Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Out with the Old and In with the New

Every year, people ask me whether they should clean out old nests after birds are done nesting so that other birds can use them. Old nests can be dangerous for new baby birds. Some avian parasites enter nests via the adult birds or fly in where they sense hot little nestlings. And some of these parasites spend part of their life cycle in the nesting materials, ready to attach themselves to new baby birds when there’s a second nesting. Clearing out all the nesting materials reduces the chances of that. You must be certain that the birds are done with the first nesting before disturbing any materials, though. And as I just learned, birds are quite capable of throwing out old nesting material without our help. 

When my baby chickadees fledged a couple of weeks ago, I knew they were gone for good—chickadees nest only once a year, and to minimize parasite issues, neither the adults nor the chicks ever return to the cavity. I wanted to salvage the nest as a keepsake, and also wanted to know exactly how deep the cavity was. I dreaded the possibility that there might be unhatched eggs or dead chicks in the nest, but that would have been worth knowing. Our cherry tree is so riddled with holes that it wasn’t going to be suitable for digging out a new cavity next year anyway, so Russ was planning to cut the tree down this week. But on Tuesday, a House Wren changed our plans. When I saw him inspecting the cavity, I set up my 300-mm camera on a tripod to get some video. 

House Wren taking over now empty chickadee cavity!

He was focused on two tasks, claiming the cavity for his own in a way that a female House Wren would recognize, and ensuring that the cavity would be a safe place for babies by dumping out all traces of the chickadee nest. When I first noticed him, I saw him toss out two big chunks of the chickadee nest, which fell to the ground at the base of the tree. I wondered how long it would take before he started carrying in sticks—the tangible proof of a House Wren’s claim of ownership. My very first video showed that he was already accomplishing both aims. He flew in with a stick, pushed it through the cavity entrance, and then disappeared inside, popping up to the entrance a few times to toss out fluffy bits of the chickadee nest. Then he flew away to get another stick and repeated the process.

During the time my camera was capturing video, he also brought a forked twig. No matter what he did, he couldn’t get it through the entrance hole. When he gave up, the twig didn’t fall to the ground—one end got stuck in an edge of the duct tape wrapped around the tree below the entrance hole. It is still there two days later despite the rainstorm Wednesday night.

 This male seems to be the wren who is busy with a nest in the little woods at the back of my yard.  Most of the time he sings from back there, but when he came over to the chickadee cavity, he sang a few songs from the cherry tree and nearby boxelder before getting too busy to sing—he only stuck around the chickadee cavity for short bursts of activity before returning to his current nest and chicks. Wren parents share their feeding duties while their young are nestlings, but when the babies in their first nest fledge, the mother usually takes a break while the male assumes all or most of the responsibility for taking care of the fledglings even as he advertises the other cavities he’s maintaining in hopes of attracting a new mate or the previous one if she hasn’t already moved on to someone else. I don’t know how many other cavities he has, so at this point don’t know whether a batch of baby wrens will take their start in the chickadee cavity or not. Nature will take its course, but meanwhile, for the first time ever, I have some very fun video of a busy little House Wren.  

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Connecticut Warbler

Connecticut Warbler

Most North American warblers have populations well into the millions. The very most abundant two species are the Tennessee Warbler with 110 million, and the Yellow-rumped Warbler with 170 million. Several more number more than 10 million: the Ovenbird, Northern Waterthrush, Black-and-white, Orange-crowned, Nashville, MacGillivray’s, Mourning, Magnolia, Blackburnian, Yellow, Chestnut-sided, Blackpoll, Palm, Pine, Townsend’s, and Wilson’s Warblers, Common Yellowthroat, American Redstart, and Northern and Tropical Parulas, though the Tropical Parula’s breeding population within the United States is only 5,000 of the 20 million found in Mexico through Central America, Trinidad and Tobago, and northern Argentina.  

A few warblers have very restricted breeding ranges. The Golden-cheeked Warbler breeds only in Texas—not one other state and the breeding range does not extend even slightly into Mexico, either. And historically, at least as far as ornithologists know, Kirtland’s Warbler bred only in an area of the Lower Peninsula of Michigan, but as its population grew thanks to Endangered Species Act protections, it’s spread into the Upper Peninsula and nearby Ontario, and then to northern Wisconsin.  

Connecticut Warbler

Within the United States, the Connecticut Warbler breeds only in northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. In the States, the breeding population numbers about 50,000, but its range extends into central Canada, where it totals 1.8 million. All of those birds have to pass over the United States to get to their breeding grounds, but they’re still much, much rarer than most warblers.

When I moved to Minnesota, I’d already seen Connecticut Warblers a few times during spring migration. Visually, they’re like a needle in a haystack—you have to look through a lot of much more abundant warblers to pick one out, but fortunately, most of us birders don’t need to rely on our eyes. Connecticut Warblers have one heck of a loud song that is well within the frequency range I still hear easily, and they mercifully sing during migration, too. Quite a few times over the year, their loud song has alerted me to one in my own backyard, sometimes even when I’ve been indoors with the windows closed.   

Connecticut Warbler

It’s random chance to be paying attention right when a stray migrant happens to be nearby in May—nothing we can count on. But we can count on Connecticut Warblers setting up their breeding territories in bog country up here, making it relatively easy to find them during their morning singing bouts at the Sax-Zim Bog. The bog is a huge place, but recognizing black spruce-tamarack forests with a rich understory of sphagnum moss, Labrador tea, and swamp laurel, we can drive with our windows open through appropriate habitat if we can brave the mosquitoes. Even if the bird is well away from the roadside, its song carries quite a distance.  

Connecticut Warbler

This year, one Connecticut Warbler set up his territory in a very easily accessed spot, making him what birders call a “stake-out.” I checked him out last week. I arrived at 7 am, an hour later than I’d wanted, but he was singing so loudly that I heard him a quarter mile before I reached the spot, and he never stopped singing during the 45 minutes I was there. I came armed with my Zoom H6 recorder and my camera, but unfortunately, I’d forgotten to put the memory card into the recorder, so it ended up being worthless. I did have my cell phone, with a built-in app called “Voice Memos.” The recordings it makes are compressed and not nearly as good as those made with my Zoom, but any port in a storm—that’s what I used to make the recordings featured on my website's Connecticut Warbler page.  

Connecticut Warbler

I lucked into a perfectly still morning but had to be pretty close to get a clear recording. To do that I put on rubber boots to get over the roadside ditch, and then I simply worked my way closer and closer to the bird. I love standing on spongey sphagnum moss. I was as unobtrusive as possible, and the bird didn’t change song perches very much, but it took a while for me to see him, and even longer to get myself in a position where I could take photos—and he stayed up high so they were all pretty backlit.  

Connecticut Warbler

Connecticut Warblers sing both to attract a mate and to declare and defend their territory against other males. Don Kroodsma, an authority on bird vocalizations, believes they sing all night long when they arrive on territory in May in hopes of attracting a female flying over during nocturnal migration. By dawn, as females have settled down for the day, there is less chance one will be close enough to notice any given male. I didn’t see a female, but that doesn’t mean one isn’t there—I was entirely fixated on the singing male, and a female would have had to alight either in my face or right near him for me to notice.

Connecticut Warblers are often described as shy and retiring, but I suspect that they’re simply rare and stay within their habitat—as I said, mine kept singing from the same perches even when I was right beneath him. Sometimes birders resort to playing recordings to get stake-out birds to sing. I don’t approve of that, but even if I did, it was utterly unnecessary. I didn’t have good light and my recordings were not as good as they’d have been had I made sure to put a memory card in my recorder, but even if my technology ended up not what it could have been, that lovely little bird more than made up for it, and this was a morning well spent.

Connecticut Warbler

Friday, June 11, 2021



I spent Tuesday morning birding in Port Wing, Wisconsin. On the way home, I stopped at a lovely birding hotspot called the Roy Johnson Wetlands. I heard one Le Conte’s Sparrow singing and added a new species to my Douglas County list—a Dickcissel. That’s the furthest north I’ve seen them in the state.  


Dickcissels are a prairie species, found mainly in the middle of the continent, but sometimes turn up in large numbers in unexpected places. This seems related to serious droughts in the center of their normal range. 

Southern Minnesota and Wisconsin are part of where Dickcissels are found every year. I got my lifer at Governor Dodge State Park in Iowa County in the Driftless Area of Wisconsin east of Madison way back in 1977, and over the years I’ve seen some in Dane and Columbia Counties, too. I’ve had several sightings in places Iowa and Oklahoma, but the only one I ever saw in northern Minnesota was at a feeder up the shore back in 1988, which was an extreme drought year in the plains. The biggest irruption of Dickcissels into Minnesota, bringing birds into every county except Cook, was in 2012, another extreme drought year.   

I don’t know if the drought conditions in the West are contributing again, but this year, Dickcissels have been turning up in many places in the Northland. I was thrilled about my Douglas County bird, but when I got back to my car, I had a text message from a Duluth birder saying he’d found over 40 in northern Carlton County in Minnesota. So mine one lone individual was apparently not that big a deal. 


On Thursday morning, I went to the Sax-Zim Bog. I was mainly wanting to record and photograph a staked-out Connecticut Warbler (a “stake-out” being a cool or unusual bird that sticks around for several days in the same spot). After spending an hour with that lovely thing, I made a few more stops on Arkola Road, and that’s where I found the Dickcissel. Birders told me they’d seen more in other fields, too. So 2021 is turning out to be a great year to see a Dickcissel in the Northland. Because their being up here is so unusual, evidence of breeding is worth documenting and reporting to eBird and to the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology or the Minnesota Ornithologists' Union

Dickcissels have enough bright yellow beneath with a black band around the throat that from the front, they look a bit like a smallish meadowlark with a very stout bill. For a while, they were placed in the blackbird family with meadowlarks and Bobolinks. Their relationship to other birds is still uncertain, but ornithologists currently place them in the family Cardinalidae.   


When they’re around at all, they’re pretty easy to find in overgrown pastures, savannas, and croplands. They sing their short, distinctive song over and over, and when you notice it, it’s not usually hard to find the singer. They sometimes sing from shrubs and shrubby trees, often at the very top. Even more conspicuously, they very often sing from fences, posts, and powerlines, and they don’t seem very shy when we point a camera or microphone toward them. (You can listen to the one I saw in the Roy Johnson Wetlands here.)  


In winter, when Dickcissels gravitate to the llanos of Venezuela, they are entirely granivorous. During the breeding season, when they need much more protein, their diet becomes about 2/3 insects, especially grasshoppers, caterpillars, termites, and flies. As they stoke up before and during fall migration here in the states, they’re still consuming plenty of insects—at that point, their diet is about 1/3 insects. They forage on the ground where they’re hard to watch, so are easiest to find and see during the time when males are singing, mainly throughout June and the first half of July. They’re territorial during nesting, but once their young become independent, the birds become gregarious, joining large flocks. 

In the same fields where I saw one in the bog and at the Roy Johnson Wetlands, I also had plenty of Bobolinks, Eastern Meadowlarks, Red-winged Blackbirds, Sedge Wrens, several sparrows, and other cool birds—I ended up turning my back on the Dickcissel in the bog when a Black-billed Cuckoo distracted me. So a search along country fields for Dickcissels is pretty rewarding no matter what. We Northlanders don’t usually get to see them at all, so during this exceptional year of plenty, it’s a good idea to get out there and enjoy them.


Wednesday, June 9, 2021

A Brief Visit to Port Wing

Sandhill Crane

On Tuesday morning, I got up a few minutes after 3 am. It was quite a bit before dawn but a catbird was singing away, so I set my recorder on my front porch. Then I made a cup of coffee, took my time about getting dressed, loaded up my car with my birding stuff and my little dog Pip, stopped my recorder and put that in the car, too, and drove to Port Wing, Wisconsin. I have a new mirrorless camera and now a splendid lens to go with it, and I badly wanted to photograph the Le Conte’s Sparrows that usually nest in the field where my mother-in-law lived.  

Le Conte's Sparrow
Le Conte's Sparrow young bird from the Port Wing field in 2019

There was virtually no traffic anywhere along the way, so I set my cruise control at 50 mph—that not only minimizes the chances of me hitting any animals but also minimizes my carbon footprint—for the day, I ended up getting 58 miles per gallon. I can’t feel virtuous about it—that still means I burned up 2 gallons of gas—but I feel a little better if I at least minimize what I use. I got to Kinney Valley Road about 6. I spent over an hour there and used my SongFinder—the little device that lowers the frequency of the highest-pitched songs so I can hear them—but didn’t pick out a single Le Conte’s Sparrow. I left my recorder on near my car, but it didn’t pick up any Le Conte’s either, and between the Highway 13 noise and a lot of loud barking dogs, the recording it made there didn’t turn out well.  

Michele Wheeler Wetland Restoration

Next, I went to what used to be the sewage ponds but is now the Michele Wheeler Wetland Restoration area. I didn’t know that there were three different parking spots, so I parked at the first one, which I knew was too close to Highway 13 for recording. The wetland was lovely, with Sandhill Cranes...

Sandhill Crane

... a Green Heron...

Green Heron

... and an adorable Sedge Wren as the biggest highlights. Next time I’ll park at the third parking area so my recorder can do its magic by my car as I’m walking around. It would have gotten some splendid Sedge Wren sounds had I done that this time.  

Sedge Wren

I stopped very briefly at the beach but spent the most time walking along my favorite road on the planet, Big Pete Road, where Red-breasted Nuthatches are essentially guaranteed. They were calling throughout, along with warblers and vireos, though the only songbird I got photos of was a Pine Warbler. 

Pine Warbler

I ended my Port Wing birding at Twin Falls. A bit of water still flowed in both falls, but we need some rain if that’s going to last. 

Twin Falls

Three Hermit Thrushes were singing away, but I’d left my recorder in the car during that walk.   

I came home to a really nice recording from when I’d set my recorder near my car while I walked on Big Pete Road. (You can listen to it or download it here). It’s very satisfying for me to listen to recordings with headphones when I get home, especially when they turn out this well. When I hear the sounds of a place in real time with just my hearing aids, I don’t know how many birds I’m missing—the hearing aids improve my hearing significantly, but not to the hearing equivalent of 20/20 vision. And when I use my frequency-lowering device, birds sound different than, and not nearly as pretty as, they do at their real frequency. Even worse, my brain can’t focus on anything else, so my walk doesn’t have the same relaxing, calming effects it would without the device. I don’t hear the highest-pitched sounds on my recordings even with headphones, but I can -see them on the spectrogram—the pattern identifies most of them, and to actually hear them, I can select just the songs I want, boost the volume 50- or 60-fold, and listen without background sounds. If I’m still having trouble, I save the song and just ask one of my young birding friends to take a listen.   

A hundred-and-ten-mile drive to spend a morning birding is a higher cost to this planet where my little grandson will spend a lifetime than I can really justify, so I won’t be doing this very often—when I go back to Port Wing, I’ll at least try to stay a couple of days so I have more to show for each drop of fuel I burn. But Pip and I had a lovely day and I’m very glad I went this one time. 

Sedge Wren

Monday, June 7, 2021

The Happy Ending with Some Questions Left Unanswered

Black-capped Chickadees nesting in yard

Ever since April 10, when I looked out the window to see a chickadee digging out a hole in my cherry tree, I’ve been consumed with two backyard chickadees working together to raise a family. There was no way I could peek in this natural cavity to see anything, so the cherry tree has been a mystery box. The only way I could guess what was happening inside was to interpret what the parents were doing outside.  

Starting about the first of June or a day or two earlier, the parents started being a little less tolerant of me, especially near the nest, and since they’re the ones who created this splendid opportunity, I obviously had to honor their wishes. I did keep setting out a camera on a tripod, capturing video once or twice most days, and took photos from a bit further away, but was as quick about it as possible. Canon cameras record for exactly 29 minutes and 59 seconds and then stop, and my half-hour videos showed mostly nothing happening at all with maybe a few seconds showing a parent entering the cavity with food and then coming out, often with a fecal sac to dispose of.  

Black-capped Chickadees nesting in yard

Black-capped Chickadees nesting in yard

But Friday, June 4, when I took a quick look at the video I’d captured about an hour after the recording stopped, a baby was peeking out at the very end. That may well have been the first baby to fledge, but I’d missed it!

First peek at nestling chickadee

I quickly started recording again, staying at a respectful distance with another camera for still shots, and almost immediately, another baby popped up at the entrance. 

Black-capped Chickadees nesting in yard

I took hundreds of shots with one camera as the one on a tripod recorded every movement. The little one made a hoarse little chick-chick-a-dee call as it came to the opening and looked out, and called several more times as the father alighted in a nearby bush. Dad sang a couple of the hey, sweetie! songs and an adult chick-a-dee-dee-dee call, then made the quick see-see-see call chickadees make when one decides to move to a different spot, like “I’m outta here.” 

The baby tracked him as he flew to a nearby tree in my neighbors’ backyard but was still a little hesitant—the video shows the tiny guy looking every which way, trying to figure out what was going on in this suddenly bright and humongously expanded universe. I captured a minute and a half of the drama, and since my really good directional microphone was attached to the camera, you can hear baby and dad’s calls. The baby made a final call at the entrance and flew out of sight, making one final call from offscreen.  

Chickadee fledging

The camera I used to make this video recording of the wonderful event was pointed at the nest, but my other camera and my eyes tracked the little guy to where the dad had landed in my neighbors’ yard. I took about a minute’s worth of photos over there, but it was tricky as the little guy got its balance as its father encouraged it to flutter to higher and higher branches. 

Black-capped Chickadees nesting in yard

Black-capped Chickadees nesting in yard

When he gave it a bite to eat, they were both behind foliage, so I didn’t get a shot of that, but did get a few nice shots of the little one before I stepped away. I don’t think I was stressing them too much, but didn’t want to risk making their day even a little harder than it already was.

Meanwhile, my other camera was still recording at the nest, and I came back outside to start it up several times before it stopped itself, so have recordings for a couple of hours afterwards, but no more babies emerged—the whole brood must have fledged before my camera was set up that morning and after the camera turned off with the one little guy at the entrance. About an hour after recording the last baby fledging, it did capture the father calling off camera, alighting at the entrance one last time with food, peeking in to make sure the nest was really empty with no babies left behind, calling off camera once more just in case, and then flying off. None of the family will ever return to the nest. 

Dad Making Sure the Babies Are All Out

I hoped against hope that the trail cam I had pointing at the nest caught at least some of the chicks fledging, but it didn’t. The cam was on a branch looking at the nest from a 90-degree angle, and the tiny ones must not have set off the motion detector. So now I’ll never know how many babies were in the nest, but I’m impressed that two parent chickadees could perform this amazing drama in plain sight while keeping so many secrets.

I heard the mother make a few calls in the tiny woods behind our backyards along with tiny sounds that almost definitely came from the other fledglings. A few minutes after I went in the house, Blue Jays started squawking which totally freaked me out—I will never forget the day last summer when my baby House Wrens fledged to my raspberry bushes. My Blue Jay family, making those same calls, flew in and massacred them. So this time I went out and whistled, drawing the jays to my feeder to take peanuts. I don’t know if this was a simple distraction or more like paying the Mafia protection money to leave something alone, but the jays obliged, and the chickadee family got away. Those two Blue Jays have just started nesting somewhere around here but don’t have chicks yet, so they aren’t as focused on eating young birds as they’ll be in a few weeks. But those jays do track my movements, so I won’t be looking for the baby chickadees at all in the coming days. 

In the days since the babies fledged, one of the adult chickadees has turned up at my window feeder a few times to grab a quick bite, but they’re mostly staying close to their fledglings as they hunt for food so the young birds can watch and learn. My backyard has too many squirrels and that Blue Jay pair, so until the babies are strong fliers, I don’t think the parents will be bringing them back to my yard. I’ll take plenty of pictures if the opportunity arises, but nothing could make me more thrilled than the photos and video I got of the last baby making its very first flight into the wide, wide world.  

Black-capped Chickadees nesting in yard

Monday, May 31, 2021

The Catbird's Seat

Gray Catbird 

On Saturday I was telling my husband how hard it would be to come up with a Top Ten, or even a Top Twenty, list of my favorite birds. I recounted a bunch of favorites off the top of my head, but then on Sunday morning, a catbird proved my point. I hadn’t even thought to include catbirds with my favorites, but one singing in the shrubs next to my front porch (listen to it here) made me remember so many splendid encounters with catbirds over the years. Was my favorite the very first one I ever saw, putting the species on my lifelist? That one was mewing in some dense shrubbery on the Michigan State campus, sounding very cat-like but somehow not a cat. Without ever having heard one before, I knew it had to be a Gray Catbird. I searched through the thick foliage, and voila! That most cooperative bird not only let me see his solid gray plumage with distinctive black cap and long, black tail, but also his one splash of color—the deep rusty crissum, or undertail coverts where the belly meets the underside of the tail. Unfortunately, that was May 11, 1975, the same day I saw my first warblers, which I’m afraid eclipsed the poor catbird. 

Throughout that spring I got good at recognizing not just the mews but the catbird’s song—a long string of imitations and cool notes, given at what seems like a leisurely pace yet managing to sound energetic and vibrant. Catbirds may not top the color charts, but their large, innocent eyes, so black against that soft gray face, and their slender form give them an elegant loveliness. 

Gray Catbird

Catbirds usually nest fairly low in tangles of dense shrubbery, but manage better than most birds to duck in when no one is watching. Many times in autumn after leaves are gone I’ve found a catbird nest where I’d had no clue that they were nesting. Cowbirds are much better at finding their nests than we mere humans are, but catbirds are one of the few birds that recognize cowbird eggs and eject them from the nest.  

Soon after I moved to Duluth, I met Koni Sundquist, who seemed to know everything about every kind of bird. She’s the one who told me about setting out jelly for orioles and catbirds. Catbirds are just as likely to nest in yards with no feeders as ones offering grape jelly. They eat plenty of insects as well as berries and other fruits, and they feed their nestlings a protein-rich diet based on insects, so they thrive in yards that enjoy benign neglect, especially regarding pesticides. But the easiest way to see them out in the open is with jelly feeders.  

Gray Catbird

When my daughter Katie was three, she went to half-day Montessori preschool. When the weather finally got pleasant in the spring, she always wanted to have what she called pic-i-nic lunches. She liked eating out there alone, so I’d go back in with her baby brother, but after a few days, she told me she had a new special friend who liked eating pic-i-nic lunches with her. He wasn’t exactly invisible, but wouldn’t come anywhere near unless Katie was alone. He’d be nowhere in sight when I set Katie up with a sandwich, fruit, and a glass of milk in the middle of the picnic table. I’d retreat indoors and peek out the window, and sure enough, Katie’s friend would fly in, straight for the orange bowl of grape jelly in the corner of the picnic table.  

Through the end of May and throughout June into July, Katie’s little friend would fly in as soon as she was settled at the picnic table and I’d gone inside. This little catbird and my little daughter seemed to be having a most companionable pic-i-nic lunch. I always wondered why that catbird was not scared of Katie, and even more puzzled that it so consistently flew in the moment she settled at the picnic table and I'd disappeared. Whenever I hear the expression “in the catbird’s seat,” I always think of Katie and her catbird friend dining together on our pic-i-nic table. Of course there must be a catbird seated on my Top Ten List Favorite Birds. 

(You can hear a few recordings of my most cooperative catbird, singing very close to my microphone, on my Gray Catbird page. I have species pages for most birds, and if I have any recordings, they will show up.)

Gray Catbird

Sunday, May 30, 2021

Chickadee Worries

Black-capped Chickadees nesting in yard

Having chickadees nesting in my dead cherry tree where I can observe them a lot of the time turns out to be far more stressful than I’d ever imagined. As a mother when my children were their most vulnerable, and now as a grandmother, my natural overprotectiveness for my own young could be focused on childproofing the house and researching and acting on best practices for keeping a baby safe and happy. But how on earth can one childproof a backyard? As much as I’ve studied chickadees and done everything I can to make my yard safe for them, it’s impossible to foresee what bad things might happen to them.   

Starling taking over

During their nest-building stage, my trail cam caught a European Starling sticking its head way into the cavity. Chickadees excavate a deep cavity, and there’s no way the starling could have reached it or any eggs within, but it freaked me out. Any nestlings up near the entrance hole could have been killed. And then the starling showed up at the cavity just last week, when starling nestlings are needing more and more protein. Fortunately, the baby chickadees aren’t yet at the stage where they are up by the entrance looking out, but that should happen any day now.   

Black-capped Chickadee--fledging day!

House Sparrows are known to destroy eggs and kill young to steal cavities. These chickadees excavated this hole themselves, which makes it too tiny for sparrows to enter, and House Sparrows don’t live in my neighborhood anyway. But House Wrens are also known to take over occupied cavities, and they’d easily fit in the entrance hole. Wrens are just starting to arrive in this late migration, giving me one more thing to worry about.   

Adult Blue Jay feeding fledgling

Two of my favorite birds, Blue Jays and Crows, will feed their young baby birds of just about any species except their own, and one jay and one crow seem to be keeping track of my chickadee nest. It takes a lot of protein for these large birds to successfully rear young, and tiny songbird nestlings have the exact same moral significance to a parent corvid that caterpillars have for a parent chickadee, but that’s a very hard concept for me to wrestle with. Those little songbird parents grasp the concept of predation completely, putting all their energy into ensuring that their young will not be among the eaten, but those same parents quickly move on and renest if the worst happens. I am not capable of that Zen-like acceptance of how the universe works.   

Of course, it isn’t just predation that birds must take in stride. Parasites, dangerous weather events, diseases, and simple freak accidents take a toll, too. It’s not that birds don’t know about these things. They may not understand them in the detail some of us humans do, but they certainly must understand them in the elemental way that that pre-educated cultures did, with or without the superstitions that members of our species attach to scary phenomena we don’t understand or know how to predict.   

Most birds, like most people, do everything in their power to protect their young and, like people, sometimes fail. Walking through centuries-old cemeteries, we can see the tragic childhood mortality rates of pre-vaccination eras even when people were eating all-natural diets and enjoying healthy immune systems.   

Being all-too-human, I understand the grief people feel when we lose our own loved ones. We often dismiss the grief other human beings suffer in losing their loved ones, especially if those other human beings belong to other cultures, so it’s no mystery why we also dismiss the grief that birds and other wildlife suffer in losing their young. They get on with their lives almost instantly, but that isn’t a choice—it’s the only way they survive. But objective measures of grief in other species, in terms of behavioral and especially physiological responses, turn out to be pretty similar in the species we’ve taken the time and effort to measure.   

My backyard chickadees recognize me—I know this because they often fly to the window the moment they see me there, and don’t seem skittish when I’m photographing them at their nest or as they collect food to bring back to the nest. But I very much doubt that they feel any kind of bond to me, certainly not in the way I feel bonded to and protective of them. So as they continue doing their best to keep their young alive and thriving in the only way they know how, I’ll continue doing everything I can, imagining worst-case scenarios, and worrying. I’m only human. 

Black-capped Chickadees nesting in yard

Friday, May 28, 2021

Pesticides: Just Say NO!!

Chickadee with Baby Food

Now that my backyard chickadees are in a frenzy finding tiny insects, especially larvae, to feed their nestlings, I’ve been thrilled to notice just how much food my backyard affords them. The adults stop by my home office window a few times a day to take a few mealworms, but those apparently simply provide quick meals for parents on the go. They gobble them down in the spruce tree by my window, and then head back to the other trees to search for tinier, more tender offerings for their tiny, tender offspring. They spend much of their hunting time in my crabapple tree, and then head to the nest with several insects in their beak. They dive into the nest hole directly most of the time, so my photographs at the nest don’t show what they’re carrying. But en route, they usually stop briefly in my still-living cherry tree, where I’ve grabbed a few photos showing the insect food.   

Black-capped Chickadees nesting in yard

I’ve never considered using insecticides in my yard, even before my rehab experiences when I took care of one tragic Blue Jay fledgling that was found with horrible neurological problems by a woman whose yard was sandwiched on either side and behind by lawns treated by one of the national lawn services. A lot of people think they’re only getting rid of the dandelions, and don’t consider how bad herbicides can be. And those lawn applications invariably include dangerous insecticides as well, on the off-chance that a given lawn has cutworms. No pesticides are “approved” by the EPA—getting registered does not require them to pass any lab or field testing to ensure that they can’t harm birds. And even if some pesticides were safer than others, what those national companies use are proprietary secrets anyway, so their customers have no way of evaluating their safety.  

Oddly enough, this week I’ve heard of two different situations, one up here in northern Minnesota and the other in Washington, D.C., in which Facebook posters have blithely told others to solve an insect problem with insecticides. The Northland one was when someone posted a photo of a cluster of native forest tent caterpillars  in a fruit tree. Immediately, people were posting about how ugly they are, and how they should spray the entire tree, or set the cluster on fire, before the caterpillars travel to other trees. The defoliation that native caterpillars sometimes cause is mainly an issue of aesthetics—trees, especially native species, usually survive because they evolved with those native species of insects, which tend to be cyclic, giving the trees plenty of time to recover between outbreaks.   

Black-billed Cuckoo

Meanwhile, those very caterpillars are a critical food source for Black-billed Cuckoos, whose populations trace the same cyclical rise and fall as their prey. Bacillus thuringiensis, or “Bt,” an alternative to chemical pesticides, is a bacterial agent that kills young caterpillars and is not toxic to birds, but it’s indiscriminate about which caterpillars it kills—all lepidopteran larvae are vulnerable, meaning someone spraying my apple tree to defend against one kind of caterpillar would eliminate virtually all the food my chickadees are depending on. The complexity of both natural cycles and large communities of plants and animals is more than many people want to consider.  


The other situation in which I’ve heard people clamoring for insecticides is where cicadas are emerging this year. I was in Elmhurst, Illinois, the epicenter of a 17-year cicada emergence in 2007, and I can attest to how ungodly loud they were. I was visiting my sister, who lived in a house close enough to O’Hare that all the doors and windows have to meet a soundproof code. We’d be talking inside and one of my nieces would walk in, and the moment the door opened it was impossible to hear anything but the roar of the cicadas. I’ll certainly admit that it was more fun to visit during the emergence than to live day by day through it, but it’s a unique part of nature, lasts for a few weeks and is over, and provides abundant food for birds. And other than the noise, cicadas don’t hurt anything. And it’s impossible to eradicate them without hurting a lot of other wildlife.   

Anyway, this year’s cicada emergence in the Washington D.C. area coincides with a disturbing outbreak of birds dying from some sort of neurological problems that include blindness. No one knows what is causing this—it’s never been seen before, and so far no one has been able to figure out if the cause is bacterial, viral, or exposure to a toxin. Some people are afraid that the birds are succumbing because so many people are using pesticides to deal with the cicadas. Birds being picked up dead and dying seem mostly to include grackles, Blue Jays, mockingbirds, and bluebirds, all of which are species that feed on cicadas and might indeed have been poisoned from pesticides killing cicadas.   

In an age when people don’t know how to deal with the fellow human beings in our own communities, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that we have trouble dealing with our fellow creatures of other species, including those who have lived in our communities for millennia before we entered the scene. But it’s tragic that the only species on the planet whose members include rocket scientists have so much trouble understanding the simplest concepts of ecology—that what we do to any species has a ripple effect on a great many other species including our own, and that keeping those other species healthy is good for us, too. The very first day of my very first ecology class, my professor, Bob Hinkle, wrote a simple sentence on the board: “Diversity equals stability.”  Whether we’re talking about ecological or social science, that simple principle has stood up over time.  

Black-capped Chickadee--fledging day!