Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Monday, January 21, 2019

Letter from Listener: Turtles Falling from the Skies


Last week I received an email from a reader of this blog (which serves as a transcript of “For the Birds”) about an account Steve Lorentz sent. Steve had watched a crow dropping some sort of item from the sky and retrieving it, apparently playing a game of catch with itself. I added my own stories about a crow I’d rehabbed playing ball with my little boy, and about gulls, which are known to drop various shellfish from the sky to break them so they can eat the meat within. In response to this, Chelsea Baylor wrote:
Several years ago, I was walking the path by the Skokie Lagoons (in Skokie, IL) when I saw ahead of me two young men in earnest discussion over something that one of them was holding.  I came alongside of them and asked what they had.  It was a very small baby turtle.  I advised them that they should return it to the lagoon.  Yes, they would put it into the lagoon, but in fact, it hadn’t come from the lagoon.  It had fallen from the skies and landed on the path directly in front of them.  They were thoroughly mystified!   
Their mystification may have been compounded by being new to the US. Their English was halting, and I guessed they were probably Asian graduate students, or maybe post docs from the Botanical Gardens.  In any case, heaven-sent turtles were distinctly new to them. 
As best I could, I conveyed that it must have been dropped by a bird, but I didn’t think to put it together with the bird dropping the hard-shelled turtle onto the macadam pathway.    And I should have known – in Woods Hole, MA it was positively dangerous to sit at the base of the sundial by the Marine Biological Laboratory. The cement base made a favorite target for seagulls and their clams.
Herring Gull detail

Hearing Chelsea's account about the turtle dropping from the sky reminded me of how bird behavior sometimes intersects mythology and history—and in this case, both at the same time. The Greek playwright Aeschylus died in 455 BC—the cause of death was said to be a tortoise dropped by an eagle from above.  


Aeschylus was supposedly bald, and the story has come down that the eagle mistook his head for a rock. Birders figure the bird in question was more likely a Lammergeier, a vulture fairly common in southern Europe back then. Lammergeiers often carry large bones high in the air and drop them on rocks to shatter them—then they fly down to eat the exposed marrow. Presumably this method would also work for tortoise shells.

All the representations of Aeschylus that I’ve found show him with a pretty full head of hair, at least in front, but it makes a good story. Pliny wrote that Aeschylus was trying to stay outdoors in the first place because of a prophesy that he’d be killed by a falling item, though I’m not sure how being outdoors would lower the probability of that. In at least one version, I read more specifically that he’d been warned of a house falling on him. That story does a better job of explaining why he avoided being indoors, at least with the explanation that a tortoise shell amounts to the reptile’s house.

Whatever the mythological underpinnings and historical accuracy of Aeschylus being killed by a tortoise dropped on him from above, I’d be shocked and amazed to see a turtle fall down from the skies at the Skokie Lagoons or anywhere else. Like Aeschylus, I think staying out of doors as much as possible is a good thing that promises a longer, happier life, and I suppose I base that on a prophesy, too—not a prophesy of doom and gloom and falling houses, but one that promises that I’ll see many more birds outside than if I stay indoors. Chelsea’s wonderful story about this surprising experience made my day.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

The Googlable Laura


One of today's CBS Sunday Morning segments was about podcast production—many podcasts are done with an actual staff and underwriting that supports professional-level promotion as well as production. Me, I’m just small potatoes.

Yet somehow both Wikipedia and Google take notice of my work. After I did a blog post about why Muhlenberg College professor Dan Klem, who pioneered research into bird-window collisions, deserves much more recognition, Wikipedia used that information as a starting point to create a whole entry about Klem,  using my photo of him and citing me in the references.

If you google the term “Most adorable bird in the universe,” my Flickr photos and blog posts about the Cuban Tody are invariably at the top of the results.

My blog posts and web pages are also at or near the top of the search results when people google several topics I’ve covered rather thoroughly, such as the owls of Harry Potterbird tongues, whether feeding jelly to birds is good or bad, why baiting or feeding owls is bad, whether birds fart…just the kinds of questions inquiring people ask. I haven’t written about most of these topics in years, but information like this stays current and accurate over time, and somehow Google's algorithms send these kinds of questions my way. 

Last week, someone in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania, apparently googled “twin chicks,” “double yolked eggs hatching,” or something like that, and found my blog post about “Twins and Double Yolks in Bird Eggs.” The Narberth-Bala Cynwyd Patch posted an article Thursday titled “Twin Chicks Born At Bala Cynwyd Middle School,” about a class studying a unit on embryology and genetics. As part of their studies, the students received 24 chick eggs. The eggs hatched over the weekend, and when the students looked in on them on Monday, January 14, what to their wondering eyes should appear but 30 chicks! If this is accurate, it means that at least six pairs of twins had been produced, which is one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever heard of.


The newspaper article quoted one student, Danielle Gesser Sapir, who said,
This is beyond rare, for the most likely explanation would be six twins in a batch of 24, which (as two of our math teachers calculated) is a one in a quintillion chance. Our research has shown the probability of having a double yolk is rare, and having two chicks born from the same egg is even rarer.
Danielle also noted,
When twin chicks are born, they usually need help such as a human cracking the egg shell for them. Since all the chicks looked perfectly healthy when we came in on Monday and since none (as far as we're concerned) had aid at birth, this is a confusing event.
The article also quoted my blog, which students or the reporter must have googled:
"In one study of more than 1100 chicken eggs, double yolks were found only three times – that is, in less than one-third of one percent,” according to Laura Erickson, known as the "Dr. Ruth of Ornithology.” “In another, larger study, 2.8 percent of chicken eggs were double-yolked. Very few double-yolked eggs hatch.”
I don’t get paid in money for my podcast or blog, but discovering that my work is useful for students a thousand miles away is more rewarding than money would be. It’s still mystifying how two and a half dozen chicks hatched from two dozen eggs, but life is filled with mysteries—during trying times it’s wonderful when a mystery is as fluffy and adorable as six extra baby chicks.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Letter from KAXE listener Stephen Lorentz

American Crow

Back in December, I got an interesting email from KAXE listener Steve Lorentz. He wrote:
I wanted to tell you about something I saw this fall.  I observed a crow hovering in the wind about 250 feet above the ground.  I watched it drop something from its beak and then dive to catch it after about a 40-foot fall.  It appeared to be playing?  The crow missed the catch on the fourth attempt and followed whatever it was playing with to the ground. 
Steve wrote back with a couple of additional details.
There was about a 15-mph wind out of the SW.  Too bad I wasn’t able to ID whatever it was it was playing catch with.  The image I got was of a young person playing catch with a ball but instead of throwing a ball into the air it was dropping it from above.  I almost sensed the crow smiling as it dove and caught the object. 
One of the ways people distinguish crows from ravens is the generalization that crows are rather boring fliers, tending to fly directly from one place to another, literally “as the crow flies.” It’s their big relatives the ravens that we consider masters of complicated flight maneuvers. But crows are notorious mavericks and functionally illiterate, too—they haven’t read that they’re supposed to use their wings for simple, straight locomotion only. And like many other intelligent species, crows indeed spend time playing.

An injured crow I once rehabbed, named Icarus because someone shot him out of the sky, was skittish around me but forged a solid friendship with my toddler son Tommy. Tommy had a bouncy ball about the size of a basketball but much lighter, and he and Icarus often spent a half hour or longer playing catch. Tommy would pick up the ball and toss it to Icarus. Being just over 1 year old, Tommy’s toss was low to the floor to begin with and always ended on a roll. Icarus couldn’t catch it, but he’d position himself so as the ball got near, he’d smack it with his beak, rolling it straight back to Tommy. That was in the 1980s, long before digital photography—it’s one of the many things involving birds or my children that I wish I could have videotaped, or at the very least photographed. This game and Tommy’s and Icarus’s friendship were truly adorable.

For humans and other intelligent species, play can keep our powers of observation and reflexes sharp while exercising our minds. Often there is an added bonus—some forms of play can end up with a practical result. I’ve watched Herring Gulls on the East Coast flying up high while carrying various shelled animals.

Herring Gull

Herring Gull

They suddenly drop the shell to the ground, especially above rocks or low-traffic roads. Then they fly down to see what happened—if they cracked it open, they start feeding on the animal within. If they didn’t, they carry it aloft to drop again.

How did Herring Gulls figure this out? Did one uniquely philosophical bird long ago reason through that hitting the ground from high up would break the shell? Had one been carrying a shelled animal from one place to another, and when it accidentally dropped, discovered that hitting the hard ground opened the shell? Or did gulls start out simply playing, as Steve’s crow was doing, and thereby learned a cool trick?

We don’t know if the crow Steve observed was carrying something edible or not. Catching items in flight could be useful when tiny birds or large insects are winging by, so practicing these maneuvers might someday help that crow get an interesting meal. Meanwhile, that aerial game may well have been nourishing the bird’s spirit. Watching it certainly seems to have nourished Steve’s spirit. As he notes, “You can see interesting birding at all location as you go about your day.” When we keep our eyes and hearts open, the world is a fascinating place. One could do worse than be a watcher of birds.

American Crow

Saturday, January 12, 2019

The Real Crisis at Anzalduas Park on the Mexican Border

(Yet another radio program transcript that elicited at least one angry call from a listener complaining that I got political. These people don't contact me, and never seem to find errors in what I report. They just don't think bird stories should ever have a political point of view, even when about birds that are in serious jeopardy because of a political issue, and so want to remove my voice from the airwaves.) 

Anzalduas Park sign

Last week, one of my favorite birding places made the news. Anzalduas Park, a friendly little gem right along the Rio Grande River, was used for a press conference to highlight what some call the "crisis" of illegal immigration.

I spent my birthday morning there in 2013 when I was doing my Big Year. By then the number of undocumented immigrants coming over our southern border was already much lower than it had been at the peak, during the Clinton administration. In recent years, that number includes more refugee families from Central America than other undocumented people, too; refugees almost always immediately report to authorities because they're seeking asylum.

From The New York Times

As a woman traveling and birding alone, I stay alert to danger, but despite all the time I spent birding along the border that very year, in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, often all by myself and of course unarmed, as I was that morning at Anzalduas County Park, even when searching the trees and sky right across the river from Mexico, I never thought about people crossing the border. The signs at the park did warn of some potential problems: above the 10-mph speed limit sign was a warning, “Slow: Children at Play,” and also a sign saying “Watch for snakes.”

Anzalduas Park

I was too busy enjoying the host of wonderful birds in that critical habitat along the Rio Grande to think much about snakes except as photo ops, and didn't luck into seeing any at all.

Great Egret enjoying the view of two countries.

At the park that morning in 2013, I photographed Great Egret, Zone-tailed Hawk, Black and Turkey Vultures, Inca Dove, Ringed Kingfisher, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Crested Caracara, Great Kiskadee, Tropical Kingbird, Vermilion Flycatcher, Loggerhead Shrike, Northern Mockingbird, Great-tailed Grackle, and Altamira Oriole, as well as several butterflies.

Zone-tailed Hawk

Inca Dove

Ringed Kingfisher

Golden-fronted Woodpecker

20131111-IMG_0649.jpg

Tropical Kingbird

Vermilion Flycatcher

Loggerhead Shrike

Northern Mockingbird

Great-tailed Grackle

Little Yellow

Pearl Crescent

The only one who gave me rather a disrespectful eye that whole morning was a male fox squirrel feeling rather macho.

Eastern Fox Squirrel

It was at Anzalduas Park that I saw the one and only Hook-billed Kite I was to see during my entire Big Year. Indeed, to this day it remains the only one I’ve ever seen in the United States.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get a photo of it. The very moment I saw it flying over the river and started running for a better vantage point, I had an encounter with a real danger not mentioned on those signs—something that constitutes a bigger crisis, to birds and at least a few humans, than illegal border crossings. I tripped on a big wad of monofilament tangled in the weeds on the ground.

Wad of monofilament

I scraped both knees and hurt my wrists but managed to hang onto my camera so was no worse for the wear except missing the chance to photograph that Hook-billed Kite. My only picture of that species remains one of a perched bird I took in Guatemala in 2007.  The only other time I saw one was in Costa Rica in 2002.

Hook-billed Kites are a lot harder to come by than monofilament. Over my years of birding, I’ve found dead birds dangling from it, live birds entangled that I’ve managed to rescue, and entangled birds who weren’t catchable, facing difficulties and almost certainly shortened lives thanks to monofilament. I’ve tripped on it before, too, though never so badly as at Anzalduas that morning—it was so attached to sturdy weeds that it was unyielding and I was running too fast. I of course spent several minutes pulling out that wad to properly dispose of when I got home. I wonder if, when the Secret Service scoured the area before the press conference, they were alert to that clear and present danger. 

In good fishing areas, I’ve seen plenty of monofilament line receptacles, set out by DNRs, non-profits, Boy Scouts, and volunteers. Most of the people I know who love fishing love the natural world, too, so carelessness about monofilament disposal seems cosmically thoughtless and irresponsible, especially with those receptacles available in so many areas. Of course, sometimes a line gets caught on an overhead wire or branch, and becomes genuinely irretrievable. But most of the line I see is wadded up on the ground, tossed aside like litter. When a receptacle isn’t available, unwanted monofilament should be wadded up and cut into pieces before disposal. Monofilament is not recyclable with other plastics.

Monofilament
Monofilament bin in Santa Cruz, California
After a full morning of birding, I pulled out my bag lunch and sat down at a picnic table. It looked to me as if some people on the other side had the same idea. We waved back and forth as neighbors often do.

Like so many other lovely places along the Rio Grande River, Anzalduas Park will almost certainly be destroyed by any border wall—the park lines the river, and the wall will have to be far enough inland to prevent flood damage. Based on my personal experience, Anzalduas County Park needs a monofilament line recycling bin way, way more than it needs a border wall.

Great Egret

Friday, January 11, 2019

Barred Owl in the News

Barred Owl

This week I got an email from one of my friends, David Figura, a journalist in Syracuse, New York, wanting information about owls after seeing a surprising video on social media. His article on Syracuse.com read:
A Rensselaer County man got up close and personal recently with a wayward barred owl that flew into his truck while he was driving.
“The thing just flew into my window. It hit me in the face. I’m cut up,” said Jeremy Dodge on a video of the Jan. 2 incident he posted on his Facebook page.
Dodge, of Averill Park, said was driving down Route 66 to get some Chinese food that evening. The bird settled on his front passenger seat.  
Before posting his news article, Dave wrote to me to verify the bird’s identification, and also to ask if I had any thoughts on how it happened. He asked, “Was it possibly hanging around the roadway looking for, or feasting on roadkill, or just an oddity in the outdoors?” He quoted my response verbatim:
Many owls hunt along roadsides. People carelessly tossing food into ditches are unfortunately subsidizing rodents that in turn attract predators. And owls tend to fly exactly at windshield or car window height.  
When Jeremy Dodge posted his video, it instantly started a ruckus on social media, quickly amassing tens of thousands of views.


A lot of viewers posted comments. Most everyone thought it was amazing and/or hilarious. Some of the responses were pretty hilarious, but few people really knew anything about owls.

Several people commented on the way Jeremy Dodge had reached over and stroked the owl on the forehead between the eyes. Owls resemble cats, and so that’s a natural human response to an owl. A couple of people insisted that the fact that the owl leaned into this meant that the owl was somehow a domesticated bird, responding like a pet cat. I pointed out that this is how owls responded when I stroked wild owls to calm them when I was a wildlife rehabilitator. Siblings, parents, and mated owls naturally allopreen, using their beaks to preen one another’s facial feathers above and between the eyes, and the bird being allopreened responds exactly in the way Jeremy Dodge’s Barred Owl did. My education owl Archimedes leaned in like that from the very first night I had him in my possession.

Hardly anyone mentioned the old superstition about owls portending a death despite the fact that in this case, the guy could have had a heart attack or crashed his car in the first few seconds—the bird had hit him on the side of his face before inertia and its flapping wings carried it beyond the driver to the other half of the front seat.

Much more often when an owl’s path crosses ours, it goes far worse for the owl than for the human. Wildlife rehabilitators still treat a distressing number of hawks and owls each year for firearm injuries. Had the weather been more seasonable, Jeremy Dodge would not have been driving with his window open, and even then it was improbable that the bird would hit the open window. As I told David Figura for his article,
This was a case of the bird winging across at exactly the wrong time. It could have gone worse, at least for the owl—it could have been a split second earlier and been struck hitting the windshield, or it could have been a split second later and hit the closed back window.  
Dodge pulled his car over for some of the brief video, then got out and opened the passenger door. He said goodbye to the owl, which he repeatedly called “dude,” and the bird flew off into the night. It very well may have had a head injury—his cellphone flashlight reflected differently off one eye than the other, which may have been an artifact of angle but also suggested possible head or eye trauma—but the bird did appear to fly well and may well be recovering just fine on its own. 

With luck, it’ll not just recover but learn to avoid roads. But then, how likely is it that people are learning from this video to stop throwing apple cores and other rodent food out their car windows, ensuring a continued rodent population along roadsides? And how many people will start driving slower to avoid most of these collisions in the first place?

Surviving traumatic events is often a matter of luck. Learning from them? Humans and owls reportedly both belong to intelligent species, but how well either of us learn from our mistakes, or even realize when something bad happens that we made a mistake, is a question for the ages.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Guest on Science Friday!

On today's Science Friday, I was honored to be one of Ira Flatow's guests! You can hear that segment, about the Christmas Bird Count and other birdy things, on the Science Friday website. Especially thrilling for me is that the Science Friday website actually has a Laura Erickson page, where you can hear both today's birding segment and one I did in the studio with Ira Flatow last year, that one also featuring my good friend J. Drew Lanham.

Proof! I was on Science Friday with Ira Flatow!
This photo was from December 22, 2017, when I was in NYC visiting my daughter so got to
be in the studio with Ira Flatow!!
Pip and her Uncle Drew
J. Drew Lanham and Pip the Birding Dog! Drew was on the
Science Friday birding program last year. 

Laura’s Best Bird EVER! ™ Big Year Mexican Chickadee

April 7, 1982, Joey and me in the Chiricahuas
Hiking in the Chiricahuas
In 1982, Russ and I took our 6-month-old baby Joey to Arizona. One of the highlights for me was a long hike in the Chiricahua Mountains, where I saw my lifer Mexican Chickadee.

Photo courtesy of Bettina Arrigoni via Wikipedia.
This species isn’t particularly rare within its range, but only reaches the United States in a few places. The most accessible area, where most birders add it to their lifelist, is along the trails near the Rustler Park campground; sure enough, that’s exactly where we saw it. The hike was so fun that the day remains one of my favorite memories—that was the day we even came upon a Gila Monster. I can’t remember the exact moment I saw my lifer Mexican Chickadee—it was just one of many lovely experiences that day. So as thrilled as I was to have finally seen the last of all the chickadees that breed in the Lower-48, I’m afraid it didn't qualify as a “Best Bird EVER!”  

Then, in 2013 I did a Lower-48 Big Year, and one of my goals was to see every chickadee in that one year. That meant I had to head back to the Chiricahuas to see the Mexican Chickadee again.

Unfortunately, my Big Year plans had to be abbreviated, in terms of both time and money, and I didn’t get to the Chiricahuas until November 23. I’d made arrangements to stay for two nights at the legendary Cave Creek Ranch so I’d have a whole day to enjoy the high elevations where the chickadee would be. I reached the entrance to the ranch at mid-afternoon, when we were getting a few snow flurries. The dirt road in had a warning sign, “SERIOUS BUMP,” but with due diligence, I got my low-carriage Prius through it just fine.

Serious Bump sign

While planning my trip to the extreme south, close to the Mexican border, it never occurred to me that I might need winter boots, a shovel, and sand or kitty litter, much less snow tires on my car. I had plenty of warm clothes but had not thought to prepare for winter driving, which was especially shortsighted because I'd be driving all the way home to northern Minnesota as Thanksgiving approached, when snow is just about always expected. There were a few small bits of snow here and there in the vegetation as I drove to Cave Creek Ranch, and a more thorough dusting covering the ground at the ranch, but I figured that was the most I’d see down there. I didn’t have enough time to get up into the mountains that day, and so I spent the rest of the afternoon reveling in and photographing feeder birds and javelinas, also called collared peccaries, at the ranch.

Javelina

When it got dark, I had a wonderful dinner and went to bed early. I had an exciting full day of birding ahead.

I woke at first light to two or three inches of snow on the ground, as beautiful as it was disconcerting. My car could easily handle that even without snow tires if I took it slow and easy, but I knew that the snow depth would increase as I went up the mountain, and I needed to be at a much higher elevation to see the chickadee. To be on the safe side, I waited a couple hours before I set out, in hopes that the road up the mountain would get plowed out. Meanwhile, I looked at an assortment of birds I’d always associated with hot, dry Arizona—it was unsettling to see them in snow, but of course it snows in winter, at least sometimes, even down in Arizona and Mexico.

Painted Redstart
Painted Redstart
Pyrrhuloxia
Pyrrhuloxia
Mexican Jay
Mexican Jay
Blue-throated Hummingbird
Blue-throated Hummingbird
When I finally set out, the roads hadn’t been touched by plows or other vehicles. It was easy to stay on the road, but sure enough, the snow got deeper and deeper as I climbed. I’ve done plenty of driving in snow over the years, and for a few miles worked my way slow but steadily up the road. I passed the Southwestern Research Station—closed to visitors for the season—and made it a total of about seven miles. I didn't get quite to Paradise Road, and still was a full six or seven miles short of where Russ and I had seen Mexican Chickadees before, up in Rustler Park. I'd crept along as the snow got deeper and deeper, until at last it was up to my front bumper and my car couldn’t go any farther.

It was time to give up. I had to leave the Chiricahuas the next morning, so I was giving up on my one and only shot at Mexican Chickadee for the year.

I didn’t have leisure to feel sorry for myself—I still had to figure out how to turn my car around in the deep snow to head back down the mountain. All I could do without a shovel was to kick away a path through the snow in front of all four tires, wearing my hiking boots, and then get back in the car and try to inch it around in a U-turn. I managed to move the car a couple of feet before I got mired again. I got out, again kicked away snow to make another short path, and again worked the car a couple of feet further. The morning was silent, the thick snow beautiful even if it was creating a worst-case scenario for birding. There was no wind and it wasn’t all that cold—probably low- to mid-20s—but there were also no birds calling. I was just as glad about that because I was focused on kicking away snow. I wasn’t all that upset—when I’m alone, with no one else depending on me, I can be surprisingly Zen-like in dealing with setbacks.

It took three or four more kicking-snow-and-inching-my-car-forward episodes to get my car perpendicular to the road. I had to kick out the snow from in front of my tires and inch the car forward another five or six times before it was finally facing the right direction, down the mountain instead of up. I’d spent more than 45 minutes at it, and despite my warm coat, hat, and gloves, I was chilled to the bone, my feet frozen. I cleared out enough snow ahead of my tires to get a three or four-foot start in hopes that I could stay in motion going straight down—at least now I could drive in the tracks I'd made going up.

I had just opened the car door to get in for the last time when suddenly I heard the rapid chickadee calls of a Mexican Chickadee! I thought it was my imagination—how could it not be? But no, there in a conifer next to the road was a chickadee staring at me. I’d kept my binoculars on while driving and then while shoveling, so I got a clear look at the extensive black bib and distinctive gray wash on the sides. A Mexican Chickadee!

Like other chickadees, Mexican Chickadees tend to move about in winter flocks, but as hard as I looked and listened, I could not find another chickadee, or any other bird for that matter. I'd been pretty quiet with my kicking and inching my car, a hybrid without any engine start-up noise, but birds have keen hearing. Perhaps this little guy heard an odd sound and flew down the mountain to check it out, or perhaps it took pity on a poor, wayfaring stranger a’traveling through that world of woe. I’ll never know what impulse brought it to me or made it call at quite literally the last possible second before I started down the road. It flew away before I could even think to get my camera out of the car. But for one brief, shining moment, which was all I really needed, there it was. That Mexican Chickadee was surely my best bird EVER.

GoldenGuideChickadee.jpg

Snowman

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

First Bird of 2019

Black-capped Chickadee

On January first, I just happened to be looking out at a spectacular sunrise when there came a rapping, came a tapping at my chamber door. Well, not exactly--the sound was simply coming from another window. And there was my first bird of the day, insisting that I hold out my hand in the sub-zero temperatures to give it live mealworms for its New Years breakfast. Of course I obliged, so my first bird of 2019 was not only seen and heard but literally felt, its cold little toes clutching my fingers confidingly as it grabbed two mealworms. It feasted in a nearby spruce and was back in less than a minute with a beseeching “Please, sir, I want some more” look. This time it flew off with three.

Handfeeding mealworms to a Black-capped Chickadee

If I’ve had one constant wish over the years as far as my first bird of the year goes, it’s hoping for it to be a Black-capped Chickadee. And if I have one constant pleasure with chickadees, it’s the lovely way some of them come to trust me and take food from my hands. So 2019 started out making me feel rich and satisfied.

A time-honored tradition among birders is reporting our first bird of the New Year, and I like to come up with scenarios for the coming year based on that first bird. For example, a chickadee could signify a year filled with good cheer and equanimity in facing any hardships; a crow could portend a year marked by intelligence and warm family ties.

American Crow

Seeing a Blue Jay first might mean you’re going to use both intelligence and a spunky attitude to face the coming days.

Blue Jay

Canada Geese are all about travel and convivial gatherings with friends and relatives.

Canada Goose

American Coots might predict a year filled with friends and delicious vegetarian meals—of course, geese are pretty much vegetarians, too.

American Coots

These kinds of predictions have every bit as much scientific validity as any other form of fantasy, but what my prognostications lack in reality they make up for in tradition. Our word augury comes from a term specifically referring to the ancient practice of divination by means of birds. Birds were among the sacrificial creatures whose entrails were laid out for augurs to interpret. An auspex referred to a person who watched living birds to predict the future. That’s where the word auspicious comes from.

Few cultures in today’s world hold a firm belief in augury, yet even educated people in modern societies take comfort in thinking that birds somehow communicate with the dead or that someone who died is somehow taking wing with the birds. At my mother-in-law’s memorial service last week, the minister said she’d seen a Bald Eagle that morning and asked if anyone else had seen an eagle that day—several people in the congregation raised their hands, including me.

Bald Eagle

The eagle I’d observed was flying over the highway toward the lake, maybe traveling between a dead deer along a county road and fish entrails along the shore. From sunrise to sunset, a Bald Eagle’s day is focused on eagle matters—finding and consuming food, resting, maybe checking out how the nest it’ll be using come spring is faring after a winter storm, and activities we mere humans don’t understand. When our path intersects that of an eagle, we like to think it holds some meaning for us personally, but cannot even fathom whether the eagle takes notice of us or makes predictions about its own future based on what species of mammal it saw first on whatever day an eagle might think begins its annual cycle.

I know the Bald Eagle I saw in Port Wing on December 26th wasn’t in the least bit thinking about my mother-in-law, much less carrying her spirit aloft, but it’s lovely to imagine her finally taking wing after her awful final months, just like it’s lovely to think that my new year will be filled with a chickadee’s good cheer and convivial ways. Imagining a happy future and the souls of our loved ones flying free is no more or less reasonable or fact-based than most pessimistic predictions, and no less likely to be fulfilled than, say, our new year’s resolutions, at least based on my past experience. As long as we understand the difference between reality and fantasy, indulging in predictions based on birds is a time-honored human tradition that really can lift our spirit. After all, we’re only human.

Bald Eagle