Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Friday, December 19, 2008

Great daughter, or the greatest daughter?

Today I picked up Katie at the Ithaca bus depot, and she had a birthday present for me! And what a present! She'd never heard of my fixation on Michigan State basketball great Gary Ganakas until I posted about it, but look what she found on eBay!!

Waste Coffee Grounds Offer New Source Of Biodiesel Fuel

ScienceDaily (2008-12-15) -- Researchers in Nevada are reporting that waste coffee grounds can provide a cheap, abundant, and environmentally friendly source of biodiesel fuel for powering automobiles and industries.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Right when I think my life is so boring...

...one of my life-long heroes writes a comment on my blog! I could die a happy woman! I mean, it would be cool to hear from Stephen Colbert or Jon Stewart, but GARY GANAKAS! Oh my gosh!

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Oops--one more post because I was quoted in the Washington Post!

I was quoted for the second answer here!

If you can't log on, here's the part I was involved in:

Hey, Wise Guys:

I've read that birds can fly because their bones are hollow, but does that mean they have no bone marrow? And if they don't, how do they produce blood cells?

Joe: Interesting question, Courtney, and one that I hear quite often. It's a common misconception that birds' bones are hollow. They're not hollow in the way that drinking straws are hollow. But birds do have enough space in their bones that their total plumage weighs two to three times what their skeleton weighs. Still, all birds have bone marrow, and that's where their blood cells are formed.

Dan: Don't pretend you knew the answer to that question.

Joe: I did.

Dan: Phony.

Joe: Okay, fine. Some or all of my answer may have been provided by Laura Erickson, science editor at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, N.Y. That better?

Justin: We actually have a hotline to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. I think that's the third avian query the folks there have helped us answer.

Joe: Why do we get so many bird questions?

Justin: Because you're a birdbrain.

Taking a break

When I started blogging in 2005, I had no clue what a blog was--I'd been hired by an optics company that, since it's now been sold to a megacorporation that sells too much crap, I won't mention by name. Anyway, while it was a local company and while I had absolute freedom to write whatever I thought was important, and while I was doing interesting birding things, it was fun and rewarding to put together a blog that was worth reading.

This week I finished a book manuscript and am now busy with other projects, and am so swamped that 2008 is apparently going to be the first year since 1985 (the year I had two toddlers and was pregnant, and then delivered, my third baby) that I didn't see a single lifer. As a matter of fact, thanks to lumping the Mangrove Black-Hawk, my lifelist is actually SHORTER now than when the year started.

So even though I'm having a great time and feeling a little like I'm accomplishing things, I'm treading water with my radio program and don't feel like I have much left to say on a blog--especially when there are so many fabulous ones out there now. I'm doing one fun project, Twin Beaks, trying to keep up with my radio program and iTunes podcasts and otherwise am ready to call it a day with blogging until I have something new to report. Meanwhile, please keep 101 Ways to Help Birds in mind. So far no one has found a single issue that affects wild birds that I haven't touched on in that book. Even the big issue about oil tailing ponds right now was discussed in my section on why it's so critical for every one of us to conserve energy. Sadly (for me, at least), the main way people are conserving energy right now is in not buying my book.

So when you want a chuckle, check out Twin Beaks, when you want to buckle down and do something to help birds, read my book (even if you don't buy it, you'd be surprised how much you can read via Google Books), and have fun and joy with birds, and do what you can to ensure they stay on the planet as long as possible.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Colbert Warning

Saturday, November 22, 2008

A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All

(Comment added January 26) The Colbert Christmas special is every bit as wonderful as I'd hoped. BUT before it starts, you have to wade through some exceptionally raunchy promos. I have no idea who at Comedy Central made the decision about what programs to promote at the start of the DVD, but that person does not belong in marketing. The programs highlighted do not in any way share the sensibilities of The Daily Show or The Colbert Report. Stephen Colbert's own children are in his Christmas program, and he handed out copies to everyone in Martha Stewart's audience--this must be pretty hard to explain.

You can click the "next" button on your remote to get through these. Unfortunately, there are three of these promos, each raunchier than the previous one, so remember to click THREE times.

Oh, man--I can't wait for the Colbert Christmas Special! I don't have TV--I'm not springing for cable until my car's paid for. But this is coming out on DVD on Tuesday, so I'll be headed to Target at lunch! I'm probably going to be in Ithaca by myself this Thanksgiving, and now it won't seem nearly as lonely.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Saddest Christmas song ever?

Well, saddest song from a version of "A Christmas Carol," anyway. I think it must be how the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher in Moravia, NY, and the young Little Blue Heron in Sapsucker Woods are feeling right about now.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Birds of Peru wins National Outdoor Book Award!


The National Outdoor Book Awards were announced last week, and I'm thrilled that The Birds of Peru won as best guidebook! Beautiful, comprehensive, reasonably compact for a book that covers 1,792 species. Now I can't wait to actually use my copy in the field!

Saturday, November 15, 2008

ENCYCLOPEDIA

Down memory lane

I just noticed that Michigan State's basketball team is ranked #6! Russ and I got season tickets to see all the games during the 72-74 seasons. Oh, wow I loved that team. I had SUCH a crush on Gary Ganakas--he was my height (5'5"!) but led the Big Ten in assists, thanks to his wonderful ability to set up plays--he was so focused and speedy--and the amazing Mike Robinson, who was the top scorer in the Big Ten during I think his first three years, and would have led as a senior except for an injury and the fact that Gary had graduated. (I think I remember this correctly--if you know better, let me know!) And Mike Robinson was only 5'10" or 5'11", and SO handsome. I simply adored Gus Ganakas, the coach, and Gary. And the center (I think--he might have been a forward but I think he was the center) was the sublimely wonderful Bill Kilgore! Oh, man!

Russ and I spent our entire discretionary income on season tickets just to see these wonderful guys. We always got there early to sit in the very first row, where I could watch their faces. Kilgore always looked so steady and relaxed--rather like our President-Elect--and I loved watching the five players working together, putting their hearts into every game. They were a splendid team and gave me some of my happiest times in college. I wonder what's happened to them all?

Friday, November 14, 2008

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Disturbing pollution problem

Uh oh.

Triple Golden Birthday

When I was in fifth grade, I calculated out that I was going to turn 60 on 11-11-11. That seemed amazing and thrilling, too cosmically cool to even make me consider how old 60 sounded.

Well, 11-11-11 is looming, less than three years away now. It's a bit sobering, but rather than looking at the gloominess of the prospect, I'm trying to think of the best place on earth to celebrate the day. Maybe the perfect choice would be Cuba, to finally see the smallest bird in the universe, the Bee Hummingbird, or my most-wanted bird, the Cuban Tody--the most adorable bird in the universe.
(Pete Morris kindly allowed me to use this photo to highlight the Caribbean Endemic Bird Festival.)
Maybe I should go to the Sahara to see the largest bird in the universe. Or maybe I should go to a familiar place to spend the day with the most resplendent bird in the universe.

And there are plenty of other cool birds there, too!

Or should I just stay home enjoying the most pleasant company in the universe?

Well, whatever I do, I'll be filled with great expectations and hope and joy up until the day. And with luck, the afterglow will be intense enough to dim out the fears that seem to arrive with every new decade after we've finished our twenties.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

This is pretty funny

...well, except for the "Blue-crested Sparrow." They could have chosen a real species.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Where is Katie now?

My daughter's bicycle trip continues apace.

View Larger Map

Hooray for Mike McDowell

Mike McDowell posted on his splendid blog the tragic story of a lost Burrowing Owl who found temporary refuge in one of my favorite birding hot spots--Montrose Harbor in Chicago--and who was killed by a Cooper's Hawk, most likely after being flushed way too much by birders eager to see the tiny owl. Mike points us to this story in the Chicago Tribune.

I've always been pretty ambivalent about hotline birds--it really is fun to see new species, and many times birders can see them without causing any harm at all. But a crepuscular owl deserves to be left in peace when it turns up in an unexpected place. Of course, I feel hypocritical saying this since I'm one of the many birders who "chased" the Burrowing Owl that turned up in Duluth on May 31, 1997. It was thrilling to see it so far out of its range, but most of the groups that saw it had to flush it to see it. My group (this happened the day of the 1997 Hawk Ridge Birdathon) arrived while another group had it in a spotting scope, so at least it didn't flush on my account, but still. It was never seen after that day, and I always hoped it had moved on to a more appropriate area rather than being eaten or hit by a car as a result of being flushed by acquisitive birders.

Anyway, I've been so limited by work and travel lately that I haven't been able to either chase other people's rarities or find my own. But I'm starting to think that maybe we do need to stop reporting rarities as long as birders are so unwilling to police our own and limit our activities when we can so fatally stress the birds we profess to love.

Farewell, Studs

One of the greatest of "the greatest generation" died on Friday. Studs Terkel lived 96 years without ever once seeing the Cubs win the World Series.

Oh, my! ANNETTE!!!!!

Anyone in their late 50s (I turn 57 next week!!) probably remembers the Mickey Mouse Club, and the females among us probably fondly remember the series "Annette." It was perhaps the first "chick flick" in series form. It's coming out in DVD on MY BIRTHDAY! I'm expecting my real birthday present to arrive this Tuesday night as the polls close, but now I'll have something else to look forward to as well!!

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Joe the Disney Stilt Walker

Not every Joe the Whatever is for McCain/Palin. Here's one Joe on the other side.

Six years ago today...

We lost this great man six years ago today, not long after he gave this prescient speech saying why he was voting against going to war with Iraq:



I loved Paul Wellstone. When he was killed, I wrote this commentary.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Houston Audubon Update

From the Houston Audubon website:

October 12 Update: Help us restore habitat on the Bolivar Peninsula! Hurricane Ike decimated many Purple Martin houses and old buildings where Barn Owls nest. Houston Audubon is stepping up with an important recovery effort for these species on the Bolivar Peninsula. We are looking for donations of martin houses as well as owl boxes that will be set up throughout the peninsula in the upcoming months. More information on the nestbox program. We hope to start a program to provide trees and shrubs for the Peninsula. Members are encouraged to dig up and pot hackberries, oaks, mulberries and other suitable plants. Please contact Flo Hannah for more information.

High Island: Once again, High Island's woods were impacted by a hurricane; trees are down, trails blocked, boardwalks damaged, and branches and leaves are everywhere. Several of our ponds were inundated with salt water and we are not sure what the long term impact of that will be. Most of the vegetation in those ponds is already dying. Hopefully we will soon have adequate rain to dilute the salt. Claybottom Pond where the Rookery is was not inundated with salt water but all of the trees on the island are gone. The cypresses on the east end of the pond did not appear to be damaged.
Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary: At Bolivar Flats the roadside and marsh are in good shape, although there are a lot of plastic bags on the fences. The beach looks very different. When you get to the end of Rettilon Rd., there is a large hole caused by water running out of the marsh. The beach has been moved back to the vehicular barrier that was parallel to the beach, and this barrier is pretty well destroyed. Much of the sand from the beach was pushed inland along with some debris, really not much compared to what is everywhere else. The vehicular barrier where everyone parks is still there but will need some work. The observation tower is gone, but we may have found it in Horseshoe Marsh. I don't think we can get it back to Bolivar Flats. There is a large empty Del Monte shipping container in the grass, and there appears to be another shipping container back in the marsh.
Horseshoe Marsh Sanctuary: The part of the sanctuary closest to the ferry landing is a mess. Debris from the houses in Port Bolivar washed into the sanctuary, and it will be a big job to clean it up. Fortunately most of the fences are still up.
Mundy Marsh Sanctuary: From a preliminary assessment, the sanctuary appears to be in good shape except that the sign and fences were down. From our vantage point we did not see a lot of house debris in the marsh.
Dos Vacas Muertas: This sanctuary on Galveston Island was named after the two dead cows which had been found there after Hurricane Carla, and it has survived Ike as well. Preliminary reports that the trees are still standing are reassuring.

Read more about conditions at the coastal sanctuaries in our Sanctuary Blog. We need lots of help with coastal cleanups. Work day dates have been scheduled through December. Please refer to the volunteer page for sign up directions.

- Winnie Burkett, Sanctuary Manager

Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary

My last political entry.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Let's have a chickadee for president

I’ve been paying close attention to politics since I was first eligible to vote in 1972. That means this is the tenth presidential election I’ve endured. Up until the last two or so, I’ve been getting most of my news from printed newspapers and magazines. No matter where on the political spectrum a person may fall, some of the news preceding an election is disturbing, and so naturally I’ve taken some relish in using some of those articles to line bird enclosures.

Now that I’m getting most of my news from the information superhighway, I’m conserving paper and lowering the pollution associated with paper and ink production even if I can’t lower the toxic levels of discourse. But now it’s trickier to find anything satisfying to cover the floor with when I’m cleaning Archimedes’ cage—I’m stuck with weekly sales papers that come by mail.

Regardless of what form it comes in, news is news, and every four years, in a cycle as regular as natural rhythms, we Americans grow restless and cranky as we face yet another national election. Chickadees are working out their new flock hierarchy statuses right now, too, but they don’t seem nearly as irritable about it as we do, perhaps because they don’t grant their leaders authority over their personal lives; perhaps because they work out their differences without bickering, holding grudges, or negative campaigning; perhaps because they never incite their followers to yell out "terrorist!" about their opponents; and perhaps because the worst choice they could possibly make would still be a chickadee—good-natured, honest, cautious but curious, and realistic about danger but ever optimistic that a chickadee flock can survive anything as long as they stick together. Chickadees don’t have any problems with banks or other companies losing their wealth, or with allowing other chickadees to capitalize on their savings—each chickadee stores its own caches of food in a variety of solid hiding places, and if lightning strikes or a wind storm knocks down one savings cache, there are sure to be plenty more left standing. They don't tout free enterprise because they don't believe in enterprise of any kind. They don't tout governmental protections because they don't believe in government. Yet they're hardly libertarians even as they transcend both conservatism and liberalism, being deeply and absolutely self-reliant while all the time recognizing how dependent they are on the basic rules and structure of civil society. Chickadees happily accept into their flocks not just chickadees but a host of birds of other species as well, knowing that in both the long- and short-run, security and success depend on inclusiveness, diversity, and shared interests. Chickadees speak softly and perch on, rather than carrying, their sticks. They know that the only things they have to fear are hawks, shrikes, and other predators, but rather than cranking up their color code, they give a quick warning call and move on.

Chickadees are, by nature and by anatomy, incapable of throwing mud, they never use folksy phrasings and bad grammar to pretend they’re lower on the hierarchy than they really are, they never make empty promises or pretend they know how to catch bin Laden, and they know deep in their bones that brevity is the soul of wit.

Chickadees may be mavericks—birds that don’t join a particular flock but move within four or five different flocks—but flocks don’t seem to respect these birds any more or less than they do the chickadees that honor traditional roles within a flock. Researchers call face-offs between two chickadees “ballets” rather than debates, but have discovered that chickadees who directly face their competitors are far more likely to win high places in a flock hierarchy than chickadees who turn away and don’t make eye contact. Chickadee flocks seem to make decisions about leadership based on this kind of confidence, on experience—older birds often assuming higher ranks than younger ones—and on fitness, which is judged by clear and honest vocalizations, physical size and strength, and qualities that we haven’t quite figured out how to measure in chickadees or in people.

As I turn off my computer in disgust yet again this election cycle, I can’t help but wish we Americans would learn less from Fox News and more from chickadees.

Monday, October 6, 2008

What are the chances?

I've been going through a rough patch for a while now, and that means I spend too much of my weekend evenings watching sad movies. Last night I watched Dead Poets Society. I was sobbing my heart out at the end, as first Ethan Hawke and then most of the other students bravely stood up on their desks in solidarity and love for their teacher. It's one of the best movie moments ever, even if some critics I love say it's just not realistic.

Anyway, the movie ended, I was still at that snuffling stage after crying too hard, and I check my email to find a letter from one of MY former students--Jane was a fun and lively sixth grader back in 1978 when I was teaching in Madison, Wisconsin. She's a teacher herself now, and her letter included this:

The other 5th grade teacher that I team with got a grant from the Tahoma Audobon Society to take 120 students on 4 field trips to the Morse Wildlife Preserve down the street from our school, so the past week we have been getting ready to go. I used your book "Sharing the Wonder of Birds with Children" everyday and the kids couldn't get enough of the activities. We drew a scientific diagram of a bird and labeled the parts, we drew the beaks and feet adaptations from your book, we were given a temporary permit and a loan of 7 stuffed birds so we compared them and drew them and the kids were all so engaged and excited. One of the stations at the Preserve is bird identifying and the kids will learn to record their results in ebird online as well as have a guest speaker talk to them about bird banding and bird counts.

Thanks to you, this is the one part of school I am loving teaching!! Thank you for giving me such a lifelong gift and sharing your passion and knowledge with so many people. Looking back on my elementary years, the only real memories I have are the ones I spent birding with you and I hope that I will impact my students to think a bit about the world we live in and how we should care for it the way you impacted me. Public teaching is getting harder each year with more and more of the curriculum mandated, but thanks to this grant and the knowledge I gained from you, an entire new generation of children may learn about the magical world of birds.
I'm still swelling with joy.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Blown way off course

Hurricane Ike was so huge that it blew this poor Magnificent Frigatebird all the way from the Gulf of Mexico to Ithaca, New York. I didn't chase it down when it was seen on Sunday, Sept. 21, and it was found dead on Monday, Sept. 22. It was brought to the Cornell University Museum of Vertebrates where I took this photo before it was converted into a study skin. How very sad.

Where in the World Is Katie?

My daughter Katie (Katherine to everyone who has met her since her first day of kindergarten except the kids who met her for the first time during the brief window of time in fourth grade when she went by Kat) is biking with two friends from San Diego to Savannah. She's been on the road for almost two weeks now. They've been keeping track of roadkill--I don't know what the current numbers are, and they haven't had any way to send me the photos Michael has been taking (in raw format, so they're huge files and the kids have only been able to use internet when they can get to a public library), but it sounds like they've already seen one dead mountain lion and some pretty interesting birds, as well as snakes, toads, and all manner of poor creatures.

I'm going to try to update this map whenever I can, but I'm afraid I'm not as googlemaps savvy as I should be. They're on bikes, but I'm thinking of them as the Roadrunners.


View Larger Map

Monday, September 22, 2008

Go, Cubs, Go!

It's been 100 years exactly since my beloved Cubs won the Series. Please please please. Let the Cubs be the first big winners from Illinois this year, and please let them not be the last big winners from Illinois this year.

Farewell, High Island

My dear friend Sam Crowe, who spends half the year in Ithaca and half in Texas, wrote a somber report about what's happening in Texas for our Lab Blog. It's heartbreaking, and there's still a news blockout on what's happened to the thousands of people who didn't evacuate.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Michael Conway Baker


I've been going through a rough patch ever since my sister's health deteriorated last winter, and after her death August 25, I've been as sad as I've ever been in my life. Autumn walks are inherently sad, too, though somehow healing. When a female and her adolescent young Black-throated Green Warbler come down and check out me and Photon as we walk along, as they did this afternoon, it's as soothing and lovely a feeling as there can be. But it's so quiet out there! No more frogs calling, no cardinals, no robins. Wednesday afternoon, a Scarlet Tanager broke into full song for a few minutes, making my heart swell even as I knew it was his farewell appearance.

It's times like this that I pull out my Michael Conway Baker albums, especially his sublime The Greater Vancouver Music album. My daughter finds it too sentimental for her tastes, but she thinks that of Tchaikovsky and Dvorak, too. I've been listening to it tonight, and it's been balm to my soul.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Pablo Picasso's "The Old Guitarist"

Saturday was Russ and my anniversary--40 years since our first date! He and Tommy and Joey were still in Chicago from the funeral, so we all headed to Millennium Park for a morning in the city, and to the Chicago Art Institute for a bit. And they had a splendid reprint of Picasso's "The Old Guitarist," one of my favorite paintings since when we were dating, so Russ bought it for me for our anniversary. It looks like this:

I already had a smaller nice poster of that painting, but it doesn't look at all the same--it's duller, with some markings as if paint had flaked off:
So my question is, was the poster made from the painting before a restoration, after which the new print was made? I don't know how to find out. Anyone know?

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Mary Steffens


When I was a little girl, my most important job was to take care of my little sister Mary. I did as good a job as a big sister could, but there wasn't anything I could do when she got Stage 2 breast cancer 13 years ago. And when it recurred 8 years ago, and metastasized to her lungs and bones and, finally, her brain, I was helpless. We talked on the phone at least once a week during the past year and a half, and every single day for the past several months. I'm very much at peace with our relationship--even when we were busy with children and other activities, we always made time for each other, and were never closer than during the past few years. But now there's a hole in my life, and in my heart, that can ever be filled. I spent this past week in Chicago--when I headed down there Saturday, I was pretty sure I'd be seeing her for the last time, but expected to be able to spend a week or two with her. But my nieces called me when I was just reaching the expressway and told me to hurry, and she slipped into a coma just a few hours after I arrived. She knew I was there--she squeezed my hand--but that was her last conscious act that I know of, and she died Monday afternoon. Several minutes after she died, her face relaxed into a smile. A genuine smile. After all her body had been through, she was at peace at last.

The nearest we could tell, there were about a thousand people at her wake, the church was very full at her funeral Friday, and all the stories I heard about her were amazing testimonials to a brave and loving woman who loved and whose love was returned by a great many people.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Bee problems? A novel approach


A few years ago, when my hummingbirds were trying to cope with a huge yellow jacket infestation, I ended up helping them by pulling out my trusty hand vacuum cleaner to noisily suck out the offending marauders. When some hummingbirds were blocked access to the feeders by the wasps, they actually started tapping at my window to get my attention, as if saying, “Hey lady, grab that vacuum and get to work!” It worked and my hummingbirds were happy again, though I felt a little guilty for dispatching so many wasps. And I honestly don’t know how I would have handled it if the problem insects had been bees. Right now honeybees are having huge problems throughout the world, so no way would I be willing to suck even one out of my feeders with a vacuum, or to use any kind of chemical that could be harmful to them on my feeders. With bees in real trouble, I’d also never use one of those yellow bee traps, which don’t distinguish between yellow jackets and honeybees.

But this week on the Oklahoma bird listserv, a thoughtful poster named Phil Floyd wrote about a great answer to dealing with bees and wasps—effectively protecting hummingbirds from them without harming the insects. He wrote:
Last year my wife came up with a solution that worked wonderfully. She filled another feeder with extra sugar content, and also sprayed the outside of that feeder with the stronger feeding solution. She hung it an area away from the other feeders. Then she went to the hummingbird feeders covered with bees, scraped several of them off into a jar, and took them to the new target feeder. She repeated this a couple of times until word among the bees spread and they all started going to the new feeder. We continued to keep the one bee feeder full of extra sugary water, and kept spraying the outside with that same sugar solution. The bees took only to that one. Problem solved!
Phil adds, “It's why I married her.”

This is far and away the best answer to either a bee or wasp problem I’ve ever heard of. The vacuum cleaner solution only worked for me because I was hard at work on a book, constantly at my desk, right at the window with the feeder. I’ve read about people coating the feeder ports with Skin-So-Soft, cooking oil, Vaseline, and insect repellents, but I’d be very concerned about these working their way into the feeder and contaminating the solution. Setting out bee traps will kill those bees that enter them, but meanwhile the bees that discover the feeder alert their hive members to the feeder, and they focus their attentions on that. Some people also recommend moving the feeders from one spot to another. When the feeder is moved, the bees are very confused at first, but then start searching out new food sources. It usually doesn't take that long for one of them to find the relocated feeder and tell its hive about the new food source. Soon you have as many as before. You have to be exceptionally vigilant to keep up with them, and the method simply doesn’t work for those of us with just one or two good spots near our windows to place our feeders.

So the technique Phil Floyd describes sounds just about perfect, keeping hummingbirds happy while keeping bees and wasps well away without hurting them. I for one am very glad he married his wife.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Well, DUH! Birds are smarter than we (or some of us) thought


In a really cool experiment, researchers have discovered, or at least finally noticed, that birds are self-aware.
Magpies are no bird-brains, mirror test shows

By Ben Hirschler Mon Aug 18, 8:03 PM ET

LONDON (Reuters) - Magpies can recognize themselves in a mirror, highlighting the mental skills of some birds and confounding the notion that self-awareness is the exclusive preserve of humans and a few higher mammals.

It had been thought only chimpanzees, dolphins and elephants shared the human ability to recognize their own bodies in a mirror.

But German scientists reported on Tuesday that magpies -- a species with a brain structure very different from mammals -- could also identify themselves.

"It shows that the line leading to humans is not as special as many thought," lead researcher Helmut Prior of the Institute of Psychology at Goethe University in Frankfurt told Reuters.

"After finding this kind of intelligence in apes, many people thought it had developed once in one evolutionary line with humans at the end. The bird studies show it has developed at least twice."

The discovery of self-awareness in magpies follows a 2002 study in which a crow stunned researchers with its tool-making skills, by twisting a wire into a hook to lift food from a tube.

Prior and his colleagues tested their magpies by marking the birds' bodies with a red or yellow dot that could only be seen in a mirror. They found the birds regularly scratched the mark on their body, proving they recognized the image in the mirror as themselves and not another animal.

To ensure they were actually seeing and reacting to the mark, and not just investigating what had been done to them, a "sham" black mark was used as a control that was invisible on the birds' dark feathers.

The result throws into question some basic ideas about how our brains work.

In particular, it had been thought that the neocortex brain area found in mammals was crucial to self-recognition. Yet birds, which last shared a common ancestor with mammals 300 million years ago, do not have a neocortex, suggesting that higher cognitive skills can develop in other ways.

Prior believes parrots, too, may yet show hidden mental skills -- but it is the crow family, which includes magpies and jays, that is the smartest.

"Crows have really huge brains compared to other birds," he said in a telephone interview.

The research was published in the Public Library of Science journal PLoS Biology and is available online at http://biology.plosjournals.org/perlserv/?request=get-document&d oi=10.1371/journal.pbio.0060202

(Editing by Mary Gabriel)

Why do I find this such a no-brainer (so to speak)? I used to have an education Blue Jay named Sneakers, and I also raised a baby Blue Jay named Ludwig. Both birds were very interested when they first observed their reflection in the bathroom mirror. In both cases, they were on my shoulder, and they kept looking back and forth from the mirror image of me to the reflected me, and when they looked at their own reflection, raised and lowered their crest and shook--and seemed to figure out very quickly that the image did exactly what they were doing. I remember for sure that Sneakers pecked at the mirror a bit, and that she was very interested when I opened the medicine cabinet to see if anything was behind the reflection. After just two or three encounters with the mirror, both birds pretty much lost interest in it.

Sneakers also loved to look at books with colorful graphics, but I don't think she necessarily recognized photos as representations of objects--she reacted no differently to photos of owls or snakes or other Blue Jays than she did to any other photos. And her favorite book seemed to be my organic chemistry book--she absolutely loved studying the colorful molecules. I don't think she ever quite grokked the Krebs cycle.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

It's Bulwer-Lytton Day!

Today is the jolliest day of the year! Because results of the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest are in!

A Letter from Roger Tory Peterson

With the centennial of Roger Tory Peterson’s birthday coming this month, naturally I had to pull out the letter I received from him back in July 1987. This was right when Duluth’s Ring-billed Gull population explosion was making the news, but when people were still tossing French fries to them at every fast food restaurant. Duluth’s city council was trying to come up with strategies to deal with them—one proposal was actually to introduce wild pigs to the harbor to eat their eggs! I decided to write to Roger Tory Peterson asking what experiences he’d had with birds mooching for food, and received this delightful reply (click to see larger):
According to the biography Birdwatcher, Roger Tory Peterson’s wife Barbara wrote many of his letters, but by 1987, they were no longer married, and so this was actually written by him, and is one of my treasured possessions.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Whew! New podcasts!

I've got a new Mac, and have finally figured out how to post my podcasts with iWeb, though I don't know how to put it on my old site. So I've got a new podcast, which I'll need to get into the iTunes store, though that may take a while. Meanwhile, check it out and let me know if you have any problems.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Juggling acts

How does someone protect a plummeting population of Burrowing Owls between San Diego and the Pacific Coast, while also protecting endangered Least Terns (the Burrowing Owls have a real taste for their chicks) and endangered Snowy Plovers? Hugh Powell discusses another great paper at the AOU meeting about that juggling act. Check out today's blog post!

Thursday, August 7, 2008

AOU Meeting

It's August, that time of year when the American Ornithologists' Union holds their annual meeting. This time it's in Portland, Oregon, held jointly with the Cooper Ornithological Society and the Society for Canadian Ornithologists. I wish I could be there for all the paper sessions and interesting events, but if I have to miss it, I at least have the next best thing, Hugh Powell's Round Robin blog. We at the Cornell Lab are redesigning our website, and to get ideas from the people who actually use the website, Hugh has been keeping a blog. This week while he's in Portland, he's been posting about interesting papers.

On Monday, he gave an overview of the meeting. On Tuesday he first wrote about the distressing news from Hawaii that the Hawaiian honeycreepers are fading fast. He attended a paper by the Smithsonian's Rob Fleisher about the tragedy of malaria killing the native birds on Hawaii--of the original 110 species of land birds on the islands, there are now only 31 remaining, and 20 of them are endangered. Interestingly, the form of malaria that is wiping them out is overall not a virulent form for humans today, though it did decimate the native Hawaiian humans when mosquitoes were introduced by ships during the late 1700s. Hugh also talked about how the native birds must live at elevations above where mosquitoes are, meaning that global warming is impacting them as mosquitoes advance higher with warming temperatures.

Tuesday he covered several topics. In his first post, he summarized one paper that discussed possible reasons why woodpeckers have larger brain sizes than similar sized birds. Then he talked about the all-day symposium about the effects of cats on birds. About one paper, Hugh writes:

Pete Marra, of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, followed Gray Catbirds around three neighborhoods in Washington, D.C., and Maryland. His team, including a network of nearly 300 citizen-science volunteers, put tiny tracking devices on about 100 young catbirds just as they were leaving the nest. In a cat-free neighborhood in Bethesda, 65 percent of these nestlings survived their first two months in the outdoors. But in two DC suburbs with high cat populations, roughly six out of every 10 fledglings died over the same period. Most were eaten by cats – fieldworkers often caught the cats in the act, Marra said.

Deaths among the just-out-of-the-nest crowd add up. Standard ways of gauging a population’s health (whether it’s increasing or decreasing) base their estimates on how often nests are successful – but they ignore the differences in a young bird’s survival prospects. When Marra factored in the effect of cats, catbird populations that had appeared to be increasing were revealed to be declining.

Then, on a literally lighter note, he talked about one paper regarding American Goldfinch male plumage. The more brilliant yellows come from the carotenoid pigments in their food, but apparently there is a cost to this brilliance--high (but natural) levels of the pigments have a bad effect on goldfinch livers and muscles.

Then he summarized some interesting posters, including one about lead levels in eagles and ravens in Yellowstone National Park increasing dramatically right after hunting season opens in Wyoming. Birds are picking up lead bullet fragments as they eat carcasses and entrails left by hunters.

Yesterday he wrote about an interesting hour-long talk by Dr. Rosemary Grant regarding Darwin's finches still evolving, and hybridizing, and about two short sessions, one about bluebirds evicting Brown-headed Nuthatches from nestboxes, and about what happens when Alaskan King Eiders mingle with eiders from Siberia.

Hugh's an interesting and fun writer--his blog is really worth your time!

Friday, August 1, 2008

Ironies abound

Wow--it's already August first! This is (at least so far) the first year since 1985, when I had two toddlers and was pregnant or with a newborn, when I haven't added a single lifer--ironic when it's the first year I've worked at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, huh? But that's because I've been adjusting to a whole new routine and getting used to living in a splendid new area--at least I've added lots of new New York birds!

But last night I learned that not only wasn't I adding a lifer this year--I was actually LOSING one! The new AOU supplement, which the ever-wonderful Rick Wright summarized on his blog, has lumped Common Black-Hawk and Mangrove Black-Hawk. They jettisoned the hyphen on what was known as the Green Violet-ear. I sort of liked that one, since when you put it into one word, it sounds like a purple tear to me (Violetear). But sadly, they still seem to be keeping those gawdawful hyphens in names like Black-Hawk and Sage-Grouse. This seems to me unfortunate because you then can't find them in normal indexes under hawk or grouse. Oh, well. Serving on that committee has to be the most thankless job on the planet.

But I'm going to have to do something QUICK if I'm going to not end up with a net loss in my birds this year. I'm hoping to get to go to the ever-fabulous Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival in November. It has to be one of the most fun and rewarding festivals ANYWHERE. I was an invited speaker several years ago, but although my talk was well-received, it was extremely poorly-attended, so I haven't merited another invite. Oh, well. It's still a grand festival! And if I'm lucky some cool bird will show up that I still need.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Website down

Oh, my gosh. The company where I keep my website allowed my registration of lauraerickson.com to lapse, and now my website is utterly inaccessible there. If you want to go there for any reason, you'll have to go to www.lauraerickson1.web.aplus.net, but all the internal links should work from there. Keep your fingers crossed that no one has snapped it up or I'm pretty much screwed.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Wow--Laura's Media Week

Okay--last time I posted about the New York Times. Yesterday I was quoted in the Duluth News Tribune about an Eastern Kingbird nesting on someone's boat. And today I found out from an email and this story in the Eau Claire Leader Telegram that a radio program that I was the only guest on won the first place award in the conservation-environment category for best radio program from the Outdoor Writers Association of America.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Laura in the New York Times


Oh, my--I made today's New York Times! And what about? Goose poop.

One of the weird quirks of my life right now is that I keep getting interviewed by the press about all kinds of issues. Martha Stewart Living called me a few weeks ago about hummingbird feeders. USA Today called me about binoculars. I’m often interviewed by the Duluth News-Tribune, so last week’s call about kingbirds nesting in a Park Point Yacht Club boat wasn’t unexpected. But it WAS unexpected to get a call from the New York Times the same day, about goose poop. Their questions editor had been asked whether some kids should worry about geese pooping as they flew over them.

Goose poop is, of course, a hot topic in some circles, whether Fox News is exaggerating about the quantity of it, or whether it’s being blamed for botulism outbreaks at public beaches. I’ve been searching but have been unable to find well-documented primary sources quantifying goose output—putting together what I can find, a large, well-fed goose can produce somewhere between a half a pound and four pounds a day, but at least half of that is nothing more than the indigestible cell walls of grass—slippery but innocuous. Goose guts do, indeed, harbor E. coli, but so do our guts and those of dogs and cats. And the guts of us meat-eaters are far more laden with harmful bacteria than those of vegetarian geese.

Geese usually poop upon takeoff, and they usually take off in the direction away from people, so we’re not likely to be pooped upon by geese making short, local flights. On long journeys, geese of course must occasionally poop in flight, but their forward momentum and altitude pretty much guarantee that it will have atomized before reaching us. I have long kept a list of birds in the wild that have pooped on me. My list includes Pileated Woodpecker and Ruby-throated Hummingbird, but nary a goose, and it’s not like I haven’t spent a lot of time in goose habitat where I’ve been rather a sitting duck, so to speak.

Of course when any animal population gets out of kilter, it’s going to cause problems, for humans and for other wildlife. Geese are wonderful birds, but we subsidize them whenever we cut down natural vegetation and put in lawns. A lawn that reaches all the way to the water’s edge on river or lakefront property is like holding out a huge welcome sign for them. Geese are among the very few birds that can digest grasses, and manicured lawns provide them with both food and safety so they can maximize reproduction and minimize mortality. Unless and until we start maintaining longer, more natural vegetation around our homes and parks, geese will continue to increase and multiply until a natural scourge reduces their numbers.  People often disdain the wildlife that adapts to us without considering that the wildlife that remains genuinely wild, dependent upon genuinely wild habitat, is doomed unless we work hard to protect that habitat. As our population continues to grow, and as more and more Americans flee cities and urbanize or suburbanize more and more natural habitat, there are fewer and fewer places for genuinely wild animals and plants to live. If we are truly committed to preserving wildlife, either for its own sake or because the Old Testament God was so very clear to Noah that he must save every species, we should be providing natural habitats even within our settled areas. That would not only help many creatures that need our help but be a natural way of controlling the goose population. Goose poop isn’t a genuine problem, but their overpopulation, and OUR overpopulation, is.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

I'm a Mac AND a PC


Today marks a major life change—I got a new Mac laptop. I named him Ernest, and will be naming the iPod Touch that’s coming tomorrow Zippy. I’m sure we’ll get along just fine after I climb the steep learning curve and adapt to such a dramatic change. But I refuse to stop preferring the adorable, erudite, and creative John Hodgman over the cool and with it, but smug and has-yet-to-prove-his-brilliance Justin Long.

Much as I prefer Hodgman to Long, I don’t think either computer system is measurably better than the other—they’re just like English and French, with proponents of each thinking theirs is superior. The designers I work with at the Lab use Macs, and there’s a certain amount of garbling when I save an InDesign file on a PC and they open it on a Mac, so we need to be on the same system. Going back and forth is rather like writing something in English and leaving it to Babelfish to translate it to French—there will be subtleties that don’t come through. But that goes both ways, and in no way, shape, or form indicates that either language is superior.

It’s interesting that as I switch, Mac owners, like techno-evangelists, are congratulating me and telling me how much I’ll love it—how EASY Macs are, how STABLE, and how they NEVER CRASH. To hear them talk, Macs are the Mary Poppins of computers—practically perfect in every way. But then I go to the Mac threads on my beloved TableTalk where the term “crashed” appears in quite a few posts, where the posts themselves are incomprehensible, and I find out how difficult it seems to be to upgrade operating systems (and Macs have changed their operating systems a LOT during the lifetimes of Windows XP and Vista—right now they seem to be on OS 10.5.4, and there’s a huge amount of hype on the Mac website about Snow Leopard, a whole new system coming out next year), and I start seeing all the complaints about running this program or that one on a Mac platform. And I can’t help but think, “Wait just a doggone minute—why do so many Mac owners use Boot Camp or buy special software so they can run Windows on their machines while PC owners would never want, much less need, to run a Mac operating system on their computer?” And “how can you say the computer is stable when it can’t run the software you bought the computer to run? I mean, hello? One doesn’t buy a computer to run a platform—one buys it to run software.” Hmmm. Makes a girl think.

My Gateway desktop, bought in 2003 with Windows XP, has never once crashed, and is still a wonderful, reliable machine that has fully lived up to its name, “Dreammachine.” My Dell laptop, bought in 2005 with Windows XP, has just as good a track record (Her name is “Scout”). It will be instructive at this late date in my lifespan to try out this whole new thing. I’ll let you know how it goes. But I’m keeping Dreammachine and Scout nearby, even as I keep reminding myself that in real life, John Hodgman uses a Mac.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Toothpaste more dangerous than a loaded gun?

I wish someone would ask the Supreme Court how constitutional it is to require people to take off their shoes and turn in their shampoo and toothpaste to fly.

Well, not SO many puffins...

Rats. I just got an email that the boat trips to Machias Seal Island the days I can go are filled. I'll still be going on the Audubon trip to Eastern Egg Island, which has enormous ornithological importance--it's where Steve Kress first tried out his puffin decoys to lure real, live puffins back to their historical breeding grounds. Roger Tory Peterson once worked as a naturalist on Hog Island, and now Scott Weidensaul is there, and I'll be interviewing some of the staff, so this is still a thrilling opportunity.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Puffins!!!

I'm so excited! Next weekend (the weekend of the Fourth) I'm headed out to Maine! I'm for sure going to meet with Audubon naturalists at Hog Island and weather permitting will head out on a boat trip around Eastern Egg Rock to see Atlantic Puffins. With luck I'm also going out to Machias Seal Island, where I first saw Atlantic Puffins, to get closer photos, videos, and sound recordings. This is going to be SO fun!

Friday, June 20, 2008

Chuck and Sue



Chuck and Sue, the pair of robins nesting on my apartment building, fledged all four of their babies last week. I miss them! I'll have lots more photos and information in the coming days. These photos of Chuck holding a bug (I couldn't bother him for long because he wanted to feed #4) were taken at nice close range, from just outside my door, on Sunday morning.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

John Havlicek commercial

ON EDIT: Thanks to Sandy Varno for telling me it's now on YouTube!!


Oh, dear--it's probably because of the NBA championship, but suddenly I can't get a commercial from about 1970 out of my head. John Havlicek (I had SUCH a crush on Hondo!) was SINGING a song--his voice was great!--about a diet cola (maybe Diet Rite?) that went, "No, sir, I'm not on a diet. That's not why I buy it. 't's just got the taste that's right for me." It went on another stanza that I can't remember, and then he's in the locker room with the other Celtics and sings (with them repeating) "What a waste! (What a waste!) What a waste! (What a waste!) When it's got the greatest cola taste!"

Anyway, I never did try the cola, so it must not have been that compelling a commercial, but it sure was delightful. But it doesn't seem to be anywhere on YouTube. If you know where I can see it, let me know.

I think it's such a rooky deal that my brain is so filled with this kind of thing from 1970, but I have trouble remembering people's names and other important details of my life in 2008. Chickadees have it so much better than us. Every fall they can selectively allow brain neurons to die, presumably when the neurons are storing memories they no longer need, and they can actually replace them. I wish I could delete unnecessary files and defrag MY hard drive.

Colbert Report: Israel's new national bird



The ever effervescent and newly-uniformed BirdChick beat me to it, but a recent Colbert Report focused in on Israel's new national bird. I have other photos of Hoopoe's on my Iraq Bird Gallery. Soldiers, contractors, and civilians in Iraq send me photos of the birds they see for my gallery. Check it out!

Oscar Meyer Wiener Mobile

When Katie and I were driving through Illinois yesterday en route to Duluth, I had a strange moment of deja vu. I was driving, but Katie got this photo with her cell phone.

Not about birds but sublimely silly

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LMLITlAA0QM

This is sublimely silly. Bea Arthur as Carrie Bradshaw? Sally Struthers as Samantha?? Katherine Helmond as Miranda? Check it out! And add me to the list of people who (mistakenly) thought Abe Vigoda was dead.

Friday, June 13, 2008

A tiny little political rant

When I read Slate's news for today, I laughed out loud at this:
In a dramatic dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote that the decision will bring about "disastrous consequences" and "will almost certainly cause more Americans to be killed." He went on to write that "the nation will live to regret what the court has done today."
I mean, really. Did he care about the "disastrous consequences" that almost certainly really did cause more Americans to be killed as a result of a 5-4 Supreme Court decision 8 years ago? Does he care that the nation has lived to regret what the court did on that black day?

Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.
--Benjamin Franklin

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Roadrunners for Susan





I'm posting these in hopes that Susan sees many more, in better light. I saw them in New Mexico this past November.

Cornell slides close-out sale!

The end of an era:
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Visual Services department is having a close-out sale on bird slides. All slides are $1 each. Slide sets are 50% off. This discount applies to online orders only.

The images are great for use in PowerPoint presentations if you have a few minutes to scan the slides.

Hundreds of images are available. To see the catalog (pdf format) and order online, visit http://www.birds.cornell.edu/Shop/VisualServices.html.

This is your very last chance to purchase slides! Sale ends on June 25, then Visual Services will close for business. Please forward this message to any colleagues, friends, or family who may have an interest.

When I started doing public programs about birds, I bought a LOT of those slides--some are simply supurb.

Heads up! Public Library program tomorrow night


Tomorrow at 6 p.m. I'll be doing a program about "Ithaca's Splendid Spring Birds" in the Borg Warner Community Room at the Tompkins County Public Library. I promised one mother of a six-year-old to do owl calls, too. Read more about it at the Tompkins County Public Library blog.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Oh, wow!

The warm and wonderful John Riutta, the Born Again Bird Watcher, wrote a lovely review of the first BirdScope under my editorial direction. Wow!

Swan wallpaper



I've been trying to figure out the best way to organize all my photos, and when I came across these Trumpeter Swan pictures suddenly wanted one for my computer's "wallpaper." Just in case you might, if you click on either of these you'll get a 2000-pixel enlargement, compressed a bit for the purpose but still pretty huge.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Richard Pough


I am in the process of writing a couple of reviews of new field guides, and wanted to look up Richard Pough, who wrote my beloved Audubon Land Bird Guide and Audubon Water Bird Guide. So I did a Google search, and at the top was a New York Times obituary--he died four years ago this month.

Richard Pough was one of the founders, and the first president, of The Nature Conservancy. The New York Times obituary says:
Through his long career, which included stints at the National Audubon Society and the American Museum of Natural History, Mr. Pough (pronounced poe) also wrote a series of Audubon guides on birds; helped to get a law banning the sale of wild-bird feathers; became one of the first to warn of the dangers of DDT; established several important preservation groups; and inadvertently established the house finch population of the eastern United States.
How was he connected with establishing the House Finch in the East?

Mr. Pough's efforts on behalf of a less exotic wild bird had unforeseen and wide-ranging consequences.

Noticing a Macy's advertisement offering ''California linnets,'' he went to Macy's and recognized the birds as house finches, natives of the West Coast protected by federal law. He again alerted federal agents, who began shutting down dealers who supplied the birds to Macy's and pet stores. But agents could not act quickly enough; some dealers, hoping to avoid fines, simply opened their windows and shooed the birds out. By 1941, the birds had spread across Long Island and today inhabits areas from Mississippi to Canada.

I was particularly fond of my Audubon bird guides because they focused on so much more interesting information than the Golden and Peterson guides. As the New York Times noted:

While Mr. Pough was protecting birds, he was also writing about them. His Audubon Bird Guide was published in 1946. Unlike the Audubon field guides by Roger Tory Peterson, which bird-watchers use to identify birds in the wild, Mr. Pough's guide provided information about behavior and arguments supporting species protection.



It's been a while since I thought about Richard Pough. But he led a life worth emulating. I particularly liked this:

On his 94th birthday, Mr. Pough told The New York Times about his first experience as a preservation advocate, when, at age 18, he set out to save the largest Indian mounds in the Mississippi Valley from being plundered by souvenir hunters. Taking an Illinois legislator to the site, he extracted a promise to save the mounds, but faced the obvious question: ''What's in it for you?''

''I said, 'Nothing,' '' Mr. Pough recalled. ''But it taught me a lesson I never forgot. There was never going to be anything in it for me in any civic activity I undertook, a principle I have adhered to all my life.''

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Hooray for Red Wings...

whatever game they play.

A couple of photos for no good reason

I just love this photo! It reminds me of the hilarious scene in Airplane! when the stewardess starts singing an insipid folk song while all the passengers and the crew lean toward the aisle to listen, and everyone's smiling, completely ignoring the sick little girl flailing about after her IV was knocked out by the stewardess's guitar.
I took this one in St. Louis in February--I was birding with my excellent birding buddy Susan, and we came upon several Trumpter Swans, with one family VERY close!

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Improving the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's website

Do you use "All About Birds" to get information about birds? Do you go to the Lab of Ornithology's website for other information about birds? We're trying to improve the website to make it a richer, more accessible source of authoritative information for you. Several people at the Lab are working hard to figure out what would make our website most helpful. Hugh Powell, our new science writer, writes:
Dear Lab members/birders/citizen scientists/nestwatchers:

We are embarking on a major redesign of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's website, and we're looking for guidance from the experts - the site's everyday users. We invite you to take part on our new blog: http://redesign.birds.cornell.edu, where we'll float ideas, preview features as we develop them, and most importantly, ask you what you think. The blog is now live, so please check in on us, and come back often.

From the American Bird Conservancy


The Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act is the only source of federal funding dedicated specifically to bird conservation throughout the Americas.It is an extremely effective matching grants program that coordinates and funds the conservation of Neotropical migratory birds and their habitats in the United States, Latin America, and the Caribbean. It has a proven track record of reversing habitat loss and degradation, and of advancing innovative management and habitat restoration strategies. This Act is now up for reauthorization in Congress, and thanks to a bipartisan bill, cosponsored by Reps Kind (D-WI) and Gilchrest (R-MD), funding could be dramatically increased from the current $6 million to $20 million. All grants made by this Act must be matched by other funds at a ratio of 3:1, meaning every one tax-payer dollar from the Act leverages three from private sources. Overall, the program could leverage some $60 million in additional funding for bird conservation!
You can make a difference! Help us pass this bill by taking action now. Using our automated action center, you can quickly and easily send a message to your Representative asking them to support this bill.

Biting the Bullet

After ranting about speeding cars, and after writing a whole book about how important it is for us to modify our lives whenever possible to make the world a better place for humans and birds, I couldn't help but feel guilty for my own commute to work. I drive 6.5 miles each way every day, and even though I drive a hybrid, these short trips reduce the car's mileage. I brought my bike back from Duluth on this last trip, but Ithaca's hills are WAY too steep for me at this point--I'm not in great shape right now, and the hills are daunting even for real bikers.

So last night I went to visit a local man who is going to set me up with an electric assist bike. It's going to cost about $1300--a LOT of money!--but the physical and environmental benefits will augment the amount I save on gas. I got to test it out, and wow! It was like riding any other bike, only when I wanted a power boost, I pulled a little lever on the handlebars and didn't need to pedal so hard to get up a hill. It's extremely quiet--I bet I could hear a Le Conte's Sparrow singing from 40 or 50 yards away with the motor going. Well, if it wasn't too windy. So I'll see way more birds on my rides to and from work.

I can't wait till it comes! I'll post photos as soon as it's here.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

And life goes on...

Photon and I just got back from our afternoon walk, and guess what was singing right where the stream reaches the marsh? A male Yellow-throated Vireo. Whether the singing bird today is MY bird, and the one who died yesterday was one from an adjoining territory or a "floater" waiting in the wings for an available territory, or the singing bird today was a floater who jumped into the first available territory, I'll never know. Nature is resiliant, and it takes more than one car collision to take out a neighborhood's breeding birds. But we get SO complacent, trusting that Nature will produce an endless supply of birds. How could people possibly kill the most abundant landbird on earth? Inconceivable! At least, up until the last Passenger Pigeons died out.

Another reason why I love Google

In my last post, I made mention of #60 in 101 Ways to Help Birds. I knew that one way was "Drive at the slowest speed that is safe, courteous, and convenient." But I couldn't remember which numbered "way" it was, and I don't happen to have any copies here in Ithaca--I keep giving them away, which is why I'm never going to be rich. But I did want to know the number and that's where Google's Book Search came in handy. I looked up my book here, and in the Preview tab, found pretty much the entire book.

I would love to be rich enough to buy an electric-assist bicycle to help me on my daily 6 1/2-mile commute to work (it's darned hilly here!) , and maybe to travel to a few more places in the world seeing birds. But even more, I really do want people to learn what took me three years of research to write, so I'll be almost as happy if you read the entire content of my book via Google as I'd be if you actually buy the book. I'd rather be rich in birds, and confident of their future, than rich in my pocketbook any day.

Slow down, dammit!

Yesterday when I took Photon for our late afternoon walk down to the marsh and back, we came upon yet another dead bird. So far since I moved here, I've picked up one freshly-dead chickadee and found, smashed, one Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Mourning Dove, and American Robin on this stretch alone, and crows are so common in my neck of the woods that I bet most birds are picked up by them before I find them. Now this--my poor Yellow-throated Vireo, who was usually singing when we walked past the spot where the stream hits the marsh. These little birds weigh only 17-18 grams (just over half an ounce), and drivers seem so oblivious here that I bet the one who killed this bird didn't even notice.

The speed limit on Ellis Hollow Road is 45 miles per hour, which is way too fast for a narrow, winding, hilly road with lots of houses and apartments along it, some quite close to the road, and no sidewalks and, in most places, no shoulder. And the road slices through quality habitat--forested wetlands. Because it's so hilly, a bird taking off from mid- or upper-canopy on one side of the road can be at windshield height at the other.

Right now the estimate is that cars kill 60 million birds a year, and based on my little sample, over five months on a single quarter-mile stretch (1/2 a "lane-mile") of what adds up to 8 million lane-miles of highway in the U.S., I would bet cars kill even more than that. When I picked up this poor Yellow-throated Vireo, in the prime of his life, a bird that flew all the way down to Central or South America and returned at least once, and probably at least twice, and who was in the middle of a nesting season, I was shaking with sorrow and outrage. I mean, this is a bird I knew--one who was singing every time I walked past, from the same spot. I watched him and his mate in a couple of quick but romantic chases a few weeks ago. Nest-building can begin within hours of pair formation in this species, so I'd bet, based on my observations, that this male was busy feeding nestlings by now. If the female can't raise them all herself, she doesn't get another shot--renesting is extremely rare in Yellow-throated Vireos.

Everyone is griping about the cost of gasoline now, but it's as if Americans have a complete disconnect between how much they pay at the pump and how fast they drive. Slowing down measurably improves mileage--even on highways, most cars would do their best mileage-wise going in the lower 40s, and efficiency drops really fast above 60. (That's why Richard Nixon, of all people, lowered the speed limit to 55 on interstate highways during the oil crisis of the 70s.) My car's optimum speed seems to be 42 miles per hour--that's when I average better than 60 mpg. But some of the cars on Ellis Hollow exceed the limit by at least 10 mph--essentially going 55 on a residential street! When we drive fast, we put birds at risk plus we squander natural resources which hurts us and birds both. As #60 of my 101 Ways to Help Birds says, "Drive at the slowest speed that is safe, courteous, and convenient."

But that "courteous" is the sticking point. I'm getting sick and tired of cars barreling up behind me and flashing their lights when I'm already at or close to the speed limit, expecting me to speed up to accommodate them. Is it any fairer for the slow drivers to have to accommodate the fast ones than the reverse? In America, bullies prevail and then get royally pissed if the meek grow the least bit insistent about doing things our way. Well, I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Willow Ptarmigan

Did anyone else notice the Willow Ptarmigan singing in the background in the new Indiana Jones movie? Russ and I went on an "interstate date," both seeing the new movie tonight, me at 7:45 pm EDT and he at 6:45 pm CDT. We talked on our cell phones while we were buying tickets, and he called me the moment the credits ended at his movie--at the exact same time the credits ended for me! He of course didn't notice the ptarmigan, but I certainly did--but it was near enough to the beginning (I think just at the start of the "Amazon" [filmed in Hawaii])that I don't remember exactly when. So if anyone did notice and remembers exactly where the ptarmigan calls were, please post a comment!