Published December 30, 1996 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1996 Susan Scott
Barely a week goes by without someone telling me a story or asking a question about our entertaining winter visitors, the Pacific golden plovers.
Recently, someone asked me if these birds ever form flocks like ruddy turnstones and sanderlings. I said no. I was wrong.
Plovers do form flocks in Hawaii, usually at night, when they sleep.
We don’t usually see such flocks (in mangroves, on flat rooftops, beaches, hillsides, parking lots and lava flows) because most birds go there after dark and leave before first light.
Such roosting flocks range from a few birds to more than 300.
It’s hard to imagine these aggressive, territorial birds sleeping together. They do, but it doesn’t sound like they get much rest. Pecking and squabbling is common in roosting flocks when one bird gets closer than 4 or so feet of its neighbor.
Apparently, such horizontal drift is common because this bird’s “elbowing” reportedly goes on all night.
Most of us bird-watchers have seen these sweet-looking little shorebirds turn into thugs-with-an-attitude when another bird gets in their space.
But a behavior I saw this fall took the prize for plover pushiness. In October, while working at a research station in Hawaii’s northwest chain, I noticed that many of the plovers there were small and listless.
“A lot of them are starving this year,” the manager told me. “We don’t know why.”
As the days went by, I watched several of these weak birds stagger, fall, then lie in the hot sun where they soon died.
But death didn’t slow the surviving plovers’ battle for territory. The living birds would be foraging, spot the dead or dying bird, then run over and give it a good, hard peck.
This was hard to watch. Once, we collected a couple of dead plovers and laid them under the house to keep the living birds from mutilating the bodies. It didn’t work.
A healthy bird dragged a body out, then proceed to peck it.
What’s with these birds, we wondered. Why waste precious energy beating up dead rivals? We decided the living birds didn’t know the birds were dead.
They spotted that gold-flecked pattern nearby and went into attack mode.
“They’re hard-wired,” a biologist friend once said about such behavior. “There’s no deep thought going on in those little skulls.”
Some plovers on the island were surviving, but weren’t doing great.
Besides being small, they were unusually tame when food was present.
Several even entered the house to eat bread crumbs from a dish we placed on the floor.
Several tried to enter, that is. Whenever more than one bird arrived at the open door, a fight broke out with such godawful screeching, pecking and kicking that we would sometimes drop what we were doing to watch.
The fight was over in seconds. The winner would instantly gain his composure and prance to the plate with the grace of a ballet dancer.
“Let’s name him Misha,” I said of a particularly elegant bird.
“Why?” asked one of the volunteer biologists.
“It’s Mikhail Baryshnikov’s nickname.” “So? Why would you name the plover after him?” she persisted. “Because he’s such a good dancer,” I said.
“And so is this bird.”
“Mikhail Baryshnikov can dance?” she said.
“Oh yes. Like an angel,” I explained. She looked thoroughly puzzled. “What’s wrong?” I asked.
“I just can’t picture that heavy-set guy with the birthmark on his forehead dancing like an angel.”
When we stopped laughing, we renamed our house plover Gorby.
We Hawaii folks love our golden plovers. Send me your stories.