Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Sunday, January 16, 2022

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Forty years ago, on December 20, 1981, the morning after the Duluth Christmas Bird Count, I was watching my feeders as I ate breakfast when what to my wondering eyes should appear but a Red-bellied Woodpecker. In The Birds of Minnesota, T.S. Roberts reported that Red-bellied Woodpeckers had first appeared in Minnesota in the early 1900s, and were breeding as far north and west as the Twin Cities by the 1930s. But 50 years after that, they were still a hotline bird in Duluth. Our phone was in the dining room so I could watch the bird as I dialed Kim Eckert. I said right that moment there was a Red-bellied Woodpecker at my fee— and heard a click. He was at my house 5 or 6 minutes later, but the bird had flown and neither of us saw it again. 

Red-bellied Woodpecker

In my first years of birding here in the Upper Midwest, Red-bellieds were much harder to see than the closely related Red-headed Woodpecker. I saw my first Red-headed on May 3, 1975, when I had just started birding. It was #20 on my life list, and I saw it regularly throughout that spring and summer, in many places. 

Red-headed Woodpecker

It took two more months, until July 3, for me to see my first Red-bellied Woodpecker, on a field ornithology class field trip. That was #80 on my life list, and for the next few years, while we lived in both Lansing and then Madison, Wisconsin, I saw Red-headed Woodpeckers much more often than Red-bellieds. 

Red-headed Woodpecker

Now the tables have turned. Red-bellieds are thriving as well as expanding their range. According to Breeding Bird Survey data, their population has increased about 1 percent each year from 1966 to 2015. 

Red-bellied Woodpecker numbers in the U.S. from 1966-2015

Meanwhile, the same survey data from the same time period show that Red-headed Woodpeckers have declined by over 2 percent nationwide per year in the same time period, leading to a cumulative decline of 70 percent. The decline has been even more precipitous in Minnesota.

Red-headed Woodpecker numbers in Minnesota from 1967-2015

It took time for Red-bellied Woodpeckers to become regular and then common in northern Minnesota. It wasn’t until the 1990s that I saw another in my own yard even as there were more and more reports in West Duluth. Then, in May 2002, a female turned up at my feeder every day for a week. The following March, she or another female showed up again and stuck around for two months. I named her Amanda.  

Amanda! I kept my mealworms in buckets of oatmeal. 

Whenever Amanda showed up at my window feeder, she’d gobble down 50 or more mealworms in a sitting, going through about five dollars’ worth every day. I was buying 20,000 mealworms at a time by mail-order—I ran out three times while Amanda was here. When she left in mid-May, even at a time when robins were taking plenty for themselves and their nestlings, the mealworms started lasting a lot longer again.

Soon Red-bellied Woodpeckers were regular year-round, especially in West Duluth. Mike Hendrickson and I, and probably a bunch of other birders, started reporting fledglings hanging out with adults, which meant they were definitely nesting around here. And then in 2016, I hit the jackpot. A pair nested right in my own box elder tree, fledging at least one baby—that was the first confirmed nest in St. Louis County. 

Nesting Red-bellied Woodpeckers

Hello, world!

Red-bellied and Red-headed Woodpeckers belong to the genus Melanerpes, along with the Golden-fronted Woodpecker of Texas...

Golden-fronted Woodpecker

...the Gila Woodpecker of the Southwest...

Gila Woodpecker

...Lewis’s and Acorn Woodpeckers of the West...

Lewis's Woodpecker

Acorn Woodpecker

...and a dozen or so tropical species. Many Red-bellieds have a tinge of red on their bellies, but it’s fair to say that the species is rather poorly named—even those that do have the feature usually keep it hidden against tree trunks. 

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Oddly enough, Mark Catesby, the British naturalist who collected, illustrated, and named the bird on a trip to America between 1722 and 1726, drew it from the back, with that so-called red belly completely hidden. 

Catesby’s book, The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands, published between 1729 and 1732, was the first published account of the species, so that was what Linnaeus used in 1778 when he assigned the bird its scientific name, Picus carolinus. (Picus, the genus into which he placed all woodpeckers, was named for Picus, a figure in Roman mythology who was transformed into a woodpecker by a witch named Circe.) 

Picus and Circe, by Luca Giordano

The first American Ornithologists’ Union Checklist of American Birds in 1886 credited Linnaeus for the bird's original scientific name, but Catesby's original published account, used by Linnaeus, was the basis for the bird’s English name, which is still in use. 

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Like other woodpeckers, Red-bellieds eat a lot of insects, but also feed on plenty of acorns, nuts, seeds, and fruits. They are also known to eat lizards, nestling birds of other species, and even minnows. They’ve come to my feeders for peanuts, sometimes other bird seeds, suet, and those delectable if expensive mealworms. I’ve also seen them eating fruits in neighborhood buckthorns and Russ’s cherry trees. 

Red-bellied Woodpecker in Russ's cherry tree

This fall, both a male and a female were hanging out in my neighborhood, but oddly enough, whichever turned up first thing in the morning would be the only one I’d see all that day. But ever since the end of December, the female has been the only one I see, almost every day. This winter I’ve been plagued with starlings, which I don't want to subsidize, so whenever I’m at my desk and notice one in the tray feeder on my office window, I wave my hand and it flies off. The Red-bellied Woodpecker is far less skittish. She’s figured out that when I wave, the starlings fly off and she can eat in peace. 

Red-bellied Woodpecker

I still feel a thrill when I see her, and a bigger thrill when her eyes meet mine through the window. At one point I was thrilled whenever I saw a Red-bellied Woodpecker because they were so hard to come by. Now I'm thrilled because they're not. 

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Ivory Gull in Duluth, 2022

Ivory Gull 

On January 3, a birder named Sam Holcomb photographed an immature Ivory Gull at Park Point in Duluth—far and away the rarest bird to turn up here so far in 2022. When the word got out, birders were drawn to Canal Park and Park Point like iron filings to a magnet. I tried “chasing” it three times without luck, starting the morning after the original sighting. On January 9, Kim Eckert reported it near the ice fishing shacks on the bay side of the Park Point recreation area. I got the message and headed out a few hours later, but almost all the fishing shacks had been brought in. I hiked along the shore quite a way and thoroughly scanned the sky and ice, but didn't see anything more than Herring Gulls and Bald Eagles. On Wednesday the 12th, birders spotted it in Canal Park just before dark, so I went there at first light on the 13th and stuck around for over an hour, scanning every gull on the ice and flying about, but again no luck. As of Saturday the 15th, the sighting on Wednesday was the last, so I apparently won’t be adding that rarity to my 2022 list. 

I don’t have the fire in my belly anymore to spend much effort trying to see birds I’ve already seen in the state and county. Oddly enough, I was way more acquisitive about the Chukars that turned up in my neighborhood last summer. They’d clearly escaped from a game farm or other captive situation and weren’t “countable” on any birding lists, but I badly wanted to see and photograph them. 


Back in 2015, when an Ivory Gull was spending time in Quincy, Illinois, I went all the way down there with a birding friend, Tony Lau. We got skunked, which was disappointing because that bird would have been a lifer. But I was almost as happy to see a Eurasian Tree Sparrow. I'd seen plenty of them in St. Louis before that, but this was new for my Illinois list. I have much more of an affinity for songbirds—even non-native species—than I do for gulls. 

Eurasian Tree Sparrow

The very next year, a very-easy-to-see Ivory Gull turned up in Duluth. I saw that 2016 bird multiple times without any trouble at all starting on New Year’s Day. 

Ivory Gull in Duluth!

Then, in the evening on January 5, I received an email with a photo of the scattered, mangled pieces of an immature Ivory Gull—apparently torn apart by a predator or scavenger—found late that afternoon in Superior. First thing the next morning I retrieved the carcass—that poor thing ended up at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, where scientists preserved the parts and retrieved both a louse and a mite, parasites that are very hard to come by on this species, making the specimen particularly valuable for science. 

Dead Ivory Gull at Connor's Point in Superior

Erik Bruhnke had come along with me to get the carcass, and on our way back to Duluth, he got several text messages saying the Ivory Gull was very much alive, being observed at Canal Park right that very moment. Incredibly, there hadn’t been just one of this rare gull in the harbor area—there’d been two! Right when we got to Canal Park and I was looking straight at the live one, Sam Cook from the Duluth News Tribune phoned, asking me about it. He quoted me in the article he wrote, leading to the one and only meme I've ever been featured in. 

Sadly, that most cooperative bird appeared to be in distress on January 23, and seemed even worse on the 24th. Rehabbers from Duluth’s Wildwoods tried to capture it, but it eluded them, and after that day, it was never seen again. 

Ivory Gull in Duluth!

Ivory Gulls do not belong in Duluth, or Quincy, Illinois, or anywhere else in the Lower 48. The first specimen described for science was collected on a 1773 expedition to the North Pole. The species breeds in the high Arctic and has a circumpolar distribution through Greenland and northernmost North America  and Eurasia. It hasn’t been observed at the North Pole but has been seen as far north as 88°N, about 130 miles from the North Pole, which is a shorter distance than between Duluth and the Twin Cities. The vast majority of the species breeds along the Arctic coastline in Russia. The Canadian population is declining horribly—about 80 percent between 1980 and the early 2000s; much less data is available about the Russian population. The decline in sea ice is a major cause of the species’ disappearance, along with illegal hunting. 

The sad fate of both the 2016 Duluth Ivory Gulls may be the normal outcome of the poor individuals, mostly immatures, who wander so far out of their natural range. An individual Ross’s Gull, another far-northern species, turned up at the mouth of the St. Croix River this past November 27, allowing birders in both Wisconsin and Minnesota to see it, before it died on November 30. That’s another reason I wasn’t all that fired up to chase this year’s Ivory Gull. I can look out my window to see my day-to-day Pileated Woodpeckers, Red-bellied Woodpecker, and chickadees with some assurance that they’ll make it through the winter in excellent health. 

Black-capped Chickadee

Virtually every individual bird on my life list is dead by now, of course, but a few died within days, or even hours, of my seeing them. My lifer Barn Owl, on the grounds of the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, died a few days after Russ and I saw it on December 23, 1978, and the only one I’ve ever seen in Minnesota, up in the bog on January 12, 2020, died just a few hours after Russ and I saw it. 

Barn Owl

Day by day, the Chukars in my neighborhood dwindled from a fairly sizable covey to none—probably serving as delicious meals for the neighborhood foxes.


But some of the birds that wander far from their normal range have a much better prognosis. People used to think that the Snowy Owls that came down to the Lower-48 in winter left the Arctic because they were starving, and that few ever made it back. But banding studies, some done right here in Duluth, established that quite a few individuals return year after year, and that many of them are in excellent health with plenty of meat on their bones. 

Snowy Owl

We also know that individuals of another western species, the Rufous Hummingbird, spend entire winters in the east as far north as Ohio, Pennsylvania, and even Massachusetts, and some return in subsequent years. 

Rufous Hummingbird

Some birds that escape captivity end up thriving and establishing whole new populations, such as the Monk Parakeets in Chicago and New York City, many species of parrots in Florida, Texas, and California, and House Finches in eastern states.

Monk Parakeet

So vagrancy, irregular migratory habits, and even escaping from captivity aren’t always an indication that what we think of as an out-of-range bird is in trouble. When I was a rehabber, quite a few birds I expected to die turned out to be pluckier and more resilient than I expected. 

Katie and Pine Siskin
This little Pine Siskin had been attacked by a cat, with deep puncture wounds beneath both wings. Somehow it recovered, flew off, and the next year when Katie was out on her tricycle, it flew right back to its familiar little girl.  

When they disappear, birds never send text messages to let us know how they are. There are so few records of Ivory Gulls in the Lower-48 that we really don’t have enough data to work out probabilities, and who among us has never tried, and occasionally succeeded, to beat the odds? Hope is indeed the thing with feathers that perches in the soul, so unless I find out differently, I’ll cling to the hope that the Ivory Gull who started out 2022 in Duluth is doing just fine wherever it may be.

Ivory Gull

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Our Far-Flung Correspondents: Questions about Winter Birds

Gray Jay

Several listeners have sent me emails this week about backyard birds. John Siegworth writes from Wisconsin:

I have listened to your "For the Birds" show on WXPR for many years. I wondered if you could answer a question? We own a cabin in northern Wisconsin (Vilas county) and for years we have observed Canada Jays, primarily during the fall and winter months. They would frequently visit our suet feeders and would even take small slices of fruit/nut breads that we'd place on the deck railing.  They sure were fun birds to watch!

Over the last few years these birds seem to have disappeared. In fact, I'd say it's been at least five years since our last sighting of a Canada Jay. Our fellow birding friends have also not observed these birds over this period of time. I'm wondering if our lack of sightings is consistent with other birders, or maybe we're just missing them?  I've also wondered whether or not climate change might be contributing to what we're experiencing with these birds.

This is a great question with a very depressing answer. The harmful effects of climate change are gradual for most birds. As insect populations change and as birches and other trees and plants adapted for very cold weather die off and are replaced, little by little, by plants better adapted to warmer weather, the changing food composition and habitat help some birds and hurt others. 

Canada Jays are one species that is hurt more directly by changing temperatures, most noticeably and urgently in the southern portion of their range. These birds start breeding in mid- to late winter, relying on food that the pairs cached from late fall through winter, including a lot of meat. The birds' saliva has some preservative value, but during warm spells when the jays' stores of meat thaw, they start spoiling in a process scientists call "hoard rot." (The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has an interesting article about this.) Anyone who has gone on a trip and come home to a freezer full of rotten food after a power outage knows how bad this can be. Even a fairly short warm spell with temperatures in the upper 30s can start the process, and the more warm days we have after that, the faster and worse the spoilage becomes. Even very rotten meat doesn't smell when frozen, and most birds don't have a very well developed sense of smell, so the poor birds don't even realize how bad the food is that they're feeding their chicks and eating themselves. Christmas Bird Count data show the population in Wisconsin significantly declining since about 1990. It's heartbreaking. 

Gray Jay

After several days of serious below-zero temperatures, I got an email from John Latimer, KAXE's naturalist extraordinaire, asking: 

Laura, we put out a water bowl for the birds this past week, and so far the only bird I've seen use it has been a female pine grosbeak. Where do the Blue Jays and chickadees, nuthatches, and woodpeckers get their water in the winter?

Birds are much better at conserving water than mammals, so don't need as much water as we do in winter. They don't perspire, and their lungs aren't at all like ours, which have moist dead-end chambers called alveoli that make our exhalations moist. Birds don't exhale much water at all—that's why it's so hard to see even a bit of steam coming from their nostrils or beaks, or any ice build-up on the feathers surrounding their nostrils. Of course, they DO need some water, but they mainly get that from snow or dripping icicles. When I had a Rufous Hummingbird coming in November and early December this year, I kept the "moat" on my hummingbird feeder filled with plain water, and my chickadees seemed to drink a lot from that. Meanwhile, on two snowy days, I watched the hummingbird snap up snowflakes out of mid-air! (I didn't get any photos of that.)

Black-capped Chickadee

On the coldest days, birds need calories as fuel much more than water, and during severe cold, birds stay focused on food all day. When temps are a bit milder, they spend more time exploring to ensure that they'll have good sources of food in the next cold spell, and that's when they are most likely to first notice new water sources. (I talked to John Latimer about this on air at KAXE on January 11.) 

Pine Grosbeak

My friend Kathleen Preece wrote: 

I so loved your mention of pine grosbeaks this morning on KAXE. For the first time in my bird feeding endeavors, I have a flock of those beautiful birds coming regularly.

It was kind of a ‘mistake’ . . . I had an old garbage pail I had turned upside down to get rid of the snow that had accumulated in it. I happened to sprinkle a few seeds on it, and soon noticed a grosbeak. The rest is history! Each morning a flock of around 35 grosbeaks, both the ’soft' olive/gray females, and beautifully red males fly back and forth from a large aspen most of the morning. They return in the evening for another feeding.

I answered that it’s funny how a garbage pail bottom looks pretty much like a platform feeder—at least enough for Pine Grosbeaks and a few other birds to check it out! They are much more likely to go to flat, open feeders than any other kind. Some birds with decided preferences for flat platforms will go to other feeders if that's the best they can do, but both Pine and Evening Grosbeaks, and some cardinals, much prefer flat feeders. Our species is doing plenty to hurt birds. It's important for us as individuals to do what we can to reduce our impact on climate change, but it's also nice to know we can do some specific nice things that will directly help the individual birds that give us so much pleasure. 

Pine Grosbeak

Sunday, January 9, 2022

Pine Grosbeak

Pine Grosbeak

A few weeks ago, I created a list of my favorite birds of all time. A 12-way tie for 5th place put 16 species in the Top Ten. I knew I’d reconsider even as I was making the list, and sure enough, it did not take long to bump another into what now is a 13-way tie for 5th place. That happened the moment I saw a Pine Grosbeak at the Sax-Zim Bog on Sunday.  

Pine Grosbeak

Part of the reason the Pine Grosbeak is a favorite is how extraordinary my very first sighting was, in December 1977 as I walked from Russ's and my apartment toward Picnic Point, my favorite birding spot in Madison, Wisconsin. I was hearing an unfamiliar pretty, warbled whistle and started whistling back. The sound seemed to be coming toward me faster than I was walking toward it, and when I reached the woodsy shoreline around University Bay, I saw a lovely robin-sized, grayish bird with soft bronzy crown and rump fly into a bare branch up ahead, looking directly at me as I whistled. It stayed in the branch as I walked to the edge of the trees.  

Pine Grosbeak

I have no idea what impulse led me to take off my glove and raise my hand, but the bird apparently was moved by a similar inexplicable impulse and instantly flew right to me, alighting on my finger! It was too magical a moment to quantify—I don't know whether the bird remained there for 5 seconds or 5 minutes. When it finally flew back into the trees, it stayed close, moseying along companionably as I walked toward the Picnic Point entrance. I figured, as a fairly novice birder, that this bird, belonging to a very sociable species, was lonely, preferring even an inappropriate companion to being left alone. As I became more familiar with the literature, I read in all kinds of species profiles that among the defining characteristics of Pine Grosbeaks are their approachability and tameness. 

Pine Grosbeak

Over my lifetime of birding, other lifers have alighted on my hand. When my sister-in-law Jean and I took a trip out west in 1979, my very first Canada Jay landed on my hand and head at our camping site. I’d already seen Steller’s Jay, Clark’s Nutcracker, and Pygmy Nuthatch in Colorado that same year, and on my trip with Jean, those still fairly new-to-me birds also alighted on my hand. But these species were notorious for mooching at campsites back when it was still legal to hand out peanuts to them, and they all made sure I was holding food before they approached. For them, I wasn’t a companion—I was a mobile bird feeder.

I’m sure my lifer Florida Scrub-Jay—seen in April 1999 and #600 on my life list—would have alighted on my hand had I offered it peanuts, a practice still legal at the time at Lake Kissimmee State Park, as it was in 2006 when they delighted our whole family. 

Florida Scrub-Jays and Joe

In 2005, my lifer Island Scrub-Jay alighted on my hand. That was during a post-convention field trip following an American Ornithologists’ Union meeting. Scientists at the research station we visited on Santa Cruz Island, one of the Channel Islands off California, were regularly feeding them and handed out peanuts for us to give them.  


Plenty of other approachable birds have alighted on my hand for food—chickadees, of course, but also Tufted Titmice, Red- and White-breasted Nuthatches, Pine Siskins, and probably one or two more, but none except chickadees were cooperative enough to provide photo-ops. 

Black-capped Chickadee selecting just the right mealworm

During the time we lived in Madison, both species of kinglets also alighted on my finger, but in those cases, the birds were manically searching for food on frigid mornings in early migration. I don’t think they even realized I was a living being—just a thick bit of substrate in a tangle of shrubs. 

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

To this day, that Pine Grosbeak remains unique—the only bird ever to alight on my hand with intention, making eye contact, without any expectation of food or any other tangible reward. 

Pine Grosbeak

That magical moment provided a spark for my love affair with this pretty bird, but even without it, the bird’s beauty and hardiness make it special. Over much of their North American range, adult males are carmine red bordering on deep pink, the color especially intense on their crown and rump. That lovely color is set off to perfection by their white wingbars, sometimes tinged with pink, white-and-pinkish edging on dark gray flight feathers, beautifully patterned back with gray chevrons scattered on a pink background, and soft gray undertail coverts and lower belly feathers. When fluffed up against the cold, soft gray insulating down feathers often peek through the pink here and there. And the dark eyes are bordered with black, giving them an exotic Elizabeth Taylor eye-liner effect. 

Young males and all females have the bronzy or yellowish head and rump that my lifer did, a color combination that may not be as arresting as the adult male’s plumage yet has a soft loveliness of its own. 

Pine Grosbeak

But prettiness isn’t the primary factor I use in selecting favorite birds—Indeed, I may consider the Cuban Tody to be the most adorable bird in the known universe, but it isn’t in my Top Ten. I got to see it several times when I went to Cuba in 2016, and the anticipation did not exceed the actual event, but looking at even a gorgeous bird for at most a few minutes at a time with a birding group is just not the same as spending time alone watching and even interacting with it. (That's why I'd love to go back to Cuba to spend a week or more pretty much on my own in tody habitat.)

Cuban Tody!!

When I look over the 17 species that did make my list, every one of them includes individuals I’ve made eye contact with, and 11 are birds I’ve held in my own hands, mostly when I was a rehabber. I did rehab a couple of Pine Grosbeaks way back when—people brought them to me after the birds had struck windows. When a window-struck bird is calm and easy, it's usually a sign of a concussion or other serious head injury. But Pine Grosbeaks can have no head injury at all and be easy to handle—like waxwings, they seem to thrive on company, and even a mere human can serve in a pinch. 

St. James student with Cedar Waxwing
This Cedar Waxwing, with a minor wing sprain, stayed in my classroom for a few days when I was teaching in Madison, Wisconsin. Like some Pine Grosbeaks, it seemed to thrive with us serving as its flock. But when we released it in a park where other waxwings are feeding, it instantly joined them and didn't look back. 

Pine Grosbeaks breed in northern Maine and across a wide swath of Canada and Alaska, and down the western mountains. I recorded them singing in the Sierra Nevadas when I took the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s sound-recording workshop in June 2001

Pine Grosbeaks are year-round residents throughout their breeding range, but they’re found here in the Midwest only in winter. Many work their way south every year—some years more than others, and in "irruption years" they wander further south than the range map indicates. In my early birding years, I saw them in the Chicago area as well as southern Wisconsin. 

I still see Pine Grosbeaks just about every year in the Sax-Zim Bog, and used to see them yearly in my own yard in Duluth. Now I'm lucky to notice a quick flyover—I haven't seen a single one at my feeders in more than a decade until just last month. In late December, a flock of 30 appeared at two of my platform feeders and on the ground beneath for a brief and shining moment. Since then, I’ve had brief visits of 1–3 several times. 

Pine Grosbeak

The decline of Pine Grosbeaks in my yard is just one data point, but a combination of data from the Breeding Bird Survey and Christmas Bird Count indicates that populations in North America experienced a large and statistically significant decrease from 1965–2004—an overall decline of 27.6 percent per decade or 72.5 percent over the 40-year time period. 

Pine Grosbeaks are suffering declining habitat where cutting down boreal forests—for paper, wood pulp, and Canada’s tar-sands oil industry—has decimated huge swaths of northern forest habitat. Deforestation is a major contributor to atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, so three things we can do in our personal lives that will help the grosbeaks—saving energy, using recycled paper (especially toilet paper), and avoiding wood fiber products—are also important for reducing our contributions to climate change. 

One would think we humans would be happy to make such minor modifications to our lifestyles to protect our own futures as well as Pine Grosbeaks and other birds. Unfortunately, I'm afraid, one would be wrong.

Pine Grosbeak