For the Birds Radio Program: Niagara Falls
I’m writing this on April 25, in my car, on my laptop, on the way home from Niagara Falls. Russ and I found ourselves driving by there today, so we stopped on the Canadian side to see the spectacular falls.
It was blustery cold and drizzly, so there were far fewer tourists around than the other time we were there, on a beautiful day in July nine years ago. But there were a LOT more birds. In the past decade, Canada Goose, Double crested Cormorant, and Ring-billed Gull populations have soared, and there was ample evidence of this at Niagara Falls. The only geese I saw near the falls were flying over, but a few dozen cormorants dove and fished in the river immediately below the falls, and sat in their tall, ungainly manner on the rocky shoreline. And everywhere were the gulls–in the river above and below the falls, all along the shore and on the tiny islands above the falls, and dotting the sky. They were mostly Ring-bills, but there were also a lot of Herring Gulls. Apparently unsuspecting or suicidal fish from Lake Erie mosey down the river and suddenly find themselves taking the vertical route to Lake Ontario. The few that survive the thunderous hammering are stunned when they hit bottom, easy pickin’s for fish-eating birds. And since even the dead ones are quite fresh, they make fine meals, too.
I expected to see gulls, but I was amazed at how they seemed to exult in the noise and danger of the falls. Almost any time I looked, I could spot at least one of these one pound birds with delicate wings suspended on hollow bones sailing about and darting in and out inches from the face of the roaring, rushing water. I’m not sure what the purpose was–they didn’t seem to be getting fish there, and the gulls and cormorants in the safer waters below the dam were getting plenty of food. The water was rushing too fast for me to see clearly, but it didn’t appear that the gulls were skimming the water with their bills, though they came amazingly close. They seemed to be playing a game of chicken– maybe in their case they call it a game of gullible. Whatever it was, I saw them get picked up and tossed around by the wind and the spray, but they seemed not to lose control, at least not for more than a few seconds at a time. It’s anthropomorphizing to guess that they were playing, but I couldn’t think of any other reason why they were doing this. The dangerous thrill for them must be similar to the rush some people get when driving a high-speed snowmobile or boat, and the noise was certainly comparable. Interestingly, the only gulls I saw engaging in this perilous play were adults; although there were plenty of one and two-year-old immature birds around, darting about in the face of the falls is apparently not a game for children.
Niagara falls is a honeymoon destination for humans, and apparently serves the same purpose for Ring-billed Gulls. But the gulls were moving on from billing and cooing to setting up housekeeping and laying eggs. By the time June weddings send thousands of human honeymooners to Niagara Falls, the gulls will be raising babies.
There were other birds right around the falls. One delicate little Barn Swallow played a similar game to the gulls, darting and weaving above the river right where it rushed over the drop-off. The tiny swallow came way too close to the rushing water over and over–I found myself gasping several times thinking it was going to be swallowed by the rushing water.
Dozens of house sparrows, starlings, and a few Red-winged Blackbirds were also around, staying on the tourist side of the overlook fence, apparently more interested in handouts than hydrological marvels. And across the road from the main overlook, in the wooded area behind the parking lot, a cardinal and song sparrow were singing their guts out, tuning up the volume louder than normal in hopes that they could be heard above the roaring water. Niagara Falls may be a tourist rather than a birding Mecca, but the entire experience was far richer and more dramatic thanks to birds.