Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Hearty news on the chickadee front

Black-capped Chickadee

This year I gave a talk titled “More than You Thought You Wanted to Know about Black-capped Chickadees” for the huge northwestern Ohio birding festival called The Biggest Week in American Birding. I talk about chickadees a lot, but had never given a major program entirely about them before. I’ve amassed lots of cool chickadee facts over the years, but wanted to have some exciting new information as well. In googling to get some interesting statistics, I came across a fascinating entry in David Sibley’s blog. He’s the one who wrote and illustrated the wonderfully comprehensive Sibley Guide to Birds—both the huge field guide and the extraordinarily useful cell phone app that includes all the information from the field guide and more. 

In his blog, David occasionally posts mystery sounds, and in the blog post I found, he used this sound.

He explained on his blog:

I made this recording when I had the bird in my hand (after catching it as part of a regular bird-banding operation) and held a microphone against its back to record the sound. This is the heartbeat of a Black-capped Chickadee.

I saved the sound into my own computer, and opened it in Adobe Audition, where I could expand and count each beat on the waveform. David Sibley’s recording lasted a bit longer than 8 seconds. I counted 74 beats over one representative 5-second period, and 118 beats over exactly 8 seconds, which both calculated out to about 888 beats per minute. There were several “double beats” recorded—I counted each as a single beat, so if they were really separate beats, the result was closer to a thousand beats per minute. Imagine that!

In 1968, a researcher named Calder found that a Black-capped Chickadee at rest had a heart rate of about 480 beats per minute, and in 1941, another researcher, Odum, got 522 beats per minute at rest—he estimated that it must double during activity. David’s chickadee was under the stress of being handled, so the 888 beats per minute for that bird is quite consistent with those earlier results.

Black-capped Chickadee with deformed bill
My chickadee on April 20, 2014
It wasn’t until after my program that I got a different kind of hearty news on the chickadee front. Back in the winter of 2013-2014, I noticed that one of the chickadees coming to my feeder had an overgrown, deformed upper bill. The bill tip eventually fell off, but not before the neighborhood chickadees had paired off for the season, and that one didn’t get a mate. He not only had a problem with his bill—his three front toes on his right foot are missing. I fed him mealworms by hand throughout the winter, and again all this winter when I’ve been in town. Fortunately, my neighbor and friend, Jeanne Tonkin, has been feeding chickadees mealworms, too, and that particular chickadee has been coming to her hand as well. She recently noticed another chickadee begging from him, and on May 20, when he took mealworms from my hand, I also got to witness him handing them over to a begging female. This establishes both that he’s definitely a male—they’re the ones that provide food during courtship and nesting—and that he’s successfully found a mate this year. It warmed my heart to see this plucky little survivor doing so well.

Chickadee missing front toes of right foot, with a deformed bill
That same plucky chickadee on May 20, 2015

Killing birds with our driving

Pileated Woodpecker on my picnic table

Last weekend, when I was driving home from The Biggest Week in American Birding, a festival in Ohio, I found myself driving a little faster than normal on Highway 53 in Wisconsin.

My rule is always to drive at the slowest speed that is safe, courteous, and convenient. I prefer staying under the speed limit, but there was a lot of traffic going into and through Eau Claire, and I realized I was still going close to 70 by the time I got down to Rice Lake, where there was virtually no traffic at all. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize it until I was approaching a robin sitting in the road ahead.

There were no cars next to or beside me so I braked, the robin flew, and although it was a close call, the robin wasn’t hurt. But I was shaken. I didn’t need to be going over the speed limit there—not for anyone else’s convenience or safety, much less my own. I was shortening my long trip by a few minutes, but what could I possibly accomplish in those few minutes that would have been worth the life of a plucky bird who’d made it through the winter and was finally getting the payoff of a mate, a nest, and young?

A few miles further down the road, I spotted the body of a Pileated Woodpecker, crumpled on the side of the road. The cosmic waste hit me in the heart.

Our driving addiction exacts such a heavy toll—climate change, oil spills at wells and pipelines, toxic sludge, charring at oil refinery gas flare stacks—and if that all isn’t enough, we run ‘em down directly with our own cars.

I created a little blog at that gives some tips about how we can protect birds from all the costs associated with driving. My suggestions include ways we can reduce our gas consumption to reduce our personal contribution into the many ways extracting, transporting, and refining oil kill birds. My car shows my gas mileage every step of the way, so I’m acutely aware of how much more I use when I drive faster than about 42 miles per hour. But I also include ways we can avoid colliding with birds:
1. Combine trips and use public transportation, bike, or walk when possible so you can drive as little as possible.

2. Drive at the slowest speed that is safe, courteous, and convenient.

3. When approaching a red light or stop sign, start coasting to a stop sooner. Accelerate gently when possible.

4. Remove heavy items from your vehicle when you don't need them.

5. Keep your tires at the proper inflation.

6. Keep your car in tune.

7. When you see wildlife ahead, look in the mirror to see if anyone is following you, and slow down if you can safely do so.

8. If you know what you're doing, keep an injured-wildlife rescue kit in the car, including phone numbers for area rehab facilities.

I’m so tired of people excusing our bad behavior by pleading ignorance. If we’re going to take pride in ourselves as a species for our intelligence, claiming to be smarter than every other species on the planet, we should be using that intelligence to clean up our messes and find safer ways of getting from one place to another. Otherwise, our only claims of superiority over other species are in the areas of selfishness and arrogance.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Pip's and my "Sort-of-a-Big-Day"

Pip the Birding Dog
My plucky sidekick Pip

This weekend was the annual Hawk Ridge Birdathon—an event in which teams of birders compete to see the most species in a 24-hour period, each soliciting pledges in order to raise money for Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory. I was out of town, at a birding festival in Ohio, so couldn’t participate, but decided that this year instead I’ll do an informal "Sort-of-a-Big-Day" with my new puppy Pip.

Pip is too little to do a 2-am to 10-pm Big Day, much less a real midnight to midnight one, and since my heart attack, I get tired more quickly than I used to myself, so we’ll try for a more reasonable 5 or 6 am to as late as we can go on Thursday. The overall point is as a fund raiser, but I'm too timid to ask my friends, much less strangers, for pledges so I'm going to be donating $100 myself, but anyone who wanted to make a donation to Hawk Ridge in my and/or Pip's name (we're calling ourselves the Great Expectations team), I'd deeply appreciate it—here's the website for donations: (In the comments for vendor section, say you're making the donation for Pip and Laura's birdathon.)

So for the next couple of days I’m going to be plotting out our route. If we have more wonderful foggy weather, Park Point will be the perfect place to start out—warblers have been everywhere there this weekend (when I was gone, of course). One good strategy is to start out looking for warblers and other migrants at the point, then move to some of the shorebird spots and lakefront observation points in the Duluth area, and then work our way up to the bog, and then back to Duluth again. But if it is clear, as the current forecast calls for, fewer birds will be stopped from migrating, and Park Point won't be quite so ideal. In that case, Indian Point might be a better starting point.

As birds settle into their territories or at least spread out toward their migratory destinations, it’ll be important for us to cover a wide variety of nesting habitats. The trick is plotting out different routes for different weather conditions, and being flexible. My only constraint will be to stay within St. Louis County, but that’s hardly a sacrifice since this county is larger than four states.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird is a fantastic resource for knowing what birds have been seen where in real time, though in a big migration period, it can take longer for people to post what they’re seeing—they’re too much in the thick of watching it all. I have a wonderful app called Bird’sEye, produced in conjunction with the Cornell Lab, which tells me what birds have been seen in my area, often with specific directions to each place. All the information comes thanks to eBird. I have another app called BirdLog, which allows me to enter my data quickly and easily in the field so others can benefit from my sightings. In these ways, Cornell's eBird will be enormously helpful, but there are of course lots of places with sketchy phone connections in the wilder areas up here. Fortunately, I’ve been birding for 40 years now, since long before cell phones, and so I'm used to improvising without such aids.  I’ll do my best to have some good plans in place before heading out, and will be flexible as far as coming up with alternatives when it seems like a good idea.

To do a Big Day, you need to focus ahead of time on other logistics besides route. There is little to no time for stopping for meals, so making sure the car is gassed up, and making sure there is plenty of food and water, a quick change of clothing, and extra shoes and boots in the car is important. Having Pip along will also require that I bring plenty of provisions for her. When I’m birding, I need both hands for using my binoculars and my camera, so can’t also be tugging at a leash. Fortunately, Pip quickly adapted to my system—I put her on a retractable leash, and hook the handle via a carabineer to my belt pouch. I keep the belt pouch with leash on every moment—my car works when I have my keys on my person, and keeping them in my belt pouch makes it impossible for me to leave my keys or wallet in the car if I stop suddenly for an interesting bird. It takes about 2 seconds for me to unzip her car carrier and hook her harness to the leash. And she's an agreeable little soul, so it takes only three seconds to unhook her and put her back in the carrier.I'll bring along an extra leash just in case, and my first aid kit will include emergency supplies for her, too.

If I were doing a real Big Day—going 2 am to 10 pm or longer—I’d be shooting for 150 species. As it is, I’ll be very happy to break into three digits at all. Pip’s lifelist is now over 150. I want her to end the month with 200, and hope our Big Day will bring her up to over 175. But I’m not all that goal oriented—as Forest Gump almost said, birdwatching is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get, but it’s certain to be sweet.

(I would sure appreciate it if people donated to Hawk Ridge!)

Friday, May 1, 2015

Billy Collins's Genius

Tundra Swans at Goose Pond
Tundra Swans. (I actually don't know if Billy Collins had been watching Tundra or Mute Swans, but Tundra Swans produce a better sound for the radio.)
Every now and then, I read a poem that is so perfect—so simple and obvious and yet layered, and that speaks so directly to my heart as well as my mind—that I’m blown away. Some writers of poetry and fiction squeeze birds, flapping and thrashing their resistance, into their metaphors, like so many wannabe princesses forcing their unwilling feet into someone else’s glass slipper. Billy Collins, the Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003, lets swans be swans in his poem “Genius,” from his collection Aimless Love. Mr. Collins gave me permission to read it on the air today. (Listen here.)


was what they called you in high school
if you tripped on a shoelace in the hall
and all your books went flying.

Or if you walked into an open locker door,
you would be known as Einstein,
who imagined riding a streetcar into infinity.

Later, genius became someone
who could take a sliver of chalk and square pi
a hundred places out beyond the decimal point,

or a man painting on his back on a scaffold,
or drawing a waterwheel in a margin,
or spinning out a little night music.

But earlier this week on a wooded path,
I thought the swans afloat on the reservoir
were the true geniuses,
the ones who had figured out how to fly,
how to be both beautiful and brutal,
and how to mate for life.

Twenty-four geniuses in all,
for I numbered them as Yeats had done,
deployed upon the calm, crystalline surface—

forty-eight if we count their white reflections,
or an even fifty if you want to throw in me
and the dog running up ahead,

who were at least smart enough to be out
that morning—she sniffing the ground,
me with my head up in the bright morning air.

"Genius" by Billy Collins from Aimless Love. © Random House, 2013. Used with permission.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Kansas: Wings N Wetlands Birding Festival

Yellow-headed Blackbird
Yellow-headed Blackbird
Last week I attended the biennial Wings ‘N Wetlands festival, right in the heart of Kansas. The Quivira National Wildlife Refuge and Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area are the heart and soul of the festival, highlighting the wetlands considered by many to be the most important in the Western Hemisphere for shorebird migration. Indeed, it’s estimated that in normal years, a full 45 percent of the North American shorebird population stops here during spring migration.

As a national wildlife refuge, Quivira is managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service; the land was purchased in large part thanks to Duck Stamp revenues contributed by birders, Duck Stamp collectors, and hunters, all specifically to protect waterfowl habitat. Cheyenne Bottoms is managed by the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks, and Tourism, with a large swath of adjacent habitat owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy.

The drought in 2013 was so devastating that the birding festival had to be cancelled. I still came, and got to see quite a few ducks and shorebirds despite the dearth of water. Now rains have recharged the wetlands fairly well, and it was teeming with shorebirds and lingering waterfowl, especially shovelers and Blue-winged Teal.

The riches of this part of Kansas are not limited to water birds—it’s still early in migration, but I saw at least a dozen exquisite Scissor-tailed Flycatchers on the trip, mostly en route from the Wichita Airport, but one pair at Quivira. The festival field trips were almost entirely limited to Quivira and Cheyenne Bottoms, and we had to race through much of the Friday afternoon field trip with a menacing thunderstorm on the horizon and tornadoes touching down not all that far away, yet between that and Saturday’s trips, I saw 111 species, and added two more on a bonus field trip Sunday morning.

Massasauga Rattlesnake
  Plus I got a lifer! Not a bird, but a Massasauga rattlesnake. That's one I've badly wanted to see since I took herpetology in 1975 at Michigan State: we took a field trip to the one area in Michigan where these rattlesnakes still could be found, and our professor said that if anyone could find one for the class, that person would get an automatic A for the entire course. But no luck. So I was thrilled, 40 years later, to finally get to see one.

All the festival’s field trips combined yielded 149 bird species. The only disappointment with the whole trip is that I got to see so many species without my puppy—Pip missed a lot of lifers!
Wilson's Phalarope
Wilson's Phalarope
American Avocet
American Avocet

Franklin's Gull
Franklin's Gull

 As wonderful as it was to see thousands of Wilson’s Phalaropes and Baird’s Sandpipers, and hundreds of American Avocets, with large flocks of glowing Yellow-headed Blackbirds and some scattered Franklin’s Gulls in their rosy-hued breeding plumage and adorable Snowy Plovers, I saved the very best for last.

Greater Prairie-Chicken
Greater Prairie-Chicken
My final field trip started out at 5:15 Sunday morning, when we went to a Greater Prairie-Chicken observation blind. This was at the exact same lek I’d watched in 2013, when one lone prairie chicken displayed his heart out, no other prairie chickens to join him. Devastating droughts have all kinds of repercussions, and they took a huge toll on prairie chickens. Fortunately, these birds have high reproduction rates when things do go right, and this year at the height of their breeding season 18 males displayed to more than ten females. It’s late in the season now, and females are off on their nests incubating their eggs, but if one’s nest failed, she could still show up on the lek and mate again as long as at least a few males are still in breeding readiness.

 Watching and listening to prairie chickens in action is one of my favorite thrills. I took most of my photos and videos of one particular male closest to the blind. He only chased other males who came onto his little defended space. The others in the flock were usually facing off with one another a bit further away. I think this bird was the dominant one, because any time another male approached anywhere near his little dancing ground, he chased it off immediately.

The bird I focused on this year was much closer to the blind than the one two years ago, and there’s little chance that that bird is still alive—Prairie chickens are a relatively short-lived game species, devoured by Golden Eagles and coyotes as well as by human hunters, and are also killed in large numbers in collisions with fences—but I like to think that plucky 2013 bird did make it and was among the birds I watched dancing. It was deeply overcast, so the light was exceptionally poor for photography, but nevertheless I took bazillions of photos and some videos. For me, any look at a Greater Prairie-Chicken is a glimpse into heaven.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Climate Change vs. Wildlife?

Bald Eagle

The April 6 issue of The New Yorker carries an article by Jonathan Franzen titled “Carbon Capture: Has climate change made it harder for people to care about conservation?” The article is about how we must protect birds even as we address the dire problems of climate change. Franzen made a strong case for the essential treasures we should feel obliged to protect as he focused on a few people and groups so concerned about climate change that to him they sound willing to throw our fellow species out the window.

I’ve long believed that as critical as it is to find sustainable ways to generate electricity, we must invest in research to ensure that the designs and placements of solar and wind generating plants are the safest possible for wildlife. Unfortunately, the pattern of our capitalistic society is to require research to be profit-driven. And as both of America's political parties have further and further distanced themselves from environmentalism, we wait longer and longer, until foreseeable problems reach crisis levels, and then desperately go full-speed ahead with a few misguided projects. For example, even as corporations create huge mirrored solar plants in quality desert habitat, frying abysmal numbers of birds in the sky or drawing them down to crash into what looks like water, we’re making it harder and harder for homeowners to put up innocuous solar panels on their own roofs, thanks to lobbying by profit-motivated power companies.

I attended a Catholic school as a little girl—that’s where most of my sense of morality and ethics was formed. Jonathan Franzen wrote about his own moral development:
Maybe it’s because I was raised as a Protestant and became an environmentalist, but I’ve long been struck by the spiritual kinship of environmentalism and New England Puritanism. Both belief systems are haunted by the feeling that simply to be human is to be guilty. In the case of environmentalism, the feeling is grounded in scientific fact. Whether it’s prehistoric North Americans hunting the mastodon to extinction, Maori wiping out the megafauna of New Zealand, or modern civilization deforesting the planet and emptying the oceans, human beings are universal killers of the natural world. And now climate change has given us an eschatology for reckoning with our guilt: coming soon, some hellishly overheated tomorrow, is Judgment Day. Unless we repent and mend our ways, we’ll all be sinners in the hands of an angry Earth. 
I’m still susceptible to this sort of puritanism. Rarely do I board an airplane or drive to the grocery store without considering my carbon footprint and feeling guilty about it. But when I started watching birds, and worrying about their welfare, I became attracted to a countervailing strain of Christianity, inspired by St. Francis of Assisi’s example of loving what’s concrete and vulnerable and right in front of us. I gave my support to the focused work of the American Bird Conservancy and local Audubon societies. Even the most ominously degraded landscape could make me happy if it had birds in it.
My own Catholic education started with the premise that we were not only expected to love but to nurture our fellow creatures. The very first day of first grade, a soft-spoken, gentle priest named Father Ciemega came into our class and asked if anyone knew their ABCs already. I practically leaped out of my desk raising my hand so exuberantly that he couldn't help but call on me. After I recited the alphabet, he gave me a tiny treasure—what we called a "holy card," this one depicting a large hand (presumably God’s) cradling a tiny baby bird. This was a perfect symbol to prove to me that it wasn’t enough to love God’s creatures—we were expected to protect them.

When we learned about sins before making our first confession in second grade, one of the sins they mentioned was one of omission—not taking proper care of our pets—that was a huge moral responsibility. And as I recall, Francis of Assisi was the first saint we learned about in school. Our reader included a story in which he saved the life of a wolf that had been terrorizing a village, by teaching the wolf and the people to get along. So in my gut, the issue of climate change and the issue of protecting wildlife are equal mandates.

Whatever the original source of our personal ethics and whether it involves any God, religion, or other system outside our own ability to reason, it’s frustrating and mystifying to me that anyone can turn their backs on any wildlife population. I’ve been an environmentalist since the very first Earth Day, in 1970, when we were completely committed to getting Congress to pass laws to protect our air, our water, AND our wildlife. We didn’t let the huge problems—Lake Erie being considered dead, the Cuyahoga River catching fire, or toxic smog smothering our cities—draw our focus from endangered and threatened species, nor did our concerns about animals reduce our focus and effectiveness in dealing with urgent issues about the air and water we all need. We didn’t say that without clean water, Bald Eagles and Osprey will disappear anyway.

It’s only been with encroaching corporatism that we’ve watered down our goals of preserving the environment that we and wildlife share. But those of us most knowledgeable and committed to climate issues and those of us most knowledgeable and committed to wildlife issues must work together if we’re ever going to be effective at helping with either issue—the problems are too big and too deep and too tall to tackle while squandering our energy infighting. As Robert Frost might have put it, “environmentalists work together, I told him from the heart, whether we work together or apart.”

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Migration Update

American Robin

I have a new puppy, and I started keeping a life list of birds I see with her. I also just got new hearing aids. Because of these two changes in my life, I’ve been paying even closer attention to birds in my backyard than normal, and our sudden burst of spring is bringing in new arrivals every day. Ryan Brady spotted both a Eurasian Wigeon and a Eurasian Tree Sparrow in Wisconsin over near Ashland. Nothing so exotic has appeared in my neck of the woods, but I've been having a jolly time nonetheless.

A small flock of robins arrived in my neighborhood over two weeks ago, searching out old crab apples and dried up buckthorn. I’d occasionally hear their alarm notes, and Pip paid attention to them scuffling through the leaf litter behind our yard, but suddenly one morning last week they were singing away, each one trying to stake out a territory. It was like a switch was flipped—now their songs will be part of the morning soundtrack every day until July. The first day they broke into song, two got into quite a battle, which was interesting enough for me but absolutely fascinating for my little Pip. Every bit of their territory is important, and so now even if we get a late spring blizzard, they won’t want to lose ground and will keep up with the daily singing unless conditions grow dire indeed.
A few days after the robins started singing, Song Sparrows were suddenly in full song. That cheerful tune always lifts my spirits.

Hermit Thrush

Two rusty-tailed, streak-breasted birds appear every April, and mine both appeared on the same day this weekend. Three Hermit Thrushes appeared in the leaf litter where robins had been gathering a week before. One sat on my fence briefly, catching my eye, and then as I carefully scanned the ground and shrubs I picked out all three.

Fox Sparrow

While I was watching them—seeing the clean, smooth appearance of their back and wings, slender bill, and robin-like shape, I suddenly heard a most welcome and familiar tune—a Fox Sparrow. People do occasionally confuse Fox Sparrows and Hermit Thrushes because of the rusty tail, but our Eastern Fox Sparrows are so distinctive—plump and sturdy looking, with a thick beak, gray and brown face, and sparrow markings on wings and back—that after you’ve seen them both, you won’t confuse them again except when you get a quick glimpse of one flying away, showing off nothing but that striking rusty tail. Hermit Thrushes virtually never sing until they reach their breeding grounds, so I’ve never heard their ethereal tune in my yard. But Fox Sparrows are another story. I’ve had whole choruses of them singing away during April blizzards while migration is at a peak. I do think this is the first year I heard one before I saw it. Each day now for a week or so, my little backyard troupe of migrants will be increasing.

Yellow-rumped Warbler

The trees are starting to bud out, a bit earlier than normal, and I’ve been seeing the first swarming insects and even one mourning cloak butterfly. One lovely bit of proof that insects are aloft was the beautiful Yellow-rumped Warbler that showed up yesterday.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

This weekend Pip and I saw our first Yellow-bellied Sapsucker of the year. These handsome medium-sized woodpeckers are pretty quiet most of the time, so many people don’t notice them, but if you have an aspen tree, this is an excellent time to start searching through the branches for one. Flickers are starting to show up, too, now—they spend a lot of time on the ground feeing on ants.

By April 14, Pip’s life list was at 60, and will start growing by leaps and bounds now, and I wake up every morning thinking about all the possibilities. It’s the most wonderful time of the year.

Thursday, April 9, 2015


Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Male Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Tonight, I’m giving a talk about hummingbirds at the Northern Great Lakes Visitors Center. This is a full month before we can expect to see the first hummingbirds in our neck of the woods—they usually turn up sometime around Mother’s Day—but just thinking about hummingbirds takes the edge off even the dreariest, coldest April days, and it’s always good to plan ahead regarding the best practices for feeding hummingbirds and providing high quality backyard habitat.

The Internet is filled with advice about birds—it can be very difficult for people to figure out what’s accurate. I’ve read all kinds of misinformation about just about every topic imaginable—birdhouse plans specifically designed for cardinals, even though cardinals are not cavity nesters and never ever use birdhouses; photos of panting, stressed captive Snowy Owls ridiculously described as “laughing”; and recommendations to make sugar water super-strong, with a 1:1 ratio of sugar to water, which is a horrible idea.

The sugar water we offer hummingbirds should be of a sweetness comparable to that of natural nectar, which averages about ¼ strength, or a quarter cup of sugar per cup of water. If you want to make things simple, that’s all you need to remember to provide sugar water that will be perfectly fine under any conditions.

Some people insist that their hummingbirds only take beet sugar or cane sugar. I’ve never noticed a difference, and many hummingbird authorities claim there is no difference.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird
This feeder is filled with clear sugar water; the pinkish glass makes food coloring utterly worthless as well as harmful.
NEVER use food coloring, and never get store-bought hummingbird mixtures that are red. One banded, color-marked hummingbird tracked by hummingbird bander David Patton took about 10 grams of sugar water from one feeder each day, along with using other, natural food sources. Had that feeder been filled with a popular commercial hummingbird nectar mix, properly mixed with water according to the instructions, the tiny bird would have ingested more than 15 times the amount, for its size, that the World Health Organization recommends as a daily limit for humans. And the nectar taken from a single feeder also would give the hummingbird 12 times the amount of red dye shown to cause DNA damage in mice. When I rehabbed hummingbirds brought to me by people who’d been feeding them red dye in their sugar water, it always took 36 hours or more for the dye to disappear from their droppings.

There is absolutely no reason to color hummingbird water: real flower nectar is clear, and hummingbird feeders have plenty enough red to attract the little birds.

Also, don’t use honey in place of sugar—it clouds up very quickly, getting contaminated by bacteria and fungus.

 If you fill your feeders whenever you mix up a new batch of sugar water, there is no need to boil the water first. Even if you mix up a large batch to use as the feeders empty, you don’t need to boil the mixture as long as you put it in a clean container and refrigerate it until use.

Make sure you clean your feeders regularly—use a stiff bottlebrush, and make sure there are no little black deposits in the crevices. The most important feature to consider when purchasing any hummingbird feeder is that it’s easy to clean.

Change the sugar water frequently—every day or two in hot weather. Sugar water slowly ferments, and even if it’s relatively clear, some of the sugar may have been converted to alcohol, bad for hummingbird livers. If it gets cloudy, you’ve waited too long.

Natural flower nectar varies in strength. If you want to fine tune the recipe to provide ideal sugar water for differing situations, you can make it stronger, up to about 1/3 cup of sugar per cup of water, during cold, rainy situations. This can provide added calories during migration when birds are burning up energy as they go, or when we have a cold snap right when hummingbirds are incubating eggs, minimizing the time they must be off the nest. During hot, dry spells when water is at a premium, you can make your mixture weaker—about 1/5 cup of sugar per cup of water—especially if hummingbirds in your neighborhood have little access to drinking water. But again, if this is hard to remember, the basic recipe of ¼ cup of sugar per cup of water is fine in all situations.

Many hummingbird feeders come with little yellow cage things meant to be put over the feeding ports as “bee guards.” These do keep the bees out of the ports, but with some feeder designs, sugar water almost invariably drips onto the bee guards. On these feeders, wasps and bees may actually sit on the guard getting the sugar water off them.

Wasp in hummingbird feeder
Yellow jackets come to this kind of feeder with or without bee guards.
One year when I was working on a book, and so sitting at my desk right next to the window that held my favorite feeder, I couldn’t help but notice that yellow jackets were a serious problem, not only hogging the feeder but actually chasing away the hummingbirds. When I couldn’t stand watching anymore, I finally grabbed our hand vacuum, opened the window, and sucked out several yellow jackets.

One female hummingbird took notice. Within a half hour, whenever a yellow jacket took over the feeder, she started hovering at the window, giving me a long hard stare until I got the vacuum and sucked out the problem wasp. The vacuum was noisy, and if I’d turned it on her, it would have sucked her into it, too, but she seemed utterly unafraid—the whole time I was leaning out the window vacuuming up wasps, she’d hover nearby as if supervising. If I didn’t notice her right away when a wasp took over the feeder, she started actually tapping at the window with her beak to get my attention.

Hummingbirds are so tiny and vulnerable that it always takes me aback how quickly they figure out which people will do their bidding. Every year delighted hummingbird aficionados tell me stories about the hummingbirds that return year after year and look in the window for them. For weighing a mere eighth to a tenth of an ounce—you could mail ten of them with a single stamp—they are astonishingly intelligent and have long memories. Their lives are treacherous, yet some banded Ruby-throated Hummingbirds have lived at least 9 years thanks to their intelligence, which can temper a natural wariness with learned discrimination.

Vacuuming problem wasps is a non-toxic way of dealing with them, but it still made me sad about killing the insects. One of my friends worked out a way of banishing his wasps from his favorite hummingbird feeders: he filled one feeder with a concentrated sugar water mixture with a 1:1 ratio. Wasps prefer far stronger sugar mixtures than hummingbirds do, and so the wasps gravitated to that feeder, leaving the other feeders for the hummers. He moved the wasp feeder further and further from his house, and within a day or two his wasps were in the furthest reaches of his backyard while he enjoyed his hummingbirds and they enjoyed safety. This of course isn’t a good solution if you, your family, or any neighbors are allergic to stings, but was the ideal solution for him.

One kind of hummingbird feeder comes with a built in ant-guard—a moat in the center which should be filled with water. Ants can’t swim, so that keeps them from getting to the sugar water. Where ants are a problem, use that kind of feeder or a hummingbird feeder suspended from a hook with ant guards in place above the feeder. A good ant guard is nothing but a water-filled cup that keeps ants from reaching the feeder below.

Hummingbird feeders are all you need to attract a few hungry migrants passing over. That is as important for them as restaurants are for hungry human travelers. But hummingbirds need a lot more than sugar water to survive. If you want some to stick around your neighborhood beyond migration, you’ll need to build up your backyard habitat.

As more and more of America falls into private hands and more and more public land loses the protections that have guarded our country’s wildlife, our backyards are becoming increasingly critical to provide essential habitat for wildlife. This of course has a dark side as more and more people and their pets encounter predators, hungry but skittish skunks, and other creatures it’s not always easy to deal with—including the wasps I complain about. This problem is growing in part because so many people were never educated, at home or school, about wildlife.

 To make our backyard habitat friendly to hummingbirds through the breeding season, we must make sure it provides a balanced diet for adults and the young, a safe place to build a nest, and appropriate nest materials.

During migration and any cold days after resident birds arrive but before flowers open, hummingbirds get essential carbohydrates from sap oozing from tree buds and sapsucker drill holes. Aspens are ideal for being inexpensive, locally native trees that provide both, and may draw sapsuckers away from more expensive ornamental trees, to boot. In our area, the number one factor that makes it likely that hummingbirds will nest nearby is a resident Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.

Nectar-bearing flowers are also great invitations to hummingbirds. Choosing species and cultivars native to our area will ensure that good insects are attracted to them, too—hummingbirds need a lot of protein, both for the adults and for growing nestlings, and tiny insects provide all of this. Jewelweed, columbine, and lots of other flowers are ideal.

Carrol Henderson’s Landscaping for Wildlife, published by the Minnesota DNR, is a great book for giving plant suggestions for our area. When you purchase flowers for your yard, make sure no systemic pesticides were used on them.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird
The lichens making this nest both strong and camouflaged are held together with spider silk, which also holds the nest to the branch. The nest will stretch to accommodate the growing young. 
It’s impossible for hummingbirds to build nests without two essential materials—lichens and spider silk. If you have a backyard pond or birdbath on the ground, lichens may soon appear on any moist rocks nearby. A few dead trees or snags can also provide a substrate for lichens to grow. If you discover spider webs along your eaves, don’t be too quick to knock them down—hummers and some other small birds may need them. And avoid using any insecticides on your property—you can poison both the insects hummingbirds need for food and the spiders they need for silk.

 Every year I like to anticipate hummingbird arrival, so I check the internet map on starting in February when more and more suddenly appear along the Gulf Coast. Throughout March and April, they continue to advance. The man who puts together the map, Lanny Chambers, uses a different color each month to make the progress more clear. As of April 9, there had already been a few sightings in central Indiana and several in Illinois along the Mississippi River. As the month proceeds, you can watch the sightings creeping northward.

It’s fine to set out your feeders a few days before they arrive so the very first ones don’t have trouble finding food, but make sure to keep the sugar water fresh. Reporting your own sightings to and also to will help scientists track this information, which is useful for many conservation and education purposes. But even if you don’t report your own sightings, enjoy the ones at so you can get your feeder out as soon as hummingbirds appear up here. Meanwhile, just thinking about them may warm your heart.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

My new bionic ears! (Well, actually, my hearing aids.)

Golden-crowned Kinglet
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Every year or two, I need new eyeglasses. My deteriorating vision isn’t very noticeable from day to day or month to month, so when I put on a new pair of glasses, the clarity always surprises and satisfies me. My near vision is still fairly good, so at home I hardly ever wear glasses. I can recognize most of my normal birds out the window without glasses or binoculars, not because I can see any nuances in plumage but because I have so much experience looking at them that I recognize the usual suspects by size, behavior, and general color patterns. It’s pretty much the way we can recognize a stop sign from quite a distance, unless our vision is really bad. We may not be able to actually read the letters or see the corners to be sure the shape is an octagon, but stop signs tend to be in the exact same position on street corners, and no other signs are that color and general shape. My glasses help me read all kinds of signs, and I can enjoy the nuances of bird plumage, especially when brought even closer with binoculars.

Although hearing is every bit as important as vision in some endeavors, from music to birding, we tend to ignore hearing loss way more easily than we ignore deteriorating vision. For at least a decade, I’ve been noticing that I’ve lost acuity in my high frequency hearing. I still hear the vast majority of bird songs other people do, but now can only pick up the highest frequency songs—Golden-crowned Kinglets, Brown Creepers, Blackburnian Warblers, etc.—if the birds are very close. Two years ago I actually watched a nearby Golden-crowned Kinglet singing away, but I couldn’t hear a single note. And last winter when I was mixing a radio program using a Cedar Waxwing recording I’ve used many times over the years, I could not hear any of the middle section of the recording, even though I knew exactly what it was supposed to sound like. It was time to face up to the truth, and on March 25, I finally did it—I got hearing aids.

I didn’t know quite what to expect when the audiologist helped me put them in, but at first I couldn’t even tell if they were working. In the same way that I can see anything around the house without my glasses, and nearby things look almost identical with or without my glasses, sounds in my audiologist’s quiet office sounded virtually identical with and without my hearing aids. The one thing that was noticeably different was my own voice—I was hearing it resonating inside my head like always, but also hearing it a bit closer to how it sounds to other people. Hearing my own voice like that is something I deal with all the time when producing my radio show, so it didn’t seem like that big of a deal. I’m sure if my hearing was worse, I’d have appreciated more differences right off, but for me the immediate change was subtle.

American Robin

When my mother-in-law and I were leaving her audiologist after she got hearing aids for the first time, a robin was singing, and she said that was the first robin she’d heard in years. Oddly enough, she didn’t think that had anything to do with the hearing aids—she said that robins just didn’t live around her place in Port Wing, even though I heard them every time I was there in spring and summer. So far, I’ve never had trouble hearing robins, but with my hearing aids in, their song is clearer and lovelier again—the way they were when I was in my 20s. Apparently, little by little I’d lost the high frequency harmonics that give the song some brilliance, even as I heard the midtones just fine.

When you get two digital hearing aids with directional microphones, like mine, the programming allows the hearing aids to work together to detect and suppress background noise even as they augment bird songs and human voices. In my own backyard, the basic background noises—people’s furnaces, chain saws, cars and trucks, wind, doors slamming, and more—seem to have grown louder as the basic bird songs grew quieter. Now, with my hearing aids, I feel like I’ve gone back in time to when I was a new birder, when it was so easy to pick out each different sound. Only it’s even better now, because I have so much more experience at recognizing the sounds while now getting so much pleasure in hearing them so clearly again. Like getting a new pair of glasses, my world is suddenly crisper and more brilliant—only in the auditory rather than visual realm.

Watching TV is much more enjoyable now, and listening to the radio in the car is wonderful. The volume and people’s voices don’t sound very different when I take the hearing aids out or put them back in again, yet with them in, I hear the enunciation much better. I also hear bird recordings much more clearly.

Next week my audiologist will be making a few tweaks on the programming for when I’m using the hearing aids specifically for birding, and soon the first kinglets, creepers, and waxwings will return so I can test how well they work for that. I’ll also be testing another kind of hearing aid specifically designed for birders—one that lowers the frequency of high-pitched sounds. It’ll be interesting to see which I prefer when looking for hard-to-hear species like Le Conte’s Sparrows. But so far my bionic ears are a complete success.

(I have not compared different brands and models of high quality digital hearing aids. Mine are the Phonak Audéo V90.)