Harvesting Natureís Rewards

by Calendar Hacksaw

The heinous profanity generated by a brace of incensed crows shattered the quiet dawn like assorted TOGS proprietors on Easter Sunday when the cook shows up late and the church crowd is standing on the doorstep at 6:00 a.m., freezing their butts off while humming "Kumbaya." It could only mean one thing: the hawks had returned to their winter nesting grounds to instill terror in the crows, but without the TOGS reference or any of that other stuff.

For decades, hundreds of crows have nested in the towering palm trees of my neighborhood, and each winter are compelled to form sizeable posses in order to protect their eggs and hatchlings. But birds of prey are patient and persistent. Ultimately, the hawks will claim their meals, though never enough to make any appreciable dent in the crow population.

And, in just a few months, the crows will become the predators, waging war with mockingbirds over eggs and chicks. The crows will win, but the mockingbird population will remain stable as well. Natureís checks and balances are hard to beat.

Watching hawks, crows and mockingbirds is only one of Calendarís cold-weather avian pursuits. Observing the nesting habits of hummingbirds is another, and over the course of the past five years or so, Iíve also become quite adept at locating their nests.

Hummingbirds are marvels of engineering, and inventors of every age have carefully studied the mechanics of these creatures to learn the secrets of flight. I think I read somewhere that hummingbirds played a significant role in the development of early prototypes of the helicopter. And, for all I know, the ones I enjoy watching atop the mountain each summer are the same as those which populate and procreate in my backyard each winter. I must remember to capture and tag a few of them while at the cabin this year.

I fell into this pursuit quite by accident one warm winter afternoon, while sitting in a lawn chair on my back patio enjoying a beer. We donít use feeders, as our shrimp plants and birds of paradise seem to suffice in bringing them back and keeping them around, year after year. And, although hummingbirds maintain a fairly constant presence here, I noticed one was making frequent trips to the old orange tree, often with a beak-full of nesting material. Since I had nothing better to do that week, I had a few more beers and studied her movements until I narrowed down the probable location of a nest.

Next, using a short stepladder, I stuck my head up into the foliage and started looking around. When oranges die, they tend to shrivel up, turn brownish-gray and moldy. There were many matching this description, but I finally found one that was slightly different from the rest. Eureka! I had found the nest!

My second success came a few years later while at work. The building is a nondescript former aerospace facility surrounded by literally hundreds of acres of asphalt parking lots. There is virtually no vegetation to speak of, save for a dozen scrawny potted trees which eek out a meager living like the rest of us in a small patio adjacent to the cafeteria. And, yet, the hummingbirds seem to return to this small "grove" of trees, year after year.

While enjoying a cup of coffee one warm winter day, I observed another hummingbird with nesting material in its beak. I knew I was on to something, so I quickly went across the street to the liquor store for some beer and called in sick from the pay phone. Then I spent the rest of the afternoon watching the comings and goings of my newest feathered friend until I narrowed down the most likely location of the nest. And, Eureka! I had found another one!

Hummingbird eggs generally hatch during the month of February, and it is important to check the nest daily if you want to witness the miracle of life. It is best to do this at times when the mother bird is away foraging for food, so as not to disturb her rhythm.

At the age of two weeks, the hatchlings are known as "buttons," and rightfully so, owing to their diminutive size, which is roughly that of an M & M chocolate-covered peanut. They are cuter than hell at that early stage of their lives, with their soft, developing beaks and finely-feathered torsos.

From the Basin, the Canyon, and on up into the Piutes, I see the distinctive red feeders hanging in trees and suspended from front porch eaves, leaving me to conclude that many of you readers also enjoy the antics of these playful, aerial acrobats.

As adept as I have become at locating hummingbird nests, I fleetingly thought of offering my services to Walker Basin homeowners for, say, $30 an hour plus beer and per diem. A lot of folks donít have the time for such foolishness, and will gladly pay for it. But I donít think people like me should get rich from such a precious talent.

The Harvest

If you have followed my instructions, you should have 15 to 18 nests (30 Ė 36 "buttons") documented and mapped by mid-February, and are ready to harvest your rewards.

Bring water to a rolling boil in a small sauce pan and briefly immerse all buttons to terminate life cycle, then drain and strain before arranging between sheets of paper toweling. Gently pat dry. Using a sharp paring knife, carefully sever any recognizable or undesirable features. De-vein in the same manner as tiger prawns.

In a plastic bag, mix equal parts of flour and cornmeal, along with a dash of garlic powder. Dip each button in milk, then place all in the dry mixture and shake vigorously for 15 Ė 30 seconds. Remove and submerge in red wine quickly (you may want to repeat this step if a thicker crust is desired).

Place all buttons in hot cooking oil until golden brown and remove with a slotted spoon (note: the longer they cook, the tougher they will become!).

Drain on paper towels, then chill for 2 to 3 hours. Melt several chocolate bars in a double-boiler, and coat each button before rolling in candy sprinkles. Serve with pickled quail eggs, a homemade Hollandaise sauce and a fine Merlot. Multi-colored toothpicks will add a light and festive touch. Bon Appetit!

Calendar Hacksaw takes his nectar at calendarhacksaw@highdesert.com, and suggests that next month we look at where calvesí liver comes from, wrapped in maple-smoked bacon and smothered with sautéed red onions. Oh, and Jonathon Swift has "A Modest Proposal" for preventing classroom overcrowding at Piute Mountain School.

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