Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Monday, May 10, 2021

Song Sparrows

Song Sparrow

Last month, I read a wonderful letter from 9-year-old listener Aleda. She wrote mostly about chickadees, but also mentioned that one of her favorite birds is the Song Sparrow. I promised I’d do a program about them today. 

Why May 11, specifically? On May 11, 1935, one of the world’s seminal bird researchers, Margaret Morse Nice, spent the entire day, from midnight to midnight, following one particular Song Sparrow near her home in Columbus, Ohio, and recording every one of his behaviors. The little bird, whose color band made recognizing him easy, was nicknamed 4M. On that day, he spent roughly 10 hours singing, 9 hours roosting, and 5 hours eating and doing other miscellaneous Song Sparrow activities. During those 10 hours of song bouts, he sang 2,305 complete songs.  Some of Nice’s earliest papers were too rich in detail and scope to be suited to the norms of American ornithological journals at the time and were published in Germany instead. Her 2-volume work, Studies in the Life History of the Song Sparrow, which set the gold standard for meticulous work on any single species, was originally published in the Transactions of the Linnean Society of New York. My copy is a Dover reprint. 

The Song Sparrow is one of the widest ranging of all our songbirds, breeding across the northern and most of the central states and up to Hudson Bay in Canada, spanning all of British Columbia and coastal Alaska to much of Quebec and a chunk of Newfoundland and Labrador. Some populations live year-round in Mexico.  

Song Sparrow

Having such a broad range gives the Song Sparrow quite a range in body size, with the largest, found in beach grass in the Aleutians, having 150% of the body mass of the smallest, living in California salt marshes. Both these Pacific Coast populations show extreme site fidelity, often defending their territories year-round. This limits each individual’s choices of mates compared with populations that migrate and wander as the landscape changes over time. So those coastal populations become rather isolated, developing some unique differences from most Song Sparrows whose populations move about, undergoing more genetic mixing over time.  

Song Sparrow
This Song Sparrow was photographed in Vancouver in British Columbia.

Song Sparrow songs also vary enormously, both geographically and individually, in the same way that English-speaking Americans and Canadians have regional accents and dialects. Wherever I’ve traveled, I’ve thrilled at the differences in Song Sparrow local dialects. I’ve always been able to recognize their songs, though when I’m in any unfamiliar area, I try to track down as many singers as I can just in case there’s a species that sounds enough like a Song Sparrow that I might not realize it isn’t. They virtually always start with two or three identical notes at the start and then break into a jumble. Song Sparrows perform in the background of a lot of the soundscape recordings I 've made; I've also made a few recordings specifically of them. All of them are linked on my Song Sparrow species page

Song Sparrow
Laura not only photographed this individual Song Sparrow on Audubon's Hog Island in Maine, she recorded an 11-minute singing bout in which he sang 48 songs from start to finish. You can listen to the recording (with the ocean and a lobster boat, and an airplane, in the background) here

Song Sparrows arrive fairly early in spring, often with or soon after the first juncos and before Fox Sparrows. Mine had been singing up a storm for a few weeks, but now I think they’re busy nesting. I never ever look for their nests—I’m afraid my scientific curiosity is completely overpowered by my fear of giving away the nest’s location to predators. In my own yard, my crows and Blue Jays fly in whenever I go out, hoping for peanuts, so no way could I look for nests here. 

Baby Song Sparrow at Picnic Point
I came upon this fairly recently fledged Song Sparrow in Madison, Wisconsin.

The only nest I’ve ever tracked closely in my yard has been this year’s chickadee nest in my dead cherry tree, and because it was excavated by the chickadees, the entrance is just too tiny for even the smallest Blue Jay to access. Open nests are much more vulnerable, so I’ll have to continue my long standing track record of being lackadaisical, rather the polar opposite of my hero Margaret Morse Nice. I’ll sit around in my lazy way, watching and enjoying my Song Sparrows whenever they choose to let me.

I hope Aleda is enjoying her Song Sparrows as much as I'm enjoying mine!

Song Sparrow

What IS a Warbler?

Northern Parula
Northern Parula

Every year when May rolls around, I start waxing euphoric about warbler migration. My Zoom presentation at the start of this month was about them, and I covered every warbler species that regularly occurs in the United States and Canada, but at the end of my talk, looking at questions in the chat box, I realized I hadn’t addressed the most basic question of all—what IS a warbler? How exactly are they set apart from every other little songbird?  

Magnolia Warbler
Magnolia Warbler

Warblers are tiny insectivorous birds belonging to a big family limited to the Americas. They were unknown to European naturalists until explorers started shooting them and sending the carcasses back to Europe for cataloguing. Two of our warblers, the Northern Parula and American Redstart, were included in the 10th edition of Linnaeus’s Systema Naturae published in 1758. Linnaeus placed the redstart in the genus Motacilla, which now, in 2021, is limited to what we call “wagtails,” mostly Eurasian species, but in 1758, it was a big, amorphous genus that also included our bluebird. 

American Redstart
American Redstart

I’d always been curious about the similarity of the chickadee family name, Paridae, and the warbler family name, Parulidae—it was all because Linnaeus mistook the Northern Parula for a European tit and placed it in the genus Parus

Northern Parula
Northern Parula

Linnaeus had codified the binomial system, giving each species of plant and animal a unique Latinized scientific name, in 1735. Placing birds in families took longer and working out logical ways of classifying birds is still a work in progress. Understanding relationships among birds is as tricky as working out family histories for humans. Someone who could easily pass for your sibling might have ancestors from an entirely different part of the world than yours. Relationships between warblers and other birds took a long time to sort out and is still in flux. The family as we know it now was defined by Alexander Wetmore in 1947. (Before that, wood warblers were placed in Mnilotiltidae.) The name common nickname “warbler” came from the European warblers, who actually do warble—most of our species have thin, buzzy songs that couldn't be described as warbles, and most of our species are much more colorful. So what defines the family, making them actual warblers?

Our warblers are all small, from the tiniest, the Northern Parula and Lucy's Warbler, which are only 4 1/4 inches from tip of beak to tip of tail, to the biggest, the Ovenbird and Louisiana Waterthrush, which are 6 inches long.  


It's easy for both beginners and experienced birders to confuse kinglets, gnatcatchers,  and vireos with warblers, and wrens, creepers, nuthatches, and even chickadees can confuse beginners. Our Ovenbird and the Northern and Louisiana Waterthrush spend time on the ground and look a LOT like small thrushes, a problem that is exacerbated because the Ovenbird and waterthrushes aren't much smaller than thrushes. Over the years, I've several times confused, at first glance, a young or female Orchard Oriole or female tanager with a warbler, and when I was starting out, I mistook goldfinches for warblers until I got better at paying attention to the bill thickness and posture. 

Yellow-rumped Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler

Warbler bills are slender and straight—thinner and longer than those of chickadees, without the curve of a Brown Creeper’s bill or the hooked tip of a vireo’s, and longer than the bills of kinglets. Paying attention to such subtleties becomes second nature with experience. When I was starting out, I thought of warblers as yellow, but so are goldfinches and female orioles and tanagers, and many warblers have no yellow at all.  Some warblers have oval spots on the underside of their tail tips which are, I think, a unique warbler trait, but many common warblers don't have those.  

Black-throated Blue Warbler
Black-throated Blue Warbler

Our warblers all have 9 primary wing feathers, but so do some small songbirds from other families. Back before DNA helped work out relationships, scientists used various morphological structures, such as the syrinx or songbox, various muscle groups, and other structures we can’t possibly see when we’re looking at a tiny songbird and just want to know where to find it in our field guide. 

Too bad birds can't each wear their 23andme results on conspicuous wing tags. Of course, birds don't have 23 pairs of chromosomes—most songbirds have 40.  Not knowing anything about genetics when I started birding, the way I learned my warblers was to spend a lot of time birding, and a lot of time with my field guides. I read both the Peterson and Golden Guides from cover to cover, but just a tiny bit actually stuck. What really helped was keeping the field guides out in our apartment, one next to the bed. A few times every day I'd open one at random and read a page or two. Little by little, my brain started absorbing the information in a way that became accessible in the moment I was actually seeing those birds. 

I did two things to master bird songs. First, when I heard anything, I'd track it down--the intense search helped cement the song in my head. Also, when I was in the kitchen, or ironing (back when I actually did ironing), or doing homework (I was still a student), I'd listen to recordings. My brain would drift a lot, but doing it so often, some of it started to stick. I'll never forget when I went out West with my sister-in-law in 1979 and heard my first MacGillivray's Warbler. I swear I could hear the nasal voice on the Peterson record, in my brain say, perfectly clearly, "Page 254 (or whatever page it was), MacGillivray's Warbler."  That moment made all the hours of listening worth it! Plus listening over and over sealed into my brain the songs I was getting more familiar with outdoors. 

It's fun and easy to get out there and see warblers. Figuring them out is the challenge. But try not to get frustrated. Life is too short and warblers too wonderful to let mere issues of identification stop us from enjoying them!

Blackburnian Warbler
Blackburnian Warbler

Thursday, May 6, 2021

Celebrity Watch: Monty and Rose Return to Chicago

Rose (left) and Monty, 24 July 2019.
Photo copyright 2021 by Susan Szeszol. All rights reserved.

On 25 April 2021, a female Piping Plover who had just returned north to Montrose Beach in Chicago was confirmed to be Rose, the famous Piping Plover who successfully nested there in 2019 and 2020. She had been seen this winter at Anclote Key Preserve State Park in Florida, 1,137 miles away. On 26 April, her mate Monty showed up—he’d spent the winter in Bolivar Flats in Texas, about 970 miles away.  After taking separate vacations, Chicago’s famous celebrity love birds have returned for another season!

Birders in Chicago and the wider world are elated. I have a deeply personal reason for being so joyful. My uncle and godfather lived in an apartment overlooking Montrose beach—he loved fishing in the harbor, and I loved spending time with him out there. When he was dying of cancer, I stayed with him and my aunt for several weeks. When I needed to decompress, I took the pedestrian tunnel under Lake Shore Drive for a few peaceful moments, and when I got back, he always wanted to hear what birds I saw. I feel intensely happy that one of my favorite birds of all is nesting in that place that he and I loved so dearly. 

The birds originally paired up in 2018 before they had been given their names. They tried to nest in Waukegan that year, but without luck. In 2019, they tried out Montrose Beach. That was a dramatic summer—their first clutch of eggs failed, and an impending storm inundated that spot anyway. They relocated to higher ground on the dunes but then were threatened by a huge, planned music festival on the beach. Chicagoans rallied to their rescue and the festival was moved. 

Rose and one of the chicks, 24 July 2019.
Photo copyright 2021 by Susan Szeszol. All rights reserved.

After all that drama, Monty and Rose managed to fledge two chicks—the first baby Piping Plovers to hatch in the city since 1955. In 2020, the pandemic protected them from too much human pressure; three of their chicks survived.  During both years, and now in 2021, a cadre of volunteer Piping Plover Monitors spend each day at the beach. One of my dear friends, Susan Szeszol, serves as one of these monitors. She explains: 

We work to protect the plovers by trying to keep off leash dogs away from the plovers, trying to steer people from entering the protected areas, removing dead birds/animals, and we educate the public by answering questions and providing information on the plovers.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service administers the Endangered Species Act, and protects the Montrose Plovers in collaboration with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, the Chicago Park District, and volunteers from Chicago Ornithological Society, Chicago Audubon Society, and Illinois Ornithological Society.  

Susan Szeszol monitoring plovers in 2021 

Last month, the Chicago Park District announced the expansion of the Montrose Dune Natural Area. An additional 3.1 acres will be added to the current 12.8 acres of  habitat, located on the eastern end of Montrose Beach. This expensive project was funded by generous donors and returns from a great movie about the birds, Bob Dolgan's Monty and Rose

I have a bazillion photos of Piping Plovers, but somehow two such important celebrities deserve to be shown as individuals, and Susan generously shared her own photos of Monty and Rose for this blogpost.  

Monty, 24 July 2019.
Photo copyright 2021 by Susan Szeszol. All rights reserved. 

Rose, 2 August 2019.
Photo copyright 2021 by Susan Szeszol. All rights reserved.

One of Monty and Rose's chicks, 24 July 2019.
Photo copyright 2021 by Susan Szeszol. All rights reserved.

One of Monty and Rose's chicks, 24 July 2019.
Photo copyright 2021 by Susan Szeszol. All rights reserved.

I’m a true Chicagoan, born and bred in the city. My dad and uncle were Chicago firefighters, my Grandpa taught me to love the Cubs and Ernie Banks, and many of my seminal experiences with birds happened right in the city, from falling asleep to the happy chattering of House Sparrows as a little girl to seeing my very first Snowy Owl as Russ and I walked along Lake Shore Drive, close to Montrose Beach, when I was a new birder. But I’ve lived away from the city for 50 years. It took Monty and Rose to inspire me to join Chicago Audubon—one of the organizations working tirelessly to protect this magical spot of natural habitat and these two wonderful birds. Lots of individuals are helping, too—with financial contributions to fund beach protection and cleanup, field research, purchase a bit more land to restore more habitat, and so much more, and they help with their time volunteering as monitors and community outreach. All this for two lovely little birds, the five babies they’ve sent out into the world already, and the babies they will raise in the future. It really does take a village to keep young ones safe. 

One of Monty and Rose's chicks, 24 July 2019.
Photo copyright 2021 by Susan Szeszol. All rights reserved.

Gee Whiz: A Sad Loss

Whooping Crane
I'm not sure which individuals this crane pair is, but they were photographed at the International Crane Foundation in 2007.

In 1967, a female Whooping Crane named Tex was hatched at the San Antonio Zoo. Normal zoo protocol with birds that imprint is to leave hatchlings with their parents, but Tex had life-threatening health problems and needed to be cared for by humans. 

At the time, there were only 109 Whooping Cranes left in the entire world, most in captivity. The survival of each one was important, but even more important if the species was to be pulled from the brink of extinction was ensuring that every possible individual was reproducing. 

Researchers hoped against hope that Tex would figure out that she was a Whooping Crane, not a person, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service transferred her to the Patuxent Center, putting some of the top crane biologists on the case. Even though they couldn’t get her to accept a crane mate, they tried artificial insemination, but without her performing the crane courtship dances with a bird she’d forged a pair bond with, she could not ovulate—she physiologically needed  a mate who looked like one of the people who raised her. That’s what imprinting is: species that imprint become fixated on how the birds raising them look and move and vocalize, and that becomes their standard for what they need in a mate. The old song “I Want a Gal Just Like the Gal That Married Dear Old Dad” could have been written by an imprinted bird.  

Two young college graduates, George Archibald and Ron Sauey, started the International Crane Foundation (ICF) in 1973, their goal to help all 15 of the world’s crane species, some which were on the brink of extinction. They had no real track record, but when Archibald came up with an idea for getting an imprinted crane to breed by setting himself up as Tex’s mate and artificially inseminating her with crane semen, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, at their wits’ end, decided it was worth a try and transferred her to ICF just before cranes would be getting romantic before the spring of 1976. 

George set up a desk and cot alongside her enclosure and stayed with her pretty much 24-7 to establish a pair bond with her, including flapping his arms and jumping in as close an approximation of the Whooping Crane dance as a human being can muster. She took to him quickly. He recalled in an interview with Dianna Wray for a February 2020 article in Houstonia, “It was very easy, because nobody had ever paid attention to her before, since they were trying to get her to connect with one of the cranes. When I paid attention, she finally had her human.” 

Although Tex bonded with Archibald, not much happened that year, but in 1977, following the same protocol, Tex laid her first egg. Tragically, it was infertile. She was 10 years old—in the prime of life.

In 1978, again dancing with George who again artificially inseminated her, Tex laid another egg. This time it was fertile, but the chick within died just before hatching. In 1979, her egg had too soft a shell and broke. Year after year they tried, and failed, to help Tex produce a chick. Finally, in 1982, when she was 15, she again laid a fertile egg. 

Biologists swapped her own egg with a Sandhill Crane egg and they hatched her real egg in an incubator. It had a slightly wrinkled end that had to be moistened a lot to keep from dehydrating. And when the chick hatched, with human assistance, on June 1, the chick was small and wouldn’t eat. They had to feed it via a tube down its tiny throat to get food into its crop. With that, the little guy sprung to life. ICF staff named him “Gee Whiz,” partly because of their delight that Tex had finally succeeded but mostly after George Gee at Patuxent, who had done much of the leading research on captive cranes and was the scientist who collected the crane semen used for artificially inseminating Tex. 

This was such thrilling international news that George Archibald was invited to appear on The Tonight Show on June 23, when Gee Whiz was 3 weeks old. But late the night before his appearance, not long after he’d flown from Wisconsin to California, raccoons broke into the pens at ICF and killed Tex. I was close friends with Ron Sauey, co-founder of ICF, and that fall when he was invited to speak at Hawk Ridge, he stayed with Russ and me, so I got to hear first-hand just how devastated everyone was about it. 

Like his mother Tex as a chick, Gee Whiz needed a lot of tender loving care. Unlike his mother, he didn’t end up all that enamored of humans and was fiercely territorial regarding his enclosure and his mate—most of the crane handlers at ICF dreaded working with him because he knew just where to bite to inflict the most pain. He had a mate, Oobleck, but fathered over his long life a total of at least 178 Whooping Cranes—far more than one female could produce—thanks to artificial insemination projects. As of 2018, 9 of Gee Whiz’s offspring were still alive in captivity and 29 in the wild, some breeding in Wisconsin.

Gee Whiz died on February 24 at the ripe old age of 38. I suspect even the crane handlers are missing  him. 

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Chickadee Update

Black-capped Chickadees nesting in yard

Every month I provide a Zoom program for supporters of my podcast and blog. On May 1, I had a 15-minute “pre-game show” to bring people up to date on the chickadees that had been excavating a nest cavity and then building a nest in our dead cherry tree, and I delivered the sad news that they’d abandoned the cavity after a starling started examining it. I was brokenhearted. And I was wrong.  

Starling taking over

Chickadees are pretty conspicuous as they excavate. It’s time-consuming work that involves both the male and female hacking away into the tree pretty much constantly for days—my two chickadees were easy to watch as they hacked away at the interior and carried out wood chips from April 10 through the 22.  

Black-capped Chickadees nesting in yard

After that, I got a few glimpses of them carrying nesting material in, but activity at the nest was nowhere near as conspicuous as when they were excavating. And right when I was hardly ever seeing the birds near the nest, my trail cam caught a Hairy Woodpecker inspecting it the nest hole and then a starling sticking its head way, way in. And at that point I stopped seeing the chickadees visiting. I started assuming they had abandoned ship, and then my cam caught a couple of trips where one bird left the nest with what looked like pink fluffy nesting material. That seemed to confirm that they were giving up, scavenging nesting materials from their first nest to work on a second. But it’s not over till it’s over. On May 3, when I checked the cam photos and videos, I saw several shots of a bird leaving or entering the cavity, including one from that day at 2:10 pm which showed one chickadee leave the cavity, turn around at the entrance to peek in, and fly off; then a second bird left and followed it. Two chickadees aren’t supposed to be in the cavity together, but it’s possible the male went in to give the female a bit of food, and then she took a break to forage with him.  

Black-capped Chickadees nesting in yard

So apparently the chickadees really are nesting here. And there weren’t any more cam shots of a woodpecker or starling bothering them. So far I haven’t seen any cam photos or videos of a bird entering with food, but they’re coming and going very quickly, so their movement may be triggering the cam but they’re getting in or out in the split second before the first photo gets taken. 

The minimum number of days it’s supposed to take chickadees to build a nest is 2, so theoretically, this female could have finished construction as early as April 24, but usually it takes more like 4 or 5 days. If she laid the first egg on the 24th, she could have produced a large clutch by now, and incubation could be starting. But it’s more likely that she didn’t start laying until April 26th or 27th, and is still in the laying stage. That would explain why we haven’t seen the male enter the cavity with food yet. 

My chickadees seem to know and trust me—indeed, on May 4, I’d opened my double-hung window from the top for photos and left it open when I went to my desk. A chickadee must have arrived wanting mealworms while Evening Grosbeaks were filling the window feeder, so it flew to the top of the open window, the front half of its body in my office, and it chattered at me to fork over some mealworms, and stayed right there as I got the mealworm bucket. So I’m not too worried about scaring my chickadees, but I don’t want to press my luck or add to the stresses of nesting, so I’m only checking the cam photos every two or three days. I hope I can figure out from the cam pictures when they start incubating, and when the chicks hatch. Nesting is so exciting and lovely and magical, but a good outcome is far from guaranteed. I’m not too scared—at this point in May, it’s way more realistic to predict a happy outcome for a chickadee nesting season than, say, a Chicago Cubs’ baseball season. 

Evening Grosbeaks!

Evening Grosbeak 

When Russ moved into our house on Peabody Street in July 1981, even as we were carrying the first boxes into the house, I started my yard list with a Bald Eagle flying over and Evening Grosbeaks calling from our trees. Russ put up our first bird feeder later that day or the next, and soon we were going through at least 50 pounds of sunflower seeds every week, sometimes 100, almost all of it devoured by grosbeaks. Of course, it wasn’t the feeders that drew them to Peabody Street in the first place—they were already there. The reason they’d settled in our neighborhood was our boxelder trees—my own yard had three.   

One of the boxelders, right next to our house, looked decrepit enough that my mother-in-law took one look and said we needed to have that one taken down as soon as possible. Forty years later, we still haven’t quite gotten around to that. Over the years, chickadees and Red-breasted Nuthatches have nested in it, I don’t know how many baby squirrels have been born in it, and I’ve gotten many of my best photos of birds, ranging from Ruby-throated Hummingbirds to Pileated Woodpeckers, in that tree. 

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Pileated Woodpecker

Even as the branches continue to bud out every year, they’re increasingly covered with lichens, adding color and texture to the photos. The tree will eventually topple, with luck giving us enough warning that we can be a little proactive, but meanwhile it’s given us immeasurable pleasure. And it’s not only still standing—it’s still producing plenty of seeds every summer. When Evening Grosbeaks were abundant here, they spent a great deal of time in that tree.  

Evening Grosbeak in box elder tree

As much as I’ve always loved chickadees, if any bird defined our lives on Peabody Street back in the 80s and early 90s, it was Evening Grosbeaks. They vocalized almost constantly from sunrise until sunset, and when they weren’t at the feeders, were up in the trees, calling almost constantly. 

I grew up about a mile from O’Hare Airport, right under a flight path. When we were little, jet aircraft were rare, but by the time I was in fifth or sixth grade, not only were we dealing with frequent jets but also, for a few years, an occasional sonic boom. Without even thinking about it, we’d stop talking mid-sentence as a jet got loud and resume without missing a beat when it had passed over. The constant sound of Evening Grosbeaks wasn’t intrusive like that—we didn’t have to raise our voices or close the windows to listen to music or watch TV—it was simply and always there. If Evening Grosbeak calls were relentless, they were also pleasing in a way that urban noises are not.  

Evening Grosbeak calls were such a constant element in the soundtrack of our daily lives when we first lived in Duluth that we took them for granted. When their numbers dropped and then they disappeared, they left a gaping hole—a vacuum as noticeable and disturbing as if the string section suddenly vanished in the middle of a symphony.  

Evening Grosbeaks in my yard, May 18, 1982

Ten years ago, in August 2011, 15 or so years after the grosbeaks had pretty much disappeared, Russ had surgery. His first night home from the hospital was miserable, but first thing the next morning, we woke up to a wondrously soothing sound—Evening Grosbeaks! Sixteen individuals of I think three family units turned up in our yard and stuck around for several weeks. They pigged out at our feeders and spent a lot of time at our birdbaths and our neighbor’s little backyard pond, loafing around and getting most of their nutrition up in the boxelders. Birders from throughout the state came to see them—many had started birding when grosbeaks were rare here, a few flocks still visiting specific feeding stations at the Sax-Zim Bog and other wild places in winter, but hard to see, much less so easily enjoy, in summer. It felt wonderful to have them for a time, but one September day they moved on and never returned.  

Evening Grosbeak

Evening Grosbeak 

Last fall began what is called an “irruption,” and suddenly people in many parts of the country were seeing Evening Grosbeaks. Not me—I had just one or two flyovers in the fall, and that was that. Russ and I went to the Sax-Zim Bog to see them this winter. Then, on April 7, one showed up in my yard and I saw two for the next two days, but they moved on. Then on April 23, my friend Dudley Edmondson, who lives a few blocks west of me, told me he’d been seeing a large flock of Evening Grosbeaks in his part of the neighborhood for a week. I’d not seen any, and my morning recordings hadn’t picked up any—I was bummed out!   

Evening Grosbeak

But two days later, a dozen showed up in my yard, on the 27th I had an amazing 250, most flying over, and my yard hosted at least 50 every day since then. Early yesterday morning, May 3, 100 Evening Grosbeaks filled my trees and feeders and bird baths. I’d started making a morning sound recording at exactly 4:59, and the first one called at exactly 5:52—the sound grew to an amazing cacophony. But it may have been their last hurrah. By 9 am, the vast majority of them had vanished. Only a handful spent any time in my feeders after 9, and though I could still hear a few up in the trees, even that sound dwindled to nothing by late afternoon. I’d gotten used to seeing them in the feeders before dusk, but not one showed up. Erik Bruhnke told me he saw 80–90 moving over the Superior Hiking Trail near the Hawk Ridge main overlook about 12:30. Grosbeaks were on the move.  

Evening Grosbeak

Some people believe that the huge numbers we enjoyed in the 80s weren’t the norm. They think the birds appeared in numbers during an exceptional invasion year in the 70s and stuck around until the late 80s or early 90s. This year was also an exceptional invasion year. If those ornithologists’ speculations are right, it’s possible Evening Grosbeaks will be easier to find in northern Minnesota in the coming years. Time will tell. 

That line, “don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone” was true for the Evening Grosbeaks here long ago. However long they stay this time—or even if they’ve already moved on—I’m thrilled that a sound so mingled with my children’s early days is now part of the soundtrack for my baby grandson. This time around there’s no taking them for granted. I’ve made at least 15 hours of recordings of them, some published on the Evening Grosbeak page on my website. Even as I’m looking forward to orioles and wrens and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and Brown Thrashers joining in the dawn chorus in the coming days, I’ll be treasuring the memory of these Evening Grosbeaks, and my recordings of them, for the rest of my life. 

Evening Grosbeak

P.S. After I wrote this and recorded the corresponding podcast, I took off my headphones and WHOA! They're back, at least as of 6:30 May 4!

Monday, May 3, 2021

The Miracles of May

Baltimore Oriole

Of all the months of the year, May is my favorite. From start to finish, May is filled with newness—baby birds of many non-migrating species hatch in May, and new migrating birds arrive every day. I saw many of my all-time favorite birds for the very first time in May 1975, starting with my first May lifer of all, the Red-headed Woodpecker. As the month progressed, I added lots of new birds, with Brown Thrasher, Baltimore Oriole, Gray Catbird, and Veery standing out, along with my first warblers ever.   

Red-headed Woodpecker

The miracle of May is that all these splendid migrants are as predictable as the tides, yet every year, that first oriole, that first hummingbird, that first Brown Thrasher, that first warbler—every one of them seems as wonderful and exciting as it did way back when I saw them the very first time. How can anything so regular, ordinary, routine, normal be so wondrous—so literally awesome?  It’s a miracle.  

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

This year I’m about as well-prepared for May as I’ve ever been. I haven’t set my hummingbird feeders out yet, but they’re clean and ready. Some people have been posting sad photos of dead hummingbirds with their tongues sticking out to remind people to keep their feeders clean and to offer nothing except granulated sugar and water. Using honey or raw sugar is not good for hummers—bacteria or fungi grow more quickly using those—and red food dyes are harmful, too. Any commercial hummingbird nectar that is red is bad for them—it’s cheaper for us and healthier for the birds to use table sugar.   

As a general rule, use ¼ cup of sugar per cup of water. During cold, wet conditions, you can make it a little stronger, up to about 1/3 cup of sugar per cup of water. Those are both within the range of the normal concentration of sugars in flower nectar. Don’t make sugar water stronger than that—hummingbirds need enough water to metabolize the sugar in their diets. A third of a cup of sugar per cup of water is plenty.  

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

If you make large batches, it’s not a bad idea to boil the water, but it’s normally unnecessary. Just don’t let sugar water sit for a few days before using unless you refrigerate it. That’s to keep it from starting the fermentation process. When you buy hummingbird feeders, the most important feature to look for is that they’re easy to clean. You can wash them in the dishwasher or using liquid dish detergent, but always make sure you rinse them very thoroughly.   

Ruby-throated Hummingbird female

It’s wiser to use several small hummingbird feeders than a single large one—they don’t like to share, so will get the most benefit from your feeders if they don’t spend most of their time chasing or being chased by other hummingbirds.  

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

And make sure you keep the feeders clean. During cold weather, they can stay out for three or four days, but during hot weather make sure you're rinsing them out with hot water and changing the water every day or two. If the water gets cloudy, you’ve waited too long. And scrub any scum from the crevices of the feeder with a bottle brush with every cleaning.   

Ruby-throated Hummingbird sticking out her tongue.

All that said, those internet memes showing photos of dead hummingbirds are almost certainly not showing birds that died from poor feeder practices. Birds’ tongues often stick out when they die, especially when they collide with a window or other structure. And hummingbirds spend a lot of their loafing time sticking their tongues in and out to keep them from getting sticky, whether they're eating natural nectar or sugar water. Using a dramatic photo in a misleading way does not strengthen one’s case.  

Brown Thrasher

A couple days ago, I put out one small oriole feeder for my first Brown Thrashers—I haven’t seen or heard any yet, but I want my first arrival to feel welcome. If you set out grape jelly for birds, make sure to only set out small plops at a time. It’s much better to use jelly with real sugar rather than high fructose corn syrup, and never ever use one with any artificial sweeteners. Oranges and grapes are much more nutritious than jelly, so make sure you offer some of those, too.   

Baltimore Oriole at jelly

The next two weeks will see wondrous changes at our bird feeders. It takes a bit of work to welcome our birds back during their long journey from the tropics, but it’s worth it. It’s May! 

Baltimore Oriole

Friday, April 30, 2021

Saw-whet Owls and Chickadees

Northern Saw-whet Owl

Last Tuesday afternoon, a great guy named Tom sent me an email letting me know that he had a saw-whet owl in his yard. The bird had been there all day, sometimes perched in trees but usually on a gutter drainpipe. Tom sent a funny photo he took with his cell phone of the owl being scolded by a chickadee.  

Russ and I headed right over and I got photos and a little video. The owl wasn’t doing much and for that moment, chickadees weren't about, but I love the video, with 44 seconds of just watching it breathing and blinking. Tom later told me that the owl had flown off about 8 pm, but returned the next day. I was thrilled to get to see the little guy.  

44 Seconds of Owl Zen

Last fall, I got a message from my friend Amber, across the street, that a Saw-whet was in their yard that very moment. It was late in the day, so rather dusky, but I grabbed my camera and took a bazillion photos.  

Northern Saw-whet Owl

Northern Saw-whet Owl

Northern Saw-whet Owl

Amber had found that guy by their shed all on her own, but many, and perhaps most, roosting saw-whets are discovered thanks to swearing chickadees, who give the owl a piece of their minds while staying safely out of range and above those lethal talons.  

When people get into a discussion about the “cutest” birds, chickadees and Saw-whet Owls are invariably mentioned. As a mammalian species that bears helpless, very high-maintenance young, our human eyes see almost all plump, big-headed, fluffy creatures as adorable and helpless despite reality. What lies beneath the saw-whet’s fluffy feathers is a self-sufficient hunter, fierce and unpitying when it comes to chickadees and other tiny, fluffy prey.   

Northern Saw-whet Owl with mouse
This Saw-whet is sitting on a mouse, keeping it thawed. You can see the mouse's feet.

And chickadees are equally merciless when it comes to their prey species. I made a video just last week of a chickadee  heartlessly tearing into a live mealworm. 

Black-capped Chickadee eating a live mealworm.

Chickadee flocks may be welcoming and inclusive toward small songbirds and woodpeckers, but they’re ruthlessly intolerant toward those cute, fluffy saw-whets. Over the years dozens—probably at least a hundred—parents have brought their toddlers up to me to have those innocent little children tell me what a chickadee says. Our ears hear their scolding call as adorable chickadee-dee-dee notes, and parents would be horrified to realize that a literal translation could have come out of the mouth of Samuel L. Jackson in a Quentin Tarantino movie.   

Ornithologists are fascinated by both chickadees and saw-whet owls, and so both species have been subjects of long-term banding and tracking studies. Chickadees are sedentary enough to be easy to track in a single location. Scientists at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology have put RFID chips on lots of chickadees making it easy to keep track of every time those individuals enter a feeder or nest box. Virtually all of the chickadee’s day-to-day, season-to-season, and year-to-year activities have been scrutinized thanks to how easy they are to track.   

Black-capped Chickadee showing color band and transponder

Black-capped Chickadee detail

Saw-whets are far, far trickier. Thousands are banded over the continent each autumn, and with so many banding operations, quite a few are recaptured at later dates, giving us glimpses into their migratory movements. One female Saw-whet Owl banded at Hawk Ridge here in Duluth, Minnesota (which just happens to be in St. Louis County), on October 14, 2014, was re-trapped by banders at the World Bird Sanctuary in Valley Park, near St. Louis, Missouri, on November 7, 2017, three years later. The St. Louis banders nicknamed the bird Frankie after the granddaughter of one of the banders even before they learned that she had originally been banded by Duluth’s Frank Nicoletti. It’s amusing to think about one little saw-whet moving between two different St. Louis Counties and stitching a Frank connection between them, too.   

"Frankie," the St. Louis County Missouri Saw-whet. Photo copyright 2017 by Pat Lueders

All those little glimpses of Saw-whet Owls from banders focus on their migratory habits, not their day-to-day lives. We know more about their hunting habits from examination of pellets than from direct observation. Their nesting and breeding behaviors have been studied, but in nowhere near in the detail afforded by the diurnal, much more cooperative chickadee. And much of what we know about saw-whet roosting behaviors is made possible thanks to swearing chickadees— an excellent example of the value and utility of naughty words.  

Black-capped Chickadee