Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

To Sell My Immortal Soul

I went to a Catholic elementary school from 1957 to 1965—that’s where the foundation of my moral code and world view were formed. The only thing I learned about birds was that St. Francis believed they had souls. At the time, that was plenty enough ornithology for me.

Most of my teachers were nuns who had taken a vow of poverty. They were the ones who taught me that a synonym for money was filthy lucre. My lay teachers were paid so little that they might as well have taken a vow of poverty, too.

My beloved St. Francis renounced worldly ways. His Franciscan order was the first to require a vow of poverty. I wanted to be a nun, and welcomed living as Francis did, renouncing wealth and the moral compromises people make in order to amass riches. Indeed, for the past 32 years I’ve been producing For the Birds without any compensation except the satisfaction of thinking that St. Francis might have appreciated my life of service.

But parents must provide for their children, and in 2005, when we had three kids in college, I took a paying job at a local optics retailer, writing a blog. From Day One, I defined the purpose of that blog as “For the love, understanding, and protection of birds.” I didn’t like reviewing binoculars and spotting scopes—I got freaked out one day when a customer, who had just two weeks before bought a premium pair of binoculars, called me to ask about a news release about another top brand that was about to offer a competing model. He wanted to know if the new binoculars would be better than his. When I asked him if he liked his, he said they seemed perfect, but he was still concerned that there could be something even better out there. I wanted to slap him and tell him to shut up and go birding, but managed to hold my tongue—I hope that was more due to my innate desire to be polite than to my selling out for a job.

But in 2007, my boss sold the company to a large corporation—one that boasted to us on a visit to its Omaha headquarters that their salespeople base recommendations for customers not on what binoculars would be best for someone’s unique circumstances, but which models are best for the company’s profit margins. They also sold a lot of cheap crap from China, including stuff that was demonstrably horrible for birds, like metal bird houses that would cook or freeze baby chickadees and wrens. I could not allow my name to be associated with them, period.

If I’d held on, I probably would have been laid off anyway, which would have given me a few more paychecks and then I’d qualify for unemployment, but instead I wrote a bridge-burning letter to the company on March 15, my version of Brutus sticking it to the man on the Ides of March.

In seventh or eighth grade religion class, one of our priests defined prostitution as taking money for any action that violated one’s conscience. He said it would be a sin for even a parent with hungry mouths to feed to take a job that required him or her to hurt human beings. He made the point that some violations of conscience are more egregious than others—that working in Hitler’s concentration camps would be a worse sin, and a more profound example of prostitution, than a desperate woman committing the more narrow legal definition of prostitution. Yep—accepting even a single paycheck with that corporation’s name on it would have made me a prostitute, clear and simple.

I’ve long worried and wondered what it was about Germans that allowed them to take jobs in those concentration camps, much less about the ones who turned a blind eye to them. But right here in America, people working for ICE and a bunch of for-profit prisons and detention centers are showing me how many people either don’t have any moral qualms about harming other human beings or are willing to violate their conscience for pay.

Ironically, the very man who has referred to human beings trying to immigrate to America as “infesting” our nation liked undocumented workers just fine when they were building Trump Tower for $4 an hour. Now that he would have trouble getting away with that, he’s basing his immigration policy not on stopping wealthy Americans from exploiting undocumented workers but on harming those poor, desperate people who arrived here, just as my great great grandparents and two of this president’s wives as well as his own mother and paternal grandparents did, as immigrants.

A few of the people working for ICE and the Border Patrol or for the detention centers where children have been sent are speaking out; some have quit their jobs. But prostitution—doing evil for pay—is the order of the day now. Selling one’s soul for filthy lucre is the Trumpian way.

For the Babies

Red-eyed Vireo

I started out yesterday morning listening to my Red-eyed Vireo singing his laid-back song; later in the morning, suddenly I was hearing more than one Red-eyed Vireo making anxious, distressed call notes in my tree. I ran out to see a Blue Jay sneaking about in the upper limbs, being divebombed by three adult vireos. I yelled, but it was the vireos who finally and successfully chased it off.

I’ve focused my entire adult life on the love, understanding, and protection of birds, but also on human children. I was a teacher for four years before having my own children, and loved introducing my students to birds—indeed, the ones I’ve reconnected with over the years have all mentioned my teaching them about birds. I started producing For the Birds when my own youngest nestling was 7 months old, and I was as fiercely protective a mother of small ones as my Red-eyed Vireos are. My love for birds and children are entirely intertwined.

We humans like to think we’re superior to other animals for our ability to feel empathy and for our powerful ability to nurture babies of other species. But the quality of empathy varies greatly within our species. Sociopaths are defined in large part by the absence of empathy.

Many laws and regulations relate directly to the well-being of babies and children, or to the natural environment that human and avian babies and children as well as we adults depend on. I get frustrated and even angry when politicians use weasel words to set policies that put the profits of corporations and the wealth of the 1 percent above the needs of children and the environment, but overall I’ve never thought those politicians were necessarily sociopaths, or that they would do anything egregiously outrageous to score political points, like hold children and babies literally hostage, in literal holding cages or other enclosures, ripped from their parents, in order to force other politicians to bow to them and pass an otherwise unconscionable law.

Yesterday morning I heard vireos in distress, and last night just before bed I learned that the President of the United States had created what are literally called “tender age shelters” to house the babies and toddlers who have been stolen from their helpless parents and are being held hostage until Congress funds an obscene wall along the entire Mexican border—along that sensitive Rio Grande habitat that so many of us birders, and all the wildlife we see down there, depend on. I learned yesterday that there is no prescribed mechanism for getting these children being held in what are surely concentration camps back to their parents, no matter what the outcome, and that at least one Guatemala mother was deported while her child was kept here.

In my lifetime, not one president would ever have considered using babies and children as blatant political bargaining chips, but now the politicians of an entire party are bowing to the current president's desires—even those very Republicans who pooh-poohed the concept of that wall during their own campaigns for president in 2016, talking about how expensive and destructive yet fundamentally ineffective that wall would be. A local Duluth politician running for the District 8 Republican seat in Congress said yesterday that tearing children from their parents is “heartbreaking,” yet he is perfectly willing to allow this to continue until Democrats cave and allow that expensive and destructive yet ineffective wall to be built. He’ll be toadying to a sociopath tonight, when the man responsible for this evil policy comes to Duluth.

I’ll be at the protests today. Babies and children are in distress, and everyone with a conscience must do something.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Gypsy Moth Spraying in My Neighborhood

Airplane spraying Bt in my neighborhood

I woke up this morning, as I usually do in June, listening to my neighborhood Red-eyed Vireo and robins singing away, and baby Song Sparrows chipping with hunger. Two or three different pairs of chickadees are nesting within a stone's throw of my yard, and cardinals are nesting on the next block, their songs conjuring up some of my finest childhood memories.

It’s fun to lie in bed a few minutes hearing the neighborhood gossip. The Song Sparrows fledged this weekend, and their parents are running themselves ragged keeping track of the chicks as they search for insects, especially caterpillars, to stuff into them. In June, robins are always somewhere in the nesting cycle—after one brood fledges, Dad shows them the ropes of life on Peabody Street while Mom incubates a new batch of eggs. Red-eyed Vireos are more mysterious, with Dad singing so persistently no matter where in the nesting cycle they are, and the fledglings hiding deep in foliage, so usually the best I can do is imagine what they’re up to.

Black-capped Chickadee
Caterpillars: the stuff of life for baby birds.
This stuff happens every year, but as Rachel Carson wrote, “There is symbolic as well as actual beauty in the migration of the birds… There is something infinitely healing in these repeated refrains of nature, the assurance that night after night, dawn comes, and spring after winter.”

I was jolted out of this morning’s reverie about baby birds fulfilling the promise of bird migration in a most un-Rachel Carson way, by an airplane spewing pesticides right in my neighborhood in a ridiculously hopeless attempt to control a pest that is so pervasive right now that it would be impossible to eradicate, using a pesticide that targets caterpillars of every species.

Gypsy moth "control" is based on Bacillus thuringiensis, nicknamed Bt, a naturally occurring soil bacterium. A May 29 article in the Duluth News-Tribune summarized a Minnesota Department of Agriculture news release, reassuring readers that:
The treatment product is organic certified for food crops…. It has no known health effects for humans, pets, birds, fish, livestock, bees and other insects, but to avoid it residents may wish to stay indoors during the treatment and keep windows closed for a half hour after application. The residue does not cause damage to outdoor surfaces and can be removed with soapy water.
(The article was updated Friday to announce today's spraying, with the same PR fluff about how harmless Bt is.)

One line is an outright lie. The statement that Bt has no known health effects for bees "and other insects" is absolutely false. Bt outright and indiscriminately kills all lepidopteran caterpillars, and caterpillars are, indeed, insects. For the Duluth News-Tribune to print such a clear falsehood without question, straight out of industry PR materials, can't even be called shoddy journalism—it's not journalism, period.

Russ and I still subscribe to the News-Tribune, but my Red-eyed Vireos and other neighborhood birds don’t. They won’t be poisoned outright—it isn’t a false claim that the bacterium has no direct health effects on birds. But it’s absolutely untrue that it has no effects on them. There is no pesticide in the known universe that targets nothing but gypsy moths—this variety of Bt may not kill bees, but it takes out every single lepidopteron caterpillar, from luna moths to monarchs. The last time I was watching a Monarch caterpillar in some milkweed in my yard, it was killed by this exact kind of Bt spraying. And one's health is pretty clearly affected by the food one eats. Bt may not outright harm birds, but destroying their main summer food source certainly does have an effect.

My poor backyard birds will have no clue why caterpillars are suddenly harder to come by. I’ve written and talked a lot over the years about how most of the insects that Whip-poor-wills, nighthawks, and songbirds depend on are declining. Meanwhile, gypsy moths are doing just peachy despite all the spraying. They pose a serious economic problem for which spraying has simply not helped—they’re cyclic and keep coming back even as the many, many harmless and helpful lepidopteron species, already in trouble, continue to dwindle.

Spraying Bt from airplanes may at least be better than spraying DDT from trucks, another vivid childhood memory. We were told that was harmless, too, yet my big brother, who chased the truck with the other little boys night after night, developed weird fatty subcutaneous lumps all over his body as a young man. Was it DDT or the Agent Orange he was exposed to in Vietnam that caused this and ultimately led to the cancer that killed him? We’ll never know.

That DDT spraying didn’t end mosquitos in my town or anywhere else, and this spraying won’t end gypsy moths in Duluth or anywhere else. We keep making the same mistakes, and the companies that manufacture and administer pesticides and write proposals to ag departments and release PR news statements, and the news media that repeat those PR claims verbatim without investigating, keep making the same profits. This time people may not pay—well, except for those of us who plant milkweed and love to watch our caterpillars grow—but the chickadees, Red-eyed Vireos, cardinals, robins, and Song Sparrows in my neighborhood will start struggling to find enough caterpillars to bring their young to independence. We people may gripe about being awakened by an airplane at 5:30, but most of us won’t even notice the lasting effects our birds will be dealing with.

I’m the age right now that my brother was when he died. Like the problems the older generation left us boomers with, we’ll be leaving our young people plenty of problems to deal with. Overblown assurances that “it’s organic!” and “it won’t hurt you—promise!” will keep Bt spraying for a long time to come, and the gypsy moths still won’t go away. A handful of people will keep profiting, a smaller handful will keep protesting about how it hurts beneficial insects and the birds that eat them and isn’t solving the gypsy moth problem at all, and most people will keep ignoring the situation. I guess I’m glad that I won’t be around to see what finally wakes people up this time.

Friday, June 15, 2018

A Week on Hog Island in Maine

Hog Island

I spent last week in Maine, mostly on Hog Island, a small coastal island owned by National Audubon. I was one of the instructors for Audubon’s Joy of Birding camp. I’d been at the same event two years ago, so it was both fun and interesting to see how things stayed the same and how they’ve changed. The apple trees weren’t blooming this year, but the Northern Parulas were still feeding on caterpillars in the trees, as well as singing up a storm.

Northern Parula

The sounds of Hog Island are quite a bit like those you’d hear in northern Wisconsin and Minnesota—warblers, thrushes, chickadees, and other birds of the North Woods. And the Maine countryside looks a lot like the north woods, too. Hog island’s latitude is at 43.9° N while Duluth’s is 46.7° N.

Hog Island

The island looks pretty much like any of the little islands within the Boundary Waters, but when you look out on the water, instead of Mallards you see Common Eiders, and instead of loons you see tiny relatives of puffins called Black Guillemots.

Black Guillemot

Black Guillemot

Black Guillemot

The water doesn’t look any different from Lake Superior, but if you look down into it from the dock at Hog Island, you very well may see jellyfish, and unlike docks on Lake Superior, the water end of the dock at Hog Island keeps shifting up and down with the tide. At high tide I could walk to my cabin thinking how much like Lake Superior the shore looked; a few hours later the edge of the water would be way out, the shoreline covered with mats of kelp and other salty plant life. 

I’ve not seen a single puffin from Hog Island, but each year the class takes a boat ride out to Eastern Egg Rock, barely further north at 43.8° N, to see the Atlantic Puffins that now nest there. Puffins once nested on several of these islands until people wiped them out in the 1800s. They’d entirely disappeared from Eastern Egg Rock by 1880. In 1973, biologists took young puffins, about 10-14 days old, from Newfoundland, and set them in artificial sod burrows on Eastern Egg Rock. They placed handfuls of vitamin-fortified fish in these burrows each day. When the birds reached the age of fledging, they took off for the sea, and the biologists kept hope that when they reached adulthood, they’d return to this island.

 To encourage them, graduate student Steve Kress devised a plan to set up wooden puffin decoys so the island would look like a good spot to stay and nest. Puffins started returning to Eastern Egg Rock in 1977, and four pairs nested there in 1981. Now 150 pairs nest there. We got to see quite a few of them on our boat ride around the island, along with countless Black Guillemots.

Atlantic Puffin

My group also saw single members each of the other two alcids possible to see in June in Maine—a Razorbill and a Common Murre.

The furthest south that puffins have nested continuously without human intervention is on Machias Seal Island, a border island with a Canadian Coast Guard station whose ownership the US disputes. Razorbills and murres nest on Machias Seal Island along with 1500 pairs of puffins. That island is at 44.3° N—still not as far north as Duluth’s 46.7° N. I love visiting Machias Seal Island—if water conditions allow a landing, we can get right into blinds to observe them up close and personal—but that isn't part of the Joy of Birding Class and wasn't in the cards for my Maine trip this year.

Atlantic Puffin

My time at this Joy of Birding class was an amazing blend of feeling right at home and feeling like I was in an exotic paradise. Boat noises made recording puffins impossible, but I did make a sound recording of the dawn chorus on Hog Island on a perfect day—no wind whatsoever, just the gentle lapping of the Atlantic a constant in the background. That’s a lovely sound, which will transport me back whenever I listen. You can listen to it here.

Harbor Seal mother and pup

Monday, June 11, 2018

Koni Sundquist

Black-capped Chickadee

When Russ and I moved to Duluth in 1981, I didn’t know anyone in the birding community here. I was pregnant with our first baby and had just left a teaching job and students that I loved. I’d been an active member of Madison Audubon, providing regular beginning birding classes for Madison Audubon for a few years, and I wrote regular features about birds and birding for the morning newspaper, The Wisconsin State Journal. But neither of those niches was available in Duluth. The newspaper wasn’t at all interested in me, and the idea of providing free bird walks for beginners and the general public was rejected out of hand by Duluth Audubon, because someone else was providing birding field trips for a small fee and no one wanted me to compete with him. I’d pretty much set my life goal as being an advocate for the love, understanding, and protection of birds, but suddenly didn’t know how to do that anymore. 

I quickly became editor of Duluth Audubon’s newsletter and then president of Duluth Audubon—two jobs no one else wanted—even though both required a level of administrative skills I am utterly lacking in. The Duluth birding community was fairly insular, and my shyness didn’t make it any easier for me to break in. And no matter what I did, I felt like I was stepping on someone’s toes. When I started producing “For the Birds” in 1986, some of the local birders were very resentful, even as the program brought in more interest and membership at Hawk Ridge and greater participation in the local birding classes. I felt as much an outsider as ever. 

But one woman in the birding community was outgoing and extremely friendly from the very start. Not only did Koni Sundquist help me adjust and make me feel valued—she cheered me on as I developed my own niche so I wouldn’t be competing with anyone else. 

Koni was a bird bander and had become the one person in town who knew how to rehab birds. She never had state or federal licenses for that, yet it was people in the DNR and the US Fish and Wildlife Service who most often referred people with injured birds to her. When I started doing my radio show, people started thinking of my name when confronted with a hurt or orphaned bird, and suddenly I was coming home from the pediatrician or wherever I’d been to find a box with a bird on the front porch and a message like, “Take care of this bird. God bless you.” Koni took them at first, but not only encouraged me to learn how to take care of them myself—she also talked me through the challenges. She had endless compassion for birds (well, except for her neighborhood crows), and was the most generous person I’ve ever known in her willingness to share every bit of her own knowledge, never seeing anyone else as a competitor but as a teammate. 

I called Koni a lot, not only for advice about hurt birds but also just to talk. I’ve never known anyone so relentlessly cheerful and upbeat, even as she faced widowhood, losing her son, and serious health setbacks of her own, including the loss of much of her eyesight. Her laugh was infectious and unfailingly filled with a chickadee’s joie de vivre. When I took my job at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Koni sent me several letters. Opening them was just like talking to her in person, her handwriting as large and ebullient as her laugh. She was like a one-person cheering squad. 

I almost certainly would not have found my own path without Koni’s encouragement and help. She was the kind of generous human being who rolls up her sleeves and does what needs to be done, never for any kind of reward except knowing she was doing what was right. I simply and absolutely would never have become a licensed bird rehabber without her encouragement and help. 

Over time, as I’ve become busier and away from home so much, it’s become harder to keep up with friends. I’d occasionally read a letter to the editor by Koni and think, “I need to call her up!” In March, the Duluth News-Tribune ran a story about a bear hanging out in her neighborhood, sometimes going under her porch, so she hit it with a broom. At 88, Koni was still never afraid for herself, but as always thinking about others. She was quoted saying, “I worry because five days a week I have Meals on Wheels delivered, and they're all senior citizens, both ladies and gentlemen. What if the bear stood up and scared the liver out of 'em?”

Reading that was solid evidence that Koni was herself, and all was right with the world. I thought to myself how I need to call her up, but I had a hectic spring, out of town a lot. It could wait until things settled down in June. 

On May 30, I left for Maine, for a speaking engagement at the Acadia Birding Festival and to teach a birding class at National Audubon's Hog Island. On May 31, Koni died, at home just as she would have wanted. My flight home didn’t leave Maine until afternoon on June 9, the day of her memorial, so I missed even that. To the very end, Koni was a far greater friend to me than I was to her. How I will miss her, and the reassuring feeling that while Koni was here, this planet was a bright and jolly place. I’m filled with sorrow that I never gave her anything close to the riches she gave me.

If you could do a family tree and individual life history for every chickadee in Duluth, I bet most of them have, somewhere in their ancestry, a bird that was saved by Koni or by someone like me who was only able to help it thanks to Koni. I love thinking about that, because like her beloved chickadees, Koni loved and accepted everyone who wasn’t out to harm little birds, and like chickadees, Koni withstood the worst that life could throw at her without becoming jaded or sour. When I hear my neighborhood chickadees warning about a hawk or cat, I’ll think of Koni Sundquist, yelling at crows and swatting at bears even as she was ever cheerful and laughing—a chickadee to the very end.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Good News: Declining Birth Rate

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

In the past couple of weeks, a lot of news stories have centered around the announcement by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that America’s birth rate has fallen to a 30-year low. Teen births in particular are down 70 percent since the peak in 1991, but the overall trend was for women across the board.

Not many reporters related this to another news story, that people born in the 1980s are the brokest generation, their median net worth 34 percent lower than what past trends would predict for their age group. When people are working 50 or 60 hours a week at two part-time minimum wage jobs to barely get by, paying for their own health care coverage and trying to repay their student loans, they can hardly afford to quit or get child care to start a family, and except at the highest management levels, most corporate jobs pay pretty poorly when employees have so little leverage. But it isn’t only millennials who are having fewer children—the only age group having an increase in the birth rate is women in their 40s.

The slant of every story I’ve heard or read was that the falling birth rate is a bad thing—that we need more young people to join the work force as older workers retire. Not one news story looked at the issue from the standpoint of world and national over-population and our dangerously imperiled natural resources. Instead of bemoaning this, economists who have a clue about how life on this inter-connected planet actually works should be considering strategies that would allow us to thrive, not just despite a declining population but because of it. 

The population problem seems to be at the lowest level of people’s awareness right now. I suppose it’s understandable with so many other urgent problems right in our face, from the serious repercussions of climate change, the huge amount of plastic garbage taking over the world’s oceans, major corporations selling public utilities water resources at a huge profit even as water supplies dwindle, and so much else. Yet at a fundamental level, human population is at the very root of every one of these issues.

When I’ve talked about population in the past, the only responses I’ve heard from listeners have been at opposite ends of the spectrum—either I should shut up about it because Paul Ehrlich’s book, The Population Bomb, was debunked decades ago (which is of course untrue) and thanks to GMOs and pesticides, we can feed many times what the world’s human population is now (which of course is also untrue); or that I should shut up about it because I have three children and so have permanently squandered any standing to speak on the issue at all. Ironically, Russ’s parents have only three grandchildren, and at this late date, Russ and I have zero grandchildren, so in the long view, our contribution to overpopulation has been smaller than it may seem. 

I suspect that most of us realize overpopulation is indeed a problem but don’t know what to do about it. The way first world countries have reduced their birthrates has always involved educating women and giving them healthcare and legal agency over their lives. Now that we’re finally reducing our birthrate here in America, we should be celebrating even as we look to the future to find ways our society can thrive, economically and in more fundamentally important ways, as we lower the birthrate.

Scolding a 66-year-old woman about how many children she had in the 1980s and telling her that she has no right to speak out about overpopulation is just as much an effort to squelch information about the issue as denying that a problem exists in the first place. Isn’t it time we looked to the future, not thirty-odd years in the past, and worked together to solve these problems?

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Listener Favorite: Robyn's Saw-whet Owl

Northern Saw-whet Owl

Last week, I got an email from Robyn Schroeder, who writes:

Hello Laura,   
It was probably almost two months ago that I heard the request for submissions of our favorite birds and I am finally getting this email off to you.  It may be too late for your show, but I still wanted to share my favorite bird.   
It has taken me several weeks to decide on my favorite bird.  There are so many great experiences that have accompanied our birding adventures, but I decided that my favorite bird was one I experienced in my own back yard. It was my husband, Rick, that introduced me to birding.  We took a walk along the Mississippi River in St. Cloud when we were first dating in the spring of 1979, and he called a chickadee in within a foot of my head.  I was amazed!  I had the best viewing of a chickadee ever.  Later I came to understand that chickadees are generally “friendly” birds and very cooperative in responding to calls; I even repeated this experience for a bunch of scouts on a camping trip.   
However, it was the calling in of a Northern Saw-whet owl that really wowed me! We had been living in the Saginaw area for only a couple years when Rick heard the distinctive too-too-too song of the Saw-whet owl on an early spring evening.  I did not recognize the call since this was my first Saw-whet.  Rick suggested we take a walk into the woods behind our house and he started answering to the Saw-whet.    
It was a calm, cool evening and this Saw-whet was interested in having a conversation.   It was after sunset and the forest was dark.   At first we could tell the owl was moving around us as his response to Rick’s too-too-too song would come from different places.  There was excitement in the anticipation to hear from what direction the owl would call next.  Finally one call was very close, so we shone a flashlight toward the sound and there was the cutest little owl I had ever seen.  I didn’t know that owls even came in that size!    
I had grown up hearing and seeing Barred owls on trips to the Boundary waters and then was introduced to the Great Gray Owl and Northern Hawk Owl in the Sax-Zim Bog.  Seeing this delightful little owl, who was willing to have a conversation with us in our own back-yard, really made it special and qualifies for my favorite bird.  We realized we didn’t have to travel anywhere to have a great birding experience, just be listening and looking for the birds that surround us.   

It was lovely reading Robyn’s recollections, which stirred up my own memories of Saw-whets calling in the north woods. Some people have called or written me in the past about waking up in the middle of the night in their tent while camping and thinking they were hearing a truck backing up. When they realized what it really was, they were of course charmed—who wouldn’t be charmed by a predator so tiny it barely balances a quarter-ounce hamburger patty and looks fluffy and adorable but feels fierce and powerful, as it is to the insects and rodents that make up its prey.

Thanks to flickers and Pileated Woodpeckers, saw-whets have an excellent choice of real estate in Minnesota and Wisconsin forests for both roosting and nesting. The banding station at Hawk Ridge, just above my house, traps, bands, and releases well over a thousand Saw-whets every fall during migration. Some visit my own backyard, too. A few saw-whets overwinter up here—more than once I’ve seen one on Superb Owl Sunday in February, when other people are watching flying pigskins.

Northern Saw-whet Owl

But the best time of all to enjoy a Saw-whet is when you can hear it as well as see it, during early spring when they’re courting. Robyn’s favorite is pretty darned special by any measure.

By the way, there is no deadline to share your favorite bird. You can send me a sound file telling me about it, call the phone number on the sidebar of my blog any day after 2 pm to record it as a message, or send me a note.

Northern Saw-whet Owl with mouse

Monday, June 4, 2018

The Giving Tree

Evening Grosbeak in box elder tree

Back in 1981 when we moved into our house on Peabody Street, the very first songbirds I noticed were several Evening Grosbeaks sitting in a box elder tree right next to our house. One of the Evening Grosbeak’s favorite foods is box elder seeds, and our two box elders, and then a third that sprouted up in the middle of our yard, gave us a huge advantage in attracting these beautiful birds during all the years they were common or even abundant in Duluth.

But the moment she saw it, my mother-in-law told me the box elder next to the house should come down as soon as possible—it was a dangerous hazard. Russ told me not to worry—the tree was TOO close to the house to pose a danger, because it would fall gently against it if it fell in the wrong direction. Now, 37 years later, it’s still standing. What has changed is how much more devoted I am to it now than I was then, even as Evening Grosbeaks have disappeared.

Over the years, this tree has provided nesting quarters for a few birds that I’ve been aware of, and probably of plenty I didn’t notice. At least one pair of chickadees fledged young from it, and I was very bonded to that pair. At the start of the courting season, one was missing its tail feathers and the other had some weird scar tissue on the face that led to some of the feathers next to the eye growing in backward. The two were probably at the bottom of the flock’s social hierarchy for what were really temporary defects, and oddly enough, those defects were exactly why I keyed in on them and made sure of all my backyard chickadees that these two got the best helpings of nutritious mealworms. It was thrilling when they paired off and nested in that box elder, especially because that was a year when we were using what is now my office as our bedroom (and before I was photographing birds). I could see and hear them each morning from bed. Chickadees often excavate their own nest holes or use those of Downy Woodpeckers, and in either case, both species prefer rotten wood—a healthier tree would just not have been the right choice. A pair of Red-breasted Nuthatches nested in the tree, too, and several gray squirrel families got their start in it.

Black-capped Chickadee

I’ve taken thousands of photos of birds, including warblers and hummingbirds,  perched on old, lichen-covered branches very close to the window. That lichen was evidence that the tree is growing increasingly rotten, and indeed, those nearby branches were attached to a limb that crashed to the ground in a storm last year. 

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Red-eyed Vireo

Black-and-white Warbler

American Redstart

The center of the tree has developed a huge hollowed-out area where one large rotten limb fell years ago.

My grand old box elder next to my upstairs office window

I’m pretty sure one or the other of a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers spent nights roosting in that rotted area—for a while last year, the male or female would be calling from the tree at first light. This neighborhood pair spends a lot of time in my yard, and last week when I heard one of them working in a tree, not with loud hammering but more quiet chiseling, I looked out my office window and discovered the male was inside that hollowed-out space digging out grubs. I could only see the back of his head occasionally, so I went into the yard to photograph and take videos of him. He kept at it a good five minutes, paying no attention to me or my camera, and then flew south, possibly to a nest tree a block or two away. 

Pileated Woodpecker finding grubs in my box elder tree

Pileated Woodpecker finding grubs in my box elder tree

Pileated Woodpecker finding grubs in my box elder tree

Pileated Woodpecker finding grubs in my box elder tree

Pileated Woodpecker finding grubs in my box elder tree

The tree is beautifully leafed out right now, and heavy with seeds. Even I can see it will not live forever. None of us do. But I’m sure glad we didn’t sentence it to an early death so many years, and experiences, ago. And that Pileated Woodpecker is glad about that, too.

Pileated Woodpecker finding grubs in my box elder tree

Friday, June 1, 2018

Individuals vs Populations


Last time I talked about the death of one particular Great Gray Owl and how it impacted one listener. Sometimes wildlife managers and other people tell me that individual animals don’t matter—to protect species, we need to focus on populations, not individuals. But it’s quite possible for a person to focus on both, and the silly statistical argument that individuals aren’t the basis of populations grows increasingly ridiculous when a population dwindles to just a few individuals.

Even in a robust population, individual lives have meaning. Back in the 1990s, one fall day my kids and I noticed a squirrel in the backyard whose tail had been ripped off—at least, all the fur and skin. The bones and muscle remained, kinked in a couple of places and clearly infected. By the second day the outer third or so had fallen off, but the rest of the tail looked horrible for at least a week before it finally fell off. Meanwhile, the squirrel looked weak and dazed. She would have been stressed if I’d tried to capture her—nature would have to take its course, but I could hardly let the poor thing die of starvation when she was too weak to search hard for food. The least I could do was to buy a bag of peanuts and another of mixed nuts. When I’d see her near our dining room window, I’d crank it open to drop half-opened nuts and a few peanuts on the ground. I also set out a dish of water for her, and kept it fresh. She had trouble climbing trees—I don’t know if it was simply getting used to balancing without a tail or her being weak while dealing with a massive infection.

After the infected tail fell off, she was left with a short stump, so I started calling her Stumpytail. As she recovered from the infection, I didn’t want her to generalize about people being nice when she couldn’t get away from danger as fast as our other squirrels, so my kids and I never fed her out of our hands, but I got into the habit of keeping some nuts or peanuts in my pocket when I was in our backyard. I might be looking at an interesting warbler or finch up in my tree when suddenly I’d feel something tugging on my shoelace, and sure enough, there would be Stumpy looking up at me expectantly, so I’d drop a few nuts down to her.

I treasured this one squirrel beyond anything I’d expected. There’s a saying, “Love is an active verb.” Maybe my specific actions of looking out for Stumpy when she was in trouble were what made me love her. Or maybe it was just that she stood out from all the other squirrels, giving her a particularity that mattered. Joseph Stalin once said that the death of one person is a tragedy; the death of one million is a statistic. And Mother Teresa said, "If I look at the mass I will never act." I had a genuinely special feeling for Stumpytail greatly beyond what I felt for the squirrel population on Peabody Street.

We saw Stumpy just about daily for several years, and then suddenly, she stopped coming. I figured she had died and was broken hearted. Several months later, I was driving home and when I turned down Peabody Street two blocks from home, there was a stumpy-tailed squirrel in someone’s front yard. I cranked down my window and said, “Stumpy! Why don’t you write?” I kept going, and suddenly noticed out my car’s outside mirror a little stumpy-tailed squirrel running along the sidewalk. By the time I’d parked the car in the garage and come into the house, there she was on my front porch, waiting expectantly.

Life went back to normal with Stumpytail for the next couple of years. Then we had a snowy winter. One morning when I was out of town, Russ was shoveling the front walk and discovered Stumpy’s frozen little body—she’d apparently been sitting on the snowbank waiting for the plow to go by, misjudged, and got plowed under.

Over the years, the individual animals—birds as well as squirrels—that I’ve helped, like my chickadee with the overgrown bill and missing toes, and all the baby birds I’ve raised, have elicited love or something awfully darned close to love. When my special chickadee raised a whole brood of chicks who fledged successfully, I was elated. When a baby flicker we’d raised went off in autumn, but alighted on my son the following spring, our whole family was overjoyed. One baby Pine Siskin was on death’s door from a cat attack. It recovered and flew off with Pine Siskins that fall. I was thrilled that it had fully recovered, and even more joyful when it returned the next spring and alighted on my little daughter Katie’s finger as she was riding her tricycle.

Does caring so very much about these individuals detract from my work as a conservationist? Of course not. Having such a clear commitment to specific individuals whose paths cross mine makes me more fully aware of the challenges of life in this modern world for all kinds of creatures. When I can tell the story of an individual bird that was hurt in a preventable way, that makes my listeners more viscerally aware of the preventable dangers we humans pose to wildlife.

Our human capacity for love and mercy is perhaps our greatest quality as a species. We may carry loving the particular to excess when we are mindless about the needs of the many, but the quality of mercy is not strained; It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven Upon the place beneath, and if that place underneath has a Great Gray Owl or a hurt squirrel, that’s quite alright with me.


Tuesday, May 29, 2018

The Life and Death of a Great Gray Owl

Copyright 2018 by Mike Farmer; used with permission
Last Thursday, I got an email from a listener named Mike. He writes:  
For the past several months I've been watching a Great Grey on 133 just west of Canyon.  I've stopped countless times to watch and photograph this guy and had established quite a fondness for this particular critter.  On my way to the bog this morning I found him on the side of the road, victim of a likely collision with a car.  Needless to say, I was completely gutted.  As I continued into the bog, I remembered something from a recent program of yours.  Something to do with the quiet eternity of the moment.  As I reflected on this, I remembered all of the moments I shared with this guy and the joy he brought into my life.  
As I read Mike’s letter, my heart started hurting, anticipating how it was going to turn out, especially because I’m pretty sure I saw and photographed that very same Great Gray a couple of months ago. It can be hard to explain to people who don’t spend a lot of time outdoors just how precious it is to be able to count on seeing a particular individual animal in a particular place as time goes by. Simply from a naturalist’s viewpoint, knowing that a particular habitat continues to provide what is necessary for a magnificent predator is very comforting, but that sense isn’t as visceral as the sense of connection we make when we spend time over weeks or months with one individual animal. And of all North American wildlife, making eye contact with an owl touches us to our very souls in a way that no other species can, because of all North American wildlife, only owls have a flattened face with large, forward-facing eyes and a beak placed right where our nose would be. Every human culture has mythology and folklore about these most human-looking of birds. 

But the visceral connection we feel when we come close to an owl, its eyes meeting ours, is more than fanciful anthropomorphism and myth-making. Look into an owl’s eyes and you know you’re dealing with someone to be reckoned with. If owls in general have a soulful quality, Great Gray Owls have it at the highest order. To get to know an individual Great Gray Owl, over many months, is something beyond words, and then to come upon that animal, the beating heart and spark of life extinguished—that is genuine tragedy of the kind Robert Frost reckoned with in his poem, Reluctance:
Ah, when to the heart of man
   Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
   To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
   Of a love or a season?
Mike quoted a recent program of mine, and specifically the words “the quiet eternity of the moment.” I wish I could lay claim to those words, but they were from another listener, Steve Dahlberg, who sent me a letter about the Great Blue Heron saying: 
There’s something about its majestic stillness when it hunts and its calm solo flights that has a profound effect on me whenever I see one.  I think they are the monks of the bird world, living always in the quiet eternity of the present moment.
Steve Dahlberg will be pleased to learn that his resonant words gave comfort in the face of Mike’s grievous loss. I don’t know if animals think much about their past or their future—they probably have a deeper connection with the eternity of the present moment than we mere humans can imagine. As perfect as Steve’s wonderful words were as a description of the Great Blue Heron, they’re wonderfully apt in the context of the soft, silent ways of the Great Gray Owl as well. 

I’m very grateful to have my own connections with my listeners, genuine human beings like Mike and Steve.