It’s March Migration Madness. That’s right: birds. And if you’re just tuning in, the first round — “the Tweet 16″ — is history, and we’re one game into the second — “the Airborne 8.” There is already a lot of buzz about the cedar waxwing, that flashy wild card that upset the top-seeded red-tailed hawk in round one. It was quite a blow to raptor fans.
“A lot of people are saying the cedar waxwing could go all the way,” said Hugh Powell, science editor for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which is hosting the tourney. He is a little pleased. As a co-creator of the game, Powell selected the cedar waxwing as a wild card entry, and he seemed gratified by its success. “I do have a soft spot for the cedar waxwing.”
To millions of Americans, March means only basketball. Sweaty bodies in peak form showcasing some of the finest feats of our species. But for millions of others, it means migration. The birds are back! They’ve spent the winter getting fat in Florida or Mexico or Argentina. They’re sporting their full colors. And they’re hungry.
“There is a lot of anticipation,” said Powell. He meant for the return of the birds, but judging from the comments on the lab’s Facebook page, where the tournament is taking place, there seems to be quite a fan frenzy brewing for the competition.
Does anyone care to, um, you know, make it a little more interesting?
For bird fans in colder climes, it’s been a long gray winter of white-throated sparrows. We love those fat little guys with their circus-tent crowns. But if you’ve seen 400 of them, you’ve… And then suddenly, on a chilly Tuesday, the lemony phoebe is here, singing its eponymous song. And then the teeny kinglets with their ruby caps, and the white-breasted nuthatches and all those warblers we used to be able to tell apart. If you’d rather spend your Saturdays snugly in front of ESPN than tramping through a snowy park with binoculars (and who could blame?), you might not know the joy of glimpsing a flash of yellow on a field of winter drab. It is the season’s first thaw. And it takes place on the inside.
The Cornell lab, a nonprofit organization affiliated with Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., is channeling some of that warm enthusiasm with this, its first-ever bracket. The Tweet 16 were selected based on their popularity on the lab’s online field guide, which has a pretty huge following. Four million visitors, um, flock there each month of the migration, and the top 12 most-clicked birds made the tournament, plus four wild cards. The bald eagle was benched from the outset for fear that it had an unfair advantage. “People would be conflicted about voting against it because they might feel un-American,” Powell said.
Every day, there is a new contest (“We’re back with a real doozy of a matchup for Game 5 — a relative unknown from west Texas, the Lucifer hummingbird, takes on one of the legends of the feeder, #2-seeded Northern cardinal.”) and Facebook fans vote on their favorites. It hardly seems like the sort of thing that could inspire team spirit, but it is instantly engaging, and fraught with tough choices. When forced to choose between brains and brawn, beauty and talent, a comeback kid over a perennial champion, we are conflicted. What are the criteria even? How does one weigh the virtues of a lone warrior against those of a runway model? It is a dilemma with hidden complexity.
“All the raptors have the cool factor, but there is a contingent of fans that don’t like the hawks because they eat other birds,” Powell said. “I think that’s one of the reasons the red-tailed hawk went down.”
“Sexy versus faithful?” Michelle Maani wrote. “I vote for faithful.”
The games seem to uncover the deep connections we feel to individual species of bird. Maybe their struggles to survive say something to us about our own. Maybe we admire their resilience, singularity of purpose, or peculiar vocal or aeronautic skill. We, too, know what it is to be incongruous in a human world. “I was the shadow of the waxwing slain/ by the false azure in the windowpane,” wrote Nabokov’s sentimental poet John Shade.
And specific species are entangled in our memories, often as balms or bright lights.
“Recovering from a broken knee, I got to watch a tree full of cedar waxwings from the rehab center’s treadmill. This vote is my expression of gratitude for that loveliness in the midst of my sweat and tears!” wrote Ruth Anne Baumgartner.
“The loyalty of these little grey birds in the dark, cold and snowy hours of winter has won my vote. No fair weather friend here to desert you when the going gets rough … Go Juncos!” wrote Susan Scimeca.
As in sports, we often go with the home team over the visiting superstar, the workhorse over the dazzler. We love an underdog, even as a champion inspires our awe. The peregrine falcon embodies this conflict perfectly. Considered the fastest bird on earth, and an efficient predator, the peregrine was nearly wiped out by pesticides in the ’60s, but it has made a stunning comeback thanks to the ban of DDT and captive breeding programs. It barely survived round one, however. “Considering the history of the peregrine and all of its hardships, I’m glad it won,” Mary DeLia wrote, almost apologetically. “At least we will have one raptor in the ‘Airborne 8,’ one fast and furious rival.”
Meanwhile, the cedar waxwing, with its dashing black mask “like a criminal superhero” and its towering tuft that “never goes out of fashion” has already secured a position in the “Feathered Four” but could have a real competitor if the wood duck, with its own fabulous headwear, survives the next round.
“It has almost an unfair upperhand,” Powell said of his waxwing, “because it’s such a pretty, glossy, glamorous bird.”
Ultimately, the prettiest do seem to win.
The house wren, a tiny fireball with a powerful voice but unimpressive looks “was completely annihilated by the black-capped chickadee,” Powell said. “People vote for the chickadee because it’s so cute.”