Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Drunken Birds: Final Recap

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Over 30 years ago, on January 20, 1988, in a program I did about waxwings, I said,
A couple of the calls I’ve had recently have been about waxwings that don’t seem quite sick, but act strange and allow people to pick them up–they seem, well, somehow they seem drunk. And that’s exactly what some of them are. If cold weather stops the flow of fresh sap to mountain ash berries and then there’s a thaw, the sugars in the berries may ferment. If a waxwing eats too many, it gets roaring drunk, staggering about on the ground or in the air, vulnerable to predators and accidents. If you find a drunk waxwing, it’s often a good idea to give it food and shelter until it dries out. Just remember that like all native American songbirds, waxwings are protected by law. As tempting as it is, they cannot legally be kept as pets.  
That may be the first time I ever talked about intoxicated birds on the air. I’ve mentioned the problem of fermenting berries and other fruits many times in the three decades since then, but apparently most people were still completely unaware of the problem until the police chief in Gilbert, Minnesota, wrote a press release last week stating that people throughout town are finding intoxicated birds everywhere, and in their drunken state, the birds are colliding with cars and windows.

That story went viral. The Duluth News-Tribune interviewed me about it, and soon I was fielding calls and doing interviews for CNN, KARE-11 TV in the Twin Cities, and even the New York Times. A local Fox News station in the Twin Cities called me. They needed a live interview, so I gave them Sharon Stiteler’s name—she’s the famous “Birdchick” and a park ranger down there, and she gave them a great interview. Some of the articles and TV spots used my photos of robins and Yellow-rumped Warblers, but some just did internet searches, which is probably why some were illustrated with European Robins, which aren’t even thrushes, and a Fieldfare, a Eurasian species which was found exactly once in Minnesota, in Grand Marais, back in 1991.

The problem is, there’s no evidence that berries fermented early this year, and it’s usually not until late winter and spring that the sugars in old fruits reach that stage of fermentation. We’re having a huge songbird migration right now—I’ve had at least 60 Yellow-rumped Warblers in my yard at a single time much of the past two weeks, sometimes counting over 25 in my feeders simultaneously.

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Except during these migration fall-outs, people seldom see these tiny little flutterers on the ground, and the way they hop and fly could appear weak and even drunken for those more accustomed to seeing the faster, more direct movements of heavier birds such as sparrows and juncos.

But even the writers who tried hardest to clear things up couldn’t resist putting a fun, drunken spin on the issue, except Matt Mendenhall, editor of BirdWatching magazine. On Tuesday he put up a summary of the story, “BirdWatching experts help explain ‘drunk birds’ phenomena to America.” The nationwide headlines were much heavier on humor than accuracy:

“Drunk birds are causing havoc in a Minnesota town. Police say they’ll sober up soon.” — Washington Post.
“Drunk Birds Are Currently Terrorizing a Town in Minnesota” — Vice.
“Drunk Birds Can’t Handle Their Alcohol, Are Flying Under the Influence Around Town” — Time.
“Birds are getting ‘drunk’ off of berries and flying into windows, police say” — USA Today.
“Drunk Birds? How a Small Minnesota City Stumbled Into the Spotlight” — New York Times

The Twin Cities Fox News story got picked up nationally. Soon Sharon Stiteler was being featured on Ellen DeGeneris and Jimmy Fallon's monologue—the one silver lining to the whole story.

People forget all about major news headlines now within days as everyone moves on to the next viral story. But meanwhile, I’m sad that people took the wrong lesson from this. I’m with Kenn Kaufman, who told The New York Times that he finds it “difficult to laugh at the plight of these potentially drunken creatures. He compared this widespread glee to the reaction to YouTube videos of loopy children after oral surgery.”

Right now, there is too much scary and even horrifying national news for people to wrap their heads around, so I’m not surprised that the country reveled in a story about drunken birds in such a lighthearted, if inaccurate, way. If a national story about migratory birds was going to lead to any kind of understanding of them and how to help them, I’d be thrilled. As it is, this all turned out to be yet another news item I’d like to forget.

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

How Lisa Found Childlike Delight through Photography

Lisa Johnson — Wednesday Morning, 7 a.m.

Yesterday KUMD played a repeat For the Birds from 2014, in which I talked about how thrilling it was, as a new birder, to be seeing in real life birds I’d seen as a very little girl in my Little Golden Book: Bird Stamps. In it, I said: “I wish that everyone could experience at least one season filled with the joy of discovery that I had in 1975, when I saw so many of my first birds through eyes filled with a child’s elation and wonder.”

Something about that inspired Lisa Johnson to write this splendid essay (as a text message!!):
My eyesight has been crummy ever since third grade, when I got my first pair of glasses. First it was nearsightedness, then nearsightedness with astigmatism… now it’s both of those with old eyes. I’m lucky that (so far) it’s correctable, because I’m legally blind otherwise, but I’m accustomed to not seeing real specifics at a distance.  
So imagine my delight when, through the magic of a camera lens, I’m learning that the black specks and brown blobs I’ve been seeing all my life resolve themselves into birds with the most amazing and undreamed of colors!  

Great Blue Heron by Lisa Johnson
Photography, for me, is almost like Christmas morning when I was a kid: “What did I get? What did I get?” And frequently: “Oh, this is even better than I thought it would be!” Birds almost never disappoint: even a photo that’s not crystal clear or beautifully composed can show the bright black twinkle of a sparrow’s eye or the huge yellow eyes of an owl. Although the subject of the photo is long gone, I can pore over the image to my heart’s content, looking at cormorants’ funny feet or the slate blue in a sparrow’s wing. 
Who knew that bird was really green? Who knew that bird had a bright yellow head? Who knew that those “ducks” floating on the slough were wood ducks and blue-winged teal and scaup and redhead? Is that silhouette in a tree an eagle or a hawk? 
Photography has opened up a whole new world for me in a lot of ways, but it’s really made birds something special. If we’re not racing through our days being “busy,” we’re racing down the road at 70 miles an hour. I’m tired of busy. I still drive faster than I should, but now I’m scanning the roadsides and trees and fences and power lines for birds. My camera with the big zoom lens sits in the passenger seat so I can slam on the brakes and pull over at a moment’s notice to photograph a turkey vulture or a red tailed hawk or a bald eagle.
Yellow-headed Blackbird by Lisa Johnson 
I know every slough and body of water between Lake Brophy in Douglas County to Kenney Lake in Grant County, Minnesota, where I spend most of my vacation time. I know where the yellow-headed blackbirds will be in the spring, the little creek where I can almost always photograph a great blue heron or a great egret, where I’m likely to find coot or bufflehead and where I’ve gotten good photos of white pelicans and cormorants. And in the lake where my dad’s ashes are scattered, I got my best-yet photo of a loon this summer.  
Then after I’ve doodled my way home after as many stops as it took to get photos, I can make a cup of coffee and carry it over to the computer and sit down. I can take my time browsing through my pictures, finally able to see clearly the birds I photographed. I can take my time inspecting their colors and patterns, marveling over the personalities they show the camera, get a good close look at their wings and beaks and feet. I can mark with a star the good photos, but even the crummy ones can usually show me a detail I could never have seen with my unaided eyes. I have all the time in the world to enjoy examining the birds in the images, to look them up, learn their names, and plan for the photos I’ll get “next time.” 
So when Laura talks about that joy of discovery … I’m having that experience right now. That driver in front of you who just hit the brakes and veered over onto the shoulder? Who’s snapping away with a big lens at who-knows-what out the window? That’s just a 57 year old child, experiencing elation and wonder. She’s got her hazard flashers on, at least, so just give her a smile and drive on by.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Sober Up

St. James student with Cedar Waxwing

Back in the 1970s when I was an elementary and junior high science teacher, one of my students brought to our classroom a Cedar Waxwing that had become intoxicated on berries. During its drunken reverie, it must have flown into something, because it had a sprained wing. So for several days we kept it in my classroom, which we dubbed the Ms. Erickson Detox Center. My students helped me feed it mealworms and berries, and when it was ready to be released, we took a field trip to my favorite spot in Madison, Picnic Point, where we let it go.

I did a little research about intoxication in birds at that point, though I didn’t think I’d encounter another tipsy bird in my lifetime—it seemed too bizarre and random. But not too many years later, after we’d moved to Duluth, when I was a licensed rehabber, I was brought an intoxicated Bohemian Waxwing found by the Miller Hill Mall. 

Bohemian Waxwing

This happens more often than you’d think, and we’ve been learning in recent years that some ornamental berry trees can be toxic, leading to “drunken” behavior, even without fermenting. But that is not what is happening in Duluth right now, and I suspect it’s not happening in very big numbers in Gilbert, either, despite the national news.

When birds collide with windows, they act very disoriented, usually because they have head injuries from the impact. We’ve long known in Duluth that birds hit windows in exceptional numbers during migration, because as a migration hotspot, so many birds are here in the first place. For decades I’ve been helping people find ways to make their own windows safer for birds—my book 101 Ways to Help Birds and now my webpages devoted to that include lots of strategies, and I’ve written and spoken extensively on the topic since the 80s. Glass is a killer—Daniel Klem of Muhlenberg College has spent his career studying the problem. He discovered that fully 50 percent of birds that hit glass and seem to come to eventually die from hematomas and other brain injuries. So it’s a problem that needs to be addressed.

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Migrating birds suffer another huge problem as they pass through northland towns and cities—they get hit by cars. Yellow-rumped and Palm Warblers spend a lot of time on the ground and in low shrubs during migration, especially when temperatures are low, because more insects are active lower down than at treetop level in the cold.

Palm Warbler
This year, these warblers and a host of sparrows have flooded through northern Minnesota in the past week, making it pretty much impossible for people to miss noticing them. I’ve seen lots of roadkill on Arrowhead Road and London Road. These birds came from much further north, and haven’t developed strategies for dealing with objects moving at high speed. It’s not too hard to avoid hitting them when driving 25, but as soon as we get over 30 miles per hour, we can’t avoid hitting these little birds.

Informing people about issues of fermenting berries is a good thing—knowledge is power. And a funny story about drunken birds may be more welcome right now than stories about sexual assaults by drunken college students. But the story of drunken birds in Gilbert has become completely overblown, leading to misinformation. Yesterday, one of my friends photographed five dead birds under a window at Essentia, a big medical establishment here in Duluth.

The birds were a variety of warblers—insectivores, not fruit-eaters. This happens every year—I bet this year huge numbers are dying at the Vikings Stadium. My friend took the photo because Essentia is planning a new building project, and she is trying to persuade them to use more visible glass in it. But while she was taking the picture, someone told her the birds had been drunk—she’d read about it in the paper. NO! The birds died because they were passing through and hit the glass. If the news about drunken birds leads people to take less seriously the serious issue of bird collisions with glass, that misinformation campaign will have done a grave disservice. It's time for us to sober up. 

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Not so very drunk

Yellow-rumped Warbler

First thing Monday morning, I looked out at the birds in the back of my yard. With my very first peek, I had four sparrows in my binoculars—and they were four different species: White-throated, White-crowned, and Harris’s Sparrows, and junco. While I was still looking at them, another species flitted through—a Yellow-rumped Warbler. I was hearing lots of Blue Jays, and when I scanned, counted 23 jays in a single tray feeder just barely big enough to accommodate the crowd. There were plenty of other jays throughout the yard—more than 60 total—feeding in other feeders and on the ground, drinking from the birdbaths, and squawking from the trees. The total number of sparrows in the collection in the back of the yard was over 50. At least a dozen Yellow-rumps were about—some in my suet feeders but most on the ground and in the shrubs making their dry chips. Lovely calls drew my eyes skyward to a line of 9 Sandhill Cranes flying overhead. A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker worked my apple tree while robins and Swainson’s Thrushes fed in several berry shrubs in back. I could also hear my backyard Downy, Hairy, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers and a flicker, to say nothing of my chickadees.

Right now, at the peak of songbird migration, my backyard is a happenin’ place, but what we call a migration fallout is way more widespread than just on Peabody Street. People have been calling and messaging me for days about all the birds hitting windows and getting hit by cars.

On Tuesday, Police Chief Ty Techar of the Gilbert Minnesota police department issued a press release saying that the department had received calls about "birds that appear to be under the influence, flying into windows, cars and acting confused." I got a call from Peter Passi of the Duluth News Tribune asking about it. The Gilbert police were attributing the situation to intoxicated birds eating fermented berries, but they didn’t specify what species were involved in these problems. Robins, other thrushes, and waxwings are usually the birds found intoxicated. But that’s definitely not the issue with birds people have been calling me about, as I told Peter Passi. Yellow-rumped Warbler migration always peaks right at the end of September into early October, and this year they’re unusually abundant. I picked one up at a Subway restaurant in Duluth this weekend—it was stunned, and at first in no condition to walk or fly in a straight line, but it would have been perfectly capable of passing a breathalyzer test.

The Duluth News Tribune article took one quote from me but ignored everything else I said:
Laura Erickson, a Duluth birding expert, said waxwings, robins and thrushes often are some of the most prone to become tipsy, as they commonly feed on such berries. 
"Birds actually do get literally intoxicated when they eat berries that have started fermenting, and that does lead to drunken behavior," she said.
The article focused entirely on the drunken birds angle, starting with a funny color cartoon of a drunken bird with a sign, “Welcome to Gilbert,” and ending with Police Chief Techar joking that people didn’t need to report intoxicated birds to the police, but should call if they saw Heckle and Jeckle walking around being boisterous or playing practical jokes, Woodstock pushing Snoopy off the doghouse for no apparent reason, or a string of other funny situations.

I had a sinking feeling that drunken birds was going to be the only takeaway message even though I’ve yet to hear any actual evidence that fermented berries are even involved in this situation. Sure enough, I got a call from a Twin Cities TV news station reporter, and all he wanted to hear about was birds getting drunk. He wanted someone on the air to talk about it, and he asked her where he could get some footage of waxwings getting drunk. Then Minnesota Public Radio picked up the News Tribune’s story. On their Facebook article, they showed a dead hummingbird with a quote from me about birds eating fermented berries, implying that I was saying that’s what happened to the hummingbird. It absolutely is not!

I guess with all the talk on the news about high school and college drinking parties, it’s to be expected that birds acting a little out of the ordinary would be accused of being drunk. But even though the birds in Gilbert may indeed be intoxicated by fermented berries, I’m doubtful unless someone can confirm their species. And even then, when berry trees are close to windows or roads, birds feeding in them can be startled by a hawk and crash without even being intoxicated. But the first step in knowing for certain what’s going on isn’t to test their blood-alcohol levels, just check their ID.

Meanwhile, birds hit windows in unacceptable numbers every year during migration. But I’m afraid that important message is being lost in the fun people are having suddenly talking about drunken birds. It’s a diversion from national news, and people seem to have already forgotten one important news story. I expect there have been hundreds of birds killed at the Vikings Stadium this week. Even those of us who haven’t blacked out from too much beer since the stadium was in the news have forgotten what a hazard it is and will continue to be every single spring and fall. Migrating birds deserve safe passage through our state, but for a while now, the ones dying due to the hazards we put out there will be the butt of jokes.

You can help your backyard birds by making your windows safe. Here are some suggestions.

Vikings Poster