Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Book Review: Birds in a Cage

Five years ago, a truly exceptional nonfiction book was published in the UK about four British prisoners of war during World War II, and how their passion for birds helped them survive the horrifying conditions of the POW camps; after the war, they became important forces behind British bird conservation. Somehow, I managed to not even hear about Derek Niemann’s wonderful work, Birds in a Cage, until a few months ago, when one of my friends, Ian Paulsen, recommended it.

The book opens with a very brief overview and then introduces what Niemann calls “the cast.” Through the rest of the book, the author pretty much follows the chronology of the war, but where different men are in different locations, he goes back and forth between them. He researched the book using letters home and journals kept by the four men, so his available information provides more depth for some than others at various times. Based on the reviews on Amazon, some readers had difficulty following the book because of this. When I started out, I stuck a bookmark in that introductory section so I could go back and forth for a quick reminder of which character was which, but as it turned out, that wasn’t necessary—I quickly picked up on each one as an individual.

I knew I’d enjoy the book with the very first sentence of the first chapter:
On the day the Second World War broke out, Cheshire naturalist AW Boyd had one eye on the country diary column he was writing for the Manchester Guardian; the other he had lost on the battlefields of Gallipoli in 1915.
Niemann excerpts a bit of Boyd’s column:
I cannot help thinking that if only Hitler had been an ornithologist, he would have put off the war until the autumn bird migration was over. I wonder if any of the friendly Germans whom we met last year at the International Ornithological Congress at Rouen feel as I do. That he should force us to waste the last week of August and the first fortnight of September in a uniform that we hoped we had discarded for good is really the final outrage.
Boyd is not one of the four characters in Birds in a Cage; not only was he missing an eye but he was also in his mid-fifties when he wrote that column as the war was breaking out. By the end of the war, his ironic comment about missing the peak of the 1939 fall migration being the “final outrage” wouldn’t have seemed so humorous, especially to the four main characters of the book.

The very British ironic detachment of the opening didn’t close off author Derek Niemann from writing vividly about the harrowing conditions of the POW camps. We get plenty of details about the lice, fleas, freezing cold, malnourishment and chronic ill health of the camps, conditions so horrifying that sometimes men made a suicidal run for the barbed wire fences and razor wire in full view of the guards simply to end their own misery. One of the main characters was already suffering from dysentery, cholera, and stomach ulcers before he was even taken prisoner; in the prison camp, he became so ill that he was finally repatriated to Scotland in 1944. His death, decades later of a kidney infection, was caused by those wartime illnesses exacerbated by lack of treatment and conditions during prison life.

Even small children recognize the powerful metaphor equating birds with freedom. Whether the main characters of Birds in a Cage were marching in a frozen landscape or trapped within the barbed wire cage of a prisoner of war camp, their appreciation of the freedom of birds was far more steeped in reality than metaphor. They noticed and watched migrating rooks and jackdaws that dropped down from the skies to eat some of the prisoners’ own sewage, spread as manure on surrounding fields. They paid close attention to the little songbirds flitting in and out of the barbed wire—some of these birds became subjects of systematic studies.

Most of their observations didn’t amount to anything much after the war—indeed, John Barrett kept meticulous records in a journal—his mountains of raw data could have formed the basis of a monograph on the Eurasian Tree Sparrow, but facing an arduous long march as a refugee, he conscientiously mailed his journals to himself and the package never arrived. George Waterston’s study of the Wryneck was never published in any form either. Peter Conder’s notes on the European Goldfinch formed the nucleus of a scientific paper on the species, and most noteworthy of all, Edward Buxton’s work on the Common Redstart formed the basis for The Redstart, a major work on the subject. But whether or not the research each of them did during their imprisonment amounted to anything in the greater ornithological world, their work gave each of them a reason to look beyond the hell surrounding them. Indeed, Waterston and Buxton enlisted some of the other prisoners of war to help make observations, providing a beautiful if tiny diversion from the hell surrounding those men, too.

After the war, they each devoted their lives to something connected to birds. After writing his book about the Redstart, Buxton lived a quiet life as a respected naturalist. Barrett never again traveled from his beloved Pembrokeshire except to visit his children, yet he became the primary author of a universally praised book, The Collins Guide to the Seashore, and a noted bird teacher. Waterston became one of Scotland’s leader of conservation and came up with Operation Osprey, protecting these spectacular raptors not by keeping their whereabouts secret but by enlisting public aid by publicizing the birds. Conder became director of the RSPB, bringing the organization to a new level in professional conservation.

Even with the ability to focus on something far from the horrifying conditions of the prisoner of war camps, none of the four men in Birds in a Cage came through unscathed, in terms of both physical and psychic damage. Their story was one worth telling, and Derek Niemann did a wonderful job. I heartily recommend Birds in a Cage whether you’re interested in history, human resilience, or the importance of nature in protecting and restoring the human spirit.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Book Review: All the Light We Cannot See

One of the first books I ever read about World War II was Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, Slaughterhouse-Five. Billy Pilgrim, an optometrist opposed to war who is drafted and becomes a chaplain’s assistant, is captured after the Battle of the Bulge and brought to to a POW camp in a vacant slaughterhouse in Dresden, the city where American firebombing killed 135,000 German men, women, and children. Like the fictional Billy Pilgrim, Kurt Vonnegut and some other real-life prisoners survived the bombing, along with several German guards, deep in a cellar of that slaughterhouse.

Vonnegut writes:
Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds. And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like ‘”Poo-tee-weet?
The book ends as the prisoners emerged after the bombing.
And somewhere in there was springtime. The corpse mines were closed down. The soldiers all left to fight the Russians. In the suburbs, the women and children dug rifle pits. Billy and the rest of his group were locked up in the stable in the suburbs. And then, one morning, they got up to discover that the door was unlocked. World War Two in Europe was over.  
Billy and the rest wandered out onto the shady street. The trees were leafing out. There was nothing going on out there, no traffic of any kind. There was only one vehicle, an abandoned wagon drawn by two horses. The wagon was green and coffin-shaped.  
Birds were talking.  
One bird said to Billy Pilgrim, “Poo-tee-weet?”  
Birds figure in a great many fictional books about war. One reason is that birds eke out their existences apart from us humans, whether in wilderness forests or big cities or war zones. We wield ever more lethal human-designed killing technology against one another while birds try to stay alive as well as they can at the edges of the destruction, eating, sleeping, and even courting and nesting as bombs explode around them. We even take some comfort in that thought, though so many birds die as well—no one ever tallies their death toll after a massacre. The irony of Billy Pilgrim hearing that little bird singing is steeped in our deep-rooted sense of birds being missives of peace, from Noah’s dove returning with an olive branch, to the origami cranes made by Sadako Sasaki, the little girl who developed leukemia from radiation after Americans dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima when she was two years old. She started making the cranes to symbolize peace between nations as her disease progressed. She folded her 644th paper crane before she died in 1955, when she was just 12 years old.

Last week I finished another novel about World War II, Anthony Doerr’s 2015 Pulitzer-Prize winning All the Light We Cannot See, about a young German named Werner and a blind French girl named Marie-Laure, whose paths intersect, changing both their destinies. One of the most important secondary characters, a German named Frederick who becomes Werner’s closest friend and ally, is an avid bird lover. His passion for birds becomes a metaphor for ideals so far above and apart from everything the Nazis stand for that Frederick’s very existence within the Nazi Youth, and within Germany itself, is in dire jeopardy.

I can’t even begin to recount the beauty and nuance in the gripping stories of Werner and Marie-Laure. In every way, the novel is engrossing and beautiful and tragic; for me, the story of Frederick brought the entire work to both greater depths and loftier heights. All the Light We Cannot See is one of the finest books I’ve ever read.

Tomorrow I’ll review a nonfiction book about World War II, a true account of four British prisoners of war who got through their ordeal thanks to birds.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Passport to Adventure!!


In 1974, when I received my first field guide for Christmas, it was like opening the Sears Christmas Catalog—what we children called the “wish book.” A whole big section showed what seemed like every toy in the world. 

My first field guide was like that—showing so many thrilling possibilities, out there waiting for me. Some of the birds pictured I’d have to travel to see in real life—ptarmigans like the ones White Fang encountered in one of my favorite children’s books, California Condors and Everglade Kites that were appearing on posters supporting the Endangered Species Act, and puffins and Roseate Spoonbills, which looked too impossibly bizarre to be real. But according to the range maps, some of the coolest looking birds could be found right near me— Common Loons, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Blackburnian Warblers, Pileated Woodpeckers! So many treasures, beautiful on the page, and now I could imagine seeing them in real life!

That field guide gave me the tools to identify birds, but much more important, it issued both an invitation and a personal mandate to go out and look for them. That little book was my very own Passport to Adventure.


During my first year of birding, I did manage to find in the field guide most of the birds I saw. I quickly learned that the challenge of identifying each bird could be both enjoyable and rewarding, but more importantly, I learned that the identifications were hardly ever the most enjoyable or rewarding elements of a day with birds. Indeed, sometimes it felt more rewarding to just stop and look at them, without teasing out each identification. One of the most pleasurable days of my first year of birding was spent in a railroad yard watching pigeons—seeing their muscular wings in action, drinking in their noisy takeoffs and powerful wing beats in direct flight, and thrilling at how they hold those wings in a steep V as they rock slightly back and forth in soaring flight. It was a wondrously satisfying three or four hours that I still remember with a smile.

Rock Pigeon

Knowing the names of things is a primal urge for our species, referenced as long ago as Genesis, with Adam naming all the beasts and all the fowls of the air. Children quickly need a more precise word than dinosaur for Triceratops, Stegosaurus, Brontosaurus, and Tyrannosaurus.

Not just ANY dinosaur--these are Stegosauruses! 

If I tell you a story about a bird and want you to be able to picture it the way it looks to me, calling it a brilliant red bird with black wings might not give you a picture of the Scarlet Tanager, Hawaiian Iiwi, or Vermilion Flycatcher I was trying to describe. The precise vividness of a name can be valuable.

Scarlet Tanager

Iiwi from Wikipedia by HarmonyOnPlanetEarth
Vermilion Flycatcher

You can, of course, take the precision of bird identification too far. About birds, Walt Whitman wrote:
Many I cannot name; but I do not very particularly seek information. (You must not know too much, or be too precise or scientific about birds and trees and flowers and water-craft; a certain free margin, and even vagueness—perhaps ignorance, credulity—helps your enjoyment of these things…)
Even if you don’t want to go beyond Whitman’s free margin, a good field guide can inspire you to go a-looking for those birds and trees and flowers. Which one should you get?

My three favorite bird field guides are the National Geographic if you want the most comprehensive guide, the Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America if you want a comprehensive North American guide that uses photos and is the one kids usually like best, and the ABA state field guides if you want a pretty comprehensive guide to just one state. I happen to have written the Minnesota one.

Laura's book: Pip approved!

But just as Walt Whitman bundled birds with trees and flowers, when we go out looking for birds we see a lot of other elements of nature. One field guide is perfect for even the most advanced birder who notices other things out there as well.

The one book I recommend for every man, woman, and child in the Midwest is a field guide, but not just a field guide to birds. Even those of us who are almost exclusively focused on birds can’t help but notice some non-avian animals and plants outside, or looking up at the night sky while out owling. The Kaufman Field Guide to Nature of the Midwest makes puzzling out these features of nature simple and straightforward, enriching our outdoor experiences. If I were to recommend a single book for a nature-lover, this would be it. The Field Guide to Nature of the Midwest includes not just a great many animals and plants—it even shows the constellations in the sky.

Since it’s a pocket-sized book, it clearly cannot show all the living things of our area. Well over 400 species of birds have been seen in the Midwest, of which this guide  covers about 265 of the most common bird species. That leaves out quite a few, but the species are well chosen. I’d been an avid birder, going out daily for almost four months before I encountered the first species, Swamp Sparrow, that isn’t included in the Field Guide to Nature of the Midwest. For comparison, by that point in my birding, I’d seen 17 species that aren’t included in Stan Tekiela’s little Birds of Minnesota field guide. If you come up here to northern Minnesota for our famous owl invasions, you’ll have to recognize the Boreal and Northern Hawk Owls on your own, but it does include Gray Jay, Black-billed Magpie, Boreal Chickadee, both crossbills, and several of our other winter finches, as well as the rest of our owls.

And beyond birds, the Kaufman Field Guide to Nature of the Midwest includes fine samplings of the wildflowers, trees, other plants and fungi, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish, butterflies and moths, other insects, and spiders. And each section has an inviting explanation of how to enjoy that element of nature.

If you get fascinated by a single group, as I am with birds, you’ll certainly want to add a more comprehensive field guide. For birds, the simplest choice when available for your state is one of the new ABA state field guides. In the Midwest, we have the one I wrote for Minnesota, Michael Retter’s ABA Field Guide to Birds of Illinois and Allen Chartier’s one for Michigan, which will be out very soon—it’s at the printers. Outside the Midwest, ABA now has these state field guides for Florida, Texas, Arizona, Colorado, New York, Massachusetts, the Carolinas, California, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey.

For an all-encompassing guide to the birds of the whole continent, if you want one with photos, I recommend the Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America, or if you prefer drawings, the National Geographic Field Guide to Birds of North America—their new 7th edition is now available, with the most up-to-date species names and taxonomic order of any guide.

But none of those bird guides will tell you what that pretty flower next to the path is, or the kind of tree that Great Horned Owl is roosting in, or what that big orange butterfly that has way too many spots for a Monarch could be.

Great Spangled Fritillary
Great Spangled Fritillary
When taking a family walk, you may prefer Whitman’s vagueness and free margin more than researching every single thing. But if you want to learn the name of a particular plant or animal to help you commit it more firmly and clearly to memory, the Kaufman Field Guide to Nature of the Midwest will provide plenty of assistance. And thumbing through it at home may fill you with the inspiration to get out there looking in the first place. It’s a true Passport to Adventure.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Mokka, the Alakef Snowy Owl

From Duluth News-Tribune
Snowy Owls are not known for their affinity to coffee, but on Wednesday, one particular Snowy Owl in Duluth had a too-close for comfort encounter with Alakef Coffee Roasters.

We’re in the midst of what scientists call an invasion or irruption year for Snowy Owls. We used to attribute these years when a great many of the owls show up in the Lower 48 to crashes in the lemming population, and most of us believed that most of the birds were starving. Duluth’s own David Evans banded Snowy Owls every year in the Duluth Harbor, and some of the individuals, in perfect health, returned several years running, so people paying attention knew that the situation was more complicated than that.

Banders can tell by a bird’s condition and weight whether it’s actually starving. The ones taken in for rehab often are in terrible condition and down to unhealthy weights, but that is often due to those birds’ injuries making it difficult for them to hunt. When you think about it, it doesn’t make sense that a bird starving in the Arctic Circle could make it all the way through the Canadian wilderness and well into the United States—it takes a lot of calories and strength to migrate at all, much less such long distances.  So during the Snowy Owl invasion in 2013-2014, Scott Weidensaul and several other bird researchers started tracking individual Snowy Owls over time by placing satellite transmitters on them in a wonderful, ongoing project called Operation SNOWstorm. Duluth’s own Frank Nicoletti has been involved in banding for the project.

So far we’ve learned that at least some of the years when owls invade, it’s because there have been so very many lemmings that reproduction was extremely successful. We’re presuming that as the birds space themselves, many of them are forced out of the Arctic by so many more experienced territorial birds. Some indeed have been found emaciated and weak, but many that are trapped by banders are robust and well filled out. Obviously, the ones that are in bad enough condition to be easily captured for rehab aren’t representative of the whole in the way that the ones trapped by banders are. And it may well be that when lemming populations crash, many more birds do head out our way. But during those years, far fewer baby Snowy Owls are hatched, and to get this far from the tundra, they still must have started in reasonably good health.

Once they get away from wilderness, they get a bit bewildered by the strange changes in habitat. One of the problems they’ve historically had in Duluth, and most certainly in other places, has been due to their preference for high places to roost, along with their equal preference for avoiding high deciduous trees, which aren’t part of their habitat in permafrost. Usually this isn’t a problem, and we often see them atop roofs, power poles, and other structures. Last week I saw one in Two Harbors sitting on a wall.

Snowy Owl

Unfortunately, sometimes something juts above rooftops that, from the air, looks stable and flat—a chimney or other kind of smokestack. On Wednesday, a Snowy Owl perched on the smokestack leading to the chaff receptacle at Duluth’s Alakef Coffee Roasters, and whoosh! Like Santa Claus, it dropped right down the chimney. Its scratching attracted the attention of Ezra Bennett, who found it, called Wildwoods Rehab, and made a YouTube video of the rescue.

Wildwoods kept the coffee-stained bird overnight and sent it on to The Raptor Center.
This story of course made the evening news. I knew it had to involve a smokestack before reporters mentioned how the bird got into the coffee-making machinery. A few decades ago, David Evans, Duluth's own prominent raptor authority, had funding to mark several birds with radio transmitters. He suddenly lost the signal of one bird, and in circling the Duluth-Superior harbor area and beyond, he finally began to pick up the signal again, but searched for two days until he finally pinpointed the bird’s location, inside an abandoned hotel. The owl had apparently fallen down the chimney. Evans got permission to go inside, and then to tear down a wall covering access to the chimney, and found the owl, still alive in a pile of dead pigeon remains, where he also found one or two dessicated Snowy Owl carcasses. When he mentioned this story at a Duluth Audubon meeting back in the late 80s or early 90s, the vice-principal of a local junior high school mentioned that a Snowy Owl had dropped down the chimney of the school, and someone else mentioned the same thing happening at their cabin.

Ezra Bennett said they’d be capping the smokestack at Alakef. That’s an important thing for all of us to do for any metal-lined chimney. Meanwhile, one thing the Snowy Owls might do next time they’re way, way up north is to talk to Santa Claus about chimneys. He can tell them how it’s easier to drop down them than to rise up again, which involves laying his finger aside of his nose—two specific pieces of human anatomy that Snowy Owls just don’t have.