by Chris Murray, Land Manager
The Ecuadorian-American poet Gerardo once wrote in his masterpiece, “Rico Suave” –
‘And there’s not a woman that can handle a man like me
That’s why I juggle two or three
I ain’t one to commit, you can omit that bit
You pop the question, that’s it’
March 16, 2018 began as any other day during the annual Golden-cheeked Warbler (GCWA) survey. That season we had begun surveying a new plot, the Northwest, in a larger effort to obtain an accurate count of the warblers found at Baker Sanctuary. Being early in the season and a new plot to boot, an emphasis was placed on mist-netting and color-banding as many GCWA as possible that called the Northwest plot their home. On that fateful day, a total of four warblers were captured but only one would become the legendary Rico Mauve [pronounced Maw-vay].
Rico Mauve, also known as 2770-41211 to the USFWS, was easy to catch, this cannot be said of all GCWA. Some males will tacitly ignore the best efforts of us humans to do so; one could argue that perhaps they are wiser but I would say that they are just less passionate about their territory. Rico flew into the net like a blazing, golden comet, ready to defend his territory with his life, if need be.
Before I set up the net, I choose a color band combination from a list supplied by the good folks at Fort Hood who coordinate banding efforts for the state. Color band combinations are then selected so that adjacent banded birds cannot be easily confused. For instance, you don’t want a Red/Dark Blue:Black/Silver next to a Red/Black:Dark Blue/Silver. Not having any Mauve banded birds nearby, I chose the fateful combination of Mauve/Mauve:Mauve/Silver for Rico but, in hindsight, it may well have been possible that the reverse was true, the bands chose Rico. Never underestimate the wisdom of the forest. GCWA 2770-41211 was processed and morphometric data duly collected – plumage consistent with an ASY (after second year) bird, outstanding cloacal protuberance present, no sign of pox, and he exhibited a certain joie de vivre upon release.
As the season progressed, the bird known as Mauve/Mauve:Mauve/Silver became Rico Mauve during an educational hike with some local elementary school students. During these hikes, seeing a GCWA is always hit or miss, typically more ‘miss’ when leading a group of 10-15 fourth grade students. However, on this occasion I knew I had an ace in my pocket. From the re-sighting survey efforts of the prior several weeks, I knew that Mauve/Mauve:Mauve/Silver liked to haunt the trees near the trail and was completely nonplussed with regard to being watched. Sure enough, as if on cue and glowing in the early morning sun, he appeared above the trail and sat fairly still, allowing the youngsters to bask in his glory. One of the kids asked me, ‘Which bird is that, Mr. Murray?’ and I thought for a moment and said, ‘Jimmy, that there is Rico Mauve.’ And a legend was born.
As we got to know Rico Mauve over the next two years, he never failed to impress as he aggressively defended his territory from all upstart GCWA but still found time to present his glory to seasoned and beginning birdwatchers alike. Both years he was monitored, Rico and his mate successfully raised fledglings, which could also regularly be spotted zooming through the canopy, begging for another fat, green caterpillar from their parents. While it was never unequivocally proven, it was strongly suspected Rico may have had another female on the side and perhaps more fledglings than were duly recorded. He was spotted on several occasions feeding fledglings that were not of the proper age class for his known brood, but since adults will sometimes feed the offspring of others, no definite conclusions could be drawn. Field biology is not an exact science, which is one of its charms, but also one of its frustrations. However, it is fitting that Rico would leave us with mysteries which shall never be penetrated by the light of science.
In the 2020 season, in spite of COVID-19, the annual GCWA survey was undertaken with allowances to protect the health of the participants. True to the nature of 2020 as a year in general, it was quickly ascertained that Rico Mauve had not returned to his territory. While it is possible he dispersed elsewhere, it is more likely that his tenure in this world had come to an end. Since he was aged as an ASY when banded, it is difficult to say how old Rico was when he passed, he could have been anywhere from four to 12 years of age. What is clear is that he left us with a legacy that will be passed down through the generations. As a tribute, volunteer GCWA surveyor extraordinaire, Toni Taylor, designed a T-shirt which captures the spirit of Rico Mauve for those who knew him and for the generations to come who did not, but probably wish they had.
Featured Image: Territory map of GCWAs at a Baker Sanctuary, including Rico Mauve’s (dark pink).