Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

How to communicate with me right now

I'm having surgery next week, and have several doctor appointments between now and then, and will be going to cardiac rehab every day so I can be as strong and healthy as possible before surgery. These appointments, and phone calls from schedulers and nurses at my clinic, are frequent daily reminders that I have breast cancer. But meanwhile, I have radio programs to produce that are not about breast cancer, and am dealing with a few writing deadlines, again not related even remotely to breast cancer. (Seriously—birds have no mammary glands, so never EVER get breast cancer. Or prostate cancer, for that matter.) So while I'm working, which involves dealing with important, time-sensitive work-related emails and bird-related photos on flickr, I'm trying to focus on birds, not breast cancer.

This is a whole new thing for me. I know that finding out I have breast cancer is also a whole new thing for friends and family, and many dear people are sending me thoughtful, warm messages that mean a lot to me. But right now, this week through my surgery March 2, it'll be much better for me to deal with everything I'm dealing with if I don't get email or telephone messages reminding me that I have breast cancer when I'm trying to be productive. I'm sure if I had more savvy I could set up filters to deal with emails about this only when I felt like it, but that's a whole new skill I'd have to develop when I'm learning a whole new vocabulary ("Sentinel nodes," "full axillary node dissection" "ER positive" "PR positive" "HER2 negative"). I'm overwhelmed with information right now, making this exactly the wrong time for me to feel bad that I don't know how to set up email filters, or for anyone to try to show me how.

Please remember: if I had to get breast cancer, I'm dealing with a prognosis that is actually pretty good. I'm not quite certain why the words "breast cancer" sound so much worse than the words "heart attack," but I'm hearing from way, way more people right now than I did after my heart attack two years ago. It seems ironic, when one in four women die from heart disease while only one in 30 women die from breast cancer. Heart disease is the Number One killer of women. And please do NOT make a donation in my name to the Susan G. Komen organization. They do some good with education and research, but for a variety of reasons, I do not support them.

Anyway, I can handle when I open actual mail every day if you want to send me a message that way. You can google or use white pages to get my mail address in Duluth—you'll know you have the right address if something in it reminds you of White-throated Sparrows or it includes my husband's name, too. (I'm assuming friends will recognize one or the other.)

I should be better able to handle emails after surgery, when I'm planning at least a little breather as far as my writing responsibilities go. At this point, please know that no news is good news. Thanks so much for understanding.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Cats on the Prowl


I live with two cats, which some people find unexpected because I love birds so much. To add to the irony, both of my cats were inveterate bird-killers before they moved in with me. I got Miss Kitty in 1998, making her about 20 years old now, which provides rather solid evidence that cats don’t need clever or literary names to lead long lives, and that they can be both healthy and happy indoors, even after living in the wild. Kitty had been a stray here in Duluth.


In 2006, Kasey was a young feral cat from a trap, neuter, release program in Ohio who had been hunting birds in my daughter’s yard in Oberlin. I lured her into my car with a can of cat food, and she seemed so grateful for food and a home—even a mobile home in the form of a Prius—that she rode 800 miles home with me, seemingly actually enjoying the car ride. She and my little dog Photon rode back and forth with me between home and Ithaca, New York, when I was working at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology—the two of them were excellent company for me both in my apartment and on the road.

Photon in our Ithaca apartment

Since we married in 1972, Russ and I have rescued seven outdoor bird-killing stray cats, six of which we kept permanently, and one for which we found a great home. Considering that I’m far more a dog than a cat person, and that Russ doesn’t particularly like cats at all, we’ve definitely done our share to alleviate the problems of cats—at least individual ones—on bird populations.


 Unfortunately, we humans have a much better capacity to wrap our heads around the plights of individuals than of groups or whole populations. The millions of stray and feral cats out there each, individually, kill many individual wild creatures. Even in cities and on farms where cats kill pest animals, they also kill their share of wild birds. Some cats specialize on rodents, just as others specialize on birds, but no predator ignores prey that crosses its path. According to the American Bird Conservancy, cats have contributed to the extinction of 33 species and continue to adversely impact a wide variety of other species, including those at risk of extinction such as Piping Plover.

Piping Plover

In the United States alone, cats are estimated to kill 2.4 billion birds every year. The ecological dangers posed by cats are so critical that the International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists domestic cats as one of the world’s worst non-native invasive species.

Most people seem perfectly fine with programs to eradicate other non-native invasive species causing huge ecological problems and human health issues, such as rats, mice, and pigeons. Feral and unleashed pet dogs were once a huge problem for wildlife and also for human health, being the domesticated animal most implicated in rabies transmission to people. Empowering animal control officers to catch all dogs and to euthanize untagged and unlicensed dogs was as horrible a solution as it was essential. I truly don’t know how we can deal with cats now—the number one transmitter of toxoplasmosis to humans and now the top domestic transmitter of rabies as well—except in the same way we once had to approach the dog problem.

People who love cats, like me, can bring individual cats into their homes. On a larger scale, cat protection groups can adopt out some cats, and can bring unadoptable feral cats into large enclosures separated by barriers to keep wild birds and other native species out and the cats in. That is obviously an extremely expensive solution, but if people don’t want to bear that cost in dollars, they shouldn’t expect wild birds to pay the cost with their lives.

The American Bird Conservancy has been tirelessly fighting to solve the problem of cats killing wild birds. Right now they’ve been in a battle with groups trying to subsidize a feral cat colony on Jones Beach in New York, one of the few remaining beaches in the state where Piping Plovers still nest successfully.  ABC filed a lawsuit in March 2016 against the New York State Parks Office over the cats’ continued presence at Jones Beach because of those nesting Piping Plovers, a species listed as “Threatened” in the Atlantic Coast region under the federal Endangered Species Act, and as Endangered by New York State. Two weeks ago, on February 6, 2017, U.S. District Judge Arthur Spatt denied a motion to dismiss the case, finding that ABC’s allegations “support an inference of plausible harm to the survival of the Jones Beach Piping Plovers.”

Piping Plover

I entirely support the American Bird Conservancy’s approach, even as I wish we could work together to solve the underlying cause of this tragically polarizing issue. We must find the most humane ways possible to prevent non-native cats from killing our vulnerable birds. But the burden of finding a better solution should be on the people who refuse to accept killing as one approach. We must stop exposing vulnerable people to toxoplasmosis and rabies, and we must stop the outright killing of our native birds. It’s absurd for people who romanticize the so-called wildness of domestic cats to so casually write off the deaths of billions of genuinely wild birds. Until cat defenders get serious about finding effective ways to protect birds from cats, I see no alternative but to deal with cats on the prowl the way we once had to do with dogs. And I say that even as I hold my own dear cats close, knowing I’ve at least been part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Kasey yawning

Eurasian Tree Sparrow in Minnesota

Eurasian Tree Sparrow

On January 4, 2017, Two Harbors’s wonderful birding guru, Jim Lind, reported on eBird that there was a Eurasian Tree Sparrow hanging out with a flock of House Sparrows right in town. It may have been there earlier than that, because I later read an MOU listserv post by Kim Eckert saying it had first appeared in December. We’ve had a handful of Eurasian Tree Sparrow records over the years in the southern third of the state and in extreme western Minnesota, but never before anywhere in northeastern Minnesota. And I’ve never seen one in the state. It’s so rare that I didn’t make even a cursory reference to it in my ABA Field Guide to the Birds of Minnesota. People started scattering bird seed on the ground near the parking lot behind the Do North Pizzeria, in hopes that more people would be able to see the bird if it had a steady supply of food in one place.

When Jim first reported it, I had whatever horrible flu or cold virus has been going around this year and was stuck at home. I felt better just in time for my trip to New York and D.C., but had a relapse on the trip home, so I was out for the count until early February. Meanwhile, the sparrow disappeared for a couple of weeks, but suddenly turned up again on February 3. I went looking for it with my friend Karen Keenan on February 4, and headed out again the next day, Superb Owl Sunday with Lisa Johnson. We didn’t find any sparrows at all on either day.

On Monday, February 13, I headed back to Two Harbors with my dog Pip because so many clich├ęs kept springing into my head, like “hope springs eternal,” “third time’s the charm,” and “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”

Do North Pizzeria

We pulled into the parking lot behind the Do North Pizzeria, and voila! There in a small tree was a tiny flock of sparrows. Ten were House Sparrows, and there, right in the center of the flock, was the Eurasian Tree Sparrow. The flock stayed up in the tree long enough for me to take almost a hundred photos, then dropped to the parking lot to pick at some grit under a couple of cars. They ignored the cracked corn scattered at the base of the tree; after less than a minute under the cars, the flock flew off en masse.

Eurasian Tree Sparrow

Eurasian Tree Sparrows are, as their name implies, native to temperate areas of Europe and Asia, all the way into Southeast Asia. They also have an established population in and around St. Louis, Missouri—that population reportedly began with 12 birds imported from Germany in April 1870 to be released in one of the old “naturalization” projects that introduced popular birds from all over the globe to new countries. That small population hasn’t spread much, even as starlings introduced in New York City were spreading all over the continent. Eurasian Tree Sparrows are considered a pest species in Australia—they aren’t introduced intentionally there, but sometimes start nesting on ships in various ports in Southeast Asia and stay with the ship all the way to Australia.

I saw my very first Eurasian Tree Sparrow in St. Louis on October 28, 2004. I remember the date because it was the morning after the Boston Red Sox broke their curse by winning the World Series for the first time since 1918, routing the Cardinals in four games. The whole city of St. Louis seemed sorrowful, something even a lifelong Cubs fan could pick up on.


Now I have a very close friend who lives in Kirkwood, right outside St. Louis, and I’ve visited her and seen Eurasian Tree Sparrows at her place a few times. Most recently was in 2013 when I was doing my Big Year. I was driving home from New Mexico and Texas and stopped to see Susan and her Eurasian Tree Sparrows, which I needed for the year. I needed to get as far as Madison, Wisconsin that day, so I couldn't stay long. So Susan’s husband David painted a sign on a large piece of plywood, saying “ETS for Laura.” Sure enough, they were the very first birds I saw.



When I went to Europe in 2014, I saw Eurasian Tree Sparrows in Austria, Hungary, and Germany, where they belong.

Eurasian Tree Sparrow

And I saw some in January 2015 in Quincy, Illinois, when I went down trying to find an Ivory Gull that had disappeared the day before.  That’s within the range of the population centered in St. Louis, but it was the first time I’ve ever seen them in Illinois.

Eurasian Tree Sparrow

We’ll never know where the Two Harbors sparrow came from, or why it wandered to the Do North Pizzeria in Two Harbors, Minnesota, so far from every known Eurasian Tree Sparrow on the continent. Unless it heads back pretty soon, this one won’t fulfill its destiny of reproducing to ensure that the world continues to have Eurasian Tree Sparrows, unless it’s already been there, done that, and was searching for a new experience. For all we know, this one is pulling a Paul Simon, and gone off to look for America. Or maybe it realizes it doesn’t have a green card and is desperately trying to reach the Canadian border before INS can track it down. If that's the plan, will its next stop be Sven and Ole's Pizza in Grand Marais?

Eurasian Tree Sparrow

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Dealing with Uncertainties

Black-capped Chickadee

At the end of every year, I plot out the coming year using an electronic calendar and a paper one. Year after year, I’ve always enjoyed marking in birthdays of friends and family, putting in all my anticipated speaking engagements and birding trips, and thinking how tidily the new year is shaping up.

There’s some darkness during these annual rituals, and that seems to increase as I grow older. Do I still write in my big brother’s birthday for 2017 when he died at the end of 2015? I lost three beloved aunts and two uncles in 2014, and one aunt in 2015. Leaving blank spots on their birthdays seems somehow even worse than writing them in. Calendars are a reminder both of what we think we can predict and manage in our lives, and of how very much life is unpredictable and unmanageable.

Birds don’t need planners or calendars. They’re hatched, so they technically don’t even have birthdays, and all their social engagements and other responsibilities happen organically, tied to day length, weather conditions, hormonal levels, and other things they feel in their bones. Their planning calendars are programmed into their bodies in a way no Apple Watch, smart phone, or Day Timer planner will ever do for us mere humans.

My paper calendar has space for appointments scheduled for the following year. When I got my 2017 calendar, I wrote in dozens of speaking engagements worked out many months before 2017 even began. I also wrote in a 2-½ week trip to Costa Rica for July. My plane tickets give a tangible certainty to the anticipation.

Of course, planning so far ahead is a bit presumptuous, and that presumptuousness grows as we get older. My heart attack in February 2015 was pretty clear evidence that plans can go awry in an instant, though as luck and my calendar would have it, I only had to postpone one small event. But still—at what point in a person’s life does one stop buying plane tickets seven months in advance? No chickadee would ever do that—any day can be its last.

Black-capped Chickadee

Long-term planning isn’t something that makes sense for chickadees, but neither is pessimism. They wake up each morning, do what needs to be done to stay alive and healthy, react to sudden setbacks and unanticipated good fortune with appropriate responses, cache food against future shortages, and keep on keeping on. Even with all the optimism and all the constraints that a tightly scheduled planning calendar represents for us, a chickadee’s approach to day-to-day living is pretty sound.

On Friday I got some news that put my 2017-planning calendar into a tailspin: a positive biopsy after a suspicious mammogram. Breast cancer may or may not shorten my life—that seems like one of the looming questions my diagnosis represents, but cancer does not lessen the likelihood of a freak accident or another heart attack or other surprise event killing me first. And my specific form—a papillary carcinoma that is hormone receptive and not particularly aggressive—makes dying of it pretty unlikely even in the long term.

Black-capped Chickadee

At this point, fears of mortality aren’t darkening my horizon—in that way, I’m pretty much reacting as a chickadee might. The oldest Black-capped Chickadee that we know about, a banded Minnesota bird, was alive and healthy when captured and released when it was at least 11 ½ years old (and possibly even older—it was an adult when originally banded). Most chickadees live much shorter lives than that, but they never wake up with fears of mortality crowding out their enjoyment of breakfast and the pleasures of preening in a patch of sunlight and singing or listening to that wonderful “Hey, sweetie!” song on a bright blue February morning.

At this point, my Costa Rica trip isn’t in jeopardy, but I’ll have to cancel many closer events to fit in surgery and radiation treatments. Suddenly my 2017 calendar isn’t as cut and dried as it seemed just a week ago, and I have many more question marks than certainties about how the next few months will unfold.

But when it comes down to it, question marks can be more liberating than unyielding plans. A chickadee’s whole life is filled with question marks, but she doesn’t focus on looming, dark possibilities when bright possibilities are just as likely. That’s why I look to chickadees when I’m negotiating tricky times. Their pure whistled songs ringing in my February mornings are all the proof I need that no matter what, there is beauty to be found right this very moment, as long as I can keep my eyes and ears open to it.

Black-capped Chickadee

*Surgery is set for March 2, an auspicious day because it's the anniversary of the first time I ever went birding, seeing the Number One bird on my life list—a Black-capped Chickadee!!

* I'm very lucky to have a supportive network of family, friends, and medical team here. My family has had a lot of experience with cancer, some extremely horrible, some not at all bad, and some in between. I'm not able to process other people's cancer stories right now.

*Best thing about breast cancer? My first thought when I wake up in the morning is no longer, "Holy shit! Donald Trump is President of the United States!" I can focus on a much smaller, more manageable malignancy. 

Ruffed Grouse

Ruffed Grouse

Aldo Leopold wrote:
Everyone knows…that the autumn landscape in the north woods is the land, plus a red maple, plus a Ruffed Grouse. In terms of conventional physics, the grouse represents only a millionth of either the mass or the energy of an acre yet subtract the grouse and the whole thing is dead.
In most of my day-to-day life nowadays, I don’t think much about Ruffed Grouse. Before my mother-in-law came to live with us four years ago, I’d hear them drumming at her place in Port Wing, Wisconsin, pretty frequently, and you can’t not think about Ruffed Grouse when that deep, resonant thudding pulses through your entire body.

The drums are a series of progressively faster thumps, which people used to think were produced by the male grouse striking his wings on his drumming log, but the sound is actually produced by air rushing to fill the vacuum created under the wings when they are rapidly flapped in front of the body. Males drum most frequently in spring, with a smaller surge in autumn, but as I noticed in Port Wing, you can hear drumming just about any time of year at least occasionally.

Ruffed Grouse are not part of the Peabody Street avifauna, which is part of why I so seldom think of them in my daily life now that I don’t stay in Port Wing anymore. I often encounter one along a roadside or up in a tree when I’m birding, but it’s always just one of many birds I’m seeing that day, seldom standing out more than other bird. When I see a grouse, I try to take photos, as I do with just about every bird I see, and often post those photos on my Flickr photostream, but I’ve never photographed a grouse drumming, and never taken a full-frame photo of one doing anything. My grouse photos are okay for small online illustrations, but aren’t particularly noteworthy.

Ruffed Grouse

This past weekend, when I was birding with Lisa Johnson on Superb Owl Sunday, I took a bunch of photos of a Ruffed Grouse in a birch tree at Split Rock. I had pretty good lighting, but the bird wasn’t all that close, and lots of little twigs and even large branches obscured the view; regardless, I posted the best of the lot on Flickr. They weren’t any better than the vast majority of my bird photos, and were a lot worse than my best work. But for some reason, Flickr highlighted one of these pictures in a special group called Explore, and suddenly thousands of people were looking at it for a couple of days.

Ruffed Grouse

I wonder if part of the value of the photo is that most people don’t expect to see a bird usually associated with keeping its feet planted firmly on the ground sitting up in a tree. Much of the year, Ruffed Grouse walk along the forest floor, browsing on leaves and fruits along with insects, and in fall scarfing down as many fallen acorns as they can find. But once snow covers the ground, they switch to mostly eating woody aspen and birch buds near the tops of the trees.

They have two special adaptations, one internal and one external, to accomplish this. Inside their bodies, two blind offshoots of their intestines, called caeca, grow enormous in fall. Anaerobic digestion in the caeca breaks down cellulose so they can get nourishment from those woody buds. In spring, the caeca atrophy for the warm months.

Their feet also undergo an important change for winter. Tooth-like structures called pectinations grow from the scales on the toes in fall and are shed in spring. These structures, often referred to as “snowshoes,” significantly increase the surface area of feet, and so many people believe they help the grouse walking on the surface of snow. Gordon Gullion also believed they serve as grippers when a grouse walks on ice-slicked tree branches. Ruffed Grouse in northern areas with severe winters have pectinations twice as long as those in more southerly regions. When I’ve watched grouse walking in trees in winter, I’ve been impressed with their secure footing in icy trees, so I suspect Gullion was right about that. I even noticed that while watching the grouse in the birch tree, though I didn’t get any in-focus photos when it was walking straight up a smooth vertical limb.

So suddenly I’m finding myself thinking about Ruffed Grouse, and yearning to sleep in the woods where I can hear them drumming come spring, and try to get better photos of them. Meanwhile, when I’m out birding, I’ll be watching for them up in trees or on roadsides, and won’t be nearly so quick to take them for granted.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

February's romantic rituals

Great Horned Owl

February is a romantic month for people who celebrate Valentine’s Day, and also for several kinds of birds with early nesting cycles. Great Horned Owls may start nesting in February, though in north country during most winters, they’re more likely to wait until a bit later. Bald Eagles and ravens often engage in their splendid aerial courtship displays starting in February, too.

Common Raven

All three of these species mate "for life," though the kind of pair bond each species forms is different. Great Horned Owls are not migratory, and the two birds forming a mated pair don’t move far from their nest site in winter, but they also don’t stay particularly close to one another—they’re solitary hunters, most effective as stealthy loners. If two are hunting in the same general area, there’s a larger chance that prey animals will detect one of them. So they tend to keep their distance within their large general territory, occasionally calling back and forth to maintain vocal contact, but otherwise leading solitary lives. When they do start courting and nesting in February and March, they become fully committed to their nest and young, the female with the childcare responsibilities, the male with provisioning her and, at first, their tiny young. As the chicks get bigger and more able to maintain their own body temperatures, the female spends more of her own time hunting for them, too. The pair works together on this annual project until the young are independent, and then become more aloof again for another winter.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagles are equally committed to their nest and young during the nesting season. During the rest of the year, they don’t particularly stay anywhere near each other. When they independently return to the nest area each spring, their courtship flights help re-cement their pair bond. It takes a lot of commitment to raise baby eagles, and year after year, additional repairs to the nest make it sturdier and thicker. Even though the pair has no real reason to be together away from that shared nest, they do benefit from a kind of certainty that the same reliable mate will most likely return to the nest each year.

Common Raven

Raven pairs stay together year-round, not just during the nesting season. They count on one another through thick and thin, and until death parts them, they never have a moment's doubt about their mate being there for them.

We living creatures, be we birds or humans, like to be able to count on things. To ensure long-term stability for parenting, we humans created legal and religious rituals like marriage. Birds don’t bother with that. In the wild, even in species with individuals that may survive decades, most individual birds can’t count on themselves or their mates surviving from one day to the next, much less one year to the next. So mating for life is by far the exception, not the rule. And even in the species that do mate for life, birds move on fairly quickly to find a new mate after a death.

When a Great Horned Owl dies, or an eagle doesn’t show up at the nest during a breeding season, the mate may or may not grieve—we just don’t know. Ravens almost certainly do, based on physiological changes consistent with human grieving—but in nature, life is the business of life, and a wild alive bird who loses its mate can't help but move on to a living mate and another nest fairly quickly. That approach may not sound very romantic to our species, which romanticizes grief, but it’s how those birds we depict on Valentine’s Day greetings keep their species going so we can continue to romanticize them.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Superb Owl Sunday 2017

Boreal Owl

Much of the United States celebrates the first Sunday in February by watching a football game. Just moving one letter and space, I change the name of the day to Superb Owl Sunday, and I like to take at least some time that day to look for owls.

Most years I have really good luck. In 2012, I was in New York City and went out with Russ, my daughter Katie, and her partner Michael to Breezy Point Tip where we had splendid looks at two Snowy Owls, one a stunningly all-white older adult male.

NYC Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl in the Big Apple

On Superb Owl Sunday during my Big Year in 2013, Russ and I went to Two Harbors, where we had my best looks ever at a Boreal Owl, and also saw a wonderful little Saw-whet Owl.

Boreal Owl

Northern Saw-whet Owl

In 2015, I got up close and personal with a Northern Hawk Owl at the Sax-Zim Bog—no one has been finding those in the two winters since, so I feel especially lucky to have photos from that one.

Superb Owl Sunday Northern Hawk Owl

So I was thinking that unlike Super Bowl Sunday, there are never losers on Superb Owl Sunday. Until this year. Sunday was a disappointment whether I was thinking about owls or falcons.

My friend Lisa Johnson and I headed to two fairly reliable places to see owls. First, we hit Superior, Wisconsin, where we drove around the airport for quite a while in hopes of spotting one of the Snowy Owls that have been hanging around this season. They spend a lot of time sitting on fences, light fixtures, roof tops, and other tall structures. There isn’t much traffic on Sunday mornings so Lisa drove nice and slow while I scanned what seemed like every possibility. Clear skies and high winds put the kibosh on that, though we did get a nice leisurely look at a Northern Shrike perched atop a tree, and Lisa spotted a flock of finches that I missed. Where were the owls? Probably hunkered down on the ground somewhere, sheltered from the wind.

Northern Shrike

We also checked Barker’s Island, looking both at the kinds of perches Snowies like and down on the ice, but no luck.

So we moved on, heading up the shore in hopes of seeing at least one Great Gray Owl. Two had been seen the day before at the entrance of Split Rock, and two more along the shore just west of there. Winds were down by the time we worked our way up the shore, but Bald Eagles and ravens were everywhere, soaring on the thermals produced by all that sun. Both those species can be aggressive toward owls, so any Great Grays about must have hunkered down within foliage. Lisa drove fairly slowly along the scenic drive and Highway 61, but I couldn’t pick out any owls along the way. We stopped briefly in Two Harbors to try for the Eurasian Tree Sparrow that has been hanging out with House Sparrows in the vicinity of the DoNorth Pizzeria, but no luck with that, either.

On the drive, I did get some photos of a pair of eagles and a pair of ravens soaring very high above us.

Bald Eagle and Common Raven

At Split Rock, we also got to photograph a Ruffed Grouse feeding on aspen and birch buds, but no luck with owls.

Ruffed Grouse

When we got back to town, we drove along Lester River Road for a while, but not a single owl revealed itself unto us.

So I went home, trying not to nurse a grudge about Superb Owls and hoping I’d at least get so see a flock of falcons triumph over some New Englanders. That actually looked pretty promising, but no dice. I guess whether you’re talking about flying pigskins or flying owls, there are no guarantees to be had on the first Sunday of February or, maybe, any other day.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Twice as many?

In 1492 when Christopher Columbus arrived in America, the people already living here were well aware of their land’s ornithological treasures. On October 12, 1492, Columbus wrote in his diary that the only wild animals he saw at all were parrots, but he had seen much more by October 21, when he wrote,
The melody of the birds was so exquisite that one was never willing to part from the spot, and the flocks of parrots obscured the heavens. The diversity in the appearance of the feathered tribe from those of our country is extremely curious. 
North America as a whole shares many species with Europe, and many of our species are related to ones Columbus must have been familiar with, but even along the same lines of latitude, we have some birds here that Columbus could never have dreamed of. Not one hummingbird is found in Europe, Asia, or Africa—what we call the Old World—but, on the other hand, not one of their bee-eaters or sunbirds can be found in the wild in the New World. Birds are products of their own time and place, and species evolve.

Winter Wren
Winter Wren

From the time of Linnaeus until 2013, the American Ornithologists Union considered the bird that sings my favorite song, the Winter Wren, the exact same species as the only wren found in Europe, and the extremely similar wren of far western North America. From the start, ornithologists noticed that the songs and plumage of the three populations were slightly different, and also noticed that populations in Europe differed from those in Africa and Asia. All were considered the same species, named by Linnaeus Troglodytes troglodytes, though they recognized from the very first checklist of the American Ornithologists Union in 1886 that our eastern and western birds belonged to different subspecies.

Pacific Wren
Pacific Wren

Then in 2013, the AOU made the decision to “split” our American species into two. The eastern form is still called the Winter Wren, but now the western is the Pacific Wren. The form in Europe, which the British Ornithologists used to call simply the Wren, since there were no other Old World Wrens to confuse the issue, is now called the Northern Wren, differentiating it from split-off species of Africa and Asia. It’s not all that hard to tell our own Winter Wren from the Pacific Wren—their songs are noticeably different and the Pacific Wren is noticeably darker. Studies of their DNA support the split.

Little by little, during my lifetime, even as we’ve lost the Dusky Seaside Sparrow, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Bachman’s Warbler, and several species in Hawaii to extinction, the number of species of birds in North America and in the world has increased. This is not because new species are evolving or being discovered faster than they’re going extinct: it’s because with strides in DNA analysis and laboratory analysis of vocalizations, we can quantify more distinctions between closely related populations, which provides the basis for splitting these groups. 

eBird currently lists 10,311 species in the entire world. Of that huge total, I’ve seen a few more than 2000—so barely one fifth of all the possibilities.

Last month, scientists at the American Museum of Natural History in New York announced that their research suggests there are actually almost twice as many bird species as that. The museum’s team said it believes the number should be closer to 18,000 bird species, or maybe even more. For the new work, scientists at the Museum, the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and the University of Washington used a different definition of species, using physical characteristics like plumage pattern and color, which highlight birds with separate evolutionary histories. Their method turned up, on average, nearly two different species for each of 200 birds they studied.

I’ve seen more than one morphological form of many of the birds on my list, and so if the American Ornithologists’ Union and the eBird checklist produced by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology adopt this new species concept, my lifelist will rise, too, though it almost certainly won’t double. This kind of major change will lead to lots of confusion for birders and lots of field guide revisions, which will distress a lot of people even as it will be fun and interesting to learn more about it. The lovely thing about science is how the more we know, the more we realize how little we know, and the more we realize how very much there is to still find out.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

More about that Pink-footed Goose

Pink-footed Goose

I received an email a little while after my Monday program aired on KUMD. The writer said he’d looked at all the photos I’d posted on Flickr of the Pink-footed Goose I saw in New York City, and not one of them showed the pink feet. He wondered how I could be sure of the identification.

Many birds are named for distinctive features that aren’t always visible in the field, and some of those distinctive features aren’t unique to those species. Yellow-rumped Warblers don’t always part their wings to show their rumps, and a few related warblers also have yellow rumps.

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers and Red-bellied Woodpeckers both keep their bellies hidden against tree trunks during normal activities, and most individuals of both species lack any noticeable belly coloring even in the hand.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Nesting Red-bellied Woodpeckers

By that standard, Pink-footed Geese are actually fairly appropriately named, though to see the pink feet, the bird does need to be standing on land or flying without its feet tucked. The entire time I watched the New York bird, it was in the water, its feet entirely submerged.

Pink-footed Goose

Fortunately, those feet are not the only way to recognize the bird. The only all-dark-headed goose that might be confused with it in North America is the White-fronted Goose, and a bit of conspicuous white at the base of the bill excludes that.

Greater White-fronted Goose

The extremely rare Graylag Goose and Bean Goose both have orange feet, and do not have conspicuous pink on their bills. My goose showed the proper plumage and very conspicuous pink on the bill, so there was no doubt about its identification.

Pink-footed Goose

My friend, the Port Wing artist Jeanne Perry, asked me, “Didn't the pink-footed goose figure heavily in one of the scenes from “The Big Year”?

The Big Year poster!

Jeanne remembered correctly. I’m still out of town so don’t have a chance yet to rewatch the movie, but in the scene where the characters played by Jack Black, Steve Martin, and Owen Wilson are on High Island in Texas during the huge migration fall-out, someone yells about a Pink-footed Goose being seen off the boardwalk. Owen Wilson plows right through a group of girls and their teacher or scout leader, but Jack Black and Steve Martin wait until the girls all pass through. Of course Owen Wilson gets a quick look before it flies away, and gloats about it.

Later, the woman Jack Black has fallen for calls him about one being seen near where she lives in Boston. He takes a bus there, and she meets him with her boyfriend. Jack Black is distressed about her having a boyfriend in the first place, so he goes ballistic when the guy comments about his coming all that way to see a “pink goose.” To add insult to injury, of course Jack Black misses the bird again.

Finally, near the end of December as the Big Year is drawing to a close, Steve Martin finds out about a Pink-footed Goose impossibly hanging out in a small bit of open water in the Colorado mountains and brings Jack Black to see it.

Pink-footed Geese are definitely rare birds here in the US—they breed in Greenland, Iceland, and northern Scandinavia, and winter in Europe and the UK. Individual vagrants do turn up rarely in the US, and although this is extremely rare, they often do stay put for a month or longer, as the one at Arthur J. Hendrickson Park has been doing this year. It’s not the kind of bird I’d ever hop a jet and fly across the country in hopes of seeing, but as long as I was in New York anyway, I gladly hopped aboard a commuter train to see it, whether or not I got to see it showing off its pink feet.

Pink-footed Goose

Monday, January 23, 2017

How I spent January 21, 2017


Last Friday I was in New York City looking at my lifer Pink-footed Goose. Saturday, I headed to Washington, D.C., to join a flock of pink-capped members of another species. My daughter and several friends and I drove down in a van, and of course I had my binoculars. It was foggy and murky along the drive, but I saw at least a couple of species each in New York, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland, including one Great Black-backed Gull, which was new for the year. We parked at the park-n-go lot at the Greenbelt stop, one of the end stops for the DC Metro.

The long line to the Metro for the Women's March

The line for tickets there was amazingly long—Saturday turned out to be the second busiest day for the DC Metro in its entire history—but not only were we with kindred spirits, there were also plenty of birds to watch while we waited. Ring-billed Gulls, European Starlings, and House Sparrows comprised the bulk of them, but I also picked out two Black Vultures and some Fish Crows, both new for the year.

It’s tricky to identify crows anywhere along the East Coast unless they call—American Crows and Fish Crows are essentially identical in size and plumage—so all the crows I saw from the car went unidentified, but here I could keep track of them until I heard a Fish Crow calling. I tell people that the two species are easy to tell apart—all you need to do is ask, “Are you an American Crow?” and if it responds, “Uh uh,” it’s a Fish Crow.

 I didn’t bring my camera with the long lens, so didn’t bother taking any photos of birds. Once we finally made it to the train and reached D.C., I was focused mostly on negotiating the ginormous crowd.

Women's March on Washington D.C. Women's March on Washington D.C. Women's March on Washington D.C. Women's March on Washington D.C. Women's March on Washington D.C. Women's March on Washington D.C. Women's March on Washington D.C.

But of course my eyes were drawn upward now and then. As we walked along the Mall, I spotted a Peregrine Falcon sitting atop one of the grand old buildings, possibly there in solidarity with the protestors carrying signs about protecting the natural world. I couldn’t help but take its photo, but it’s little more than a speck with the lens I brought.

  Women's March on Washington D.C.

The crowds were so massive that it was hard to focus on anything but people, but occasionally I looked up, and later in the afternoon saw two Peregrines flying together—I couldn’t be sure whether either of them was the bird I’d seen earlier, so I counted a total of two on my eBird checklist. I didn’t notice either carrying food—a definite sign of courtship—and it was hard to keep my eyes on them consistently because so many signs kept popping up blocking my view and pulling my thoughts back to earth, but nevertheless, I was pleased to see them.

By the time we’d marched for five and a half miles, we were exhausted. Partway along our walk, we chanced upon a lovely Lutheran church where protesters were invited in to take a break, use the bathroom, have a snack, and listen to music.

Women's March on Washington D.C.

We stopped for a bit, and then went on to Sticky Fingers, a vegan restaurant where Katie used to work, to have a small dinner before heading back on the Metro for our car and the long drive back to New York. It was quite dark by then, so my bird spotting for the day was over.

I will never forget being among such a huge throng of people who were all fighting for the values I believe in: equal rights and protections for all citizens, acknowledging and fighting against climate change and protecting our air, water, natural habitats, and wildlife. This was a cheerful and peaceful rally, without a single act of violence all day—indeed, DC police reported zero arrests for the day.

This is the America I love—the land of the free and the home of the brave, where women are free to speak up about our concerns and brave enough to fight for what is right, and where a birder from Minnesota wearing a Chicago Cubs cap and draped in an American flag symbolizing liberty and justice for all can watch Peregrine Falcons flying over our nation’s capitol in the company of half a million pink-capped women and men who know that this land was made for you and me, and for the birds.

Laura and Katie at the Women's March in D.C.