Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Friday, November 17, 2017

Nongame Wildlife: Do words no longer have meaning?

Trumpeter Swan

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering opening up hunting on Trumpeter Swans.

In 1936, T.S. Roberts wrote that "The days of the Trumpeter Swan as a bird of Minnesota have long since passed." His research indicated that Trumpeters had formerly been found throughout the grasslands and sparsely wooded regions of the state, but were hunted until they'd been wiped out in the state “even in advance of the destruction of the Passenger Pigeon, buffalo, and antelope.” The last breeding Trumpeter Swans in Minnesota were recorded in 1883. Roberts traced all specimens labeled as Trumpeter Swans taken in the early 1900s, and sadly confirmed that every one of them was actually a Tundra Swan. According to the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas, "By 1932 the population was on the verge of extirpation in the entire lower 48 states. Only 69 birds remained in and near Yellowstone National Park" (near and in the Red Rock Lakes).

A few summering swans appeared in Minnesota in the early 1960s, following the 1960 release of 20 cygnets into the LaCreek National Wildlife Refuge in South Dakota from the Red Rock Lakes. That gave hope that a reintroduction in Minnesota could be possible, so in 1966, what was the Hennepin County Park Reserve District tried releasing 40 Trumpeters from the Red Rock Lakes there, but the birds disappeared; attempts showed more promise a decade later when people reared cygnets in captivity for 2 years before releasing them. Birds from this project were first released in 1978, and the very next year, there was successful breeding in Minnesota. When the Minnesota DNR Nongame Wildlife program began, reintroduction of the Trumpeter Swan was one of the projects that made the chickadee checkoff for donations so successful.

This exquisite bird that had been wiped out in the state by hunters in the first place is in jeopardy even today and, tragically, its problems are still due to hunting. According to the Minnesota DNR's Trumpeter Swan Restoration Project webpage, the main cause of mortality for Trumpeters in the state is still from lead poisoning from swallowing lead shot and lead sinkers. Lead poisoning is especially prevalent during droughts, when low water levels have the birds dabbling through the muck in areas of lakes usually too deep for that, where lead shot still lurks on the bottom from long, long ago. When swallowed as grit, the swans' gizzards grind it down and send it straight into the bloodstream. Lead pellets remain on the ground or in the water like tiny time bombs—indeed, some swan poisonings have occurred on lakes where no hunting has taken place in almost a century, because ending the hunting does not magically make the shot already present disappear. Lead sinkers are the other cause of lead poisoning in Trumpeter swans.

Many hunters fought strenuously against banning lead shot for waterfowl hunting even as some hunters proposed the ban in the first place and fought strenuously for it. Enough hunters still resist any regulations about lead shot and bullets in upland habitat that it's still legal to use it despite how serious the problem of lead poisoning is for wildlife and for the hunters and their families as well. Grit-eating birds, including waterfowl feeding on grain fields, still ingest lead, and lead in gut piles and in any wounded game that eludes the hunter is still poisoning eagles and other scavengers.

The second biggest cause of swan mortality in the state is from illegal shooting, sometimes by hunters mistaking the swans for other species, a serious hunter education issue, and sometimes intentionally, by poachers and vandals. The penalty is clearly not strong enough to serve as a deterrent. One hunter who shot a Tundra Swan in Lake of the Woods faced at most a $375 fine, and no threat of losing his firearm or his hunting license.

Collisions with power lines are another issue facing the swans, and also a lack of funding, which has become a problem for the DNR in general. Right now they don't even have funding to continue battling invasive species, and the Trumpeter Swan restoration program is  not as dire a situation:
Funding for trumpeter swan restoration is an ongoing need. Minnesota's Trumpeter Swan Restoration Project is funded by the DNR Nongame Wildlife Program through donations from taxpayers to the Nongame Wildlife Checkoff on state tax forms. Additional funding comes from direct private donations.
The DNR Nongame Wildlife Program's funding via the "chickadee checkoff" on our state tax forms began in 1980. I was one of the people who tried hard to publicize the Chickadee Checkoff via my radio program. Just during the 1980s I did three programs specifically about our Trumpeter Swan reintroduction program:

As one of the original projects funded by the DNR Nongame Wildlife Program, people in the state of Minnesota have had almost 40 years to internalize that indeed, swans are NONgame wildlife here in the state, and many of us have donated to the chickadee checkoff specifically to help these splendid birds. Now, as the state considers opening a hunting season on swans, many of us who donated to the NON-game Wildlife Program feel betrayed.

Mourning Dove

Of course, the Minnesota DNR Non-game Wildlife Program has already shown its disregard for the concept of NONgame wildlife by designating the Mourning Dove a game species here in 2004. Nationwide, the dove is the most heavily-harvested game bird, but hunting had been closed on it in Minnesota since 1947. In the forested northeastern part of the state, Mourning Doves are at the extreme northern limits of their range, with nowhere near enough population to support a hunt. Birds in my neck of the woods are here only because of backyard bird feeding. It's true that the Mourning Dove didn't receive any nongame funds to restore its numbers, but neither did it receive funds for game management in the state; its population is thriving thanks to agriculture and backyard bird-feeding. 

Changing the dove's designation to a game species here in Minnesota created a dangerous precedent. Duluth Audubon and I personally beseeched the DNR to prohibit hunting in the northeastern part of the state where the population is very low. And the north shore is an internationally significant hawk migration corridor where flying American Kestrels are often misidentified as doves. Hunting of several species in the state is restricted to some management areas, and this seemed very reasonable for dove hunting. The state's new Breeding Bird Atlas provides confirmation that doves are too rare in this part of the state to support a hunt. 

We also requested that as a brand new hunt, dove hunting in the state be restricted to non-lead shot. I provided citations from the annual US Fish and Wildlife Service's Mourning Dove reports to show that doves themselves suffer from exposure to lead from wasted shot, as well as information about how lead even in upland habitats was taking a toll on other species.

But the DNR went into the hearings listening ONLY to hunters who wanted the hunt; they pooh-poohed both these requests out of hand. 

Sandhill Crane

When the Minnesota Non-Game Wildlife program began, a few cynics said it was a ploy to get non-hunters to donate money to bring back species that would then be designated game birds, but most of us rejected that cynicism. Unfortunately, in the case of the  Sandhill Crane, the cynics proved correct. This species was made a legal game bird in the Northwest Region of the state, the very region where it is still used to encourage people to support the Nongame Wildlife Program

The huge increase in Sandhill Cranes in our area was due to a huge, concerted effort led by the International Crane Foundation and several other non-profits and colleges, spearheading an annual crane count and researching the species' needs. And contributions to the DNR Nongame Wildlife Program were part of their recovery as well. 

Breeding Bird Survey shows massive increase in
 Sandhill Cranes in Minnesota.

Farmers have had some difficulties with cranes feeding on planted corn during spring, especially as the population of locally-nesting birds has increased—migrants passing through are gone from the state before planting season. Designating the crane a game species might be necessary now or in the future to manage their numbers, but that wasn't part of the DNR's rationale in changing their status, and they never held a fair and open hearing about it. Right now, there isn't any science to establish that the cranes hunted in the northwest region belong to a rapidly-expanding population. And even after several years of hunting, the DNR is still using the Sandhill Crane to encourage contributions to their Nongame Wildlife Program website. This is seriously wrong. 

Now that we're living in a world where the federal government talks about alternative facts, I guess I shouldn't be surprised that one of our state's departments would develop an alternative definition for the word nongame. But we've lost something important. Since the Migratory Bird Treaty Act was passed a century ago, we've had a large body of true conservationists made up of hunters and non-hunters both, with two groups of extremists, anti-hunters on one side and on the other side, poachers and "canned hunt" advocates who hate limits and regulations. As some of the state's game species have become too rare to be easily hunted, the DNR seems now to be losing their focus on restoring those species in trouble, and instead is forcing an ugly wedge between hunting and non-hunting conservationists like me who have a long history of supporting and defending the tradition of hunting and its important role in conservation, whether or not we ourselves hunt. 

Were the cynics right? Has the Nongame Wildlife Program been grabbing money from non-hunters to restore threatened species like cranes and wolves just so hunters could once again shoot them? If the Trumpeter Swan is designated a game species in the state after all the money, time, and effort non-hunting individuals and wildlife rehabbers put into restoring them and protecting them from the lead that hunters once spewed in wetlands and continue to spew in upland habitats, hunters will have squandered their reputation as conservationists. Is it time for our Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to change its name to the Minnesota Department of Game?

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Minnesota's Breeding Bird Atlas: A Splendid Resource!

Pip perched atop The Birds of Minnesota
My dog Pip atop my two volumes of The Birds of Minnesota. The books
weigh 12.4 pounds, almost 4 pounds more than Pip. 

In 1932, the University of Minnesota Press published The Birds of Minnesota by Thomas Sadler Roberts. Roberts was far and away the most prominent ornithologist in the state—when the American Ornithologists’ Union was organized half a century before, in 1883, Roberts became one of the few original elected members. When the First Edition of The Birds of Minnesota was published, the AOU’s journal, The Auk, published a long, very positive review of the two-volume, 1500 page tome.

Roberts's was the first work in Minnesota, and one of the first in the world, to include detailed information about precisely where and when each species of bird could be found, including breeding information, within the book’s coverage range. The Birds of Minnesota sold out almost immediately, and just four years later, at the height of the Depression, it was reissued in an updated Second Edition. 

Roberts, of course, hadn’t personally documented all the breeding activity in every corner of the state: birders here and there had been submitting information to him personally for years, and more formally via the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union since it was founded in 1929. Birdwatchers throughout the country had been submitting data cards about bird sightings to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service since the 1800s as well. It was the collaboration of so many people, along with Roberts’s wonderful and charming descriptions of each species, that gave his work such longstanding value. Indeed, I quoted him here and there in my own American Birding Association Field Guide to Birds of Minnesota published last year.

Year after year, we get new information as birds’ habits change. Every season countless birders reported their sightings to the MOU. In 1975, the University of Minnesota Press published Janet Green and Robert Janssen’s book, Minnesota Birds: Where, When, and How Many, which updated the state’s seasonal and geographical information. And in 1987, the University of Minnesota Press published Robert Janssen’s updated version, Birds in Minnesota.

Birdlife continues to change. In 2009, Audubon Minnesota and the University of Minnesota Duluth’s Natural Resources Research Institute, with funding from the Minnesota Environmental and Natural Resources Trust Fund (from proceeds from the Minnesota Lottery), coordinated efforts with professionals and volunteers combing the state to compile the state’s very first Breeding Bird Atlas.

This is not to be confused with the Breeding Bird Surveys that the US Geological Survey has been conducting since 1966—those involve 90 routes scattered throughout the state that are each surveyed just once a year, mostly in June. Participants count every bird seen or heard in a 3-minute time period at 50 stops. The Breeding Bird Survey gives us a great index to see, over time, which durnal species breeding in June are increasing, declining, or holding steady.

The state’s Breeding Bird Atlasers, 700 strong, scoured 2,353 townships, many of them multiple times over the entire breeding season, from mid-winter for owls, finches, and other early nesters through August for goldfinches and other late nesters, looking for solid confirmation of breeding. Some of the people conducting the Atlas surveys were trained students and professionals—my son Tom conducted some of the surveys—and others were volunteers—a few of my own sightings were entered into the database. During the process, the atlas project recorded more than 1 million observations, confirming 249 species breeding in the state. This project was not focused on population trends, but simply verifying where each species is now breeding.

I can't get over how splendid the Atlas is. It's published online in an extraordinary and easily-accessible website. Each species account has a gorgeous and detailed map, which would have been valuable in and of itself, but the value is greatly magnified by the wealth of other authoritative information assembled by Lee Pfannmuller, Jerry Niemi, and the other authors, who used a great many resources to explain what we know about each species's range and its numbers from pre-settlement times through now, along with basic natural history facts. Each species account is both up to date and rich with historical information, all in one easy-to-find spot. Where available, the species accounts also include trend graphs from the Breeding Bird Survey and other valuable information. And the accounts are as beautifully written as they are detailed.

Bald Eagle

How have species changed over the years? About our national emblem, the Bald Eagle, Roberts wrote: "Rare in winter. Formerly common, now much reduced in numbers and absent as a breeding bird from parts of the state where it once bred regularly.”

In 1975, Green and Janssen, in Minnesota Birds: Where, When, and How Many, noted that the eagle bred primarily in the northern regions of the state, with the area producing the most young in the Chippewa National Forest, and that since the 1960s, the only known active nest sited in the southern half of the state was in the Upper Mississippi National Wildlife Refuge in Houston County.

From Green and Janssen, 1975

In 1987, after more than a decade of protection under the Endangered Species Act and more than a decade after DDT use was banned in the United States, Janssen wrote in his Birds in Minnesota, that a total of about 200 nests were known from the northern breeding areas and nesting territories were continuing to increase. At that point there were active nests both in Houston and Sherburne County.
From Janssen, 1987

The Breeding Bird Survey shows steady low numbers from 1966 until the late 90s, when numbers started rising.

Minnesota’s Breeding Bird Atlas shows just how much more widespread nesting Bald Eagles are today.
Having access to the three volumes of work makes it relatively easy for me to compare past and present. But the best thing about The First Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas (2009-2013) is that I didn't actually need to go back to the earlier references: each individual species account includes all the comparison information!

Common Loon

How has our state bird, the Common Loon, fared? The species account in The First Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas (2009-2013) begins with a continental picture in the Overview:
Although Minnesota supports the largest U.S. breeding population south of Alaska, the centers of greatest abundance are found in Canada.
Settlement of Minnesota led to a serious decline in loons here. The Atlas states, "Long considered the most iconic symbol of Minnesota’s northern wilderness, the Common Loon was actually a common resident of lakes throughout the state in the late 1800s and early 1900s." The Atlas also quotes two different sources affirming that the reason for the decline over the southern third of the state was indiscriminate shooting, and says, "today’s threats to the Common Loon are complex and wide-ranging," listing some of the ongoing threats from botulism and other disease outbreaks, especially in wintering areas; climate change impacts on coastal fish resources essential for wintering loons; mercury; lead fishing sinkers; and oil spills. On a hopeful note, it closes the Population Abundance section with this:
Historically, the Common Loon in the United States’ portion of the Great Lakes has experienced the greatest declines in both abundance and distribution (Evers et al. 2010). Indeed, the species has been extirpated in several states where it formerly occurred (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, and Ohio), and its breeding ranges have receded northward since the late 1800s and early 1900s in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. Nevertheless, the Great Lakes region now supports over 50% of the U.S. breeding population of the Common Loon. As noted earlier, Michigan, Ontario, and Minnesota have recently documented small southern range expansions. Focused conservation efforts by resource agencies and local lake associations are surely one of the principal factors responsible for the population increases that have been observed across much of the species’ range.

Wild Turkey

Regarding historic information about Wild Turkeys, T.S. Roberts wrote, “no eye-witness has left a written record so far as can be found and no Minnesota specimen is in existence.” I personally suspect that the introduction of Wild Turkeys here, which is inaccurately called a "re-introduction," will one day be considered as huge a problem for people and other species as the unnaturally high numbers of White-tailed Deer and Canada Geese.

Northern Bobwhite

Like the turkey, there is little evidence that Northern Bobwhites were regular residents in the state before the pioneers settled. Some bobwhite may have expanded into the state from Wisconsin following the Hinckley fire, and some may have occasionally come up from native populations in Iowa, but for the most part, we can account for them by DNR and hunter group introductions. The Atlas says:
Regardless of how Northern Bobwhites came to occupy Minnesota in these early years, the population was sufficient to establish a hunting season from the 1920s through the early 1950s, when hundreds of birds were estimated to have been killed each year (Chesness 1964). According to a recent report by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the bobwhite had been hunted since 1858, and the first recorded harvest was in 1919, estimated at 6,100 birds. The report concluded that during the 1920s, the estimated harvest peaked in 1927 (13,000 birds) and by 1932 it was confined to the southeastern area (Minnesota Department of Natural Resources 2015). Most of the nesting records given by Roberts were also from the 1920s. During this time period, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Division of Game and Fish was also releasing quail, but where, when, and how many are not known. These releases were terminated in 1952. As the numbers of harvested birds declined, hunting was also stopped in 1958...    
The participants in the MNBBA recorded only 4 records, and all were close to the Mississippi River in the dissected uplands that drain directly into the river in Houston, Wabasha, and Winona Counties (Figure 2). There is no question about the identification of the species or that 3 of them are confirmed records. One record was just possible breeding evidence, and the observer guessed it was a released bird. Without better official monitoring and research about the origin of these quail, as well as others in the southeast, there is no way of knowing if they are native or released.
I hear reports of Bobwhites turning up in my own neighborhood in Duluth periodically. These birds are escapees from a retriever training club. They can't survive long up here, especially in winter.

Greater Prairie-Chicken

Hunters often tell me that to bring back any endangered bird, just make it a game species. Unfortunately, the Sharp-tailed Grouse and Greater Prairie-Chicken, two of our state's most splendid game species, aren't doing so well even as the Minnesota DNR encourages hunters to try for the "Minnesota Grand Slam," when a hunter shoots one each of our four native grouse species—Ruffed Grouse, Spruce Grouse, Greater Prairie-Chicken, and Sharp-tailed Grouse—within the state in a single season.

The Greater Prairie-Chicken is a "relative newcomer to the state’s western grasslands, having forced the northern retreat of the truly native grassland grouse, the Prairie Sharp-tailed Grouse." Even so, the prairie-chicken's range has shrunk in recent decades. 

According to Roberts, the Sharp-tailed Grouse, our state's only indigenous prairie grouse, was originally found in “the prairies in the summer and … the brush-lands and open forests in the winter, and the early explorers and first settlers found it abundant everywhere.” According to the Atlas site, 
Due to ... habitat issues, the species is officially listed as a Species in Greatest Conservation Need. The National Audubon Society labeled the Sharp-tailed Grouse as “climate endangered” and predicted a 76% loss of the species’ summer range by 2080 with changes in climate. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has a Sharp-tailed Grouse management plan that has been hampered by funding and implementation issues.

Red-headed Woodpecker

One very sad decline in the years since I started birding has been of the Red-headed Woodpecker. This gorgeous bird was always rare in northeastern Minnesota, and overall, its range hasn't changed much: the Atlas notes, "Overall, the breeding distribution of the Red-headed Woodpecker has changed very little since Roberts wrote the first comprehensive account in 1932." But Breeding Bird Survey numbers since 1967 have shown a dramatic decline. In Minnesota the Red-headed Woodpecker has been designated a Species of Greatest Conservation Need by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Audubon Minnesota designated it a Target Conservation Species and prepared a statewide conservation plan. The plan adopted the national population objective for the species and outlined actions necessary to accomplish this goal, including protecting and restoring oak savanna habitat.

Nesting Red-bellied Woodpeckers
MY Red-bellied Woodpeckers. This pair is feeding young in the first documented
nest in St. Louis County. 

Another woodpecker, the Red-bellied Woodpecker, is doing amazingly well, not only expanding its range north but also becoming more abundant throughout its range in the state. In 1892, the species was unknown in the state; Roberts noted the first one he ever saw in the state in 1898. It continued to expand from the southeastern corner north and west through now. We've had solid evidence of red-bellieds breeding in St. Louis County for several years, with birders noting newly fledged young here and there in Duluth. In 2016, the first actual nest in the county was found in my own backyard; this nest in a box elder fledged at least one young. 

Burrowing Owl

The Burrowing Owl's status in Minnesota is extremely difficult to tease out. The Atlas provides a nuanced picture of what we know.  We've had two successful nests in the state in this century, the last in 2007.

Over the years, I can't begin to recount the number of times people have asked me about a bird they remember from childhood that they just don't hear anymore, the Eastern Whip-poor-will. Because of its nocturnal habits, we don't have Breeding Bird Survey information about it, but those same nocturnal habits made it very conspicuous to explorers and pioneers who wrote about it as well as Minnesota's early ornithologists. It was considered common or abundant from sites as widespread as the Red River valley, central Minnesota, and the Twin Cities. I think this is a classic case of an obligate insectivore declining in response to declining numbers of moths and other flying insects. Scientists, especially in the U.K. and Europe, are finally starting to find ways of quantifying declines of insects from decades past. As we figure out how to do that here in Minnesota, I am confident that we'll start understanding more about the declines of the Whip-poor-will, Common Nighthawk, and Purple Martin. 

Common Nighthawk

Many of us remember when Common Nighthawks nested on flat roofs in towns and cities. I loved hearing them peenting in the evening sky in downtown areas from New Orleans to Chicago and New York City. But nighthawks, who are defenseless against predators when they can't take off, didn't survive the urbanization of gulls and crows, both which are omnivorous predators. There still are lots of nighthawks, but nowhere near as many as in recent decades. Partners in Flight has designated the nighthawk a Common Bird in Steep Decline. It's also designated as a Species in Greatest Conservation Need by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Northern Cardinal closeup

On a happier note, the Northern Cardinal is doing quite well. Originally, the species' range ended south of Minnesota—our first record was in Minneapolis in the fall of 1875,  but little by little it became established as a permanent resident throughout the Mississippi Valley south of Red Wing, and from there it has continued to spread. Roberts reported nesting as far north as Hennepin County and as far west as Owatonna. Now it's a regular nesting bird in Duluth and other isolated places in the northern third of the state, and has become fairly abundant in the southern two thirds, except its more scattered in far western Minnesota. 

Evening Grosbeak

One of my favorite birds of all, the Evening Grosbeak, used to be much more abundant in northern Minnesota. I was thrilled with this particular Atlas species account because it provided a fair and balanced examination of both the widely held belief that their high numbers from the 1960s through the 80s were an aberration, Evening Grosbeaks previously being fairly uncommon in the Great Lakes area; and my own argument that they were fairly common in our area long before the 60s such that the decline since the 1980s is very troubling. The species account includes lots of supporting evidence for both arguments, allowing readers to come to their own conclusions. Whatever the early history of the species, all of us who remember their former abundance can't help but feel sad for their decline. 

I'll be thrilled if the University of Minnesota Press issues the Breeding Bird Atlas in book form—I'd be one of the first to buy it, and would keep it next to my well-worn copies of The Birds of Minnesota, Minnesota Birds: Where, When, and How Many, and Birds in Minnesota. But even if it never gets published as a book, the online version is so complete and easy to use, with so much valuable information, that I'll be consulting it frequently from now on. 

Pfannmuller, L., G. Niemi, J. Green, B. Sample, N. Walton, E. Zlonis, T. Brown, A. Bracey, G. Host, J. Reed, K. Rewinkel, and N. Will. 2017. The First Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas (2009-2013). 

Monday, November 13, 2017

Frankie, the St. Louis County owl

Frankie the St. Louis County Northern Saw-whet Owl
Photo by Pat Lueders.

Last Tuesday night, just when I was heading to bed, my good friend Susan sent me a text message. Like me, Susan lives in St. Louis County, but unlike mine up here in Minnesota, her St. Louis County is in Missouri, where for many years she’s been active with the World Bird Sanctuary, helping with bird banding.

The owl-banding program there is fairly new—it started in 2012 as an experiment. No one could be sure if they'd catch any owls at all based on how few birders report Saw-whet Owls in that area. But on the first night, the very first time they checked their nets, there was a Northern Saw-whet Owl! They don’t capture as many as we do at migration points along the Great Lakes, especially at Hawk Ridge, but their banding program has proven to be a wonderful success. A few nights ago, they extracted owls from the nets 7 times, capturing five different individuals—two of them got caught a second time. Every year between October and early December they catch between 8 and 18—so far this year they’re up to 12. Saw-whet owl banding in this St. Louis County peaks in October; down there in that St. Louis County it peaks in November.

During banding, saw-whets get weighed and measured,
but they put up with it all pretty gracefully.
Photo by Pat Lueders.
Percentage-wise, very few banded birds of any species are ever reported again. The biggest rates of return tend to be in game species because so many ducks are harvested every year, and duck hunters are conscientious about reporting every banded bird that they shoot. But as owl banding stations have become better and better at catching saw-whets, and as more and more of these banding programs have started up, we’re seeing more returns. Even with relatively few owls caught so far at the World Bird Sanctuary, their owl-banding program has already had a few returns. In 2016, they recaptured one originally banded in Ontario. And one bird they banded in 2014 was recaptured this summer at Whitefish Point in Michigan.

Susan messaged me on Tuesday night as soon as she got home from banding because at 8:30, they'd caught a female saw-whet who was already bearing a band. It used to take weeks to trace a band number via the Patuxent Bird Banding Lab, but thanks to the miracle of the internet, it now takes moments. Susan already knew that this individual was banded on October 14, 2014, up here in Duluth!

Susan took this photo with her cell phone to send me.
It shows Frankie's spread wing illuminated by a black light.

This was the sixth owl they’ve caught this season. To make it fun and easy to keep the individuals straight, they give them informal names as well as band numbers; like hurricanes, the first bird caught gets a name that starts with A and they run through the alphabet. They’re calling this one Frankie for the granddaughter of Pat Lueders, one of the banders. Amusingly, just as this little owl gives us a St. Louis County connection, she also gives us a Frankie connection, because the Bird Banding Lab sent confirmation that the bander who originally banded her is Frank Nicoletti, the Research Director for Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory.

Most of the photos Susan sent me were taken by Pat Lueders while banding coordinator Linda Tossing held Frankie. One shows Frankie’s spread wing looking fluorescent pink. That photo was taken under the illumination of a black light.

Why is it pink? One of the pigments in a saw-whet owl’s feathers is porphyrin, a pigment our eyes can’t see without help because it’s visible only at the ultraviolet end of the spectrum. This pigment fades over time, most quickly when exposed to sunlight. Fresh new saw-whet feathers are rich in porphyrin, showing up to our eyes as a brilliant pink under a black light. Owls don't molt all their flight feathers every year but, rather, molt a few each year in a predictable pattern, so bird banders can distinguish which feathers are fresh and which are at least a year old by the pink color. Some of the primary and secondary wing feathers glow bright pink and some don't show much or any pink. All the covert feathers--the ones covering the bases of the flight feathers--are pink, because all those feathers are molted every year. (You can see the color pattern for owls of different ages here at the McGill University website.) 

Frankie's wing under black lights. Photo by Pat Lueders.
Understanding the predictable pattern of owl molt, banders can look at which primary and secondary feathers are bright pink and which aren’t to get a good estimate of the bird’s age. In 2014, Frank Nicoletti used Frankie’s molt stage to determine that she'd hatched in 2013. That makes her four years old now. Little by little these banding returns give us more and more information about how long birds live, and what their seasonal and geographic migration patterns are.

Owls don’t have access to black lights, but it’s hard to imagine that they produce a pigment that they themselves can’t see, especially since we already know that a lot birds see ultraviolet wavelengths. My guess is that owls probably use the intensity of the color to select the best potential mates. How would that help? Because the pigment degrades fastest when exposed to sunlight, the individuals most skilled at finding and defending daytime roosts would retain the most pigment. And who knows? Saw-whets may also use molt pattern the way bird banders do, to figure out how old a potential mate is. For most birds, the older a potential mate the better, because older birds have more experience and proven survival skills. We humans apparently know this intuitively—why else would the expression be “wise old owl” rather than “wise young owl”?

Frankie, photo by Pat Lueders

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Our Far-Flung Correspondents

I’ve been getting an interesting assortment of comments on my recent work. Bob House, one of my good friends from New Mexico, commented on my discussion of a ridiculous video going viral right now about how eagles supposedly undergo a magical “rebirth,” plucking out their own beak, talons, and feathers to be reborn to survive another 30 years. I called this “poppycock,” and he asked if there is such a thing as a “poppyhen.” This of course sent me to the dictionary. Merriam-Webster says poppycock comes from a Dutch dialect—pappekak means, literally, "soft dung." Tragically, this means that poppycock’s derivation is not related to cocks or hens or any other birds, so there is no such thing as a poppyhen.

I received a lovely email from Krystal Nichols this week. She writes:
I came across your website on my quest to unlock a great mystery, one that has puzzled me for many years! Here's a bit of backstory.  
   I was deployed to Iraq back in 2003; we were fairly close to Baghdad, but slightly southeast. During my time there, a small baby owl ended up in my Lieutenants quarters. Being the animal enthusiast, I was summoned to figure out what to do with the small owl. To this day, I still cannot figure out what species of owl "he" (I called him Boomah, which is Arabic for owl) was. Every few years I revisit the mystery, spend a couple hours on google comparing photos, searching, etc. Sadly, I only have one blurry photo of him. I was wondering if you had any leads on what species he is. The closest guess I have is a type of Scops Owl, but I'm not quite sure. I'd love to hear what you think! I appreciate any insight you can offer.  
Hutton's Little Owl photo copyright 2017 by Krystal Nichols
After a bit of back-and-forth about the fuzzy baby owl’s size, and noticing how long the owl’s legs were in the photo, I concluded it was probably a Little Owl, which is the same size as a Scops Owl but belongs to the genus Athene, related to our continent's Burrowing Owl. That gave her enough information to track down a 2006 story online about an American civilian working near the Baghdad Airport who cared for a baby owl. She wrote back:
I think it's safe to say Boomah was also a Hutton's Little Owl. I really can't thank you enough for your help. He was such a special part of my time there so ID'ing him means so much!
On Tuesday, I got an email from a listener in Orienta, Wisconsin, regarding my radio program on KUMD that morning. I’d read an excerpt from Michael McCarthy’s book, The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy, regarding the population explosion. He writes:
Dear Laura Erickson: 
No one should listen to anything you have to say when it comes to population/the environment. You have been preaching using gentle birds as your shield when you most egregiously violated the substance of this issue by selfishly having more than one child.  Nothing you do, recycling or whatever else can overcome the damage you have ensured by contributing to the population explosion.  With your college education you should have acted better, and the lily pad analogy seems to me like a feeble attempt to excuse the behavior. 
Any anger you have, especially with politicians on this issue is hypocrisy; you are yourself not unlike them.   
Mike Gellerman
None of the words on Tuesday’s program were mine except at the start and finish, when I gave credit to Michael McCarthy and his wonderful book. The lily pad analogy was entirely his, too. I hope very much that those listeners and readers who see me as a selfish hypocrite don’t therefore ignore Michael McCarthy’s extraordinary work.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

That "eagle rebirth" video? Poppycock!

Bald Eagle

Back in 2008, at least a hundred people forwarded an email to me showing a series of photos titled "Rebirth of the Eagle." It was the most patently ridiculous thing I'd ever seen. Now, in 2017, a website (yourdost dot com--I'm not going to link to it) that is supposed to be helping people resolve problems has reissued it as a video. Using magnificent National Geographic footage of various species of eagles and a cheesy, ostensibly inspirational soundtrack, this video was created to show people that essential change can be painful but is still good.

Right from the start, the text makes it clear that not one scientist was involved with the production, saying, “The eagle has the longest lifespan of its species.” Not only does the sentence make no sense whatsoever, but the video shows several species called eagles but which are actually not closely related, including Bald, Golden, and Harpy Eagles. The word poppycock was immediately starting to pop out of my mouth.

According to the video, the eagle can live to be 70 years old if it makes a hard decision. The oldest wild Bald Eagle on record at the US Geological Survey’s bird banding laboratory lived to be 38 years and 1 month; the oldest Golden Eagle lived for 31 years and 8 months. Captive birds can live longer, but the oldest captive Bald Eagle I could find in the records lived to be only 48—more than a couple of decades shorter than 70 years.

Eagles and other birds survive day to day by making thousands of quick decisions.  There’s never a point in a bird’s life when it has the luxury to sit down and make a hard decision about whether or not to continue living. While it was contemplating the issue, a predator would come in and kill it.

The video claims that when an eagle is in its 40s, its long and flexible talons can no longer grab prey, and the eagle grows hungry.  Based on longevity records, this is of course true because by then the eagle is dead. But as long as an eagle is alive, its talons can grab food—the talons' resting position is closed, so even in death an eagle’s toes are its strongest part.

Then the video says that at that age the eagle’s long sharp beak becomes bent—the video closes in on the bill of an eagle showing the natural curve of the upper bill, a shape necessary throughout life for ripping apart prey. Then the video says that the eagle's "old-aged, heavy wings become stuck to the bird’s chest making it impossible to fly." Eagles molt their flight feathers one by one throughout the year throughout their lives, and molt their body feathers every year. Some feathers may get gooped up from slimy fish or rabbit entrails, but birds of prey preen a lot, keeping each feather in good condition for as long as it lasts.  When an eagle can no longer fly and catch prey, it dies, except, apparently, in the alternate universe of this ridiculous video.

According to the video, a 40-year-old eagle has two options—die or go through a painful period of change that lasts 150 days. Now it may well take that long for a complete feather molt, but that’s hardly a painful or debilitating process.  So the mystery of what painful process of change the eagle might be going through kept me riveted.

First, that 40-year-old eagle whose aging, heavy wings stuck to its chest making it impossible to fly magically takes wing and flies up to a mountaintop. Now the bird must knock its beak against a rock until it plucks it out. Since this obviously never happens in reality, there is of course no video footage showing an eagle without its beak. After plucking the beak out, the eagle waits for a new beak to grow in, and then it plucks out its talons. Again, of course there is no video footage of this.

Then, the eagle plucks out all its feathers. Since real molt happens just a few feathers at a time, there is of course no photos of any poor literally bald eagles plucked naked, even though regrowing feathers takes supposedly 150 day. After this rebirthing ordeal, the renewed eagle takes off and lives for 30 more years, apparently hiding out from bird banders or the US Geological Survey Bird Banding Laboratory for the rest of its life so no one will ever confirm its longevity.

I guess that in this 2017 world of alternate facts and disinformation, right when people are growing increasingly disconnected from nature, we shouldn't be too surprised that people could believe an eagle could pluck its own beak and talons and live to be 70. But, really, we're now living in a world where real Bald Eagles can be seen in just about every state, even in many urban centers. It's far, far easier for anyone to observe Bald Eagles up close and personal today than in past decades throughout even the longest lifetimes.  It's impossible for me to understand why anyone would create a video bearing such utter falsehoods, and even harder to understand  why people, including some pretty smart birders, could possibly think this video was true. Why do we waste time looking at videos about eagles rather than spending our time watching living, breathing, eagles and focusing on their honest-to-goodness splendor?

The video was ostensibly created to give people hope, trying to inspire people stuck in bad situations to make hard changes to improve their lives. But grounded in complete falsehoods, all it taught me was that we're not living in an Information Age, but in a Misinformation Age. I hope National Geographic both disavows this utterly inappropriate use of their video footage and sues the pants off the perpetrators.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Henry and Eden's Warbler Rescue

Yellow-rumped Warbler

On Sunday, October 22, two children named Henry and Eden came to my house with a problem—a tiny bird was trapped in their shed. They live across the street from me, so it was an easy matter to head right over. One of Henry’s favorite birds in the world is the American Goldfinch, and he described the bird as being about the size of a goldfinch, with yellow under the wings. Based on this accurate description as well as the point in fall migration we’re at right now, I was pretty sure what the bird would be before I got there, and sure enough, there it was—a Yellow-rumped Warbler.

When I’ve rehabbed warblers, I’ve often been struck by how smart they are. I don’t think a single one of them is hunkering down right now reading Ron Chernow’s best-selling book about Ulysses S. Grant—it’s a heavy book beyond even the capacity of Blue Jays to lug around or to read. The one time I visited Gettysburg, there were Blue Jays everywhere—I saw more of them than I did human Civil War buffs—but even those Blue Jays have almost certainly not checked out Chernow’s book, because Ulysses S. Grant wasn’t involved in the Battle of Gettysburg. 

But even if any Yellow-rumped Warblers had ever heard of Grant, the probability that they know the Western alphabet, much less use it to read, is about as minuscule as the probability that the Chicago Cubs are going to win the 2017 World Series.

Reading skills notwithstanding, warblers are much smarter than people realize. When I was rehabbing, I immediately learned that warblers quickly adapt to temporary captivity. Within the first day or two, sometimes within the first hour, most of them would flit to my hand for mealworms as soon as I offered them. In their natural habitat, warblers wisely avoid people, but these tiny birds have to pass from northern forests down to the tropics, covering a whole lot of unfamiliar, often hostile, habitats between here and there. If they can’t quickly figure out the ins and outs wherever they find themselves, they’re not going to survive. So they’re far more curious, adaptable, and capable of learning new skills than most of us would expect.

Yellow-rumped Warbler

A couple of years ago, I watched a Yellow-rumped Warbler trying to grab cluster flies at the base of a window in Port Wing, Wisconsin. There were far more flies on the inside than the outside, and so I started swatting them and carrying them outside for the little guy. The first time I dropped a handful in a flowerbox near the window, the warbler checked it out within a minute and started gobbling them down. After that, it didn’t fly off when I’d step outside, and would perch at the box as I dropped the flies in. If it finished eating my offerings before I came back out, it flew to the window and gave me a long hard stare as I scurried to get more flies for it.

Yellow-rumped Warbler

There were no cluster flies inside or outside Henry and Eden’s shed windows. The shed doesn’t have a door, and apparently when the warbler flew in, it saw the bright windows and got fixated on getting out through them. I suppose if birds could read, they’d be wiser to study up on the properties of glass than read about Ulysses S. Grant, because glass is one thing they really could benefit from understanding. I’ve watched people, including some pretty smart ones, walk into glass doors, so it’s not like we humans are immune to problems with glass. Fortunately, that little warbler was smart enough to let me pick her up and take her out of the shed. After Henry and Eden had a good look, we put her in Eden’s hand. She took 10 or15 seconds to get her bearings, and off she flew! 

Fall migration is fraught with danger, but with the birds’ native intelligence, and kind, vigilant kids like Henry and Eden, at least some of these warblers will make it safely to their wintering grounds and, come spring, make their way safely home to the north woods once again.

Yellow-rumped Warbler