Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Monday, April 6, 2020

Junco Migration Kicks In!

Dark-eyed Junco

This winter was the worst for birds in my yard since we moved to Duluth in 1981, and it was even more disappointing for me because of my heart attack on January 3—I couldn't help but wish that I could see birds while stuck at home much of the time. Things didn’t pick up much until last Thursday, April 2, when voila! A dozen juncos materialized out of nowhere.

Dark-eyed Junco

I saw my very first junco on March 21, 1975, in Russ’s parents’ backyard in Chicago when I was a brand-new birder. Something about their beautiful slate-gray plumage with the perfect white tummy and those white tail streamers, so wonderfully distinctive as they fly away, filled my heart with gladness. 

Russ’s mom was shocked that I’d never seen them before—they were of course quite common in spring and fall, so you’d think I’d have at least once noticed one flying off and wondered what it could be, but most of us are blind to most of the things in our everyday lives that we aren’t intentionally conscious of. It’s really the only way we can cope—to notice everything is to be like a baby at a shopping mall, looking every which way with amazement, unable to make sense of any of it because there is simply too much. To survive, by the time we’re toddlers we filter out most of the sensations hitting our eyes and ears, and by the time we’re adults, we filter out all but the very most pertinent sights and sounds. 

Juncos had to have crossed my field of view many times when I was young, but never once crossed my awareness until that March day. But as soon as I became aware of them, they really were everywhere, and the more I looked for them, the more there were. Now, I notice juncos in my everyday life the way other people notice their favorite song when it airs on the radio, or the way a parent notices when their baby starts crying. I can’t help but always be aware when juncos are about.

Dark-eyed Junco

Juncos are among the most soulful of birds, grounded and placid, feeding on the surface of the soil in sedate, well-rooted calm. Males sing from trees, the better for their sweet trills to carry, but come back down to earth for all their other activities. They migrate under cloak of darkness, which is why one day there are none, and the next morning we awaken to bustling activity. Right now, when we’re seeing corona virus cases and deaths increasing at exponential rates, it’s lovely for me to see something wonderful doubling in numbers each day—on Friday, the day after I had 10 or 12, I had about two dozen, and Saturday about 40. Junco numbers will be peaking in a week or so as most of them settle in further north and later migrants start taking over.

To our undiscerning eyes, Juncos don’t seem to be social distancing—they gather in big flocks, each bird contentedly feeding just one or two feet from neighboring birds, but considering that 6 feet is little more than one human body length on average, while 6 inches is the average length of a junco, on their scale, they’re giving each other plenty of room.
We had a serious rat problem on Peabody Street last year, so I was doing a minimum of bird feeding, and only in feeders that weren’t accessible to rodents, but I haven’t seen any rats this winter, so on Thursday I started cautiously spreading white millet on the ground—no more than the juncos can eat during a single day. Duluth’s Wild Birds Unlimited is making free deliveries during the emergency, so I got more white millet on Saturday, along with suet cakes, sunflower, and dried mealworms.

Dark-eyed Junco

On Sunday, I got an email from KUMD listener Colleen, asking me what the best choices of healthy bird seed might be. The single best, especially for use in feeders that squirrels can’t get into, is black oil sunflower. Each seed has more nutrition, in the form of oils and calories, than striped sunflower, and the shell is thinner, requiring less work to open. It’s a favorite of all my seed-eating birds, from woodpeckers to finches. When I’m trying to reserve a feeder for cardinals or grosbeaks, that feeder can be filled with the thicker-shelled striped sunflower, easy for their huge beaks to crack open, but trickier for other species. I use white millet only during sparrow migration in spring and fall, and when there isn’t a rat problem, I mainly scatter it on the ground near shrubs or tangles so the birds can quickly retreat if a hawk flies over. Doves also appreciate white millet on the ground, but my squirrels pretty much ignore it.

Heartwarming and sustaining as backyard bird-feeding is during this crisis, the most important thing is to prevent this horrible virus from spreading. When the new seed was delivered on my porch Saturday, I opened and emptied the delivery box, then re-washed my hands and thoroughly wiped each bag with a disinfecting wipe before bringing it into the house. If you can’t get home delivery and deal with it like that, see if you can get curbside delivery at whatever store you buy it at, and be sure to sanitize the seed packages and your hands before bringing them into your house, garage, or shed. Stay safe and well, dear reader.

Dark-eyed Junco

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Living Heroes: Bob Hinkle

Sandhill Crane
I saw my very first Sandhill Cranes with Bob Hinkle on a field trip to Rose Lake State Wildlife Area in Lansing. 
There is nothing good about this pandemic, nothing at all. But there is a lot of good in people, and that is something I’m trying to focus on. Being hunkered at home archiving old radio programs and photos, I’m starting to think with some clarity about the people in my life who have meant so very much to me, and who have given me gifts that were more deeply valuable than I could possibly convey. I was an education major at Michigan State University, and in the spring of 1974, just before I graduated, I took what turned out to be the single most inspirational class I would ever take, an environmental education course taught by Bob Hinkle. Bob is a brilliant all-around naturalist, a wonderful writer, and one of the finest teachers I ever had in my life.

I’d read some Thoreau in high school and learned a little about ecology during the lead-up to the first Earth Day when I was a college freshman, but that was all theoretical. My mind swirled through a cloud of good feelings about nature and bad feelings about pollution, but I had no concrete way of understanding any of it. Thoreau wrote a lot about birds in Walden, but I knew nothing at all about any of the birds he wrote about. Ecology seemed so clear and obvious from the teachers’ education packet I got for free from McDonalds, with its wonderful overhead projector sheets, ditto masters, and other cool teaching materials, but the fourth-grade level information on the materials were all brand new to me, and I had no deeper understanding of anything beyond them.

It was Bob Hinkle’s class that showed me just how abysmally ignorant I was about plants and animals, how they interact and are interdependent, and what ecology actually means. It was a fantastic introduction that inspired me to stay in college for two years of grad school. I’d take botany, mammalogy, ornithology, herpetology, entomology, and aquatic entomology, and more of Bob’s classes, which gave me a framework on which to hang all the scientific information I was picking up and a lot more time outdoors learning the local plants and animals. 

American Woodcock

And on top of all that, Bob’s literary bent put all this new information into context in wonderful ways. He read much of Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac aloud to us so vividly that to this day, 46 years later, I have never once heard woodcock dancing in the sunset sky without thinking of Leopold’s words as said in Bob Hinkle’s gently expressive voice.

Bob’s students ahead of me were creating a lot of slide-tape programs, melding music and words with photography. I created a few short ones, taking pictures of toads and dragonflies and trees and flowers. I couldn’t afford a telephoto lens, so it would be three decades before I started taking any bird photos, but since then, I’ve developed dozens of presentations about birds which I’ve presented in 30 different states, in venues from Harvard for the Brookline Bird Club, to Tucson for the Southeastern Arizona Birding Festival to Sacramento for the Central Valley Birding Symposium to Maumee Bay State Park in Ohio for the Biggest Week in American Birding festival. When a program goes really well, I still think of how much Bob Hinkle’s inspiration is behind it.

Laura's new binoculars!

It was my taking Bob’s class that inspired Russ to tell his mom to buy me my first pair of binoculars. In April 1975, after I’d been birding a few weeks, Bob organized an excursion to Natural Bridge, Virginia, for a big meeting of the Association of Interpretive Naturalists. The meeting itself was splendid, but what I remember is Bob showing me my first White-throated Sparrow, with him interpreting the song as Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody. I’d never imagined such a thing!

White-throated Sparrow detail

Bob pointed out Turkey Vultures on that trip but I didn’t add them to my life list because he explained their flight pattern in comparison to hawks, and I’d never seen a flying hawk, either, so didn’t think I’d necessarily recognize a Turkey Vulture on my own. (Bob became the famous official Turkey Vulture spotter at Hinkley, Ohio, a position he held for years, so I'm very happy that I saw my first vultures with him.) At our campground, I heard what Bob told me were a Chuck-will’s-widow calling and a Pileated Woodpecker drumming, but I didn’t see either bird. This was my bird-watching life list, so I waited for an actual look. 

Turkey Vulture

Yes, taking classes and trips with Bob Hinkle taught me just how ignorant I was in a way that didn’t discourage me but inspired me to get out there and learn as much as I could. I aspired to be a real naturalist like him and like so many of my fellow students in his class became, like Wisconsin’s famous David Stokes, but once I started watching birds, I was simply too focused and monomaniacal. Even if I didn’t ultimately become a naturalist, what I did become, in a serious way, all evolved directly from that first class from Bob Hinkle.

I reconnected with Bob a couple of decades after those classes, when he was the superb Chief Naturalist of Cleveland Metroparks, and we’ve crossed paths a few times. I’ve been lucky to tell him how much he means to me. At this terrible time, when so many of our lives are in limbo, we might at least be able to think of the people whose gifts were vitally important to our lives. Be safe and well, dear reader.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

April Fools! 2020 Edition

(You can listen to the recording of this one

Laura and Friends

A lot of people right now are having trouble getting into proper habits with regard to social distancing. Blue Jays, who understand how epidemics work after so many were killed by West Nile Virus, are stepping up to the plate to help us remember to keep our distance from one another.

A cadre of local jays got the ball rolling. Whenever they spotted two people within 6 feet of each other, the same distance as a Turkey Vulture’s wingspan, they started squawking to beat the band. If the people didn’t immediately step apart, the jays flew in and pecked them on the head.

That led to a couple of emergency room visits, not a good thing right now, so they’ve learned to peck hard enough to be noticed while not drawing blood. This has worked so well in northern Minnesota that word got out on the Blue Jay Network, going viral so to speak, and now jays from New York and Florida all the way to the West are hitting people on the head whenever they see them too close together.

Blue Jays are of course true blue, but they never ever put political conditions on whether they help anyone in trouble. They’re perfectly willing to band with apolitical crows and mockingbirds and the reddest robins to deal with shared enemies threatening their lives. If a Blue Jay noticed a fox creeping up on a squirrel or robin or anyone else, they couldn’t even imagine demanding that that potential victim had to “treat them well” before the jays would fly in and mob the fox. Blue Jays don’t care if you love them or hate them, just so’s you keep your distance from other people during this crisis. And speaking of Blue Jays, here’s a word from our sponsor:
This is me, Jim Baker, from Baker’s Blue Jay Barn. 
You know, back in 1987 when I retreated to the woods with nothing but my Blue Jays and my bagpipes, it never occurred to me that social distancing would make my lifestyle the ideal for millions of Americans. It would be stupid to take up the bagpipes now—if you have neighbors within a thousand yards, they would cut your life short quicker than even the most novel virus could. 
But even in towns and cities, you can hunker down with Blue Jays, which will raise your spirits even if they can’t protect you from disease. All you need is some Baker’s Blue Jay Blend, now with free delivery straight to your door. 
Yep, get the bird feed epidemiologists recommend most, Baker’s Blue Jay Blend. Available only at Baker’s Blue Jay Barn—Up the shore a ways.
The more I read the paper,
The less I comprehend
This terrifying virus.
And how it all will end.
Deaths exponentially rising,
Self-quarantining, on our guard.
But something’s joyful and permanent
Right here in our own backyard.

It’s very clear Blue Jays are here to stay.
Not for a year, but ever and a day.
Nurses and doctors, exhausted, defenseless,
Trump boasting ‘bout his ratings boom,
Will end along with dark times,
Social distancing, too.
But oh, my dear, Blue Jays are here to stay.
Together we can hunker at home all day.
In time his ratings will tumble,
The virus will crumble,
We’ll put our masks away,
But Blue Jays are here to stay.

The California Ravens features Katherine Erickson at the keyboard; Jim Baker is performed as always by John Keenan. 

Monday, March 30, 2020

The birds and the bees

Bald Eagle

With a novel virus raging and pressure on our healthcare system heavier than most of us have ever in our lifetimes seen, except possibly in some cities during the AIDS epidemic of the 80s before the federal government started paying attention to that, I’m having to lay low so I won’t somehow end up needing medical care for anything minor. Russ and I are both pushing 70, and my recent heart attack and being on warfarin both put me at an even higher at-risk level.

So I’m wary of the oncoming tick and mosquito seasons. I’d just as soon avoid Lyme disease and all those other arthropod-borne illnesses anyway, of course, but we and other high-risk people must be especially wary when medical care will soon be at a premium everywhere. With the early spring, I’ve started my dog Pip on her heartworm medicine and her flea and tick collar a month earlier than usual, and I’ll be much more careful myself.


But just because a few insects and other arthropods could be harmful doesn’t mean I’m not relishing thoughts of others. Butterflies, mayflies—so many lovely emergences to look forward to in the coming weeks and months. And one thing to emerge already from my backlog of emails is a message I received way last summer, from Del Stubbs in Pinewood, Minnesota. He had been going through photos from 2008 and found some amazing ones.

He and his wife Celine Thouin, who were beekeepers then, had what looks like a Chipping Sparrow nest in a white cedar, and his photos show a huge honeybee swarm—the length of two footballs—abutting the nest. What especially struck Del was that though the bees completely surrounded the small nest, not one of them entered it. Within a couple of hours of discovering it, Del got them safely moved into a hive.

Life being what it is, Del and Celine never noticed if the sparrows successfully brought off the eggs, though because the nest had just three eggs the day of the bee swarm, the clutch was quite likely not complete yet, so the female was probably not trying to incubate them. The disturbance lasted only a couple of hours, so it’s quite possible the birds didn’t even notice the drama. Del generously allowed me to post his cool photos here.

It’s so wonderful hearing from listeners during this time when we must stay physically apart. Of course sometimes the emails are sad—a lot of people haven’t been seeing many birds this year. Right now migration is starting to kick in, and in the weeks ahead, bird activity in our yards should start picking up.

As of March 30, raptor counters at Duluth’s West Skyline Hawk Count had tallied 2,473 Bald Eagles, 139 Golden Eagles, 265 Red-tailed Hawks, and a smattering of other raptors. I’m stuck at home, but I have seen several Bald Eagles just looking out the window or going out in the backyard.

Any day now I should start seeing juncos in my own backyard, and then Fox Sparrows, and maybe a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker or Yellow-rumped Warbler in my aspen trees, and WHOOSH! The floodgates will open. And as I watch the migration unfold in my own backyard, I’ll also be watching for bees. And when I see my first one, I’ll think of Del and Celine. Having these human connections means ever so much at a time like this.

Stay safe and well, dear reader.

Bald Eagle

Sunday, March 29, 2020

What is a human being worth?

Black-capped Chickadee

My husband and I were watching TV today and vaguely recognized an actor. When the credits came on and we saw his name, Barry Bostwick, we thought of course! The Rocky Horror Picture Show”! I pulled out my laptop and googled him. And in a box near the top of the google search results was the question, “What is Barry Bostwick worth?”

I suppose that question has been right up there whenever I’ve googled people before, but in the very week when wealthy politicians and pundits have been saying people should be happy to die “for the economy,” it struck me with unusual force.

What ARE we worth? Shakespeare pondered just that question, expressing it through Hamlet:
 What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals. 
Shakespeare was unfamiliar with dollars and cents, but he never suggested that a man’s value could be measured in pounds and pence, either.

Somehow, in modern America, we’ve more and more been emulating Charles Dickens's quintessentially rapacious Ebenezer Scrooge such that we take it in stride to set the worth of a woman or man in dollars and cents. People suggesting that grandparents (except themselves, of course) should be happy to die for the economy are Scrooge come to life today, saying that a whole group of people “had better [die], and decrease the surplus population.”

I’m bewildered by the Scroogish mindset that individual people, many earning barely the minimum wage, should have been smart enough to have enough money squirreled away to deal with being unemployed, and thus suddenly losing their healthcare, to get through however many weeks or months this crisis may last, but that the same corporations that used the last bailout and the much more recent huge corporate tax cuts to give bonuses to CEOs and buy back their own stock deserve trillions of federal dollars to weather the storm. Obviously we need to help corporations get through this crisis, but if it’s okay to lose a percentage of human beings, it should be equally okay to lose a percentage of corporations. If corporations are, indeed, people my friend, they can suck it up like the rest of us.

This pandemic is unusual in being indiscriminate about who it sickens and kills. There is definitely an age skew, and considerably more males than females have died from it, but it seems to pay no attention whatsoever to race or nationality, education, or income level—hand-shaking politicians and well-to-do world travelers have been among the first to develop and spread the disease, and so far, it’s affected famous actors, singers and basketball players, U.S. Senators, the U.K.’s Prime Minister, and Prince Charles. When we are short on hospital beds, ventilators, and personal protection equipment for first responders and medical professionals, a highly contagious pandemic is a clear and obvious situation in which protecting everyone, including the poorest among us, is essential.

I’ve long said that we humans could learn a lot from chickadees. When a chickadee spots danger, it gives an alert call not just to other chickadees but to every potential victim, regardless of whether those other creatures agree with, support, or otherwise return favors to the chickadee. Expecting a quid pro quo for being neighborly would never occur to a chickadee, nor would yelling “hoax!” or "fake news!" the moment another bird called out a warning.

Robert Frost wrote an exquisite poem, “The Tuft of Flowers,” about two men haying a field. The first mowed it, and after he was gone, the second came to turn the grass to dry in the sun. A butterfly called his attention to a lovely tuft of flowers that the first man had spared. The beautiful poem ends:
“Men work together,” I told him from the heart,
 “Whether they work together or apart.’” 
The same could be written of chickadees.

The best that we humans do is to to protect things of little or no monetary worth yet immeasurable value, from art to clean air, water, and soil; from our fellow creatures to other human beings. Chickadees look out for one another by instinct, as do we as social animals. But we belong to the one species capable of violating our best instincts and capable of rejecting scientific and medical information produced by the best of human brains. America is resilient, and corporations will rise again; not one human corpse will.

For 33 of the 34 years I've produced my For the Birds radio program and podcast, I've been paid absolutely nothing for my labor or the fairly expensive equipment involved in creating it. I take pride in that, because no underwriter has ever controlled what I say in any way. I've loved the feeling that I can't be bought. Money can't buy me love, it can't buy me chickadees, and it can't buy me self respect.

What is Barry Bostwick worth? What is any human being worth? What is a chickadee worth? I have no idea, but I can guarantee you that it isn't measured in dollars.

Statue of Liberty

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Chickadee Therapy

Black-capped Chickadee

When we’re all of us so isolated from friends, relatives, and even close family members who aren’t in our own household, people have been finding other ways to stay in touch. That’s been gratifying for me. I’ve been hearing from more listeners than usual, and am hearing a lot about their chickadees.

Robert Frost may have been right that "something there is that doesn’t love a wall," but nothing there is that doesn’t love a chickadee. Our Black-capped Chickadee is of course my favorite, but there are several others here in North America, and one kind or another can be found over the vast majority of the landscape except in the desert Southwest.

Chickadees are almost certainly not nearly as cheerful as we think, but somehow seeing and hearing them consistently elicits cheerfulness in us. When they fly up to us, or even to our hand, it may simply be that they’re intelligent enough to learn how to fully exploit feeding opportunities, but how can we humans not see that as friendliness?

Black-capped Chickadee selecting just the right mealworm

When they tap on my window to get my attention, yes I know they associate me with food, but their recognizing me as an individual is genuinely soul-enriching.

Black-capped Chickadee peeking in my window waiting for mealworms

When the American Birding Association gave me their Roger Tory Peterson Award, how could I not feel even more honored and gratified after my backyard chickadees alighted on it, as if signaling their approval? 

Chickadee Approved!

Chickadee Approved!

Yes, I realize full well that they come to my window with the expectation that they'll receive fresh mealworms, but something there is in me that doesn’t love dry, clinical explanations that exclude more beautiful possibilities.

KAXE listener Polly Edington had written me a year ago asking about getting chickadees to feed out of her hand. She didn’t have any luck at first, but this March 13, she sent me an email with exciting news:
I got a chickadee to eat a mealworm out of my hand!!  Then on later days chickadees and nuthatches got shy...they'd come to the pine tree above me but not to my I started putting the mealworms in a  box feeder on the ground at my feet while I sat perfectly still...they loved that!  Me too!  It was fascinating just watching them!  

Going early in the morn I have gotten to observe other wildlife!  Today, looking from my bedroom window at our bird feeder on a post I saw what I think was a female goldfinch...would they be back this soon?
I told her that some goldfinches winter up here. How very thrilled I was at her excitement. On March 20, she wrote back:
Yesterday I put on Facebook a video I took after the chickadees ate the mealworms and I'd refilled my feeder with seeds...just showing the feeder and my backyard. 

What surprised me was as I was talking and filming the feeder a chickadee zoomed in and flew off with a seed. They have never done that for seeds (while I'm there)!!

Polly added:
Out of my chickadees I have two that I'm calling Mama and Youngster...'cause Mama is bigger and the Youngster is about 1/2 the Mama sized one!?
Every chickadee out there is a fully-grown adult right now. They do range pretty widely in weight, running from 9 to 14 grams (about a third to almost half an ounce), the difference comparable to adult humans spanning weights between 120 and 186—obviously our species varies far more widely than chickadees do. And the difference in size in chickadees isn’t usually apparent to our eyes, because chickadee plumage is so thick. When one appears larger than another, it’s usually because that individual is colder, with its feathers much more fluffed out. When I was getting whole flocks of chickadees at my window alighting on my hand, one at a time, I could feel that some individuals were much lighter than others, but couldn’t actually see the difference. So it’s interesting that Polly has an outlier.

On March 23, she shared more observations:
What a morning with “my birdies”!! No longer have fresh mealworms so doused some dried ones with boiling water and took the wet ones out to my wooden feeder. I never thought about the weather being cold enough to freeze them to the feeder, but soon discovered my chickadees couldn't pick the worms up. After I loosened them a chickadee flew in and then perched on the rim of the feeder and “dropped” the worm on the ground and flew up to my knee and looked me in the face and I thought she might have said: “What are you doing? I know this isn't a fresh worm...I spit that one out...I didn't “drop” it!!!” After that she flew off, I picked up the worm and put it on my knee and another chickadee landed there and flew off with the worm! 
Chickadees don't like to share the feeder so in between chickadees I whistled and called: chickadee, dee, dee...I must have offended one who flew within an inch of my mouth and hoovered there for a few seconds like a hummingbird...I imagined her saying to me, “Hey! You are NOT a chickadee!!” 
(I was really shocked when the chickadee hopped up to my knee!!)
It’s so fun to hear readers’ stories during these trying, isolating times. Polly generously shared the photos and video above. Stay safe and well, dear reader.

Black-capped Chickadee closeup

Monday, March 23, 2020

Coping in a Time of Pandemic

American Robin

Spring migration up here always starts slow, and the new-fallen snow Sunday made the day seem genuinely wintry, which of course is supposed to be the norm in northern Minnesota in March. But singing robins took away the chill.

Most of the winter I haven’t had chickadees in my yard more than once or twice a day, but suddenly those little guys are spending more time here, which brightens my spirits every time I look out the window or go outside, which I have to do every time my little dog Pip needs to go out, since a fox has been hanging out in the neighborhood. When more birds start showing up, I’ll start spending more time out there taking photos.

Black-capped Chickadee

The past few weeks have seemed surreal, and I keep finding myself drawn to television and the internet to keep up on the news. Even in the best of times, the intensity of social media and news coverage magnifies, often to the point of exaggeration, every new development. Democracy depends on citizens having access to accurate information, but the information coming out of both social media and news right now seems to be promoting panic and meanspiritedness.

Whenever we humans deal with the unknown, fear is of course our first response. Fear is important and useful in prompting us to action. Right now, our actions should include getting into good habits with regard to hand-washing; not touching our face; sneezing and coughing into tissues or the crook of our arm; frequently sanitizing doorknobs, cell phones, remote controls, and other surfaces that we touch a lot; staying at least 6 feet away from everyone who doesn’t live with us in our immediate home; and patiently, calmly stocking up on food and other necessities in case a local situation leads to shortages or we can’t leave home for a few weeks. 

But fear can also lead us to unreasonable actions, like panic buying and trying to buy medications after irresponsible media figures spread rumors that they may be a miracle cure for COVID-19. This of course leaves vulnerable people who actually need those drugs for other serious illnesses shortchanged. Fear is also stirring anger toward people in power who are responding to the crisis poorly, some even profiting from it. Understandable though it may be, exulting when various people get the virus is ugly. This is a time for us to be listening to the better angels of our nature.

So this week I’m going to try my level best to limit myself to checking news and Facebook no more than one hour each morning and evening, and to stop reflexively checking the current infection totals multiple times each hour. I’m also going to limit myself to one movie or a couple of TV episodes each day. 

I’ll spend one hour a day on household upkeep—keeping those doorknobs clean and all that. We’ll keep preparing nice meals and ordering from our favorite local restaurants for delivery or pickup. And I’ll be spending an hour each day exercising to make up for not going to cardiac rehab.

But that of course leaves plenty more hours each day to fill. I’ve been entering old “For the Birds” transcripts into my webpage database—I want to finally finish that, then digitize old “For the Birds” recordings from old tapes and CDs. When I’m done, I should have the transcripts and/or sound files of over 5,000 programs available on my website—I’m almost up to 3,500 now. As I get bored with that, I’ll also enter old checklists into the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird, and go through bazillions of photo files, deleting bad ones and making sure everything is properly backed up. All these activities will help me get my office organized and help me ensure that no one in my family will feel bad throwing out stuff when I’m gone. And even better in this immediate crisis, going through all this is conjuring lovely memories that are lifting my spirits. 

I hope you are finding things to do that lift your spirits, too. Be safe and well, dear readers.

Black-capped Chickadee

Sunday, March 22, 2020

The Crowded Outdoors

Common Redpolls and Pine Siskins
Winter finches are pathologically incapable of social distancing. 
This winter has been one of the poorest I can remember for winter finches. I had a few goldfinches back in December, but haven’t had a single siskin, redpoll, Pine or Evening Grosbeak, or Purple Finch in my yard all season. It’s probably just as well—as we adjust to the concept of social distancing, it might be disconcerting to look at these excessively sociable birds that crowd into feeders to pig out shoulder to shoulder. 

That inability to keep any distance between themselves is why redpolls and siskins often succumb to salmonella and botulism at feeders—when one bird is sick, others feeding near it are also vulnerable.

Woodpeckers, nuthatches, and chickadees—the only feeder birds I’ve been seeing this year—are very protective of their personal space. Robins join together in big numbers at some fruit trees in winter, but the ones arriving here in the Northland now are in spring territorial mode, so we’ll see them social distancing as well.

Black-capped Chickadee
Chickadees visit the feeder one at a time, taking their seeds away to feed in seclusion. They're very sociable, spending the entire winter in flocks, but always maintain this social distance except with their mate. This is exactly what we humans should be doing now!
A lot of people seem to be going stir crazy already, not a good sign when the pandemic is likely to last several months. Lots of people from the Twin Cities have been pouring up the Lake Superior shoreline to stay at the resorts. That’s scary when hospital space up here is limited, and already these tourists are stocking up on essential supplies in small-town grocery stores, putting a dangerous strain on what’s available for local residents. 

Magee Marsh Boardwalk Entrance
It's usually impossible to take a photo like this, with the entrance to the boardwalk entirely empty in May. I took this one several minutes after a Kirtland's Warbler was reported on the other side of the parking lot, which pulled virtually every birder over there. 
Some of the most popular birding destinations are still attracting larger crowds than is safe during a pandemic. The staff of the Black Swamp Bird Observatory in Ohio worked with the Ohio Division of Wildlife and the Magee Marsh Wildlife Area Manager, Patrick Baranowski, to install hand-washing stations by the porta-potties at the entrance to the Magee Marsh. But just too many people are heading there in this critical time. Black Swamp Bird Observatory director, my friend Kimberly Kaufman, posted a heartbreaking message on Facebook yesterday, writing:
I have shut down the BSBO headquarters to any visitation - even personnel. I'm the only one coming in because we have a cat and someone needs to take in the mail. This post is based on brief observations from yesterday and today. 
As much as this pains my heart, I think they need to close wildlife areas and parks where people are gathering. Under normal circumstances, the number of people going in and out of Magee today wouldn't even register. But seeing so many people going in and out of portable toilets, many that I observed NOT following any kind of hygiene protocol, is disturbing. The Refuge Wildlife Drive is open, but no bathrooms. I understand why, but the fact that these areas are a LONG way from restroom facilities means people are forced to use whatever facilities are open. I’ve also observed people gathered together, standing outside their cars, not following the six-foot social distancing protocol. These areas are bringing people together when that presents a real risk.  
I think we're at the point were we need to shut these areas down and urge people to stay home and shelter in place. And if anyone seeing this message is thinking of going out today, please stay home.
Some of us have backyards and/or live on streets that allow us to get out while keeping a safe distance from others. And some people know of secret little spots that don’t attract other people. We should leave what parks and wildlife refuges are open to people who don’t have those options. In a pandemic, we have a fundamental responsibility to look out for one another.  Chickadees are right this moment social distancing in our own backyards. Let's look to them to show us the way.

Black-capped Chickadee

Friday, March 20, 2020

Backyard Fox

Red fox next door!

The first day of spring this year was pretty yucky, with a sort of misty rain/snow mix all day, yet surprisingly spring-like, in terms of the temperature being 37 degrees at midday. This year, my backyard birds have been scarcer than ever before, but I did have quite a few chickadees, a Downy Woodpecker, a robin, and several neighborhood crows—way less than my recommended daily birds. It’s been discouraging that I’m not seeing more than this—declining bird numbers are of course most noticeable for those of us who have spent decades paying attention. 

The neighborhood crows have been very noticeable lately. Partly it’s because pairs are starting to nest, carrying sticks about, and partly it’s because a Great Horned Owl has been hanging around. Today when a group of crows started screaming bloody murder right next door, I ran out and started scanning the trees. But they weren’t at the top of one of the conifers where an owl would be roosting—they were in a big bare deciduous tree, and weren’t looking into any trees, but down on the ground. 

Crows cussing out a fox

And right there, in a big bare patch of lawn next door, was a red fox! 

Red fox next door!

The fox was very alert, watching my every move, especially as I got closer to the fence to take its photo. According to my camera, I was 34.5 feet from it, but by nature, foxes are big believers in social distancing, so I only got a few pictures with the burst function before it ran off. But what a thrill! Of course, now I’m concerned about my favorite gray squirrel—one that comes running most of the time when I call it. I haven’t seen it in a few days, and a fox living right around here may explain why. 

My dog Pip isn’t much bigger than a squirrel. She weighs between 8 and 9 pounds. When she goes into the backyard, some of my squirrels stare her down, and if she doesn’t retreat, a couple of them actually charge. So Pip wouldn’t be effective in either warding off or protecting herself from a fox. We’ll be going outside with her for the next few weeks to make sure she’s safe.


But even though foxes can present difficulties for squirrels and small dogs, they’re gorgeous animals. Despite how little time I had before it ran off and the fact that my camera was set to overexpose for those backlit crows, my pictures weren’t too bad. If I’m going to be stuck at home during this difficult time, I’m glad that wildlife is coming to me. 

Back on March 4, I got an email from Tim Ciembronowicz in Oulu, Wisconsin, bringing me up to date about the Sharp-tailed Grouse he and his kids Nellie and Elijah had alerted me to last year.

Sharp-tailed Grouse

They’re back! Tim wrote, “four males on display on stark white crusted snow bathed by the sunrise from the east.” I so wanted to jump in my car and head right over, but my uncle had just died and Russ and I had to leave for Chicago for the services. Tim let me know on March 10 that a male harrier had returned, too. I had too many appointments to get there last week, and now I’m stuck at home for the duration. 

But I did see my first robin of the year on Monday, and after mentioning it on the air, I got an email from Robin Nelson of Proctor, who wrote, “Heard your program yesterday, and you talked about a robin, chirping away. Today, there's one in my apple tree. Yippeeeeeeee!”

I also got an email from Mary in Holyoke. She was concerned that my warnings about birding in groups and not entering closed parks might scare some people from going out at all, and made an important point. She wrote, "The healthcare recommendations urge people to go outside, just not in groups. Fresh air is great & cleaner than indoor air."

That’s important. Even in California, now on a statewide lockdown, people are allowed to get out for fresh air and exercise. Mary also contributed a lovely memory of a cool backyard wildlife encounter. She had a pet ferret that she kept in a rabbit hutch up in Toivola. She says, “I fed it cat food. When the gray jays found it, they would come in on silent wings to visit for treats - truly lovely birds.”

Gray Jay

Living right in Duluth, the only time I’ve ever seen Canada Jays in my backyard was during the amazing invasion of 1986, when the species was abundant in northern Minnesota and some individuals wandered even further, at least one making it to Murphy-Hanrehan Park in Scott county. All that winter, two or three visited me daily. So Mary triggered some lovely memories. 

I’m not sure what other critters my crows are going to call to my attention in the days and weeks ahead. I’m not going anywhere for the duration, but it’s fun to see what I can and to hear what others are seeing as well. Stay safe and well, dear reader.

American Robin

Wednesday, March 18, 2020


Crows cussing out a hidden Great Horned Owl

On Monday, I heard crows calling loudly, so I grabbed my binoculars and camera and headed a couple of blocks away to where a host of about 60 crows were gathered, screaming bloody murder, which is actually why this kind of gathering is called a "murder of crows." The cacophony, or in this case a cacawphony, was drawing in crows, one raven, and a couple of Blue Jays from far and wide, all because a Great Horned Owl was tucked into the dense upper branches of a big pine. I got a glimpse of the owl’s belly when the wind moved some of branches exactly right, but simply could not get a photo, though I of course photographed the crows. 

I knew the owl was somewhere in the neighborhood because I’d heard it calling the night before. Usually when crows mob an owl, it’s at least a little easier to get a good view of the owl, but this one was rooted in the thick branches. Occasionally one or two crows would go on a quick dive-bombing mission, but the owl was safer staying where it was than trying to get away from them. In flight by day, crows are faster and more maneuverable than owls. They would have followed it, stabbing it in midair, and then started up the harassment wherever the owl alighted all over again. 

The reason crows attack owls so vigorously is that Great Horned Owls kill crows by night, when crows in their roosts are usually immobile. I’ve heard in recent years that some people are noticing crows flying about at roosts throughout some nights, but those have all been at urban roosts in areas with light pollution. When I rehabbed adult crows and needed to replace bandages or otherwise handle them, I always did it in the room where I housed the crow, always dark at night, and I used a flashlight—even the feistiest crow by day was as docile as a dishrag by night.

Great Horned Owls that come upon a crow roost capitalize on that docility to sometimes kill a dozen or more. They aren’t actually eating crow, at least not the whole body—to minimize blood on their facial feathers, they tend to make a clean cut by lopping off the head and swallowing it whole. That’s why when a Great Horned Owl discovers a crow roost, it usually takes out several rather than just one. It’s also why when crows spot an owl roosting by day, they try to drive it off—not so much out of revenge or hatred but rather to prevent the owl from noticing where the crows head to roost at day’s end. The crows may or may not be thinking about this or doing it with intention, but they're certainly being crowactive. 
It was cold and windy out there, so I didn’t stay out long.

Crows cussing out a hidden Great Horned Owl

After making a short video and taking several photos of the crows, I headed home. I’d been hearing a distant cardinal, and as I got closer to home, started hearing a robin—the first one I’ve heard in 2020. It was making its low-grade alarm calls and looking pretty miserable sitting up in a bare tree. I took a few photos, and suddenly he broke into song! Oddly enough, although the song was perfect, he was singing it sotto voce. I made a very poor video, but the song was pretty quiet against the background noise.

FIrst robin of spring--crappy video, but he's singing!

I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the poor guy, out there on such a miserable day, but those first returning robins tend to be in very good physical shape when they leave their wintering ranges. Worms are staying deep in the frozen soil still, but robins can live for quite a while on berries alone, the main staple of their winter diets in many places. So seeing and hearing my first robin of spring was a most hopeful development. I may be stuck at home, but that was a genuinely joyful experience.

FIrst robin of spring