For the Birds Radio Program: Peter Dring's Stories
Laura’s friend Peter Dring sent her some fun stories from his days as director of the Little Red Schoolhouse nature center in Chicago, one about a joke he played on some field trip participants, and one about a joke played on him and lots of people by a crow named Whiskey.
Peter Dring’s Pied-billed Grebe Story
Peter Dring, a bird bander who lives in northern Wisconsin, used to be the director of my favorite nature center in Chicago, the Little Red Schoolhouse. Peter sent me a couple of stories from his experiences at the nature center. He writes: “I started leading field trips in 1960, every Saturday morning. Sometimes I would find as many as 35 to 40 people, while at other times I would walk by myself. Now I have been known to ‘elaborate’ on a subject if I thought my group might be somewhat gullible, and this brings me to a memorable field trip in the mid 60’s, leading a group of four women. It was spring and a pair of pied billed grebes were nesting in a patch of cattails and they would give their very distinctive calls every 5 or 10 minutes. Well noting that ‘my group’ were novices and gullible I informed them that it was the only bird I knew that laid square eggs and today was egg laying day. They promptly voiced their disbelief. So I said, just listen, and sure enough the call was heard again. It sounds like Ow, Ow, Ow, Ow, Oww, Oww. And of course I informed them it had just laid another egg. At that one lady turned to another and said “Well I never would have believed it”
As the walk progressed the grebe would call every so often and they would comment “There! another egg” with a big smile on their faces.
Peter Dring continues, “Towards the end of the trip I finally fessed up. “You know” I said “I have been known to kind of pull folks legs at times”. The grebe calling is the male and of course doesn’t lay eggs and if an egg was laid with every vocalization there would be a lot of eggs in that nest. They all had a good laugh and asked if the rest of the birds we heard were for real and I assured them that they were.”
Peter Dring was probably inspired by my story about a raven in Port Wing stealing my wristwatch when he sent me this story about a nestling crow brought to the Little Red Schoolhouse in the 1960’s. He writes, “It was only about five or six days old. Crows are among the easiest birds to raise, they have a voracious appetite and don’t seem to be to upset with people. When Whiskey, as we named it, was about a month to six weeks old we determined that it was too tame to release and we brought it into the nature center and it became an exhibit animal.
“We kept Whiskey until the center closed in late October and then one of the naturalists took it home to ‘over winter’ it. The following spring it was returned to the nature center and again placed on exhibit. It did great, a favorite of the 1000’s of visitors, until about mid June when one of the summer aids left the cage door open and Whiskey was out the door.
Peter Dring continues, “It seemed to enjoy people so much it stayed nearby and visitors could offer it bits of food and it was much photographed to the delight of children especially. Then a problem arose, Whiskey, it seemed, had a propensity for shiny objects and it would swipe them and carry them away. Things like coins, bits of foil paper, pop top can tabs and car keys.
The big problem was the car keys. It would go something like this; a mom would approach her car with her child, open the car and place the keys on top of the car while she arranged the child in the seat. Whiskey would swoop down and grab the keys and fly away, and there was the poor mom stranded with no keys. For some reason the nature center staff did not hear about this for a week or two. The stranded motorist would call home and someone would have to come out with more keys. Finally a mom came to us with the problem and left us with a dilemma, where was Whiskey putting the keys???
After due consideration we formed a plan of action, I stationed staff all around the center and took some old keys and had a visitor go to a car and place the keys on the roof. Sure enough Whiskey came down and grabbed them, and this time the staff watched that old crow fly up to the roof and deposit the keys in the rain gutter.
We brought out a ladder and climbed up to where Whiskey had put the keys and the cache was interesting to say the least. We recovered nine sets of keys, if I remember right almost four dollars in change, no pennies apparently not shiny enough, and a large collection of miscellaneous pieces of shiny things.
Peter adds, “We put an announcement up in the nature center about the stolen car keys and we finally returned all the keys, though it took about two months. I thought it best to apprehend the thieving crow so I set out a trap, caught the villain and back in the cage it went. Whiskey lived, happily (I hope) for another 14 years. We posted a tale similar to this narrative on its’ cage and for years we would occasionally have a visitor stop by and tell us of their experience with our feathered thief “Whiskey The Crow”.
Those stories were from Peter Dring. I’m Laura Erickson, speaking for the birds.