Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Monday, June 26, 2017

Where have all the insects gone?

Luna Moth

I took my first ornithology class at the Kellogg Biological Station, near Kalamazoo, Michigan, in the summer of 1975, and Russ took a water chemistry class there on the same days. At the time, we were living in East Lansing, and my class started at 6 am, so we had to leave home each morning about 4:30. We always started out with a clean windshield, but on the hour-long drive, we had to pull over at least once, sometimes even twice, to clean the windshield again, because it had become so spattered with bugs that not even the washer fluid and wipers could clean up the goopy mess. This was standard driving procedure back then. It was also common for the snowplows to have to come out to clear mayfly carcasses off bridges. There once were a LOT of flying insects.

Russ and I moved to Duluth in 1981, and we woke up every summer morning to dozens and dozens of moths clinging to the screens on our windows and back door.  Some were amazingly beautiful—various sphinx moths, and even an occasional luna, io, polyphemus, or cecropia moth. By mid-day they’d have fluttered away or been plucked off the screen by a phoebe or the Tree Swallows nesting two doors down. On summer evenings, we could hear Common Nighthawks overhead. They nested on flat roofs here and there all around Duluth.

Common Nighthawk

Nighthawks aren't sampled well on the Breeding Bird Survey,
but their numbers are clearly lower than in the 70s.

Back in the 80s, bug zappers suddenly came in vogue, and one of our neighbors set up a couple in his backyard. He expected them to take out the mosquitoes, but bug zappers are indiscriminate killers, and the vast majority of zapping noises we heard throughout the evening and night were much too loud for a mosquito—his lights were mostly taking out moths and other innocuous insects that had been sustaining our swallows and nighthawks. On many nights, the loud zapping seemed almost continuous.

Bug zapper lights were a short-lived fad, but they were far from the only things killing insects. Mayflies were disappearing as more and more waterfront property was developed with manicured lawns down to the shoreline, fertilizers running off into our lakes, rivers, and streams, supporting algae and other aquatic plants that ultimately depleted the oxygen levels; the most important thing mayflies need during their aquatic nymph stage is well-oxygenated water. At that same time, chemical lawn services and garden insecticides were growing increasingly popular. People who claimed virtuously to use only the relatively non-toxic Bt were a big part of the problem—the form of Bt that kills pest caterpillars kills every other lepidopteran caterpillar, too, including those of Monarch butterflies and Cecropia moths.

Cecropia Moth

Phoebes and swallows haven’t nested in my neighborhood since the 80s. I’m lucky to hear one or two nighthawks during spring migration now, and never hear them during their nesting season. Where we used to have several August evenings each year when thousands of nighthawks wended their way above Peabody Street, we’re now lucky to have one or two evenings a year when hundreds fly over.

Tree Swallows may not nest in my neighborhood anymore, but their numbers
are actually increasing in Minnesota according to the USGS Breeding Bird Survey.

Eastern Phoebe numbers are constant or even rising in Minnesota.


Last month, the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s journal, Science, published a story, “Where have all the insects gone?” summarizing several long-term studies based on bodies of data from nature reserves and other areas in western Europe and America, documenting massive and dramatic declines in insects. These studies have established that even in places where plant diversity and abundance have improved, insect numbers still declined.

One Canadian study involved probing into decades of stratified bird droppings in some old chimneys in which Chimney Swifts have nested for generations. Going through the layers of bird poop, they could track a striking change in the swifts’ diets in the 1940s, when DDT was introduced and suddenly the proportion of beetle remains dropped off. The proportion of beetle remains increased after DDT was banned in the 70s, but never reached the level it had been in the 40s. Meanwhile, most of the insects the swifts were catching were smaller than the pre-1940s species, meaning the swifts had to work harder for each calorie.

Chimney Swift

Chimney Swift numbers have been steadily declining since the 70s.


Some of the causes of insect declines scientists are looking at include habitat loss, increased use of fertilizers, light pollution, and pesticides, especially neonicotinoids. But the widespread, dramatic declines are almost certainly due to multiple factors, so even beginning to solve the problem will require multiple fronts of attack.

I’ve been talking about declining insect numbers since the 90s—that seemed quite obviously a serious factor in the declines of so many of my favorite birds that feed entirely on flying insects. And for years, people have been criticizing my conclusions because I had no proof of widespread declines in insects—just the anecdotal observations on my car’s windshield and on my window screens. I’m glad some scientists are taking these problems seriously and starting to quantify the decline. Solving the many factors that have contributed to the decline in important insects will be extraordinarily difficult as it is. It will be outright impossible until we acknowledge that there is even a problem.

Hummingbird Moth

Where are the Tree Swallows?

Tree Swallow

I just got an email from one of my friends, Jan Keough, who lives on a lake north of Duluth. Here it is, the last week of June, and she has not had a single Tree Swallow this year. She’d cleaned out her three swallow nest boxes to be ready. Last year one of the boxes attracted squirrels, which chewed up the entrance hole, but she bought a metal ring—what’s called a nest hole restrictor—to exclude birds and mammals larger than Tree Swallows from using the box. She was concerned that that might have discouraged swallows from using what had been her most reliable box, or that tiny bits of debris from the squirrel nest might have repelled the swallows, though she noted that she hadn’t seen any swallows swooping around on land or over the lake this year.

As people on my Spring Warbler Walks can attest, this spring was a pretty cool, especially in the central states but also up here. This seemed to delay migration for a great many birds. We were still wearing winter scarves and gloves at the very end of May.

Laura and Pip and Laura's car
Pip and me at our last Warbler Walk of the year on May 30. It was cold!

These temperatures, though not much below normal on average, did keep flying insects at bay, and those flying insects are what fuel Tree Swallow migration, sustain nesting adults, provide the basic building blocks to produce eggs, and keep baby Tree Swallows alive and thriving. I wonder if many swallows didn’t stay a bit further south this season?

We did see a few Tree Swallows on those warbler walks. On May 18 we counted at least 100 swarming in a large migratory flock with other swallow species at Park Point. One pair seemed to be interested in nesting at the Western Waterfront Trail, but we didn’t see them at all on our last field trip there, so I’m not sure they stuck around.

My dog Pip and I came upon a small group a mile or two further down the Western Waterfront Trail on May fifth. One pair who stayed very close to a nest box seemed almost certainly to be nesting—they don’t start incubating eggs until they have a full clutch, but this pair stuck very close to the nest box, giving me splendid opportunities for photos of both of them.

Tree Swallow

Tree Swallow

Temperatures along the river in West Duluth are often milder than those near the North Shore, so it’s easy to imagine that swallows may have been gravitating to warmer spots.

I don’t think the situation is dire. I looked on the U.S. Geological Survey’s Breeding Bird Survey webpage, and the graphs for Tree Swallow population trends in Wisconsin and Minnesota don’t show any declines. Their numbers in Wisconsin swing crazily up and down from year to year, but the overall trend looks steady, their numbers fairly high.



In Minnesota, the overall numbers are a bit lower. Here we see less variation from year to year, but the overall population seems to be trending up.


It’s possible swallows rejected Jan's one nest box because of the metal ring around the entrance hole, but they didn’t use her other boxes either. Many songbirds have more of a sense of smell than people once believed, but I know of no evidence whatsoever that debris at the bottom would deter Tree Swallows from nesting. Indeed, I know people who never clean out their nest boxes and still get birds using them, including swallows. So I’m hoping this is just a one-year aberration.

If other listeners are seeing unusual numbers of swallows or other birds this year, high or low, please let me know. And Jan will let me know if any Tree Swallows show up either for late nesting or in migratory flocks as they start gathering in July.

It’s sad to not see any swallows in a given year, but it’s even sadder when they do show up and then you find adults or nestlings dead in the nest boxes. That’s not much consolation for Jan, but we at least can hope for better next year.

Tree Swallow

Friday, June 23, 2017

The last moments of a dying nuthatch

This was written on May 9, 2001, and was the transcript for this For the Birds radio program.

White-breasted Nuthatch fatally wounded by cat

I’m sitting at my computer typing with my right hand while my left hand cradles a White-breasted Nuthatch as he dies. An hour ago he was busy doing what nuthatches do, flying and feeding and helping excavate a nest. But in the next hour or so, he’ll be dead thanks to a cat.

When I was a licensed rehabber, people brought me birds hurt by their cats all the time. I never quite knew how to deal with the people. On the one hand, they obviously did care enough to go to the trouble of bringing me the injured ones, but on the other hand, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that cats do horrible damage to birds. I’m too innately polite to scold them, but I do manage to get in some subtle comments about our city’s cat leash law, and how cats kill hundreds of millions of birds nationwide every year. A few people have retorted sarcastically that it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that this particular bird isn’t dead thanks to them saving it and bringing it to me. But when people “rescue” a bird from their cat’s mouth, these birds virtually never survive for more than a few days, with or without a rehabber. Sometimes they have internal injuries and bleed to death, as this little nuthatch is doing right now. Sometimes they last a few days before dying of a massive infection.

On TV shows, compassion and skill have at least a chance of winning the day. I wish this were TV. If this were “ER,” I could yell to a nurse to hook him up to an IV and give him 2 units of nuthatch Type A positive blood as I scrubbed and readied myself for surgery. Of course I would have all the equipment and microsurgical techniques one would need to operate on a patient that weighs three-quarters of an ounce. Five nuthatches together weigh less than one quarter pound hamburger patty. The damage a ten-pound cat can do to one is comparable to the damage a 16-ton shark could do to a hundred-and-fifty-pound human. Of course, the largest sharks on record weigh only 15 tons, but let’s not quibble.

Feathers being what they are, most of the damage on a bird isn’t visible except to a discerning and practiced eye. This nuthatch’s tail was ripped out—not just the feathers but skin and muscle and a chunk of the pygostyle, the last fused vertebrae. This damage is irreparable. But the bird’s fluffy tummy feathers cover the damage and nuthatches have a short tail anyway, so the person who brought it to me never even noticed.

I wonder if a tail being ripped out feels anything like that first victim in the movie Jaws as she felt that first tug. Of course, Jaws is fiction. This nuthatch is real. Not even George Clooney’s hands could make him better.

Most people get a false sense of complacency when a bird flies away after their cat toys with it a bit, or if they pull it out of the cat’s mouth and bring it to a rehabber. Do they believe a bird is a mechanical thing that either works or doesn’t? If it can fly away in a panic on sheer adrenaline, it must be okay, right?

I’m the one with blood on my hands, watching the life leak out. In all my years of rehab, I’ve saved only two cat-injured birds, and I know many rehabbers who never saved even one.

This dying nuthatch is making me feel more bitter than usual, because this one wasn’t brought to me by some well-meaning but ignorant person. It was brought to me by a friend—one who I know cares about birds, and one who is certainly aware of my city’s cat leash law. Maybe when she sees her cats looking out the window, she interprets it as a desperate longing for freedom. Maybe she’s tired of hearing them meow at the door. Maybe she’s just tired of cleaning the litter box.

I should have told her that I’m tired, too. I’m tired of explaining over and over that cats are subsidized killers, fed and sheltered by us humans, their population maintained at far higher levels than any natural predators could be. I’m tired of reminding them that cats allowed outdoors have an average life span of less than five years, while indoor cats often live to be 17. And I’m especially tired of witnessing the irregular, weakening gasps of a dying nuthatch, as I watch the sparkle of light in its tiny eyes suddenly dim, as its body shudders one last time, cradled here in my hand.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Of Bald and Toupee-Wearing Birds


Feathers are one of the most wonderful adaptations in the animal world. They’re considered the most complex integumentary structures found in vertebrates; apparently, as far as the skin goes, the Therapod dinosaurs and birds are the most evolved creatures on earth. Feathers provide extraordinary insulation and waterproofing, which is why more species of birds than mammals survive in the most extreme climate conditions on earth. And feathers are exceptionally lightweight even as they provide insulation and waterproofing, allowing birds to be the most numerous and widespread vertebrate fliers on the planet.

Those benefits exact a cost—feathers degrade and wear out with time, so all bird species replace their body and flight feathers periodically in a process we call molt. Many of our songbirds molt just once a year. Chickadees time this molt for summer after the young no longer depend on the adults. Adult chickadees wearing their year-old feathers are run ragged by their chicks. By mid-summer, some look extraordinarily bedraggled and even pathetic, especially compared with their fledglings, wearing spanking new feathers.

Bedraggled Black-capped Chickadee

Black-capped Chickadee--fledging day!

But soon all those worn out adult feathers will be pushed out by new ones, leaving the adults in fine fettle before the coming winter. Most birders call the new body feathers molted into in late summer basic plumage.

Some songbirds have a second partial molt each year, replacing their body feathers before the breeding season. We can watch goldfinches make the transition from dull winter plumage to bright spring plumage—as they molt, their body feathers look very patchy. If we were in the tropics, we could observe tanagers go through that same patchy process before they head up here for the breeding season. The feathers giving this different appearance for the breeding season are called the alternate plumage.

American Goldfinch

Some birds manage to enhance or change their appearance before the breeding season while only molting once, in late summer. In the brand new feathers of their basic plumage, a Northern Cardinal's body feathers are edged with brown, giving them a dullish look in late summer and early winter. Those feather edges improve insulation and weather proofing at least a bit during the coldest season, but by winter’s end are wearing off so that the more brilliant part of the feather is exposed, giving the male his most spectacularly red plumage right when he needs it.

Timing the molt for summer’s end is ideal for many of our eastern songbirds, which have plenty of food resources in mid-late summer, right when they’re done with egg production and all the high-energy costs of incubating those eggs and raising young. As temperatures start dropping in fall, most songbirds grow additional down feathers in preparation for winter, but these inner feathers don’t change their appearance at all. For example, redpoll feathers weigh 31 percent more in winter than in summer because of this increase.

No bird drops all its body feathers at once during molt—new feathers push the old ones out little by little.  Oddly enough, some individual jays and cardinals do seem to molt all their head feathers at once.

Northern Cardinal

In rare cases, according to a few authorities, this may involve lice or mites, but I suspect it’s normal individual variation. The Blue Jay entry in The Birds of North America notes “All capital-tract feathers dropped nearly simultaneously, resulting in individuals being nearly bald for about a week,” but there is some individual variation: when I was rehabbing, I had two Blue Jays that I kept in adjoining cages. Every summer Sneakers lost all her head feathers at once, while BJ’s head molt was far less noticeable. Tragically, I never took photos of Sneakers during her head-feather molt.

The sturdy wing and tail feathers are lost and replaced in sequence. These feathers must be pretty much perfect to support the bird in flight, so some birds replace only some of them each year. With a close look or a look under a black light at a bird such as an owl in hand, bird banders can identify which feathers are fresh and which are faded to figure out how many times a bird has replaced these feathers, providing a solid guess about the bird’s age.

Loons and some other species that are exceedingly heavy relative to their wing size can’t afford to lose any flight feathers from spring migration through fall migration—any reduction in wing surface area impairs their ability to fly. This is why loons molt all their wing feathers simultaneously while they’re on the ocean in winter. They can swim anywhere they need to find food during the weeks when they’re unable to fly, and will have fresh, sturdy new feathers by the time they head back to their freshwater breeding lakes.

Right now I’m thinking about molting birds because Lisa Johnson has been taking photos of American White Pelicans this summer. These birds live up to their name—their adult plumage is white with gleaming black flight feathers. But weirdly, breeding adults in summer grow patchy black feathers on their crown, nape, and along the back of their necks.



The pattern of these black feathers varies crazily from one bird to another, and there is no consensus on what to call them or whether it’s a true molt that produces them, or if they’re produced by either an early part of basic molt or a delayed part of an alternate molt. Most people just call this supplemental plumage. But since the odd feathers are found primarily on the top of the head, Lisa decided to call them a toupee, which seems as accurate and descriptive as anything ornithologists have come up with.



This pelican toupee grows in during the nesting season, at the same point in the nesting cycle that Royal, Elegant, and Sandwich Terns of the coasts are molting into dark head spotting that also varies widely among individuals.

Royal Tern

In these terns and the American White Pelican, the young gather into large groups called crèches, quite similar to what young sea ducks, mergansers, and geese form. But baby waterfowl feed themselves—they can follow any adult to a good feeding spot. Pelican and tern chicks depend on their parents to bring food and feed them. These chicks may memorize the unique spotting on their parents' heads during their time in the nest so they can recognize their parents when they join these crèches.

A lot of birders put away their binoculars in summer as birds stop singing, grow secretive to raise their young, and look most bedraggled. For me, summer is when birding grows the most interesting, when we get fascinating glimpses into avian family life as well as peculiar things like bald jays and toupee-wearing pelicans. A year of bird watching is best enjoyed all in good time. For the most aware birders, every moment of every day, it's all a good time.

Monday, June 19, 2017

My sound recording equipment

Laura recording birds

Right after my last program aired on KUMD, about my sound recordings, I got a couple of emails asking what recording equipment I use. I can't make fair endorsements or recommendations about sound equipment because I'm only familiar with what I use, so can't compare it with anything else available, but I can at least describe my own set up.

I started out on Christmas 2000 with a Sennheiser omnidirectional microphone and Telinga parabola system (pictured in the photo above). Parabolas magnify the sound they’re directed at while reducing other sounds, which is perfect when you want to get a clean recording of a single bird. But the recording doesn’t sound so good if you aren’t aimed precisely at the bird—that’s why parabolas are usually clear plastic, so you can see through them. The trick is that you need to be wearing headphones, and it’s impossible to gauge direction to find a tiny, often hidden bird when wearing headphones linked to a single microphone. It’s amazing when you’re moving the parabola around hoping to find the bird and suddenly there it is—the sound pops.

A couple of years after I got my parabolic system, I saved up the money to get a nice Sennheiser directional microphone, which is way more forgiving about where it’s pointed than a parabola is.



The problem with this mic is that, no matter what, it doesn’t amplify the call I want as my parabola does. But it captures the ambient sound better, doesn’t get hit by flies and mosquitoes with thuds, and is the simplest, easiest microphone to bring on trips. I started out with a small foam windscreen for this microphone.



Last summer I bought one of those ridiculously fuzzy wind screens, which are more effective at screening out background noise, though they somewhat lower the volume of the sounds I want, too.



From the start, I recorded onto minidiscs except for a few days during the week in June 2001 when I took the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s natural sound recording workshop and was expected to use a tape recorder for part of the session. Minidisc recorders had the great advantage of being wonderfully small—mine fit inside a perfect little wrist pack as pictured in the photo at the top of this post—and they didn’t have any of the hiss of audiotape. But minidiscs also had a problem—they compress the sound. The recordings sound wonderful to my ears, but some of the spectrograms don’t look like the spectrogram of the same sound recorded onto tape or uncompressed digital recorders. That’s because the digitally encoded audio signal onto a minidisc was data-compressed using the Adaptive TRansform Acoustic Coding formula also called ATRAC, which is what they call a 'psychoacoustic' data reduction system, omitting some of the content that is ostensibly inaudible to our ears anyway, to make a smaller file size. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds needs what are called lossless recordings that haven’t been compressed at all.

The Lab got away from tape recorders as soon as lossless digital recorders became available. When I started working at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Greg Budney of the Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds helped me select a good Marantz digital recorder—which is what I usually use now, not only for natural recordings but also to create my radio program and podcast. This records sounds as uncompressed .wav files onto an SD card. To record my voice, I use a fairly inexpensive studio microphone, but for natural recordings of birds, I use the directional microphone or parabolic microphone, and for ambient nature sounds I use the omnidirectional mic.



Last summer, in anticipation of my trips to Peru, Cuba, and Uganda, I bought a more portable little recorder made by Olympus. This was a disappointment—it works on a rechargeable battery, but the battery life is only a few hours, and it doesn’t record when connected to an external power source. It’s also not nearly as intuitive to use as the Marantz, and had I realized the battery issue, I’d not have bought it, though now that I’m stuck with it, I’m trying to make the best of it in some situations.

Every now and then, I hear an amazing sound when I don’t have any of my recording equipment. That’s when I pull out my smart phone and use the voice recorder app. The results are not as good as what I’d get with my professional equipment, but if I’m close enough to the bird, I can get some decent memories, like when I was on a field trip in the Little River National Wildlife Refuge in Idabel, Oklahoma and came upon a singing Swainson’s Warbler at close enough range to get this recording. Not bad for using a free app built into my phone. It may not be perfect, but what is?

Duck and Goose Nurseries or Crèches

Listening carefully

When I was living in Madison, Wisconsin, in the 1970s, I used to love seeing baby ducks. Ducklings are so cosmically innocent, their big, soft eyes looking out at the world with such open curiosity and trust. It’s logical that we’d find the tiniest baby ducks and geese appealing: as a mammal species wherein adults of both sexes instinctively protect dependent young for many years, and with our babies completely helpless for over a year, we instinctively respond with warmth to beings with large, open eyes and relatively oversized heads.

With my own eyes newly opened to the wonder of birds, how could I not thrill the one time I once witnessed baby Wood Ducks jumping, one by one, from their warm, secure nest high in a tree down to their mother, softly calling from the unknown depths. I saw them, one by one, their tiny legs and feet extended, tiny flippers for wings fluttering madly in that literal leap of faith all the way down to the hard ground below. Each one seemed as light as a marshmallow as it bounced on the ground, scrambled to its feet, and headed straight to its mother.

The first day or two after Wood Duck babies left the nest, the broods contained eight or ten tiny baby ducks, sometimes even a dozen. I could often find the same families day after day, but invariably, as the babies grew, I’d count fewer and fewer in each brood. I’d feel a visceral sorrow for the existence of foxes and raccoons, though ironically, the reason those hunters were so hell bent on raiding duck families was to raise their own little baby foxes and raccoons, which elicit the same tender feelings in us humans.

Mario, Luigi, and Princess

But having tender feelings toward specific baby ducks, I wasn’t much interested in taking that broad and sympathetic a view toward the animals that killed them. And as a warm-blooded mammal, I wasn’t the least bit sympathetic toward snapping turtles and large-mouthed fish. One morning as I watched a long line of tiny ducklings following their mother across a pond, the one I was specifically focused on through my binoculars was suddenly grabbed in the middle. Its tiny mouth opened in what had to be surprise and pain as it was jerked straight down into the water. Ever since that horrifying moment, I can’t see baby ducks without fear for them overshadowing my delight.

I hardly ever saw baby geese during the 1970s, which marked the very beginnings of when their population started mushrooming, but by the time we moved to Minnesota in 1981, baby geese were a regular, and now a too-common sight. Well, too common in the detached, long view of bird populations and how one over-populated species interacts with our own over-populated species. To my eyes, each individual tiny gosling is every bit as adorable as a baby duck.

Canada Goose

This year during our spring warbler walks, we started seeing baby geese in May. The first family groups we saw all included two adults, presumably the parents, and four to six tiny, fluffy goslings.

Canada Goose

By the end of May, though, what looked like family units had grown dramatically, the goslings not just bigger in size, but much more numerous as well. One group at Park Point had over forty goslings attended by a single adult.

Canada Goose

This is not evidence of super-fertile females or that predation has declined. No, the geese are doing what a lot of ducks, especially diving ducks, do, combining families into large broods of young, forming what are often called “nurseries” or “crèches.”

The very first time I saw Common Eiders, off the coast of Maine in 1993, I saw a single mother with at least 70 ducklings. I was shocked—I’d never seen anything like that before! That’s when I learned about ducks doing this. Female ducks are pretty depleted by the time their young hatch—they’ve used up vast resources to produce their large clutch of eggs, and incubating eggs is extremely energy intensive, too. Before their bodies are dense enough to dive well, the babies get their food in the shallows. When families combine resources, the mothers can take turns feeding in deeper water.

Common Eider
This photo, taken in 2016 before most eider broods had hatched, shows adult females
attending a single clutch. A week or two later, what we'd see would be many more ducklings
and only one female at a time.

I’ve hardly ever seen dabbling ducks combine broods like this—the mothers can get plenty of food right where their ducklings are—but this happens a lot with mergansers. David Harrington of KBXE sent me an amazing photo of a female Common Merganser with 23 adorable ducklings, and generously gave me permission to post it.  

Copyright 2017 by David Harrington
When a mother diving duck doesn't have a nearby neighbor to share duties with, she will sometimes have to leave her ducklings unattended for brief periods.


KBXE's David Harrington came upon this single brood of baby Common Goldeneyes. He
writes, "The  mother had completely 
left the kids to babysit themselves.  I don’t know how
long she  was gone but she was back after 
about 5 minutes."  

Canada Geese are more and more forming crèches, too, probably to allow parents to take turns feeding and resting away from their broods. Like ducks, the youngest, tiniest geese are still seen in small family groups, but after a few days, the parents are ready for a few breaks. This keeps the young in the safest places, away from lurking predators that could never manage the huge adults, even as the adults go off to their favorite feeding places to rebuild their strength.

Canada Goose

Watching how resourceful birds can be in ensuring the world has a continuing supply of baby birds is ever so much more lovely and pleasant than watching baby ducks disappear into the depths, never to be seen again.

Friday, June 16, 2017

The Evocative Power of Sound

Laura recording birds

Ever since I was a small child, I’ve been aware of the evocative power of sounds. The only specific bird sound I knew before I took up birding as an adult was the cardinal, but the general bird songs of a spring morning as I walked to school or took a Saturday hike along our town’s little creek gave me a deep feeling of contentment.

The sounds of human voices evoke their presence in a way photographs can’t for me. When I was digitizing radio programs from the 80s last year, I found an old April fools program in which Russ and my children each had a little line in an American Blue Jay Insurance commercial. (On this recording, starting at 2:20). Just hearing those voices as they sounded 28 years ago gave me the feeling of traveling back in time to re-experience that lovely time in our lives. For months after my sister died, I called her phone number a lot when I knew no one would be home, just to hear her voice on the recording.

Joey, Tommy, and Katie modeling their "I'm for the Birds" t-shirts in 1988.

The sounds of nature can be just as evocative. This week I’ve been digitizing and getting onto my web page a few of the natural sound recordings I’ve made since Russ gave me a good parabolic microphone for Christmas in 2000. He gave it to me in anticipation of my first trip to the tropics—I headed for Costa Rica on 01/01/01. The most satisfying recording I got there was when I left the little omnidirectional microphone, without the parabola attached, on a branch in the middle of a hummingbird feeding station. The recording is over 10 minutes long, and hearing it conjures the thrill of seeing and hearing dozens of hummingbirds zipping in and out, the wind of their wings brushing my face as they buzzed by. I’ve been to the American tropics at least 7 times since then, but that first time was magical, and this sound recording brings back that feeling of discovery more than my photos do.

White-throated Mountain-gem

Paul Simon said, “Everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance. Everybody thinks it’s true.” That was one of my favorite songs long before I spent time in the Friends of the Sanctuary’s Sharp-tailed Grouse observation blind at a Douglas County Wisconsin wildlife area where I set out my microphone before I settled in to the blind to watch dancing grouse. While it was still too dark for the grouse and the first Brown Thrashers and Field Sparrows were just starting to pipe in, a distant train went past. Normally I don’t like human sounds to intrude on recordings, but somehow this recording makes me happy.

Douglas County Wildlife Area sign

I’ve made a webpage linking to 16 natural sound recordings (so far), a few only 2 minutes long but some much longer, conjuring specific moments and places. The longest are a 52-minute long recording of the dawn chorus one May morning outside my apartment in Ithaca, New York, and a 73-minute recording of a May morning in the woods outside Minocqua, Wisconsin. Last year I made a 37-minute one at dawn on Hog Island in Maine. It was a perfect, windless day; the only background noises at all are the ocean and one shrimp boat going by.

Northern Parula

All these ambient sound recordings are now linked on one webpage. As I get each recording up, I’m linking it to the birds you can hear. If you enter any bird name on the "Search Birds" button above on this or any page of my website, the resulting species page shows up to 12 photos of it and, if I’ve taken more than that, a link to the rest. Each species page also links to all my radio programs about that bird, and also to any sound recordings I’ve made of it. Some of these can make a pleasing background soundtrack when your day needs a bit of nature.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Review: National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, Seventh Edition


[Thanks to Ian Paulsen for a few corrections.]

At the start of 1983, birders had four choices for field guides. The best two were the Peterson guide, written by Roger Tory Peterson, and the Golden Guide, written mainly by Chandler Robbins.

The Golden Guide was getting dated. It was originally published in 1966, and the second edition, which came out in 1983 with a blue instead of tan cover, had a more pleasing typeface, was somewhat expanded and revised, with completely revised range maps, newly added western Alaskan species such as Eye-browed (now Eyebrowed) and Dusky Thrushes, and showing updated changes in bird names, but otherwise was very similar—almost identical—to the first edition.

Peterson had released the fourth edition of his field guide in 1980, finally adding some of the features that had made the Golden Guide so beloved from the start. Now all Peterson's birds were illustrated in full color with the illustrations facing the text. But most of Peterson's birds were still illustrated in a patternistic cookie cutter posture, which can be somewhat useful for comparing some plumage features but doesn't show the birds as we usually see them. Also, the newer Peterson guide kept the range maps separate from drawings and text, and still covered just the eastern or western half of the continent. So I still much preferred my beloved Golden Guide. It covered the whole continent, showed the maps on the same page with the text, and had an innovation that very few people appreciated at the time, sonograms—pictorial versions of the spectrograms that show a song’s frequency over time. Also, the Golden Guide’s illustrations by Arthur Singer showed the birds in more natural poses, often in characteristic vegetation that helped suggest habitat, and often with smaller drawings of the birds performing important behaviors, such as grouse displays.

(The third choice, the Audubon Society Field Guide, which had come out in 1977, was the first field guide to use photographs rather than drawings. It had so many drawbacks connected to layout, design, and organization that it simply wasn’t usable in the field, though I couldn’t help but notice it on the shelf in Julia Child’s kitchen in the exhibit at the Smithsonian. The fourth choice, the Audubon Society Master Guide to Birding, brand new in 1983, was a three-volume photographic set, much too unwieldy for the field.)

The game changer in 1983 was the publication of the first edition of the National Geographic Society’s Field Guide to the Birds of North America. Except for sonograms, this guide had everything that the Golden Guide had, with the added advantages of updated information, including changed bird names and more information about identification subtleties.  The artwork wasn’t quite consistent—thirteen artists did the plates and three other artists contributed—but from the moment it was released, it was the best field guide available.


The Second Edition, which came out just four years later in 1987, corrected a few glitches in text and art. It took 12 years, until 1999, for the Third Edition to be released. This one added over 80 species, lots of artwork, and moved species around to adhere to the American Ornithologists’ Union’s classification system. Just three years later, in 2002, the Fourth Edition was issued, and just four years after that, in 2006, the Fifth Edition was published. Each one made subtle improvements on the previous one and kept taxonomy and names up to date right as DNA analyses were putting bird taxonomy in flux. Both the Fifth and then the Sixth Edition, published in 2011, added thumb indentations to make opening to specific groups quicker. At every step, the book’s coverage increased: the Sixth Edition covered 990 species.

I have a copy of each edition in my library. I don’t think National Geographic’s aim was focused on field guide collectors, though—I think they have simply set a goal of providing the most complete, up-to-date field guide available, and that requires updates as our knowledge grows and as ornithologists tweak bird classification.

Other excellent field guides have entered the market since National Geographic’s first edition. My favorites are the Sibley Guide to Birds, first published in 2000, with the second edition in 2014, and Kenn Kaufman’s Focus Guide: Birds of North America published in 2000 and updated in a new printing and retitled the Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America in 2005.

Kenn Kaufman’s is the guide I recommend when people want an all-inclusive and portable photographic guide—it’s especially kid friendly. The Sibley guide is an indispensable reference, though way too heavy for me to have lugged in the field even when I was young and spry.  He provides the most illustrations per species, but that means he can’t show as many species per page, making comparisons trickier. Since David Sibley does all his own artwork, it’s impressive that it only took him 14 years to redo his field guide, considering that it took more than thirty years for Peterson to redo his field guide, which covered far fewer species.

Anyway, I’m thinking about field guides because National Geographic sent me a sneak peek preview of the Seventh Edition of their field guide, which will be coming out this fall. And just looking at the opening title page, I was blown away.

The first four editions all had a great drawing of a perched Yellow-breasted Chat on that page, which was lovely. The Fifth Edition changed that to a flying Sandhill Crane, King Eider, and Baltimore Oriole, which made for a visually striking if ornithologically baffling combination. The Sixth Edition went to a flying Bald Eagle, beautiful and striking, even if they also used a Bald Eagle on the cover.

They used the same open-winged Bald Eagle illustration on every one of the first six covers. The Seventh Edition also shows a Bald Eagle, but this one is a new illustration of a perched bird by David Quinn.


The Seventh Edition title page spread shows six gorgeous hummingbirds, and the layout is visually appealing even beyond the charming beauty of the birds. The new edition has added more species: they’re now up to 1,023.  The hummingbird plates are wonderful—they've been entirely revised except for Sophie Webb's Lucifer Hummingbird. They've added two pages of additional drawings and included more plumages as well as rare species. All the new hummingbird drawings were by Jonathan Alderfer and John Schmitt.

Jon Dunn and Jonathan Alderfer carefully selected which art pieces needed to be replaced or added, where a hint of habitat would be useful and which features to emphasize. They approved every sketch and painting. The artists used their own observations, archives of photographs, and museum specimens for reference.

I noticed little changes here and there that most people probably won’t notice, but that improved a great book to an even better one. For example, they changed the small flight drawing in the Sandhill Crane entry to a much more useful one. The original had the bird’s wings down, but now they’re held upward to make an easier comparison with the Common and Whooping Cranes on the same page.

The hugest change in the Seventh Edition came about thanks to ornithologists using DNA to revise entirely their taxonomic ordering of birds. So the birds are arranged differently in this guide, with pigeons, cuckoos, nightjars, swifts, and hummingbirds far closer to the start of the guide, well separated from the songbirds. Now hawks and owls are very close to each other, both well separated from the falcons. When I get the hard copy, I plan on re-reading this new edition cover to cover, to refresh my memory of seldom- and never-seen species, learn some new hints for identification, and absorb the new taxonomic order.

Jon L. Dunn has served as the principal author of all seven editions—as one of the top birders in the nation, he was an excellent choice, and the fact that he’s been at the top of his game since the 70s has kept the book both consistent and authoritative all along.


Jonathan Alderfer has been a principal author and artist of all recent National Geographic birding books, and has been the art consultant and principal general consultant of the field guide since the Third Edition. His name has been on the cover with Dunn’s as co-authors since the Fifth Edition. Jonathan is also the co-author of my own National Geographic Pocket Guide: Birds of North America—he was an exceptional working partner, having both a generous spirit and exacting standards.

The fantastic birder Paul Lehman has been the map consultant since the third edition. Like the rest of the book, the maps have both improved steadily and shown real changes in each species’ distribution from edition to edition, and no one knows more about species distribution in North America than Paul Lehman. The credit, "with maps by Paul Lehman" was added to the title page with the Sixth Edition.

In nature, evolution doesn’t make any organism “better”—it simply explains why those members of a population that best fit current conditions are the main ones to survive and reproduce. The evolution of the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America is different—it's been a directed evolution. The National Geographic team started out making the field guide the “most current, authoritative, and comprehensive field guide available today—the ultimate, essential resource for the accurate identification of nearly a thousand species,” as the Fifth Edition’s cover states. Those words describe every one of the first six editions, and certainly are true for the seventh as well. If it started out as the gold standard for field guides, it's now gone platinum. No other publisher has been able to match National Geographic’s commitment to so frequently updating their field guide to keep it so very up to date. I can’t wait to get my hands on the real thing in September. Publication date is set for September 12; you can pre-order on Amazon.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Rescuing Baby Birds: Why it's illegal to do without training and a license

This is a transcript of two "For the Birds" programs from 2014, with some edits. You can listen to the first program, about the Red-eyed Vireo tragedy, here, and about educating baby birds here.

Tommy and baby robin
My son Tommy learns about the miracle of baby bird life as we
PROPERLY cared for baby birds, when I was a licensed bird rehabber. 
One summer, when I was licensed to rehab wild birds, a woman brought me four tiny baby songbirds. Their nest branch had been knocked from a tree during a storm a week before. She thought her children would get a kick out of seeing and feeding nestling birds even though, as she told me, she knew that they’d eventually die.

She’d been feeding  them nothing but canned dog food and didn’t know how to feed them properly, or keep them in a clean environment, so all four were caked in a disgusting mixture of dried up food and feces. I had to bathe them repeatedly over many hours to even be able to identify them. They were Red-eyed Vireos. Their little bodies, including their heads and, in one case, their eyes, had been so completely encased in crusted filth for so many days that they literally could not grow.

She brought them to me just before the Fourth of July weekend, because she was expecting company and also, she confided, because she did not want her children to experience the sadness of them dying. She drove off feeling virtuous for saving her children from that. I’m sure when she got home she told them that the birds were being taken care of and would all fly off happily.

Meanwhile, my children and I were the ones left to experience the sadness of death. The tiniest nestling lasted barely a day, but all of them were beyond the point of no return when I got them.

They’d not received vitamins or other essential elements of their diets to ensure proper bone development. The people must have been feeding the chicks chunks of dog food that were much too large to be swallowed. The poor things’ heads were so encrusted that their brains had not been allowed to grow properly. They were kept on flat paper towels that were not changed frequently enough.

In nature, their parents would have collected the fecal sacs the moment they were produced. Baby birds poop almost immediately after swallowing while the parent who fed it is sure to still be present. That makes that part of taking care of baby birds easy for people, too. The back end of two of these nestlings was so encrusted that their droppings couldn’t get out of their bodies. I still shudder remembering this, and have mercifully forgotten a lot of other details. In the end, none of them made it. My children were heartbroken.

A biblical maxim says that man cannot live by bread alone. The metaphor is not about the need for balanced nutrition—it’s about how human beings cannot thrive when only the needs of their stomachs are addressed. Keeping baby birds clean and comfortable is as essential as food. Also, from the moment baby birds hatch, they are learning about their world and interacting with it. Many baby birds of migratory species, days or a week before they even leave the nest, start to learn star patterns. They’ll use the one fixed star in the sky, Polaris, as a compass point when they take off for the tropics.

They practice preening as their itchy new feathers emerge. They’ll learn how to aim and peck at things by practicing on nest materials. They’ll start recognizing their parents by sound as well as visually, and many will start learning the vocalizations of their species while they’re still in the nest. During the nestling stage, baby birds are not just tiny eating and pooping machines. They’re soaking in information about the world around them just as human babies are during the language acquisition stage.

This is why people are so cautioned to return baby birds to their nest if at all possible. And why, when brought a baby bird, rehabbers do their darnedest to get it in the nest of a wild bird of the same species with chicks at the same point in development, as long as the wild nest doesn't have a full brood, so the parents won't be overtaxed.

It’s so frustrating to me that so many people who think they’re rescuing baby birds get entirely focused on feeding. It reminds me of orphanages in the 1800s where babies were kept in cribs with virtually no human contact except for feeding and diaper changing. And once baby birds leave the nest, the hard work is just beginning.

The more I’ve observed and learned about birds, the more I’ve learned just how much parent birds give their young than just food. We humans seem to think an education involves either housebreaking and training a puppy, or providing far more esoteric learning to young humans. Many people still believe that birds are little more than feathered robots performing preprogrammed behaviors that were wired in them before they even hatched, despite hundreds, probably thousands, of studies to the contrary.

Scientists have shown how critical parental guidance is in a huge number of ways. In just the single example of vocalizations, parent birds often help their young master the vocalizations that will be essential in recognizing and alerting others to danger, sticking with the parents through migration, finding food, settling in with feeding flocks, attracting a mate, and other functions. Not all species have the same communications needs. That depends on a lot of factors in their life histories, and each species is unique.

For example, two pretty similar species, the Bank and Northern Rough-winged Swallows, learn vocalizations differently. Northern Rough-winged Swallow parents do not provide care for any nestlings of other species, but after their own young fledge, they’ll feed any begging rough-winged fledglings that they encounter. This is not a problem, because rough-wings are usually fairly territorial, and so are unlikely to encounter other rough-wings begging. Bank Swallow parents quickly learn the calls of their own nestlings even as their chicks are learning their parents’ calls. Bank Swallows nest in large colonies, and the young mingle together after fledging. By recognizing their own families’ unique voices, Bank Swallow families can keep track of each other, increasing the chances of each pair’s own young reaching independence.

But this does not hold true of every species that gathers in flocks. Evening Grosbeak flocks start mingling as soon as young fledge, but in this species, any adult will feed any chicks, related or not.

Young robin in Russ's cherry tree
Baby robins learn how to negotiate day-to-day life with their parents, and by the time both
parents are busy raising a new brood, young from the first brood have figured out how to
find their own food and elude danger. 

In their real world, robins hop about, mostly hiding out in shrubs for a few days after they leave the nest. The fledglings exercise their wings and learn a lot from their parents and from observing the world. They’re clumsy at first, but get great at negotiating branches while they’re still flittering about, rather than flying at full speed. Their parents teach them to avoid dogs and other potential predators, and to keep their distance from people. And in the world of robins, when a brood fledges, both parents continue to feed them even as the mother starts producing a new clutch of eggs. The young watch each other and learn from each other’s mistakes as well as successes. When the new clutch of eggs is complete and the mother starts incubating them, the father continues to feed and teach the fledglings. Every evening he leads them to a roosting spot. They learn many skills from him but are growing increasingly independent, and starting to associate with other young robins. By the time the new batch of eggs hatches and the male must start raising them, this first batch of young is ready to be on their own. When people raise a baby robin indoors and release it in a park after it can fly, that poor defenseless bird will be negotiating the world pretty much as helplessly as a sheltered, home-schooled ten-year-old would if his parents suddenly released him downtown and expected him to take care of himself for good.


Northern Flickers
When we raised baby flickers, we knew they could be indoors only until they took their first flight.
Even as new fledglings, woodpecker wingbeats are too strong to keep in confined spaces at all.


Northern Flickers
The flickers kept coming to us for feedings for a month until they'd mastered finding all their
food on their own. One returned the following spring, so we know at least one survived
migration, winter, and the return migration on its own.
Tom and Gepetto
Hacking out a baby woodpecker can be an adventure, but if done properly,
the bird will learn to be independent and may often end up bonding with others
of its own species, as this Pileated Woodpecker did.