Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Bird Photography

Laura's new binoculars!

When I started birding in 1975, my only optical equipment was a pair of Bushnell 7x50 binoculars. The next year, I got a Bushnell Spacemaster spotting scope. Russ and I were college students and there was no way we could afford film and developing, much less a long lens, for me to photograph birds. I was entirely satisfied watching birds without capturing them on film.

Me looking at my lifer Kirtland's Warbler
Here I am in 1976, looking at my lifer Kirtland's Warbler, perfectly happy to not get a photo of the bird. Russ took this photo of me--our camera had too short of a lens to get a picture of the bird itself. 
Kirtland's Warbler
Here is a Kirtland's Warbler I photographed in 2011. By this time I was more likely to be carrying a camera than binoculars!

I got my first digital camera in 2000. It had two or three megapixels and a bit of a zoom. I took a few photos of close birds in Costa Rica and when visiting my aunt in Florida, but used the camera mainly for people and scenery, and more often than not, left it home when I was birding.

I took this photo in Costa Rica in 2001. Very few photos of birds, but quite a few of my daughter Katie!
In 2005, when I first started writing a blog, I figured out how to take photos with a small digital camera through a good spotting scope. That is called digiscoping, and suddenly I was getting some pretty good photos of some of my favorite birds.

Le Conte's Sparrow
I digiscoped this Le Conte's Sparrow in June 2005, using a Canon PowerShot SD 500 and my Zeiss spotting scope. It's still one of my favorite photos ever. 
As the cameras in smart phones improved and point-and-shoot digital cameras got better, suddenly a whole generation of birders was learning to identify the birds in their photos rather than scrutinizing them in the field. Soon even us old-school birders were documenting rare sightings with photos, and with Facebook, Twitter, and especially eBird, other birders started hearing about rare sightings while the person who discovered the bird was still right there, watching it. Now documentation almost always requires a photo and sometimes a sound recording rather than painstakingly written descriptions.

Ivory Gull
Birders looking at this Ivory Gull in Duluth in 2016 spent more time photographing it than looking at it with binoculars. 

I’ve adapted with the times. In January 2009, when I was working at the Cornell Lab, I bought a good DSLR camera and a 100-400 mm lens. Now if I have to leave some of my optical equipment at home, it’s more often my binoculars than my camera, which I take everywhere.

I consider myself a birdwatcher who takes pictures rather than a nature photographer. It’s not that I don’t take myself seriously enough because I’m a woman, though I do think most people, male and female alike, take ourselves way too seriously. In this case, though, it’s that I invest my time and effort into learning more about birds rather than the principles of photography. Many of my photos have been published in magazines, and National Geographic even included one in my Pocket Guide to the Birds of North America.

Yellow-rumped Warbler
I photographed this Yellow-rumped Warbler with a small Canon point-and-shoot camera in 2006. This is the photo National Geographic used in my Pocket Guide to the Birds of North America.
My friends who consider themselves “real” photographers publish so many more images of such enormously high quality, and are so much more consistently skilled than I, that I leave the real photographic expertise to them, and take my own identity from my own area of expertise.

Ironically, sometimes people ask me to teach photography workshops, though I honestly have only one piece of advice for people who want to take bird photos: No matter how cheap or expensive your equipment may be, get out there and take as many bird photos as you can. Little by little, you’ll improve, and from the very start will get a few splendid photos.

I pretty quickly figured out that when a bird is backlit, it’s important to overexpose it.

Common Nighthawk
I over-exposed this flying nighthawk by 1 1/3 stops.

It took way longer for me to figure out that when a bird is lurking in dark shadows, it’s important to underexpose it.

Andean Cock-of the-rock
This Andean Cock-of-the-Rock was deep in a dark ravine. I underexposed the photo by 2/3 stop. 

After years of using Photoshop and Lightroom, I’ve also grown better at tweaking my photos without over-tweaking them. But I’ve never learned photography systematically, so wouldn’t have a clue how to teach it the way I do it, by trial and error and just taking a whole lot of photos so I’ll have a little wheat here and there in the chaff.

Over the years, I’m finding that my percentage of good photos is improving, but I have the right kind of personality for my lackadaisical approach, in that I don’t get frustrated or upset when my photos turn out awful. People who put in the time and effort to learn how to take consistently good photos are the “real” photographers. I’m still just a birder who takes pictures. Real photographers get frustrated when their pictures don’t turn out, and when they take what looks like a genuinely perfect shot, they pay closest attention to what they could have done even better. Me—when I take even a marginally good shot, I’m overwhelmed with delight.

I’ll never be able to make a living as a photographer, but I probably derive at least as much fun and joy from my photos as most professional photographers do. My approach to bird photography is clearly not better on any objective scale, but it’s exactly the right way for me.

Russ and Laura
Russ doesn't consider himself a birder, but he's the one with the binoculars!

Monday, August 13, 2018

Of Weddings and Walk-Off Grand Slam Home Runs

Trumpeter Swan

On August 4, my daughter Katie, who put together my website and the amazing database that powers it, married Michael Geraci, who drew the two Black-capped Chickadees at the very top of almost every page (except the blog). Playing the role of “mother of the bride” for the first and last time in my life, I was pretty busy in the weeks leading up to the wedding, which meant that I didn’t have time to write new blog posts and podcasts for over a month.

No one is looking out for predators here!
Taking a full month off of day-to-day responsibilities is a luxury unknown in the natural world, and in the natural world, weddings are unfathomable. Swans, geese, cranes, and Florida Scrub-Jays, which all form more solid, permanent pair bonds than we mere humans do, or at least have far lower divorce rates, don’t need any kind of public affirmation or ceremony to cement their commitment to one another and the family they will be creating. And what birds could possibly take weeks or even just days out of their own busy lives to help their offspring forge a pair bond commitment, when they themselves have to renew their own vows and produce new offspring? Imagine Wisdom, the 67-year old (or even older!) Laysan Albatross who raised another chick just this year, had she been required to take time out of this year’s breeding responsibilities to just attend—much less actually help in—the planning and execution of commitment ceremonies for the dozens of young she’s raised in her many years. And if parents can’t take time out of their lives for this, how could a bird’s friends or more distant relatives?

When courting is the order of the day, no sensible bird wants his or her parents, siblings, or anyone else interfering, and birds hardly need a marriage license to ensure their fidelity. It’s not like geese, swans, and cranes don’t maintain ties with their relatives and friends, either—migrating flocks of all three often include “kissing cousins” and others with proven ties to one another. Migratory birds with strong family ties seem to relish these get-togethers during spring and fall, when mixing it up with friends and family is the order of the day.

But even when engaged in these boisterous reunions during migration, birds can’t afford to stop doing what daily life demands for even a moment, much less a month. Hawks can afford to miss more birds than they hit—like major league baseball hitters, a 300-batting average is plenty good enough, and even slugging below 100 can be enough if, like a MLB pitcher, they have other strengths. But the birds those hawks are after can’t afford to be hit even once—any bird not batting 1000 against the hawks is dead meat literally. As the Washington Nationals learned the hard way just last night, even when you seemingly can't lose—say you’re up 3-0 in the bottom of the ninth with two outs and the rookie Cubs batter at the plate has two strikes—one single pitch can end it for you.

Even as we humans invented baseball and so ostensibly realize how quickly things can turn against us, we’ve constructed our lives to prevent sudden, unexpected losses. Our cars have seat belts, shoulder harnesses, and airbags, we expect the Food and Drug Administration to enforce food and pharmaceutical safety and OSHA to ensure our safety at work, and worker protection laws for generations have allowed us to compartmentalize our work so the vast majority of us have the luxury of going to bed each night with a pretty solid certainty that we will wake up alive in the morning. It’s not that birds brood about the dangers of everyday life—worrying itself would take their focus from actively engaging in each present moment. But if they’re not spending their time worrying, birds are also not spending it on frivolities like baseball and weddings. We may use cooing doves and lovebirds as symbols of human couples, but you’ll never see a real dove or lovebird wedding.

So of all the species on the planet, only we humans take time off now and again to plan and attend weddings of our children, relatives, and friends, or to watch that rookie Cub David Bote hit a stunning walk-off grand slam home run. But after the festivities are over, even we mothers-of-the-bride and Cubs fans have to come down to earth and engage in real life again.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Anhinga Trail Then and Now

I don't know where exactly we took the photo of Tommy in 1988—the signs are gone now. But I made Russ sit pretty much where I thought our little boy had been sitting. Tragically, Russ doesn't have a single dinosaur shirt. 

1988 Tommy

Tommy in the Everglades

2018 Russ

Russ on the Anhinga Trail

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Laura’s Best Bird EVER! ™: Le Conte’s Sparrow—Tiny Ahab

Le Conte's Sparrow
NOT my first Le Conte's Sparrow--that was before I was taking photos. 

On April 30, 1976, Russ and I left for a Michigan Audubon field trip to northern Michigan. He and I camped in a state forest close to the Michigan State Prairie Chicken Management Area in Osceola County so we could meet the other field trip participants well before first light on May 1. We got little sleep because the spring peepers were calling up a storm that whole night, and we had to get up while it was still quite dark to meet the group where the blind was to observe the state’s last remnant population of prairie chickens dancing. The entire flock was about to disappear within the next few years, though our group was still hopeful that these mating birds could somehow defy the odds. We gazed at them for a couple of hours. After they dispersed, we headed north, making a quick stop at Hartwick Pines State Park, where I saw my first Evening Grosbeaks and Pine Warblers, and then we headed on to Whitefish Point. By the time we arrived after what had already been a full day,  everyone was more than ready for lunch.

I’d already added eight lifers that morning and was very hungry myself, so you’d think I’d be happy to sit down with our group for at least a bit of a lunch break. But I’d never before been to Whitefish Point, and so after a quick bathroom break I grabbed my bag lunch and headed back outside for some more birding. And right in the gravel-and-grass parking area, I came upon another new bird—a tiny, gorgeous sparrow. I rifled through the pages of my field guide as the bird obligingly stayed nearby, sometimes on the ground, sometimes in one or another small shrub. That kind of cooperativeness meant the little guy almost certainly had had a long night migrating and still needed rest and food. After looking through every sparrow in the book, I settled on Le Conte’s Sparrow.

Le Conte's Sparrow

After I felt satisfied with my identification and had drunk in its lovely features, I ran inside to tell everyone. And instantly the on-site bird bander told me that was impossible—he’d never seen or heard of a Le Conte’s Sparrow on Whitefish Point before. I was still very much a beginner, and didn't have the cockiness or confidence to argue the point, but I said the bird was probably still there and I could show it to him. He skeptically followed me to the parking lot, most of the field trip participants in tow, and sure enough, there was the bird, and sure enough, it was indeed a Le Conte’s Sparrow. He let out a triumphant whoop as if he’d found it himself and ran to his truck get a mist net. I’d never before seen one of those—it looked like an extremely fragile volleyball net. He set it up at the edge of the parking lot maybe 30 feet from the bird. Then he had us all line up on the other side of the bird and slowly walk forward, driving the bird toward the net. When the tiny thing was snagged, he quickly extricated it, transforming a bird in the bush into one in the hand.

This was the first time I’d ever seen a bird get banded, and it made a deep impression. The bander was a big guy, with huge hands. The size difference between him and the tiny bird was impressive enough, but what triggered my imagination was how the bird didn’t meekly submit to being manhandled—he threw his head back and opened his mouth, glaring at the enormous man with fury and defiance, reminding me of Ahab confronting the Great White Whale.

Unlike Melville’s Ahab, this little Le Conte’s Sparrow survived his first battle with his nemesis without getting his leg bitten off—rather than a wooden leg, my Ahab would forever carry a tiny aluminum band around his leg as a remembrance. And unlike Moby Dick, the bander didn’t get any deep wounds from harpoons and knives, though the little bird did bite his hand hard enough to draw a bit of blood. I, the Ishmael in this scenario, alone am escaped to tell thee.

When I got home, I headed to the university library to look up some numbers. The average Le Conte’s Sparrow weighs about 14 grams—that’s half an ounce. I don’t think Melville reported Ahab’s weight, but I found an old movie magazine on microfiche that had the next best thing—Gregory Peck’s weight, which was about 174 pounds. And I found in a book or encyclopedia article the maximum weight of a Sperm Whale, 63 tons. I worked out the ratios to discover that the Le Conte’s Sparrow was tinier, relative to Ahab, than Ahab was to the Great White Whale—and not just by a little. The biggest sperm whales weigh 721 times as much as Gregory Peck did; meanwhile, he weighed fully 5,643 times what a Le Conte’s Sparrow weighs. That’s an order of magnitude difference!

So my tiny little Ahab, fearless in the face of the Great White Bander, stood his ground and lived, escaping the dire fate that took Melville’s poor Ahab down into the depths. There’s no evidence that my avian Ahab spent the rest of his life obsessively seeking revenge—indeed, not one Le Conte’s Sparrow banded during the 1970s has ever been re-captured, so unlike Melville’s character, my little Ahab managed to move on from his ordeal without developing a monomaniacal obsession for revenge, leading an entire ship's crew to their deaths in the process. I don’t think Herman Melville ever had a chance to see a Le Conte’s Sparrow, much less observe one being banded, or his greatest work of fiction might have turned out a bit differently.

To this very day, whenever I have to stand up to something fearful, I see that Le Conte’s Sparrow in my mind’s eye—that unobtrusive, tiny guy holding firm in resistance as long as the danger remained. That tiny little Ahab was my best bird EVER!

Across the Universe

Northern Saw-whet Owl

This weekend, I listened to This American Life during a long car ride. The episode was a rerun, but I’d not heard it the first time around. Producer David Kestenbaum, who has a Ph.D. in particle physics, first explained The Fermi Paradox, which asks the question: if there really is life out there somewhere else in the universe, why haven’t we heard from it yet? Thinking about the low probability that there are other civilizations out there made Kestenbaum feel very sad and lonely.

The Drake Equation is physicists' best attempt to calculate how many other civilizations are out there—it’s n equals r star times f sub p, with n being the number of advanced civilizations there are in the galaxy. To solve, a physicist would have to estimate the fraction of stars that have planets, the odds of life evolving on any of them, and the average length of survival of any civilization. Depending on your assumptions, you can get a number as high as 156 million civilizations out there in the universe, or 9.1 times 10 to the minus 11th, which is basically zero. Kestenbaum’s mentor, Melissa Franklin, said that means that right now, we’re in the sweet spot. We haven’t been killed by any alien civilizations, but there’s still hope that there could be one or more out there. 

This whole discussion left me weary and sad. When I got home, I tried to find out how much money our civilization has spent seeking out other “intelligent life” out there in the universe, but I couldn’t find dollar amounts, though it surely measures in the millions of dollars. Even today, people and government agencies here in the US and in other countries are still trying to find out what intelligent life is “out there.”

I don’t think much about intelligent life on other planets. As Robert Frost wrote, “Earth’s the right place for love: I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.” And just this very morning, before I even got out of bed, I was the recipient of several messages from intelligent, non-human life forms. I’ve received messages like this since I was a small child, usually transmitted at a frequency between about 1,000 and 10,000 Hz. Like us, these transmitting lifeforms are carbon-based and actually share a full 65 percent of their DNA with us. They aren’t sending us messages from outside our planet—indeed, the transmissions I was picking up this morning came from my very own backyard.

These messages were made by birds, who live in the exact same habitats on the exact same planet as the one species whining because it can’t find intelligent life “out there,” the one species who feels alone in the universe when it wouldn’t recognize another intelligent life form if it bit him on the hand and pooped on his head.

What exactly is it that birds are trying to communicate? We know that some of their transmissions are territorial declarations, some are directed to a mate or hoped-for mate, and some are warnings about potential dangers. In other words, a great deal of what birds communicate is exactly like a great deal of what humans communicate. Yet we deny avian intelligence and ignore bird voices even as we spend millions of dollars trying to communicate with non-existent beings from other solar systems and galaxies. Our definition of intelligence seems a bit shaky.

I don’t mind people looking up at the stars and wondering what, and who, might be “out there.” But when you’re looking up at that night sky and dreaming of E.T., it might be wise to open your ears to the owls, mockingbirds, and other voices of the night calling to you right here on our home planet. Our species is nowhere near as alone as David Kestenbaum thinks. And I suspect our civilization would have a much greater probability of long-term survival if we paid more attention to the life forms right here on planet Earth rather than gazing into the cold, vast emptiness of the night sky and feeling sad and alone.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

What Makes America Great

These birds breed in the wild nowhere else on the planet except the United States of America—most of them spend their entire lives without passing out of this nation's borders. And I left out all but one of the birds endemic to Hawaii. This land was made for you and me, and for them:

Gunnison Sage-Grouse
My crappy photo of a Gunnison Sage-Grouse

Greater Prairie-Chicken
Greater Prairie-Chickens were once found in Canada, too, but were extirpated. 

Lesser Prairie-Chicken
Lesser Prairie-Chicken

Hawaiian Goose
Nene or Hawaiian Goose. 

Allen's Hummingbird
Allen's Hummingbird breeds only in the US.
Black Turnstone
Black Turnstones breed only in the U.S.

Mississippi Kite
Mississippi Kites breed only the the U.S.

Red-cockaded Woodpecker

Extinct Carolina Parakeet

Yellow-billed Magpie
Yellow-billed Magpie

Fish Crow
Fish Crow
Florida Scrub-Jay
Florida Scrub-Jay
Island Scrub-Jay
Island Scrub-Jay
Carolina Chickadee
Carolina Chickadee

Brown-headed Nuthatch
Brown-headed Nuthatch

Black Rosy-Finch (center) and Brown-capped Rosy-Finch
Brown-headed and Black Rosy-Finches

I don't have my own photo of Bachman's Sparrow

Seaside Sparrow
Seaside Sparrow 

Wolfgang Wander's photo of a Saltmarsh Sparrow

Sagebrush Sparrow
Sagebrush Sparrow breeds only in the U.S.

Boat-tailed Grackle
Boat-tailed Grackle

Worm-eating Warbler
Worm-eating Warblers breed only in the U.S.

Extinct Bachman's Warblers bred only in the U.S.

Swainson's Warbler
Swainson's Warblers breed only in the U.S.

Virginia's Warbler
Virginia's Warblers breed only in the U.S.

Kentucky Warbler
Kentucky Warblers breed only in the U.S.

Yellow-throated Warbler
Yellow-throated Warblers breed only in the U.S.

Hermit Warbler
Hermit Warblers breed only in the U.S.

Golden-cheeked Warbler
Golden-cheeked Warblers breed only in the U.S.
*This list of endemics came from here, a source not all that reliable because they think Bachman's Sparrow is extinct, and did not mark Bachman's Warbler as extinct, which it is. 

Friday, June 29, 2018

Engaging with an Anonymous Letter Writer

In the past year and a half, many people have talked about how important it is to engage in meaningful dialog with those we disagree with, and to talk about our differences in an open, honest, and polite way. When I put my opinions out there, whether on my podcast, blog, a letter to the editor, or social media, I take responsibility for my words, never hiding behind a cloak of anonymity. I’m not sure how I’m supposed to engage when someone sends me an anonymous letter with nothing but a St. Paul postmark, but since I got one today, I’ll take a stab at it. First the letter:
June 27, 2018
You are not to be taken seriously.
You revise History, distort History,
The hate + rage against Trump is what’s unprecedented.
You seem to be afflicted with Trump Derangement Syndrome.
You have no compassion, no caring for the 4,000 baby boys + girls being destroyed every day in America in their mothers’ wombs.
Is this what you are fighting for: more dead babies? Really?
It’s time to come to your senses, Laura, to reconnect with morality, with right + wrong. Read Isaiah 5:20-21.  
Uncle Sam
I’m presuming that “Uncle Sam” is distressed about my letter to the editor that was published in the Duluth News-Tribune Tuesday. I wrote it after witnessing an old, angry white man giving the finger at the crowd who were marching against Trump last week, and specifically glaring at and making that obscene gesture toward families with small children.

I’m not at all sure why “Uncle Sam” brought abortion into it—this is a topic I’ve never publicly discussed. But I guess in this new era of civility, I’m supposed to engage.

The problem is, I can’t find anything in the Bible that discusses the morality of abortion; indeed, the God of the Old Testament killed a lot of unborn fetuses and embryos in Sodom and Gomorrah Himself, and those of every pregnant woman in the world if she wasn’t lucky enough to be on Noah’s ark. But the God of the Old Testament wasn't very consistent. I was hoping “Uncle Sam’s” Isaiah 5:20-21 would clear this up somehow, but it turns out those lines are not at all about abortion:
Woe to those who call evil good
    and good evil,
who put darkness for light
    and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet
    and sweet for bitter.
Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes
    and clever in their own sight.
I can honestly say I’ve never called abortion either good OR evil, dark OR light, bitter OR sweet. If I had been confronted with an unwanted pregnancy during the decades of my life when an unwanted pregnancy was possible for me, I’d have made my choice of how to deal with it by following my own lights. Of course, my personal code of morality is irrelevant when considering the needs of anyone else facing that situation. The guiding words I find in my Bible regarding the moral choices of others are pretty clear and straightforward, by Jesus himself, as quoted in Matthew 7:1-3:
“Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?” 
Where personal morality is concerned, I even apply those words to Donald Trump, though I’d be very careful to keep my daughter as far from him as possible. I try hard not to wonder about the many women he’s boasted publicly about having sex with or "grabbing by the pussy" (his words, not mine), and whether any of these women were ever confronted with an unwanted pregnancy by Mr. Trump.

Nebulous as the Bible is about abortion, right this very moment there are thousands of living, breathing, crying babies and toddlers being held in “tender age” detention centers. If the Bible is where we find answers to good and evil, light and dark, and sweet and bitter, I’d suggest that “Uncle Sam” read a few more lines in his Old Testament, which is pretty specific about how we should treat strangers, immigrants, and asylum seekers. Just off the top of my head, there’s:
  • Exodus 22:21 – “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien; for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”
  • Leviticus 19:33-34 and 24:22 – When the alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien.  The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt:  I am the Lord your God.”
  • Numbers 9:14 and 15:15-16 – “…you shall have one statute for both the resident alien and the native.”
  • Deuteronomy 1:16 – “Give the members of your community a fair hearing, and judge rightly between one person and another, whether citizen or resident alien.”
  • Deuteronomy 10:18-19 – “For the Lord your God...loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.  You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
And for Christians (“Uncle Sam” doesn’t identify himself as one—I'm making an assumption here), in the New Testament, Jesus was pretty specific about our obligation to other human beings. Beyond his parable of the Good Samaritan, there are these verses "Uncle Sam" might read:
  • Luke 10:25-28: And one day an authority on the law stood up to put Jesus to the test. "Teacher," he asked, "what must I do to receive eternal life?" “What is written in the Law?” Jesus replied. “How do you understand it?” He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. Love him with all your strength and with all your mind.’ And, ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself.’” “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do that, and you will live.”
  • Matthew 7:12: Do to others what you want them to do to you. This is the meaning of the law of Moses and the teaching of the prophets.
  • Matthew 25:39-40 says, “When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you? And the King shall answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, Inasmuch as you have done it to one of the least of these my brothers, you have done it to me.’”
I find it curious that “Uncle Sam,” who took the time to search out my home address and handwrite an anonymous letter about Donald Trump as a moral icon, would say I’m the one “afflicted with Trump Derangement Syndrome,” but that's a judgment call, and Jesus said not to do that.

Listener Favorite: Amelia's Cardinals

Northern Cardinal

Last month, I received an email from a listener telling me about her favorite bird:
Hi, Laura: My name is Amelia and my favorite bird is a cardinal. When my husband, Andy and I lived in Green Bay, Wisconsin, we had a large backyard and one year we had a brood of three boy cardinals and at least one girl. The boys would chase each other around the yard and house in a big loop. They were so much fun to watch. 
We also liked listening to them sing from our screened-in porch. We occasionally whistled back and a couple of times repeated their song incorrectly. As a new birder, I was wondering if they would ever learn the wrong song or if that was harmful to them in any way.
I understand the pleasure to be had in whistling back and forth with a cardinal. My fondest memory of my own childhood was learning to whistle by imitating my neighborhood cardinals. One morning when I was in my bedroom whistling back and forth with a neighborhood cardinal, he flew in to a maple tree branch that pressed against my bedroom screen. His sparkling eyes meeting mine as he started a new song ignited my heart in a blaze of joy that still burns.

I also understand Amelia’s worry that her whistling back and forth could somehow harm these baby cardinals in learning their own proper song. I wrote a whole book about the many ways we people hurt birds and how not to. When we learn how difficult it is for birds to negotiate this human-altered planet, those of us who love them can’t help but worry.

But Amelia can let this particular worry go. As baby cardinals learn their song, they imitate one another and adults, but it’s the proper songs that they hear over and over that influence what their final song becomes. Our poor human imitations, even when they’re good enough to draw an adult cardinal in, can’t match the complexity of songs a real adult cardinal sings. The young birds will of course respond to our imitations, but what they learn comes from the real deal.

In thinking about this issue, I pulled out my copy of Don Kroodsma’s exquisite book, The Singing Life of Birds, published in 2005 and which I still consider one of the best bird books ever written. In his chapter about the cardinal, Don focused on how the female sings, too, and about the nuances he hears in the conversations between males and between male and female. Don writes:
And, oh, how he sings. In my mind’s play-center I hear his what cheer, cheer, cheer, his whistles as brilliant as he is handsome. The short what may slur briefly up, each cheer then taking most of a second to slur smoothly down the scale. What cheer, cheer, cheer, birdie-birdie-birdie follows, as he adds a little flourish on the end, then another what cheer, cheer, cheer.   
I hear other songs, too, of a clearly different pattern. Perhaps it’s pichew pichew tiw tiw tiw tiw tiw tiw tiw, over and over. I count them as he sings: 10, 15, 20 or so times and then it’s another song, perhaps a wooiit wooiit wooiit wooiit chew chew chew chew. All consist of pure whistles, some slurred up, some down; some are almost a second long and repeated slowly, others just a fraction of a second and delivered rapidly. It is fairly easy to hear the 8 to 10 different songs as he sings—he repeats each one enough times that I can get to know it, and then he goes on to another, each so different from the others. I soon hear his favored sequences, too, as I can often predict the next song based on his current song. 
Like many other songbirds, the males engage in community conversations.  I’ve heard them here in the cemetery, the resident male and two of his neighbors hurling identical songs back and forth at one another, as their repertoires are much the same. In heated debates the songs become longer and more complex, with extra whistled phrases and perhaps even a red squirrel-like chirr added to the end of the song. In these vocal skirmishes they switch to new songs more frequently, too, and match each other more often than not, typically repeating each song just a few times before introducing another, as if the war will be won by who switches to a new song first, or by he who refuses to follow the leader, or in some other conversational convention that only cardinals know. Yes, I’ve heard them here in the cemetery, and elsewhere, too, on Cape Cod, and in almost every state down to Florida, west to Texas and north to Minnesota, as they play the same games everywhere.   
And she also sings. It is she who has brought me here, to know her and her singing role better. By March or April, perhaps a month after he’s been in full song, she chimes in, at least according to the expert accounts I have read. She sings far less than he does; it seems that her songs are not repeated as precisely as his, and they seem not to be as loud, either. She often sings from under cover, too, while the showy male is perched in the open. There’s nothing second-rate about her songs, though, as her repertoire is essentially identical to his. She sometimes uses her songs to defend her territory against an intruding female, but mostly she duets with her mate, and usually when they are rather close by. And when she duets with her mate, she almost always matches him, his pichew pichew tiw tiw tiw tiw tiw tiw tiw followed quickly by hers, his what cheer, cheer, cheer by hers.
Listening to cardinals sing while trying to figure out which birds are doing the singing is richly rewarding, whether we whistle back or not. When I was in the Florida Everglades in April, I made the recording of cardinals that I used as a background sound on the podcast corresponding to this transcript; the recording of a male/female duet was taken from the CD included in Don Kroodsma’s book, The Singing Life of Birds, a book that is very much worth reading AND worth listening to.

[Kroodsma, Donald. The Singing Life of Birds: The Art and Science of Listening to Birdsong (Kindle Locations 6144-6176). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.]

female Northern Cardinal