expressed its amazement that an Azur gallinule had been found on Long Island, albeit dead.
The Azur gallinule, the Times noted, had never before been seen in flight north of Venezuela.
As the Times put it, "What was the Azur gallinule doing in Angela Wright's backyard?"
A measure of the story's importance, in the eyes of the Times, was its presence on the front page along with stories about the National Security Council's undercover operations in the Iranian arms affair, a Wall Street takeover whiz kid's plea of guilty to illegal insider trading, cannibalism among Vietnamese boatpeople, and more gunfire in Beirut.
The Times described the gallinule as "an ungainly bird," though a photograph of one in life showed it to be rather pleasant-looking, if somewhat plump, not unlike a coot or a rail in conformation; and in flight, I imagine, it might be quite beautiful. One should not casually dismiss any bird as ungainly.
Another measure of the story's importance is that Mrs. Wright found the bird in her yard at Fort Salona, L.I., last December, yet it is still regarded as Page 1 news. She put the bird in a plastic sack and placed it in her refrigerator, and only recently did the news get out to the ornithological world.
"Word of the find, which might be the first sighting of the species in North America, has spread beyond this quiet North Shore community," the Times said.
There are some unanswered questions.
First, of course, is how did the bird get there? And how did it die?
Suspicion first fell on Mrs. Wright's cat, a calico nicknamed Killer Cat, which Mrs. Wright admitted "pounces on everything that moves."
However, she is sure the cat did not kill the gallinule. The bird was in perfect condition, showing no signs of tooth and claw.
"It looked too good to be dead," Mrs. Wright said candidly.
The bird's condition gave weight to the theory that it had flown 2,500 miles from its Amazonian habitat, and perhaps perished in the harsh Long Island winter.
Gallinule , by the way, is derived from gallinula , diminutive of the Latin gallina; it means little hen.
Naturally, all the region's ornithologists and bird watchers are terribly excited by the appearance of this rare find, and have undoubtedly beaten a path to Mrs. Wright's door.
How different from the skeptical indifference that followed my own sighting, several years ago, of the only common grackle that had ever been seen west of the Mississippi River. He flew over our birdbath while I was out on the patio writing a column about spring.
Though I mentioned this event in the column, not then realizing its importance, the Los Angeles Times took no notice of it in its news pages. But bird watchers are an alert group, and the story spread.
Among dozens of other letters, I received one from the Audubon Society apprising me of the fact that no grackle had ever been seen west of the Mississippi River, and that I must be mistaken in my identification. I took this to be a shockingly unscientific position for the society to hold. The true scientist does not rule out any phenomenon until he has checked it out.
If indeed there were grackles on the other side of the Mississippi, I pointed out, what was to keep one from flying across it and coming on out to Los Angeles.
My argument was met with aloof disinterest, until several months later, when I saw another grackle--like the first one, in my backyard.
That galvanized them. They made me an honorary member of the society, invited me to be guest of honor at their annual banquet and named a bird walk for me at Descanso Gardens.
The moral obviously is that the Audubon Society is much more likely to believe two grackles than they are one.
This is only reasonable, since grackles, like other birds, are sexual animals, and it isn't likely that a grackle would fly all the way out here from Kentucky, or wherever they live, without its mate.
How the grackle got into my backyard is easy enough to explain. It got there like Mrs. Wright's Azur gallinule got into her backyard. It flew there.
Since then, by the way, I have seen a Steller's jay, an orchard oriole, a rufous hummingbird, a Lichtenstein's oriole and a peacock--all birds that have no business being in my backyard.
There are people who think that my backyard lies in the path of some natural phenomenon--perhaps a magnetic field--that causes birds to seek it out, far from their usual paths.
It wasn't long after my second grackle that a broad-billed hummingbird turned up at the Trimmer house, just over the top of the hill from ours. Now the broad-billed hummingbird, like the grackle, had never before been seen in Los Angeles. Mrs. Trimmer alerted the Audubon Society through its hot line, and before long dozens of birders were trooping to her doorstep. The hummer hung around for two or three days, coming every 20 minutes to feed, and Mrs. Trimmer became a celebrity.
It has always seemed odd to me that no such excitement attended my sighting of the grackle. I'm not bitter about it. After all, I have my bird walk.
But I wish I'd put that grackle in a plastic sack and stuck him in our refrigerator.
Then maybe I'd have some respect.
Thursday December 17, 1987
A Tradition That's Not Just for the Birds
View, Page 5-1
By Jack Smith,
Last Sunday was the day of the 19th annual Denny and Jack Smith Bird Walk at Descanso Gardens, up in La Canada.
In the beginning, it was known as the Jack Smith Bird Walk. In time, perhaps because my wife always shared the hardship of going up into the foothills at 8 o'clock in the morning on the second Sunday of December, it became known as the Jack and Denny Smith Bird Walk. Eventually, her name led mine. How that came about I don't know. Perhaps it's a sign of the times.
When we got up Sunday morning the wind was blowing fiercely. I looked out the kitchen door and saw that all our deck chairs had blown over. The umbrella table had blown out of its heavy steel base and traveled across the lawn. Its plastic top was cracked from side to side.
The damage was heavy on our hill. Broken trees, fallen branches, trash barrels blown over. There was hardly any traffic. On Linda Vista Avenue in Pasadena we saw only two or three cars and a band of hardy women jogging.
The wind was icy. "There won't be anybody there," I said. "There probably won't even be any birds."
We were two or three minutes late. About 60 birders were gathered outside the gate around Warren Peterson, our leader. They were all bundled up in foul-weather gear. They looked cold but hardy.
"They have to be crazy," I said.
Peterson said that because of the wind damage the park was closed. He was waiting for the supervisor to OK the walk. I was amazed to see so many regulars. Over the years many of their names and faces have become familiar. They are tough, cheerful and friendly.
The routine is simple. We all set out in a ragged troop behind our leader. Some carry binoculars and cameras, some telescopes on tripods. Some just tag along, probably thinking about hot coffee and breakfast.
Anyone who sees a bird calls out its name. Our leader sees most of them first. I usually fall behind, renewing my acquaintance with old-timers. When the walk is over I am amazed to hear that we have sighted 30 birds, or whatever. I almost never see any birds at all.
We had hardly set out last Sunday, after getting the OK, when an enormous bird swooped directly across the road in front of us. "Great horned owl," our leader shouted.
That was as auspicious a beginning as we had ever had. I was talking to a woman in a Windbreaker and woolen pants and a Scottish cap when someone sighted an Audubon's warbler. Everyone looked up into the tree in which the warbler had been seen. I saw nothing but leaves.
Of course I no longer have to prove myself. The bird walk was instituted back in 1968 by the San Fernando Valley Audubon Society in honor of my sighting of the first common grackle ever seen in Southern California. None has ever been seen since.
"I think I hear a kingfisher," a woman told me confidentially.
"What do they sound like?" I asked.
She said, "They go ech-ech-ech-ech." I heard nothing but the wind crashing through the oak trees. Hundreds of acorns were scattered on the ground. A man picked one up and sliced it in two and exposed the yellow meat, along with a fat pale worm. The worm had burrowed into the acorn and was living in there in the dark, eating himself to death. Why would the Creator waste his genius on such a creature?
We walked up to the observation house overlooking the lake. I stayed outside in a patch of sun with several other stragglers. We could hear the ducks. I wondered how they could stand it, being in the water on a day like this. "Great blue heron!" someone cried. So the heron was back. What a showboat. He turned up almost every year.
I climbed up to the fence around the lake and looked across it to where the heron was standing in some bamboo trees. He was preening himself. Obviously he enjoyed the attention. I also saw some ducks and I might have seen a grebe.
When our leader dismissed us he said we had sighted 26 birds. I had sighted only two and some ducks.
I'll be back next year, though. You never know when you're going to see a snowy egret.
Tuesday January 16, 1990
How Many Grackles Does It Take to Be an Expert?
View, Page E-1
By JACK SMITH,
Because I happened to see a common grackle in my back yard several years ago--the only grackle ever sighted in Southern California, or, for that matter, anywhere west of the Mississippi River--I have been regarded ever since as something of a bird expert.
Like most reputations, this one is quite fraudulent, but also, like most, whether good or bad, it is impossible to get rid of. Because of that one fortuitous sighting, my knowledge of birds has been falsely regarded as profound, if not mystical.
Consequently, I receive numerous letters from readers asking me questions about birds they encounter in their back yards. Only the other day I received one from Mrs. Gerd Abegglen, of Downey, who said she has an Audubon warbler that drinks from her hummingbird feeder, and she wonders whether this behavior is unusual for a warbler.
I haven't the slightest idea about the behavior of warblers, but I suspect that nothing a warbler or any other bird does is unusual. Birds are creatures of instinct, and they don't do unusual things.
Mrs. Abegglen also said she has a pair of large black birds that eat her bread, first taking it to the birdbath to soften it up. She thinks they are ravens, but she isn't sure they aren't crows. She asks "How do you tell the difference?"
The only way I know to tell a crow from a raven for sure is that ravens quoth "Nevermore."
I recently received an inquiry from G. M. Bryant, of Yucca Valley, asking about his road runners. Bryant said he had been feeding two road runners that seemed very tame, but suddenly they disappeared. He wondered if I could tell him why.
Wisely, I sent his letter on to my friend, Henry E. Childs, the birdman of Upland, retired professor of ornithology at Chaffey College and an ornithologist of note. (It was Childs who debunked the myth that the swallows return to San Juan Capistrano every March 19.)
Childs not only was able to reassure Bryant that his road runners' departure is only seasonal and that they will return, but also provided him with a number of curious facts about this bird.
He noted that road runners are members of the cuckoo family, but unlike the notorious European cuckoo, they do not lay their eggs in other birds' nests to be hatched. (This nefarious bird sometimes kicks some of its victims' own eggs out of her nest, so she will not notice the greater number and be suspicious.)
Childs also said that male road runners do most of the incubating at night. "(Males) maintain their regular body temperature while the females goof off and lower their body temperature sharply, a remarkable sexual difference which I didn't know but which I learned because your letter got me into the literature."
Childs is not infallible, though. He disagrees with my argument that our scrub jay, the bird so many of us here have in our back yards, should be called a blue jay, since it is (1) blue, and (2) a jay. Childs says the blue jay is an altogether different bird, which just shows that you can know too much.
We here in Los Angeles have a great many more birds than most people are aware of. Recently, Kimball L. Garrett, ornithology collections manager of the Natural History Museum, said that 108 different species have been seen around Exposition Park and 445 have been seen in Southern California. Garrett, by the way, gave credence to my grackle sighting by observing that "over time, if enough people are looking, you can find everything."
One result of my sighting is that the bird walk at Descanso Gardens is named the Jack and Denise Smith Birdwalk, after me and my wife, on the second Sunday of every December. As usual, we attended last December; but I tend to get more involved in conversation with other birders than with actually watching for birds.
Consequently, I was astonished when Karen Johnson, our leader, announced that we had sighted no fewer than 44 species on our two-hour walk, among them the green-backed heron, the yellow-rumped warbler, the rufous-sided towhee, the belted kingfisher and the lesser goldfinch.
Funny. The only ones I actually saw were a sparrow, a scrub jay, a crow, a mourning dove and a duck.
Monday October 1, 1990
Questioning Expertise Of Sightings May Be For The Birds
View, Page E-1
By JACK SMITH,
My fellow birder Henry E. Childs Jr., the birdman of Upland, has published a book, "Where Birders Go in Southern California" (Los Angeles Audubon Society) that should be useful to birders who don't know where to go to see birds.
Of course there are 350 species of birds in Southern California (500 if you really look hard), and one can see many without seeking out the best habitats. We even have ravens among the skyscrapers in downtown Los Angeles.
Dr. Childs has a doctorate in zoology from UC Berkeley, and is emeritus professor of biology at Chaffey College in Alta Loma. He has been a birder for nearly 55 years.
Dr. Childs and I are friends, despite one or two collisions caused by our different degrees of erudition. I concede that Dr. Childs in an authority, whereas I am just an amateur. Nevertheless, I stand my ground on certain points.
Dr. Childs, for one thing, has always been skeptical of my report of sighting a common grackle in my back yard on Mt. Washington. It is true that after I published that report I was informed by the Audubon Society that no grackle had ever been sighted west of the Mississippi River (as I recalled just the other day). I observed that if indeed there were grackles on the other side of the Mississippi, what was to keep one from flying across it and coming on out to Los Angeles? The society was not persuaded.
In the copy of his book that Dr. Childs sent to me he has marked the great- tailed grackle in the index, noting that it can be sighted in Imperial, Inyo and San Bernardino counties. That is his only concession; but of course it is meaningless since the great- or boat-tailed grackle is another animal altogether.
Dr. Childs does note, in his listing of birding locations in the Pasadena area, that Descanso Gardens, in La Canada Flintridge, is the "site of the famous Jack Smith Bird Walk in December. (The second Sunday of December, at 8 a.m.)" He might have noted that the birdwalk was named after me as a direct result of my grackle sighting. (By the way, the bird walk is now known as the Jack and Denise Smith Bird Walk, since my wife has never failed to accompany me on that arduous outing.)
He lists both blue jays and scrub jays, without reference to my insistence that the scrub jay is blue, and it is undoubtedly a jay, so by rights it should be called a blue jay. Dr. Childs and I have contested this point several times in public, but of course, because of his greater academic standing, he usually prevails.
I am most surprised that I do not find San Juan Capistrano in the index. For years, as you know, San Juan Capistrano has celebrated the return of the swallows on March 19. This annual migration has become an epic event that attracts thousands of curious visitors to the mission city.
Dr. Childs can hardly conceal his frustration over civic exploitation of what he considers a fraud. The migrations of swallows take place over several weeks, he maintains, and thousands of them are back in their old haunts well before March 19. He is not, however, as successful in exorcising this myth as he has been in preserving the name scrub jay.
Dr. Childs lists several good birding locations in the central Los Angeles area, showing that you don't need to go to rural areas to find birds. In Olvera Street, for example, one may see feral ringed turtle-doves in the olive trees near the north end; chimney swifts may be seen at Forest Lawn Hollywood at dusk in summer; the Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens harbors such species as the red-whiskered bulbul, orioles, tanagers, warblers, flycatchers and sparrows.
(By the way, birders are advised to carry a standard field guide when visiting the locations listed by Dr. Childs, since his bird list is not alphabetized, and birds are grouped under family names, which are Greek to most of us.)
I hope my petty complaints will not keep birders from obtaining this book. Dr. Childs gives some good tips on birding. "Wear dark clothing, including your hat. Birds have the best color vision of any living creatures. They see or hear you and take evasive action before you see them . . . Be stealthy, quiet. Avoid thrashing about. The quiet observer sees more . . . Stay on established pathways. Damage to the habitat affects all species in the ecosystem.
"When possible," he concludes, "prior to reporting a rare or unusual sighting, have another birder of better or equal ability locate and verify your identification."
I don't know whether Dr. Childs wrote that with my grackle sighting in mind, but I could hardly have had the sighting verified by another birder of better or equal ability. The only other person around was my wife, and she doesn't know a grackle from a black-headed grosbeak.
Neither do I, for that matter.
Monday December 18, 1995
A Bevy Of Birds, But Still No Grackle
Life & Style, Page E-1
By JACK SMITH,
Once again my wife and I were invited to attend the Jack and Denny Smith Bird Walk at Descanso Gardens and, on a recent Sunday morning, we went. The invitation came from Karen Johnson, first vice president of the San Fernando Valley Audubon Society and indefatigable leader of the walk.
The Society's publication, Phainopepla, graciously noted that the walk has been held for several years to honor me for my "unprecedented sighting of a common grackle at the Smith residence on Mt. Washington (the Smiths were the recipients of San Fernando Valley's Special Award in 1993)."
Though I have never actively sought recognition for my sighting, which has been the object of much skepticism by ornithologists and common birders, it was gratifying to see my coup acknowledged by such a prestigious publication.
It was a beautiful day at Descanso Gardens. The bird walk started at 8 o'clock with about 30 of us in attendance. Johnson welcomed us and introduced my wife and me. For the first time, I went in a wheelchair, with my wife pushing.
As usual, the walk began with numerous sightings. Johnson noted a flock of yellow-rumped warblers. As often happens to me on bird walks, I didn't see them. Someone also reported seeing a flock of acorn woodpeckers that also escaped my notice. "See them moving frantically from place to place," Johnson called out. "They're eating insects."
I don't know whether my eyesight is deteriorating or whether I just happened to be looking at the wrong place at the wrong time, but I missed several of the sightings that later turned up on our list. Perhaps I was distracted by looking for another grackle.
"There's a hummingbird hovering at 12 o'clock," Johnson said. But I didn't know whether she meant 12 o'clock high or 12 o'clock low, and I missed it.
Later she identified a "flock of about 200 cedar waxwings." It was cedar waxwings, my wife reminded me, that used to get drunk off the nectar of a cotoneaster bush near a corner of our house. They used to really get soused and flop around drunkenly. It was delightful. Somehow a drunken bird is not disgusting.
"Whatever happened to them?" I asked my wife.
"We cut down the cotoneaster when we remodeled. To build your office. Remember?"
All things considered, I don't think the trade was worth it.
We soon came to the pond. For years this has been a refuge for many water birds, including the resident great blue heron. Sure enough Johnson cried out, "There he is! The great blue heron! He's perching on that branch."
I looked in vain for the great blue heron, which I had seen in previous years. But I did see a remarkable bird--a long-necked swanlike creature with a red beak. It sailed about majestically.
"That's the Australian black swan," Johnson said, and I felt better about having missed the great blue heron.
A moment later Johnson identified another remarkable bird--the green heron, not as big as the great blue heron but greener.
I identified a bird that I thought might be the great blue heron, but Johnson said "It's not blue, it's white. It's a goose."
Which is what I felt like.
The gardens were lush with greenery. Sycamores, live oaks, pines. A ginkgo spread an umbrella of yellow leaves and laid a carpet of them on the ground.
At one point the trail was rather steep, and I could tell my wife was winded. "Can I help?" said a male voice with a heavy British accent. He was a lean young man with a large walrus mustache. He took the wheelchair and pushed me up the hill. He said he was a Yorkshireman, name of Alan Dunn.
We came finally to the "counting bridge," which is where we stop to list all the birds we have seen. The birders began calling out the names and Johnson checked them off on a list.
It was a remarkable count. Wood duck, mallard, ring-necked duck, American coot, California gull, mourning dove, white-throated swift, Anna's hummingbird, Allen's hummingbird, belted kingfisher, acorn woodpecker, Nutall's woodpecker, northern flicker, black phoebe, scrub jay, American crow, common raven, plain titmouse, bushtit, Bewick's wren, ruby-crowned kinglet, hermit thrush, American robin, wrentit, northern mockingbird, California thrasher, cedar waxwing.
I wonder why there were so many birds on the list that I didn't see. As I said, maybe it was because I was concentrating so hard on the grackle. I wonder also whether I might hope that in time the bird would come to be known's as Smith's grackle. It makes as much sense as Anna's hummingbird and Nutall's woodpecker.
After all "common" grackle is much too common for a bird that scarce.