Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Letter from Listener: Becca’s Great Gray Owl

Photo copyright 2018 by Becca Mulenburg
Spring officially begins today, at least as far as astronomers are concerned—they must not stand outside very often—but some winter owls will be sticking around for at least a bit longer. Great Gray Owls do nest in northern Minnesota, but not right in Duluth. But the time when winter slowly eases into spring is “anything can happen time.” And to prove it, on March 16, I got a delightful email from Becca Mulenburg that read:  

I just wanted to share a photo of my first sighting of a great gray owl. It happened this morning at my home here in Duluth, and because I listen to your radio show often, I remember you saying that crows often harass owls. So, when a murder of crows cawwed like mad in the trees above my house around 7:10, I looked out of our west window for an owl. Nothing. But I took note of how one of the crows that was very close to this window did not fly away, when normally it would have.  As you can imagine, my curiosity was really peaked. Then, I looked out of the south window, and voilà! There it was, perched just feet away from our house, so big and majestic. 
I'm a big fan of yours, and just wanted to share. Attached is one of the photos I took of it. After it flew across the street and landed in a tree on the south side of Page St., the crows dispersed and left it alone.  
I am so happy today for this sighting, it is very thrilling for me.
Becca added in a follow-up:

And yes, the crows were going insane! My husband commented, "There must be 50 crows up there!" He hadn't gone to work yet, so he was able to see his first great gray owl, too. I'm pretty sure there weren't 50 crows, but there were a lot! And I kept watching as more and more reinforcements kept flying in, so I was pretty relieved when the crows decided to leave it alone.
I’m thrilled that my talking about how crows mob owls gave Becca the information she needed to recognize what was happening, but it was Becca who was observant enough in the first place to notice.

When crows go ballistic, it usually does involve a large owl. The owl that represents the biggest danger to crows is the Great Horned Owl. Great Gray Owls eat very small rodents called voles almost exclusively, and just don’t eat crow, but crows don’t discriminate—any and every owl they notice gets the same treatment.

On February 23, I myself had heard owls yelling so loudly that I ran outside—they were a few blocks away, yet the blood-curdling calls not just covered that distance but seeped in through our closed windows. Like Becca, what I found was a Great Gray Owl hunkering down. If it can sit tight long enough, the crows will eventually lose interest—if they succeed in chasing it off, at least a few of the crows may track it, and the whole cacawphony will start all over again, so the owl tries to sit tight with hopes that the crows will get distracted sooner rather than later.

This time of year, crows are calling a lot during courtship and early nesting, but when you pay attention, you learn to distinguish those everyday calls from the angry caws they make when they see an owl. Black-capped Chickadees also call with what sounds like an angry edge to their chickadee-dee-dee calls when they spy a Boreal or Saw-whet Owl. You can’t hear chickadees nearly as far as you can hear crows, but paying attention to any angry bird in nature can be even more rewarding than the video game variety.

Birds in the News: Puffins, Penguins, and More

Atlantic Puffin
Bird stories have been popping up in the news quite a bit in recent weeks. Jamie Dunning, who studies phylogeny and evolutionary history at the University of Nottingham, was fooling around with bird specimens in his lab one day, putting them under a black light. When he placed an Atlantic Puffin under the light, what to his wondering eyes should appear but bright fluorescent areas on and around the beak.

Puffin under blacklight. Photo by Jamie Dunning.
Dunning already knew that another oceanic bird belonging to the same Alcid family, the Crested Auklet, fluoresces under black lights. Unlike humans, birds can detect UV wavelengths in daylight. Dunning suspects that the markings may have evolved in these very colonial species to help adults pick out the best potential mates or recognize one another in a crowd, or to help chicks see or recognize their parents. (Story in Newsweek)

On the other side of the globe, NASA satellite images of penguin poop led researchers to discover a supercolony of more than 1.5 million Adélie Penguins in the Danger Islands off the Antarctic Peninsula’s northern tip. This is especially good news because penguin populations are declining grievously along the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula, due primarily to climate change. The researchers also found several populations of more than a hundred Gentoo Penguins and one small population of Chinstrap Penguins; this was reported this week in Nature. (Story in USA Today)

Also in Antarctica, Eddie Gault of the Australian Antarctic Program left a camera at the Auster Rookery near Australia’s Mawson research station, and soon two Emperor Penguins investigated. They flipped the camera over and somehow produced a 38-second selfie video which has gone viral.

Downy and Hairy Woodpecker

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Project FeederWatch posted an article this week by a researcher trying to tease out why Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers look so similar. They do belong to the same genus, but the Hairy is more closely related to the White-headed and Red-cockaded Woodpeckers while the Downy is more closely related to the Ladder-backed and Nuttall’s Woodpeckers. Using citizen science data from participants of FeederWatch, Gavin Leighton concluded that Downies are probably using their similarity to Hairies and their own dominant behaviors to trick other birds into thinking they’re the larger, tougher Hairy Woodpecker. He says this supports what is called the “Innocent Bystander Trickery Hypothesis,” but will be following up with more studies.

Pine Warbler

Finally, in Florida, a judge has lifted a restraining order that was keeping bulldozers from destroying one of the last stretches of endangered pine rockland in the nation as a lawsuit plays out. The Walmart developer is planning apartments, a Chili’s, an LA Fitness, and of course a Walmart on the endangered habitat. The Wildlands Association, Tropical Audubon, and the Miami Pine Rockland Coalition claim in the lawsuit that the US Fish and Wildlife Service incorrectly permitted Ram Realty to build on the land, using the corporation’s own environmental assessment without considering peer-reviewed research or concerns by other groups or the general public. 

As the general public grows increasingly distanced from accurate information about ecology and species diversity, and as the Trump Administration continues stripping science and conservation from the EPA, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and other governmental units charged with protecting our air, water, and land, I’m afraid we’ll be seeing more and more of these kinds of permanent losses. (Story in Miami New Times)

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Laura’s Best Bird EVER! Chapter 4. Baby Joey and the Las Vegas Great-tailed Grackles

April 2, 1982, Joey and me at Hoover Dam
Russ took this photo later the same day that Joey and I encountered the grackles.
I didn't take any photos while we were at Sunset Park. 
When my son Joey was a baby, Russ attended a meeting of the American Chemical Society in Las Vegas. It’s not exactly a birding Mecca, but he took his vacation time around the meeting, and Joey and I tagged along. We drove to Las Vegas, and after the meeting went to Hoover Dam and the Grand Canyon for Russ, and then to several birding spots in southeastern Arizona for me. Joey, being 5 ½ months old, was given absolutely no say in the planning.

I was afraid that the four days in Las Vegas would be boring, but just in case there could be any good birding around there, I posted on the BirdChat listserv, asking if anyone could suggest good birding spots in the Las Vegas area. One wonderful woman, who happens to be one of the top birders in the world, Marian Cressman, not only gave me suggestions; she also insisted on spending two days with me, taking me to the best places, even after I told her I’d be bringing along Joey—she said birding alone in Las Vegas is dangerous for women. A birder attending the chemical society meeting hired her to take him out one morning—she told him he’d be birding with me and a baby, too.

On those two days, I added 10 lifers. On my last morning in Las Vegas, while Russ was at his final meeting sessions and I was on my own, I took Joey to Sunset Park, a lovely spot near the airport that Marian had introduced me to. I’d already discovered the hard way how tricky it is to bird with a baby in a Snugli front carrier without clunking my binoculars on his head. When I say “the hard way,” I mean Joey learned it the hard way—it’s not easy being the firstborn child of a birder. We also had a backpack for him, but I couldn't manage getting that on and off without help. Joey and I had Sunset Park to ourselves, so I brought our portable baby seat out of the car and set him up on a picnic table. He could look around more easily and not get hit on the head while I birded close by.

January 3, 1982, Joey
This was taken in our house before this trip, but this is the baby seat
he was in.
Joey was an easy-going baby, curious and happy just looking around at the world. I liked to pretend that he was a birder just like Mommy, but he was really too young to take in birds that could only be seen with binoculars. But that early April morning in Sunset Park, he very decidedly started watching and listening to birds, and gurgling with delight. He didn’t notice the Crissal Thrasher that took my breath away, or the sweet little wurp! calls of Phainopeplas, or the rosy Anna’s Hummingbirds or tiny Ladder-backed Woodpeckers. The roadrunner racing by didn’t catch his eye, either.

No—my baby was enchanted with a flock of Great-tailed Grackles who strutted and called, doing their exuberant spring courtship routines right in front of him.

Great-tailed Grackle

Their incessant calls—shrill whistles and squeaks, pig-like grunts, clicks, rattles, and piercing squeals—filled Joey with glee. He could easily see them on the grass and in a couple of nearby trees, where their iridescent feathers glowed in the morning sun. A few times, one or two males alighted briefly on the picnic table less than a foot away from him, their sharp, pale eyes scrutinizing him as he squealed with delight.

Great-tailed Grackle

They cocked their heads, and some of the grackles on the ground looked up at him, too—his baby laughter could have passed for some of their own bizarre calls. The shiny black males, a full 18 inches long, didn’t seem much smaller than Joey. I was pretty sure they wouldn’t try to touch him, but even though at this point in my life, I’d never seen Alfred Hitchcock’s movie The Birds, I kept careful watch.

Great-tailed Grackle

The females, rich brown and weighing only half as much as the males, seemed like a different species. I could see Joey looking back and forth between males and females, but doubt if his brain focused on the ornithological technicalities—they were just plain fun to see.

Many people consider Great-tailed Grackles pests for their abundance, the quantity of grain and fruit they devour, and the decibel level of their calls. I’d never been in the Southwest before this trip, and had been hoping that morning to get a more solid take on common birds before we headed on to Arizona. The grackles weren’t a new species for me—I’d seen them in Texas. They were abundant, and being on full acquisitive mode in this new part of the country, I had taken little interest in them.

But now I was looking at and hearing them through brand new eyes and ears. We were in the park for an hour and a half, and the grackles were so loud and active that Joey never once lost interest. How could I ignore anything that so captivated my baby, keeping him enchanted for as long as Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers Neighborhood combined? I did check out some of the other birds that appeared, but spent only seconds on them. My attention kept returning to these spectacular birds that could so thoroughly entertain such a little baby.

Decades later, after seeing Great-tailed Grackles countless times, I still can’t see one without remembering that magical morning in Sunset Park with my little Joey. Surely those Great-tailed Grackles were my Best Birds EVER!

Great-tailed Grackle

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Daniel Klem coming to Minnesota to speak about the Vikings stadium glass

Daniel Klem

If I were to put together a list of my biggest heroes in the world—people who have selflessly made the world a better place for human beings and the other beings who share our little planet with us, one name at the very top would be Dr. Daniel Klem. As soon as I moved to Duluth 37 years ago, I started appreciating how horrible the problem of window collisions is for birds, and as soon as I started researching the issue, the author’s name that popped up in virtually every search for information was Dr. Klem’s. The Wilson Bulletin and Journal of Field Ornithology published many of Dr. Klem’s papers, which created the entire foundation of what we know about bird collisions and how to prevent them.

 I’ve had the great pleasure of meeting him a couple of times—first in 2004 when I attended a meeting at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s brand new facility, and then while I was working at the Lab and drove to Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania to interview Dr. Klem.

Next week I’ll meet him for a third time, on March 21 in Fridley, Minnesota, when he’ll be speaking at the Springbrook Nature Center on “The Effects of Glass in Buildings on Bird Mortality.”  The event is free and open to the public, with a suggested donation of $5. The presentation is sponsored by a coalition of bird conservation groups including Audubon Chapter of Minneapolis, Minnesota Citizens for the Protection of Migratory Birds, and Friends of Roberts Bird Sanctuary.

U.S. Bank Stadium, where the Vikings play, is located along a critical pathway for migratory birds, and so close to the Mississippi River that a great many birds are likely to be nearby in the day as well as lured in to the lighted stadium glass by night. 

As soon as the plans for the proposed stadium were released in 2012, with nearly 200,000 square feet of glass—the equivalent of four football fields—ornithologists and wildlife biologists urged the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority to modify the plans to use less glass, or at the very least to use bird-friendly glass, fritted to make it more visible to birds, like the glass in the Dallas Cowboys’ new stadium. The Authority would not budge. 

Minnesota now requires new construction to be “Green”—that is, it must meet LEED standards. (L.E.E.D. stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.) The glass used in the stadium is extremely energy inefficient, but this new construction got away with it because despite so much opposition, the plans were grandfathered in because they’d been submitted, if not approved, before the green building law took effect. 

The glass used in the Dallas stadium is fritted, making it both visible to birds and far, far more energy efficient. It would have added very little to the cost of the US Bank Stadium to simply change the glass, but for some reason our state's sports facilities authority dug its heels in and stuck with the original energy squandering, bird killing design. 

And the glass is indeed killing birds. The Audubon Chapter of Minneapolis released a study of bird mortality at the stadium during the fall 2016 migration season that documented a significant number of bird deaths and injuries caused by collisions with the stadium glass. 

Dr. Klem will be here to offer recommendations on retrofitting the stadium to make it safer for birds. This will be first in a series of presentations by national bird experts on methods of retrofitting U.S. Bank Stadium. I’ll be there for sure. I just hope people with the power to do something about the stadium at this late date will be listening.

Vikings Poster

Listeners' Favorite Birds: Gretchen and Dahlaihuu's Towhee

Eastern Towhee

When my children were little, Russ built them a sandbox in our yard. Year-round, except when snows were deep, the kids played in it—even bundled in their snowsuits, when they tired of sledding and building snow forts, they’d use their shovels and Tonka trucks to clear paths in the sandbox, pretending to be driving snowplows. In summer they pretended to be construction workers pushing those bright yellow Tonka trucks all around, or they’d build sandcastles, filling up containers of wet sand and plopping them upside down to make all kinds of interesting constructions. 

My kids weren’t the only ones who spent time in that sandbox. In winter, Evening and Pine Grosbeaks and both species of crossbills spent a lot of time there, picking up grit. Back then, before digital photography, we didn’t take many photos and didn’t even have a telephoto lens, so I never made a permanent record of the charming pictures I still have in my head of brilliant crimson Pine Grosbeaks and White-winged Crossbills perched atop bright yellow Tonka trucks, but the memory makes me smile.

Pine Grosbeak

We didn’t get too many birds at the sandbox after the winter finches departed, except the ubiquitous Evening Grosbeaks, but over the years, on a few April and early May mornings, I spotted a bird scratching in the sand. I’d grab my binoculars, and what to my wondering eyes should appear but a Rufous-sided Towhee! The only times I ever picked them out in my yard in the 37 years we’ve lived here were in that sandbox. So I associate towhees with children, as does a listener named Gretchen.  
Every year, my now 11-year-old son looks for silliness in the edge of our woods—leaves stirred to flight by a Rufous-sided Towhee. It's his favorite. 
Towhees are birds of forest edges, overgrown fields, and scrubby areas. Dense shrubs for hiding in and leaf litter for scratching in seem to be fairly essential. I saw my lifer towhee at a nature center outside Chicago in December 1975. I saw them regularly when we lived in East Lansing Michigan and then in Madison, Wisconsin.   Range maps show Duluth on the very extreme northern edge of the Eastern Towhee’s range. The place nearest me where I can count on seeing them in spring is in northwestern Wisconsin, in the Douglas County Wildlife Area protected by Friends of the Bird Sanctuary. I find them in a few spots in Wisconsin where I look for Golden-winged Warblers and Mourning Warblers, too.
From the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's All About Birds
Towhees are omnivores, feeing on a variety of seeds, fruits, insects, spiders, snails, and soft buds. They spend most of their lives at low heights, scratching the leaf litter to expose food, and usually nesting on the ground, the nest sunken into fallen leaves. They do occasionally nest in shrubs or tangles, up to about four feet above the ground. After raising one brood, they start over, often raising two or three broods a year. This is fortunate, because in many areas, they end up raising a lot of cowbirds in place of their own young.

Towhees have declined by close to 50 percent between 1966 and 2015 according to Breeding Bird Survey data, which give a pretty accurate picture for this species. The scrubby habitat they require is not valued by many people who don’t understand that biodiversity requires an assortment of habitats, and that some habitats that don’t necessarily appeal to urbanized human aesthetic sensibilities are still uniquely valuable. Fortunately, there are people like Gretchen’s son who appreciate towhees.

From 1957 to 1998, the name Rufous-sided Towhee was the proper name for towhees from both eastern and western North America, so it’s the name I learned when I started birding. Before 1957, the bird was called simply the Towhee, and after 1998, it was split into two species, the Spotted Towhee of the West and the Eastern Towhee in our neck of the woods. The word towhee is onomatopoeic for the bird’s call note, which is also sometimes given as chewink. The song is interpreted as Drink your tea!, but on the rare occasions that anyone has ever told me to drink my tea, they did not trill that last word. 

Towhees will be back in their breeding areas within a few weeks now. I’ll be heading out where I can see and hear them again. Hearing their vocalizations or listening to them scratching at the leaf litter is guaranteed raise my spirits, whether the bird is in its natural habitat or simply playing in a children’s sandbox. I’m glad there are others who treasure this splendid bird, too.

Eastern Towhee

Monday, March 12, 2018

A Trip to the Sax-Zim Bog

Common Redpoll

On Friday, March 9, I went birding in the Sax-Zim Bog with Erik Bruhnke and my dog Pip. My main goal was to get at least one decent photo of a Black-backed Woodpecker and a recording of an Evening Grosbeak. Erik needed a break from his own work, but we both couldn’t afford a whole day away, so we planned a few stops with every intention of sticking to them. We arrived a half hour or so after sunrise.

We headed straight to the Warren Nelson trail, where we’d seen both Black-backed and American Three-toed Woodpeckers in February, but it was extremely quiet, a hallmark of this winter in a lot of places.

Backtracking along Highway 133, we came across a Great Gray Owl glowing in the sun.

Great Gray Owl

We drove up to the extreme northwest corner of the bog, to the spot known far and wide as Mary Lou’s Feeders—the only place for far and wide where Evening Grosbeaks have been at all reliable in recent years. Sure enough, there was a flock of about 16, and naturally Erik heard them before I did. My wonderful hearing aids noticeably expand my ability to pick out bird sounds, but I’m learning to accept that my hearing will never be as good as what it once was. When I pointed a directional microphone toward them, I could hear them much better. Five cars of other birders came and went while we were there, so my clean recording isn’t very long, but I at least met my goal. And since it is National Blue Jay Awareness Month, it was nice to pick up a few distant Blue Jay calls, too. (You have to listen hard to notice them.)

Erik is a professional bird guide up here, and so he belongs to a network of guides that keep one another abreast of good birds. While I was working on my recording, he got on the phone with Frank Nicoletti, who gave him a lead on another spot that has been productive for Black-backed Woodpeckers.

Winterberry Bog sign

We hiked in and sure enough, came upon two nearby Black-backed Woodpeckers—possibly a mated pair—and heard a distant third as well. I took lots and lots of photos, mostly of the male, whose yellow cap glowed in the perfect light.

Black-backed Woodpecker

The nearby birds vocalized only once, but they tapped on trees the entire time we were watching. Unfortunately, I didn’t get good sound recordings, but fortunately, I did get good photos.

Black-backed Woodpecker

This has been a banner year for Black-backed Woodpeckers. In the morning counts Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory conducted along the shore this fall, they counted 118, along with 3 of the much rarer American Three-toed Woodpecker. I even saw a flyover Black-backed from my own yard, the first time since we moved here in 1981.

No one knows exactly why irruptions take place, but like Snowy Owls, these woodpecker irruptions seem to have two causes, both a lack of prey on their range, making them search other places, and an overabundance of prey, leading to such enormous reproduction that they become overpopulated. It seems to be when Black-backs are most abundant here that we can pick out one or two Three-toed Woodpeckers, too.

Both species specialize on diseased and burned forests, pigging out on the wood-boring beetle larvae associated with dead wood. More than other woodpeckers, they usually flake the outer bark off the tree before digging in. It’s easy to pick out trees they worked on by the bark flakes at the base.

Black-backed Woodpecker

Some of my photos even show bark bits flying.

Black-backed Woodpecker

Black-backed Woodpecker

When I started birding, the Black-backed Woodpecker was called the Arctic Three-toed Woodpecker, and sure enough, it has three toes as, of course, do the American and Eurasian Three-toed Woodpeckers.

Black-backed Woodpecker

I found the old name very confusing, because the “Arctic” Three-toed Woodpecker’s range doesn't extend as far north in Canada and Alaska as does the American Three-toed Woodpecker, and does extend further south in Eastern North America. It’s much easier to call the "Arctic Three-toed Woodpecker" a Black-backed Woodpecker.

Erik and I headed home after I got my photography fix, happy with our trip to the bog, which may have been short but was definitely sweet.

Black-backed Woodpecker

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Laura's Best Bird EVER! Chapter 3. Ludwig the Blue Jay

(Some of this is reworked from earlier blog posts for my Best Bird EVER series.)
Lugwig the baby Blue Jay

In 1979, when I was birding in a park in Madison, Wisconsin, with my dear friend Ken Wood, we came upon a hilarious sight: a Blue Jay fledgling who was quite literally playing on the playground slide. He’d hop up to the bottom and then flutter as hard as he could to work his way up the slippery slope. He never got even halfway up before gravity took over; he’d make a quick about-face and flap his little wings as hard as he could, sliding down to the bottom; he’d stay aloft for a second or two before dropping to the dirt below. Then he’d start up the slide all over again. It was one of the most adorable things I’ve ever seen. Ken took photos of the little jay, and then we went home.

An hour or so later I started growing uneasy. I vaguely remembered seeing adult Blue Jays flying back and forth overhead, but they completely ignored the fledgling even when Ken and I picked it up for a couple of photos. So Russ and I went back to the park just in time to discover it in the mouth of a golden retriever. Fortunately, it must have been a well-trained hunting dog because it held the little bird gently, and when I reached out to take it, the dog handed it right over! There were a few drops of blood and a good supply of saliva on the little guy, but otherwise he seemed fine.

I’d noticed two peculiar things—two jays flew over, completely ignoring the situation, and the baby didn’t make a sound. I surmised that his parents weren't paying attention to him, and had perhaps outright abandoned him, because parent Blue Jays find and recognize their chicks in part by voice. One that didn't make a peep in the mouth of a dog was probably defective from an adult Blue Jay's perspective. 

From the moment that little bird's eyes met mine, an electrical surge seemed to go through me, sparking a love affair. As captivating as Blue Jays are to my eyes, it turns out they’re even better at capturing my heart.

Riding home, the beautiful little jay snuggled into my hands and looked at me with bright, trusting eyes; I was scared to death of screwing up. So the first thing I did when I got home was to call a friend of mine who worked for the US Fish and Wildlife Service. He’d raised a baby magpie many years before, and was a treasure trove of valuable information about diet and care. I was a teacher and still had a few days of school to go, so I brought the bird with me every day, carrying him in a shoebox on the bus. I fed him every 15 minutes, whether I was in the middle of a lesson or at recess. The kids in my classes were as charmed as I, and that meant that 60 more people were invested in his survival, too.

He never made any sounds at all for the first three or four weeks. I thought he must be deaf so I named him Ludwig. But on the last day of school, he proved beyond a doubt that he could hear perfectly well. I brought home a box with all my desk stuff, including an orange bell from Russ’s and my Parker Brothers’ Pit game that I rang when I wanted the kids to settle down—the kind of bell with a button on top.

Pit, the Parker Brothers game

As I was putting things away in our apartment, Ludwig looked curiously at it, so I pressed the button and it rang out. He instantly hopped up and pushed the button with his beak, but he was very little, so his breast pressed against the bell, dampening the sound. When he stepped back, I rang the bell again and his crest popped up and he hopped up to try it again, but again the sound was dull. I showed him how it worked a few more times, but then Russ and I went to another room to watch TV. Maybe 20 minutes or a half hour later, we heard a clear “Ding!” A few seconds later, we heard another “Ding!” and then a “Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding!” I went running in to see Ludwig hitting the button over and over as he hovered, wings beating furiously, above it. He seemed very pleased with himself, and especially pleased that we had witnessed his accomplishment. After that, he pretty much lost interest in the bell. I kept it on the table, and every now and then he’d notice it and fly up to ring it once or twice, but he had moved onward and upward.

Bell from Pit, the Parker Brothers game

There are no evolutionary advantages whatsoever conferred on a bird for mastering bell ringing. But curiosity, tenaciousness, figuring out cause and effect, and keen observational skills are excellent qualities for an opportunistic omnivore, be it a Blue Jay or a human being. The longer and more closely that I observed Ludwig, the more I grew to understand that Blue Jays exemplify the very best of what an intelligent, sociable species can be.

Ludwig thrived. But being raised by a human instead of a Blue Jay family meant his education was different from what a normal Blue Jay would have. The first time Ludwig took a bath in my kitchen sink, he soaked himself so thoroughly that each flight feather became a sodden, stringy, heavy mess. He hopped up to the edge of the sink with no problems, but when he tried to fly across the room to the table, he dropped to the floor like a rock.  I picked him up on my finger and he stayed put while drying off. It took half an hour of preening to get his feathers back into flying condition.

I had learned that there was no way I’d qualify for a permit to keep him permanently, so right when he was starting to take short flights, I started taking him outdoors so he could learn some of the skills he’d need to become independent. It was of course terrifying the first time I set him on a bush—what if he flew off and I never saw him again? How would he survive? I realized that parent birds are way, way better at keeping track of their fledglings, and are ever so much more able to reach them in high trees, than I could possibly be. Fortunately, fledglings also keep track of their parents, and the first week or so, Ludwig never strayed far from me. When I couldn’t stay out with him, he’d happily come inside with me, at least at first. As he got more independent, especially after he discovered mulberries in the back of the yard and delectable fruits further afield in the neighborhood, sometimes he didn’t want to come in with me. I was more and more feeling like Samantha on the show “Bewitched,” when she’d call, “Mother! Mother!” into the bushes, making her neighbors think she was crazy. Calling “Ludwig!” seemed even more bizarre. Sometimes I’d be forced to leave him out—when he was ready to come in, he’d look through our apartment windows until he saw us and peck at the glass to catch our attention. He was starting, at long last, to make Blue Jay vocalizations. Whenever he wanted me, he’d make a squawk that sounded like “Ma! Ma!”

One time a huge storm blew in while Ludwig was outside. As the ominously dark clouds built up, I searched and called, but he didn’t come. When the deluge descended, I gave up and went inside. Every lightning bolt and blast of thunder made me more anxious. When the rain finally stopped, I ran out and called for him. I couldn’t find him in my own yard or nearby, so I hopped on my bike and started riding through the neighborhood, calling his name. Finally, a few blocks away I found him, sitting on a telephone line directly above a bus stop, feathers so plastered against his body that he didn’t look anything like a blue jay—just a gray, sodden mass squawking “Ma! Ma!” A dozen or so people were waiting for the bus as I pulled my bike to a stop. That was back when I still clung to a shred of a sense of dignity, and felt my face grow hot as I called, “C’mon down, Ludwig!” He dropped like a rock, fortunately onto the slim patch of grass between the sidewalk and the curb. He hopped up to me yelling, “Ma! Ma!” as the people stared and laughed.

Thanks to this spunky little Blue Jay, my sense of dignity slowly dissolved. That radar system so desperately focused on any sign of disapproval or ridicule makes it hard for people to follow their own lights. Some of us get so wrapped up in self-consciousness that we forget that absurdities creep into everybody’s life. We need to outgrow it to become genuine human beings, which intriguingly, means being able to live more like Blue Jays. That was one of the important lessons I took from those magical days with Ludwig.

One morning I found a bright red little rubber-band-powered propeller in my Rice Krispies. I wound it up, and up shot the propeller. Ludwig was spellbound as it floated through the air; suddenly he took off after it, grabbing it in midair. I called, and he brought it to me. That’s how we learned to play a fun game of fetch. It was even more fun outdoors without walls or ceiling to get in the way. Over and over I’d shoot it up and he’d race after it and bring it back. One time it landed on our apartment building’s slanted roof. He flew up to retrieve it, but the moment he landed on the hot roof tiles, he keeled over on his side. His crest went up, one wing and his tail spread out, his beak opened, and he froze. I thought he was having a seizure. When I called, he didn’t move. In a panic, I rushed to the basement where our landlord kept a ladder, lugged it out, and climbed up to the roof. I’m scared of heights, but didn’t even think of that as I rushed toward him. But as my hand reached out to grasp him, he shook his head, stood up, grabbed the propeller, and flew onto my shoulder as if asking what was up?

That was the first I learned about sunning. Many birds get into this posture on hot, sunny days. This innate behavior raises the temperature of a bird’s skin and feathers, and is possibly done in order to banish some parasites. Over the years I’ve seen many birds sun bathing, but this first time, before I understood it, I was petrified thinking Ludwig was dying.

Ludwig had a collection of toys that he stored in a little ceramic cup. I gave him some shiny buttons, a rubber band, that Rice Krispies propeller, and an old ring. Now and then he’d fly to the cup and take out his treasures one by one, arranging them in a line, and then put them all back into the cup. Once in a while, he’d fly off with one and hide it somewhere. Once he wedged a button in the crevice between the window frame and the sash, and we had to work it out with a knife before we could open the window.

One day I gave Ludwig a few sunflower seeds. He tucked them away with his other toys, not realizing they were food. A few days later I bit one open and ate the seed in front of him, then cracked open another and gave him the seed. He was thrilled! Years later, when we first gave our children Starburst candy, they loved how each piece came in a colorful wrapper—after that they always called Starburst “present candy” because of the wrapping. That reminded me of how Ludwig loved sunflower seeds for the packaging as much as for the seed magically hidden inside.

A family of Blue Jays lived somewhere near us, and whenever Ludwig found himself on their territory, the adults would chase him off, sometimes following him a ways. He quickly discovered that they were afraid of me, and occasionally actually seemed to taunt them to get them to chase him into our yard, where he’d alight on my head and turn to face them defiantly. As their babies grew more independent, the adults grew more tolerant of Ludwig.

By summer’s end, he was spending most nights outside and only once or twice a day coming into our yard.The last day I saw him was the last day of summer vacation. Through that fall and winter, whenever I saw a Blue Jay, I wondered if it could be Ludwig.

When Russ and I were in Chicago during spring vacation, a warm breeze floated into Madison. Our next-door neighbor was out sunning herself when she spotted a Blue Jay alight on each of our apartment windows, peeking in and tapping on the glass. He landed on her lawn chair and studied her a bit, and then tried the windows once more, and finally flew off. I felt so sad when she told me I’d missed him, but so joyful to know that he’d survived the winter. He had a whole rich life ahead of him. Four decades later, I still feel a quiet joy knowing that even as he was leading his life as a proper Blue Jay should do, he kept in his mind a little memory of me. Ludwig was the Best Bird EVER!

Lugwig the baby Blue Jay

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Favorite Bird #2: Jim Baker's Blue Jay

Blue Jay

This week we inaugurated a new, interactive feature on For the Birds, allowing listeners to call or send in a brief sound file saying what their favorite bird is. And since it is National Blue Jay Awareness Month, it’s hardly surprising to hear from this caller:
This is me, Jim Baker. My favorite bird is the Blue Jay because DUH! The Blue Jay is Nature’s Perfect Bird. And if you want to attract Blue Jays to your feeders, instead of all the riff raff of the bird world, get the bird feed rocket scientists recommend most, Baker’s Blue Jay Blend. Available only at Baker’s Blue Jay Barn, “Up the Shore a Ways.”
I googled to see if any recent research about Blue Jays has made the news, but the only story I could find was about the Toronto Blue Jays, which hit a mere 5 triples in 2017, a record low for any team in any season, including in strike years. An all-time record for any kind of Blue Jay is certainly an interesting fact, though not quite what I was looking for. With a more sophisticated search, I came across the fact that a Blue Jay banded in Newfoundland in 1989 was found dead, caught in fishing gear, in 2016, when it was at least 26 years, 11 months old, shattering the longevity record for Blue Jays by over 9 years.

There may not be any other recent research breakthroughs about Nature’s Perfect Bird, but a long history of Blue Jay research has taught us a lot. I often hear from people who think Blue Jays are bullies at feeders, but those people are misinterpreting what they see. Songbirds scatter when a Blue Jay flies in, in part because the shape, with rounded wings and a long tail, is just close enough to that of a Sharp-shinned Hawk that no sensible bird wants to linger a split second to verify the identification.

Blue Jay

Sometimes Blue Jays make a Red-shouldered Hawk cry or other predator call before flying in, too. For one brief, shining moment when they land in the feeder, they have it all to themselves.

But once they’re eating, Blue Jays are not very assertive. In a study at Florida bird feeders, Red-headed Woodpeckers, Florida Scrub-Jays, Common Grackles, and gray squirrels strongly dominated Blue Jays, often preventing them from obtaining food. The jays have a longer reach than tinier birds, but are no more bullies against goldfinches than other goldfinches are. Their crest pops up when they’re being aggressive in territorial defense, protecting their families, or squawking because they just saw some form of danger. They usually keep the crest down while dining.

Blue Jays are among the most intelligent of birds, but are much harder to study in the wild than the more sedentary Gray Jay and Florida Scrub-Jay. Blue Jays are certainly noisier—they could squawk their heads off all day without scaring away their favorite food—acorns. The quieter, sneakier jay species eat much more meat. One strategy the Gray Jay and Florida Scrub-Jay share for getting meat is to steal it from larger animals. They are so quiet when they see large mammals, such as humans, because they want to sneak in and steal our food.

All jays sometimes raid songbird nests to take eggs or young. Most species eat the plunder themselves as well as feeding it to their young. Fully 88 percent of a Gray Jay’s food is animal-based. You can't see Gray Jays in late spring and early summer without lots of littler birds anxiously trying to chase them away. But an adult Blue Jay’s diet is 88 percent plant-based, so it doesn't need to eat baby birds. Its rapidly growing babies do need animal protein, so virtually every bit of the baby birds a Blue Jay steals goes to feeding its hungry nestlings. Meanwhile, the Blue Jay habit of squawking conspicuously at potential predators provides an important neighborhood watch service for the whole community, so other songbirds never trying to chase a Blue Jay away unless it’s actively approaching a nest.

So Blue Jays are not as bad as some people think, and of all the birds in the known universe, they're the only one about which Mark Twain wrote an entire story, "Baker's Blue Jay Yarn." For the past 30 years, For the Birds' own Jim Baker (voiced by my treasured friend John Keenan) has been helping me share that connection between Blue Jays and good humor. Whether it's National Blue Jay Awareness Month or not, it's always a good time to smile, and Blue Jays can give us plenty of reasons for that.

Katie and baby jay

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Apple's Windows

Vikings Poster

When I started working at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, I had to switch from a PC to a MacBook in order for my design files to be compatible with those of Cornell’s designer. It was a hard transition, and I hear going the reverse is even trickier, so I’ve long known that Apple users have problems with Windows. A news story this week explains how Apple employees can even be physically injured by windows.

The brand new building housing Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino, California, designed by architect Norman Foster, is surrounded by 45-foot tall curved panels of “safety glass,” named not because it’s been designed in any way to prevent humans, birds, or anyone else from crashing into it, but because it crumbles when broken. The workspaces inside Apple’s building, called “pods,” are also made with a lot of glass.

In the same way that knowledgeable people warned the designers of the US Bank Vikings Stadium that it was going to kill lots of birds, Apple was warned by contractors that a building made almost entirely out of glass could pose health and safety risks to human beings. And sure enough, employees have been crashing into those transparent walls. Some news sources say that a few employees put post-it notes on the glass to make it more visible, but those keep being removed so they don’t detract from the building’s aesthetics. I personally think that injured people and hurt and dead birds detract from the overall aesthetics of any environment, but apparently corporations and some architects have more tunnel vision when it comes to the meaning of aesthetics.

This isn’t the first time Apple has had to deal with people crashing into glass, either. In 2011, an 83-year-old woman walked into the glass wall of an Apple store, breaking her nose. She sued the company, arguing it should have posted a warning on the glass. The suit was apparently settled without cost to Apple, according to a legal filing in early 2013. Again, the bottom line for corporations usually wins over living, breathing human beings, and much more so over birds. When birds collide with glass, they never get a legal filing at all. 

Dr. Daniel Klem has devoted his entire career to researching the issue of birds colliding with windows. He was first to realize and to publish his findings that somewhere around a billion birds are killed by windows every year in the United States alone. Many prominent, well-funded ornithologists and organizations pooh-poohed his findings until their own research verified his work.

People haven’t focused that much research into humans colliding with glass—we know it happens, and because normal people think that’s a bad thing, we usually take precautions to make sure glass is visible where people are likely to be coming and going. It’s depressing that we don’t take reasonable precautions to protect birds from collisions, but absolutely shocking that a huge corporation puts a silly concept of aesthetics above the safety of their own employees and customers. I hope that Apple’s human casualties finally open some architects’ and corporations’ eyes to the hazards of glass.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Favorite Bird #1: Lisa's Gray Jay

Gray Jay

For more than thirty years, since I started producing For the Birds, I’ve wanted to make it more genuinely interactive for listeners. How I wish I had an affordable way to record phone calls in my home studio! I don’t get any financial support for producing the program or podcast, and can’t get to the KUMD studio too often to use their equipment. I’d love to take questions from listeners, hearing their voices rather than just reading their letters on the air. I’d also love to hear about people’s favorite birds. Birds touch our lives in so many different ways, and there are so many different kinds of birds, that hearing what birds are the favorites of different people can broaden our own appreciation.

Some day I’ll figure out how to record back-and-forth conversations with listeners, but for now, I can at least accept sound files emailed to me at, or voicemail messages on Lisa Johnson's KUMD number's any day after 2 pm Central Time: 218-726-6755. Give your first name, and say what your favorite bird is and why. Recordings should run 15-30 seconds or so.

And speaking of Lisa Johnson:
Hey, Laura, It’s Lisa. I think my favorite bird is the Gray Jay. They’re friendly, they’re fun, they come flying in really low and slow and they get right up close so you can get great photos, and they really seem to appreciate a good premium dog food. 
Gray Jays, which look like chickadees on steroids and fly in on silent wings like the ghosts of our northern bogs, are one of my own most treasured birds. I’ve felt singularly bereft on the rare occasions that I’ve not seen one during a visit to the Sax-Zim Bog. As Lisa notes, Gray Jays depend in part on animal-based foods, and quality dog food can be a healthy addition to their diet. Peanuts and peanut butter are other favorites.

Gray Jay

Naturalists at Algonquin Provincial Park have learned that those Gray Jays that approach and take food from people seem to survive longer and raise young more successfully than Gray Jays that avoid us. The researchers don’t believe this is because the jays actually need the particular foods we offer or that anything we give them is higher quality than what they can get in the wild—the researchers think it’s simply because those Gray Jays that check us out and know how to capitalize on the food we carry about, whether they’re living up to their nickname “camp robbers” or taking handouts, seem more curious and adaptable than the jays that don’t. Curiosity and adaptability are important qualities for any omnivore, especially one that spends most of the year in a hostile, frigid environment.

Gray Jays are nesting right now, even as winter will be hanging on for several weeks more. They can nest so very early because they’ve been hoarding food—mostly bits of fruit and meat, since autumn. They coat each wad of food with saliva, and then tuck it into a wedge of tree bark or other hidden place.

Unfortunately, winter thaws and warm spells, which are increasingly common with climate change, cause a horrifying phenomenon for them that the Algonquin park researchers call “hoard rot.” Those of us who have had to throw food out after a power outage should be able to sympathize.

Careful long-term studies at the park have shown that the Gray Jay population there has declined by 50 percent since the 1970s, in large part because the jay’s reproductive rate drops dramatically in warmer winters. In particular, the jays have completely disappeared from areas with lots of maples, but are holding out more strongly where black spruce is prevalent. Scientists think that black spruce bark provides more protection from rot than other hoarding substrates. Unfortunately, black spruce is also vulnerable to warming trends. The Living Bird, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s quarterly magazine, has a wonderful article about Gray Jays in the current issue, titled “Spoiler Alert: Can Gray Jays Survive Warmer Winters?”

Gray Jays are also in the news right now because the American Ornithological Society is considering changing their name back to Canada Jay, the first official name given to what ornithologists call the “nominate subspecies.” Canadians of course approve of this for their beloved corvid. Some argue that because there’s a Blue Jay, Green Jay, and Brown Jay, the name Gray Jay makes sense, but then again, there’s also a Mexican Jay, a Yucatan Jay, both California and Florida Scrub-Jays, and other geographic names. Canada Jay is the name in my trusty old Audubon Land Bird Guide and the life history by Arthur Cleveland Bent, too.

I don’t really have a preference between Gray and Canada Jay—I’d prefer giving primacy to the name used by Cree First Nations people, wisakedjak, which means the trickster spirit of the forest and is where the nickname "Whiskey Jack" comes from. By any name, Lisa’s favorite bird is a splendid one deserving of our respect, concern, and protection.

If you have a favorite bird you’d like to share with our listeners, let me know your first name, what the bird is, and why. You can either attach a 15-30 second or so sound recording to an email sent to or as a voicemail message, ANY DAY AFTER 2 PM CENTRAL TIME at 218-726-6755, Lisa Johnson’s number at KUMD.

Gray Jay