Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Friday, May 29, 2020

Migration Update: End of May

Baltimore Oriole

Never before, in my 45 years of birding, have I spent an entire spring migration not going to a single place more than a block from my own backyard, and during the month of May, I didn’t leave my house and yard at all. There were days when this did feel disappointing—in the past week, there have been a couple of major fallouts on Park Point and Wisconsin Point, and I’d have loved to be there photographing two dozen species of warblers at close range. My friends who have been going out birding have for the most part been following the rules of social distancing and being perfectly safe, but I’m considered high risk on two counts, and I’m living with two other high risk individuals right now, so can’t afford to take ANY risks. That’s my choice, and despite the disappointment, I’m still having a wonderful time as May comes to a close.   

Thanks to home deliveries by Duluth’s Wild Birds Unlimited, I’ve set out two new oriole feeders this year that each offer a three-course meal of oranges, grape jelly, and sugar water. I already had one feeder that offered grape jelly and oranges, and I always set orange halves on my platform feeder. I don’t know how much is due to the feeders and how much to the concentrated migration, but this year has been one of my very best ever for attracting orioles, who have been taking all three offerings. Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Gray Catbirds, and Brown Thrashers are also taking oranges and jelly at these feeders as well as visiting my suet feeders.  

People have once again been chiming in about why we should or should never offer jelly at our feeders. I try to choose brands that don’t use high-fructose corn sweetener, but when I hear people say that birds can become addicted to sugar as small children do, I want to shake some sense into them. Unlike people of any age, birds that are specifically adapted to feed on fruit and especially nectar NEED simple carbohydrates. Sucrose—the form found in table sugar—is perfectly nutritional.  

Migratory birds are adaptable, sampling a variety of unfamiliar foods wherever they find themselves, and they quickly shun foods that have deleterious effects. What odd kind of arrogant paternalism compares dependent human toddlers to adult creatures capable of doing so many things we humans couldn’t possibly succeed at, such as navigating and flying on their own power between the United States and Central or South America?   

Baltimore Oriole

The caveats to pay attention to when offering sugar are 1) offer it in small enough plops that tiny birds cannot become mired in it; and 2) stop offering it if orioles or other birds start bringing their chicks to it more than a couple of times a day—growing young need a higher balance of protein than carbs. Also, do make sure to offer water, especially during dry weather, because birds need plenty of water to metabolize sugar. That’s also why the standard recipe for hummingbird sugar water is a quarter cup of sugar per cup of water. I up that to a third cup of sugar during cold, wet periods, but during dry, hot spells I make it even more dilute—just a scant quarter cup or even a fifth of a cup of sugar per cup of water.   

Several hummingbirds are coming to the sugar water at the oriole feeders, as well as at the hummingbird feeders. I’m not sure if any of the orioles visiting my yard right now will stick around to breed, but I’ve been watching one male hummingbird do his swooping display right above our raspberry patch. This year I may actually try to find a nesting female and get photos.  

I’ve read at least a dozen news stories from all over about people taking up birding this spring specifically because of the pandemic. One guy, former Apple and NASA engineer Mark Rober, started watching birds but then got annoyed with the squirrels taking over his feeders. So being an engineer (the one famous for setting the glitter bomb against package thieves), he set up an amazing obstacle course. If you haven’t seen his brilliant and hilarious 20-minute YouTube video, it is very worth checking out. Meanwhile, whether you’re safely getting out to lovely birding places or hunkering down at home, stay safe and well, dear listener.  

Baltimore Oriole

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Piping Plovers Having a Banner Year

Piping Plover

Coping with this pandemic has been way easier on birds than on humans. In the case of one of my favorite birds of all, the Piping Plover, which spends every part of its annual cycle on sand beaches, this pandemic has been a bona fide blessing. Thanks to many beaches closing down in early spring, plovers had a very easy time pigging out in anticipation of spring migration, and then resting whenever they needed to stop for some R&R en route, allowing them to be in prime condition as they reached the beaches where they breed.   

Piping Plover

Chicago’s Monty and Rose, the Piping Plovers that famously and successfully nested at Montrose Beach last summer—the first pair of Piping Plovers to nest within the city since 1955—were first seen on the beach this April 30, and by May 23 had produced a full clutch of eggs.

Piping Plover on nest

Not being affected by beachgoers and their dogs, the birds selected a spot a on slightly higher ground than last year, so almost certainly will not require any intervention by humans to move them out of harm’s way before a storm as people had to do last year. 

Piping Plover on nest

When the nest was discovered, people set what’s called an “exclosure” around the nest. It looks like a big cage, with the bars far enough for plovers to easily walk in and out while raccoons, gulls, and other predators, along with humans and their dogs, can’t get close to the eggs. The longer the beach stays closed, the better for the birds, but volunteers from Chicago Audubon and other groups did an excellent job of keeping the public informed about the birds last year. Most human beings with functioning hearts are willing to curtail some of their fun in order to protect such adorable, vulnerable chicks.  

Piping Plover mother and chick

Monty and Rose belong to the endangered Great Lakes population of Piping Plovers, which was once down to fewer than 20 pairs. Now that number is up to 70. At Michigan’s Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and other Lake Michigan beaches, birds are back earlier than last year, and starting to nest, too. The more successful each pair is each year, and the more aware the general public is about just how wonderful this little bird is, the healthier the species’ long-term prospects even as the rising water levels associated with climate change continue apace.   

Last year I spent quite a bit of time waching and photographing Piping Plovers in the Atlantic population. I saw adults in in Maine. I watched nesting Piping Plovers at Popham Beach State Park before the  birding festivals I was involved with... 

Piping Plover

...and after my festivals were over, my friend Laurie Gilman brought me to a few beaches after the eggs had hatched, so I finally was able, for the first time in my life, to photograph baby plovers. 

Piping Plover adult with chicks

Piping Plover's vascular tissue where the chick nestles its head

Maine had a record year of nesting plovers last year, with 89 pairs successfully fledging 175 chicks. Apparently, some of those new birds are starting to breed this year; there are 100 pairs and 61 active nests in the state. I’m SO hoping that some of the new breeding adults are ones I photographed as chicks last year.   

Piping Plover chicks

Having beaches closed for an important chunk of the breeding season will definitely boost nesting success, but eventually people, including those with dogs, will be thronging to them again. I’m hoping that this virus will give us a new appreciation of how tenuous life is, and how vulnerable living things are, but also how valuable our fellow creatures are, in ways not measured in dollars. Our slowing down for so many weeks has made air cleaner in big cities, and has allowed natural wild creatures to thrive for once. Perhaps this awful pandemic will lead to our species—the only one on the planet that includes actual rocket scientists—to finally figure out how we can enjoy natural resources without damaging them. If so, this banner year of adorable Piping Plovers will lead to better and better such years in the future.  

Piping Plover mother and three chicks

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Endangered Endangered Species Act

Golden-winged Warbler

Last week, KUMD played a repeat of a program I’d done in 2011 about the Golden-winged Warbler and how rapidly this species has declined. For 40 years the population declined an average of 2.8% per year according to Breeding Bird Survey data, a rate that was accelerating then and appears to be just as bad today, 9 years later. Breeding Golden-wings have completely disappeared from Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio, and are now restricted to a fraction of their former range in Wisconsin and Michigan. Minnesota has more remaining than any other state, but even here they are now restricted to the central part of the state west of Duluth and Minneapolis. From1994–2003, in the US Fish and Wildlife Service Region 3, which contains Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, they declined 9 percent annually.

This kind of dramatic decline is exactly the kind of situation the Endangered Species Act was supposed to help reverse before it reaches a critical point of no return. It worked great for Bald Eagles, Peregrine Falcons, Kirtland’s Warblers, and many other species that were placed on the Endangered Species list from the start, but for decades it’s been virtually impossible for new species to make it onto the endangered species list so they can get this level of federal help. The Golden-winged Warbler is considered a “species of management concern” in the United States, but this doesn’t give it anywhere near the level of protection that being listed as Endangered or Threatened would do. 

In 1972, Richard Nixon asked Congress to craft a law strengthening protections on endangered species. Congress responded with the Endangered Species Act of 1973, passed by the House with a 390-12 vote, and unanimously by the Senate. The Act begins with the finding that various species of fish, wildlife, and plants in the United States have been rendered extinct as a consequence of economic growth and development untempered by adequate concern and conservation; other species of fish, wildlife, and plants have been so depleted in numbers that they are in danger of or threatened with extinction; these species of fish, wildlife, and plants are of esthetic, ecological, educational, historical, recreational, and scientific value to the Nation and its people, and must be preserved despite economic concerns.

With overwhelming support, a lot of species were almost immediately listed for protection under the Act. But Koch Brothers and various chemical companies saw the Endangered Species Act, along with the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, as a massive bull in a bullring. They took on the role of picadors, poking here and slashing there to weaken the Act, making it difficult both to list species, getting them protection under the law, and also to enforce the Act by adding all kinds of loopholes. 

The Reagan and both Bush administrations took an active role supporting the picadors. In March 2008, The Washington Post reported that documents showed that the Bush Administration, beginning in 2001, had erected "pervasive bureaucratic obstacles" that limited the number of species protected under the act. From 2000 to 2003, until a U.S. District Court overturned the decision, Fish and Wildlife Service officials said that if that agency identified a species as a candidate for the list, citizens could not file petitions for that species. Interior Department personnel were told they could use "info from files that refutes petitions but not anything that supports" petitions filed to protect species. Officials changed the way species were evaluated under the act by considering where the species currently lived, rather than where they used to exist. And senior officials repeatedly dismissed the views of scientific advisers who said that species should be protected.

We of course have had three Democratic administrations since the Endangered Species Act was passed. Protecting the environment, including endangered species, has been part of that party’s platform for many decades, but Carter was the only president with real experience and knowledge about the natural world, and those powerful corporate and political forces managed to limit his effectiveness. Clinton and Obama may have meant well, but they don’t have any kind of background at all in natural history or ecology—I doubt if either would recognize a Golden-winged Warbler if it wore a nametag and landed on their head. I saw firsthand that although conservation organizations and the Obama administration meant well in the aftermath of the BP oil spill, they were way too easily led or pressured to do exactly what BP wanted, including going along with a strict policy prohibiting anyone from publishing any scientific studies about the effects of the spill for a minimum of five years. By 2017, of course, people’s attention had moved on to newer pressing issues. 

Golden-winged Warbler hybrid with Blue-winged Warbler

Last year I saw a handful of Golden-winged Warblers. In Maine, I saw and photographed an incredibly lovely backcross individual—one of his parents must have been a hybrid between Blue-winged and Golden-winged Warblers, and the other a Golden-wing. I was ambivalent about it—thrilled with how gorgeous the little bird was and with my photos, but profoundly sad that Blue-winged Warblers are now reaching even the northern reaches of its range.

 Blue-winged Warbler

I woke up on May 18, 2015, to a Blue-winged Warbler singing out my bedroom window. As thrilled as I was to bulk up my yard list, having one here in St. Louis County seemed genuinely ominous. That gorgeous individual couldn’t help that climate change and losses of the habitat that Golden-wings need were helping Blue-wings at the expense of Golden-wings, so I could hardly blame the bird. But I sure felt that ambivalence that is becoming a bigger and bigger element in my birding. I wish we could go back to a simpler time when the national mood was powerfully focused on protecting all wildlife species, a time when the powers that hated the Endangered Species Act were themselves seen for the bull they spew rather than cheered on for slashing and picking at the Act before the final matador comes in for the kill.

Golden-winged Warbler

Monday, May 25, 2020

Barbara Kelly's Robin Family

 American Robin closeup

Back on April 27, I got a message from Barbara Kelly in Hayward. She wrote:
I just noticed that a pair of Robins are making a nest on the top of our tall step ladder that is under the eaves, leaning against the back of the house. I climbed up to look, and there are no eggs in it yet. If we built a platform in the same location and gently placed the nest on it, might they still use it, or would they abandon it? I hate to disturb them. I think they just began to construct the nest a few days ago. My husband wants to use a small piece of countertop, about a foot wide.  
I said that might work, and sure enough, she soon wrote back:
He put sides on the platform now, and the front has a raised lip, so the nest won't be able to slide off. I just attached some birch bark pieces to the base of the platform, to give it a more natural, rough surface.   
Then, of course, came the wait-and-see period. I often don’t hear from people after getting this kind of question, but Barbara wrote back that very day to say:
The female just flew up to the platform, so I hope that's a good sign.  
The next day, April 28, she wrote:
I'm so happy! The robins have been bringing more nest material to the platform all morning!   
On May 3, she wrote:
After watching mama Robin bring new nest materials to the nest on Tues & Wed, I then saw both Robins in the back yard each day but didn't notice any visits to the nest. This had me worried. But in the last 15 mins or so mama Robin has come to the nest twice. She came the second time about 5 mins ago and is still on it.  
I responded that robins lay usually four eggs. They don't sit on them to incubate until they have a full clutch. That way all the babies are at the same stage of development and hatch out close together.

On May 6, she asked:
Do I need to be concerned about disturbing Mama Robin from her nest for short periods of time? I try to go out when Mama Robin is not on the nest, but this is not always possible…This morning, I went around the far side of the house, farthest from the nest, and put out organic raisins for the Robins and fresh water in the bird bath. I kept my head down and did not look at the nest. Mama Robin did not fly off the nest and, after I came back in the house, she went and ate some raisins and drank some water and then went back to the nest. Later, when I came around the other side of the house, which is closer to the nest, to put out hummingbird feeders, she flew off the nest but then came back shortly thereafter. I also go out in the early evening to bring in the bird feeders, so a bear won't get them.  

The mother robin is clearly comfortable with Barbara’s presence. When robins start associating us with nutritious food, they often form some kind of bond, whether it’s borne of practicality, gratitude, or simply sensing a kindred spirit.

Copyright 2020 by Barbara Kelly. All rights reserved. 
On May 12, Barbara sent me a photo with this message:
Here's a photo of Mama Robin on her nest. I believe she laid her eggs on May 3 so I'm thinking this Friday, May 15, would be the first day that the young might begin to hatch. Could cold temps possibly extend the incubation period? Temps have been pretty cold the last few days/nights.  
I told her that robins have one functional ovary and ovulate one egg at a time, so a clutch of four takes a minimum of four days to produce, and she doesn’t start sitting on the eggs to incubate them until the clutch is complete. She responded:
OK, so I think May 15 may be too soon because I'm not sure she was sitting regularly on the nest by May 3. We left the window closest to the nest ajar at night, hoping that some warmth might escape and help her keep the eggs warm. This is very exciting to observe, and I feel so privileged to be able to do so!  
On May 17, she sent another photo. 
Copyright 2020 by Barbara Kelly. All rights reserved.
I believe the first baby Robin has hatched! I noticed half of a blue shell on the ground this morning. I also saw Papa Robin visit the platform for the first time and peer into the nest before flying off.   
On May 21, she wrote: 
Got my first glimpse of a baby Robin today, from a distance, with a telephoto lens.  
Copyright 2020 by Barbara Kelly. All rights reserved.
And on the 24th, she was able to confirm that the robins have at least two babies.

It’s so thrilling to watch birds nesting from start to finish, but so tricky. Barbara is respecting her robin family’s need for privacy, which is also protecting them from the curious eyes of jays and crows, but that means she can’t see the nest from an angle that would allow her to count the eggs or hatched chicks.

Nests, eggs, and baby birds are so fragile and vulnerable that it’s tricky investing our hearts in a growing family. A hawk killed all the baby robins in another friend’s nest last week, after she’d watched the nest from the start—she was heartbroken. But the robins invest themselves, body and soul, into each nest, and enough survive to keep robin numbers healthy and strong. It’s been lovely keeping up with this nest vicariously, and very reassuring to know that Barbara is doing everything possible to protect the birds. Emily Dickinson famously wrote that “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul,” and right now hope is in short supply. I hope this robin family lives long and prospers. That’s also my hope for Barbara Kelly and for you, dear reader.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Spying on My Backyard Birds

Cedar Waxwing
When I heard waxwings on my May 5 recording, I went outside and there they were!
This spring, with nowhere else to go, I’ve been limiting myself to backyard birding. I look out the window as much as I can, but I haven’t been able to get out there nearly enough because I’m so busy inside my house, reorganizing and downsizing my office, with a strict deadline for family reasons. But I’ve found a way to get outside birding every morning for at least an hour, and sometimes longer than three hours, even as I’m in bed sleeping or in my office being productive. All I have to do is pull myself out of bed with my digital recorder, set it on a log, press record, and go back in the house. While I’m busy in my office, I can listen to the previous day’s recording and hear everything I missed.

Most of the birds I hear on each day’s recording are the usual suspects—birds that I’ve been seeing for at least a few days. But sometimes I catch the sound of them doing interesting behaviors. Last Wednesday, a Pileated Woodpecker must have been rooting around a log next to my recorder. It started out alarming one of the backyard flickers, and then did its own yelling. One morning last week, crows and jays were yelling their fool heads off at the neighborhood fox. For the next several hours, there wasn’t a squirrel or rabbit to be seen. I first heard baby crows begging on Wednesday, on my recording. They aren’t too noisy yet, but that will be fun to capture.

This has been an exceptionally slow spring migration, warm weather just barely starting to arrive up here, so warblers and other migrants just started slowly trickling through. I’d had five warbler species through Wednesday, but doubled that on Thursday, when my first catbird and an Alder Flycatcher turned up, too.

American Robin

From my backyard this year, even without my hearing aids in I can hear three different nesting robins and three different nesting chickadees singing. Having three pairs nearby more than triples the amount of singing I hear compared to when I just have one pair. When a pair of robins or chickadees has this whole end of the block to themselves, the male can spend a lot of his time focused on things other than singing, but the moment a neighbor pipes in, that break is over. With three pairs of each, the singing goes on pretty much continuously for long stretches of my recordings. Robins start up while it’s still quite dark, but quiet down when they get enough light to see earthworms. We haven’t had a soaking rain here in weeks, so they have to work at getting worms, but fortunately they must be finding plenty of other food because they all seem healthy and busy.

My early morning recordings have been of varying quality—on windy days, the background noise is distracting, but I’m pretty happy with how they’re turning out on still days. If I want a beautiful recording, I have to edit out conversations picked up from an early-rising neighbor’s yard, a couple of dogs who occasionally bark, garbage trucks, cars, and every now and then an airplane passing over. I’ve mostly been focusing on finishing my office switch, so haven’t gone through all that in the past two or three weeks, but these recordings are doing a wonderful job of documenting this spring. I try to listen to each day’s recording that afternoon or evening while I’m working—I write down each species on each recording as I hear it so I can tag every species on each recording. As I upload recordings to the database at, people looking up different species on my website can access every recording tagged for it, or can click on my ambient sound recordings to find all the longer recordings I’ve made. Working on this is giving me great background sounds as I listen to each of them. The best of them will be a pleasure to listen to on long road trips or those cold, silent winter days when spring seems too far away.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Upward Mobility in Baby Blue Jays

Tommy with baby Blue Jay

In 1991, I raised a brood of baby Blue Jays. That summer, when they were all spending time outdoors, I made lots of interesting observations. I pulled out a transcript of a "For the Birds" program I wrote that summer about how tough it was being a baby Blue Jay with an earthbound mama. 

When nestling jays are frightened, they crouch down low and pull their wings out and up over their faces, somehow looking like feathered spiders. They're too curious to maintain this position for long—I was photographing one baby jay when another crouched down, afraid of the flash, but by the time I focused in on him to get a picture of the fear display, he was already craning his neck to get a closer look at the camera. (I can't find these photos now.) Until baby jays start to fly, cowering is their best defense, but even as nestlings, curiosity quickly triumphs over fear. 

Once they fledge, their best defense is to get way high up in a tree. If they fly out across the open, they're vulnerable to hawks and falcons. If they stay in the thick lower branches, they're vulnerable to snakes, cats, and squirrels. So they go to the high outer branches of a tree, beneath some leaves to feel safe, but otherwise as high up as they can get. Real parent Blue Jays are perfectly capable of flying to their babies, and they know right where to look. 

Before they could fly, these jays were easy to keep track of. And for a few days after they took their first tentative flaps, I could still set them on a tree branch and they'd stay in that spot for hours, looking all about, preening themselves and each other, stretching their legs and their wings, and dozing in the dappled sunlight. But as time went on, they became more adventurous. They still knew they mustn't leave the tree without a grownup, the same as wild jays, but one by one they started occasionally hopping around from branch to branch. Baby Jays have a "monkey see, monkey do" mentality. If one jay falls into a sink full of hot, soapy water and almost drowns, any other jays watching are sure to try out the new game, too. And if one jay hops to an unexplored branch of a box elder tree, every other little jay will do the same thing. Even then, it wasn't too hard to round them up—if they hopped to a branch out of my reach, I could just stick out a pole from the badminton net, and one by one they'd hop on and ride down to me. 

But one day, Jake and Sneakers both made it up to the center of my tall box elder tree before I noticed just how high they were. I'd last fed them at 4 pm, and figured they'd come down when they got hungry enough. Unfortunately, I wasn't taking into account just how deeply ingrained is a jay's desire for upward mobility. 

By 5:00, the jays were good and hungry, and mewing whenever they heard my voice. But each time I called to them, they hopped to a higher branch, where they expected I could find them more easily. Sneakers occasionally looked down reproachfully at me, but poor Jake kept looking skyward, knowing darn well that any mommy jay worth her salt could look down and see him. By 6:00, they were calling all the time, and hopping even higher. By 7:00, they were pretty close to the crown of the tree. They attracted a neighborhood jay, but they weren't interested in her. They wanted their real mommy—me. 

At 8:00, I was getting more desperate even than they. So my son Joe and I started tossing a blue frisbee back and forth. I was hoping that would inspire them to fly across to me. Sure enough, after about a dozen tosses, Sneakers flew across to a little tree. Joe climbed up and Sneakers jumped on his head for the ride down. I fed him outside, hoping Jake would get the idea and come down. But poor Jake was still stuck in that upwardly mobile mode—he hopped to the tippy top of the tree, pleading with that great Blue Jay in the sky to send his mommy to him. 

Finally, as it started to get dark, my husband Russ got out a big ladder. He got up as high into the branches as he could, then reached out the badminton pole, and brought down poor, desperate Jake, who pigged out and then slept until morning. 

It was exhausting and sometimes exasperating, but that wonderful mixture of intelligence and instinct was what made taking care of baby jays so very much fun and rewarding.

Sneakers the Blue Jay

Monday, May 18, 2020


Brown-headed Cowbird

This week I got an email from Sarah Caldwell in Viroqua, WI, who listens to “For the Birds” on WDRT. She writes:
My back porch is by the kitchen where I sit for the better part of each day observing the birds visiting the feeder and bird bath & eating the sunflower seeds scattered on the porch. 
Watching their movements is fascinating: how they hop or walk, how they eat the seeds, how they perch on the wrought iron chairs … to get a better look at my new bird bath, or to dry off.  I change the water every day. I love to watch the robins & cowbirds bathing. 
I am writing to ask you to please speak about the cowbirds. I find their plumage beautiful, and how they congregate in flocks, the males swelling up to impress the females and their other behaviors are capturing my interest. I know they have some behaviors which are not very honorable; not sure what they are. I am hoping that you would be willing to share some words about these birds.
Brown-headed Cowbirds do deserve attention, so here you go, Sarah.

I saw my first on April 27, 1975. It was Number 16 on my lifelist, and the only lifer I ever added from Russ’s and my one-bedroom apartment in Lansing, Michigan. We had a bird feeder in what passed for a backyard—a treeless courtyard of lawn and dandelions encircled by six apartment buildings. We didn’t see a lot of birds in there, so I was surprised to wake up hearing something new and cool—a liquid gurgling sound. I jumped out of bed, looked out, and there they were—several Brown-headed Cowbirds, the males completely living up to the Brown-headed part of their name, and the nondescript females recognizable by the company they were keeping. 

Displaying Brown-headed Cowbird

I was charmed by the males making that cool sound as they opened their wings and made a deep bow. A couple of times (never when I've had my camera) I’ve seen males do that bowing action from a thin telephone wire, leaning over so far they’ve lost their balance and toppled over. Normally they do it on the ground or a sturdy enough branch or wire that they don’t lose their footing.

The little group of backyard cowbirds that spring were fun for me to watch. I was very impressed with how some species seemed so monogamous and territorial while the cowbirds were decidedly neither. I watched one female mate with six different males in quick succession—monogamy seemed entirely out of the question, though studies show that cowbirds in many areas actually are monogamous. Wherever they are, they’re sociable, gathering in flocks to feed or simply to sit in trees or on wires together, seeming to derive security in numbers.

That spring I was taking an environmental education class, and told a few friends about every new bird I saw. And that’s how I discovered that, as charming as the cowbirds seemed to me, people knowledgeable about birds seemed to despise them. It turns out that cowbirds are what we call obligate nest parasites: rather than build their own nest, female cowbirds lay their eggs—an average of 41 per year—one each in the nests of other birds, leaving those other birds to rear the young.

Oddly, people who revel in the idea of predation, enthusiastically sharing photos of hawks feeding on bloodied warblers and vireos and saying, “Nature, red in tooth and claw,” disapprove of brood parasitism, though that is just as much a part of nature, and for millennia was the only way cowbirds could keep their species alive.

The day I saw my first cowbirds in April 1975, I had to use my field guide to identify them. I was a little concerned that my Golden Guide said, “The plain mouse-gray female lays its speckled egg in the nests of other species, especially of warblers, vireos, and sparrows.” But my Audubon Land Bird Guide, which included more natural history information than either the Golden or Peterson guides, gave it a positive spin:
 Cowbirds are of South American origin. Of the 7 known species, 4 have parasitic breeding habits. But since the birds they most frequently impose upon continue to be about as abundant as their habitats permit, it is evident that the cowbird does not have an appreciable effect upon their population level.  
Originally this species attended the great herds of bison on the prairies of the Midwest and was known as the “buffalo bird.” Now they attend cattle and are common about the man-made grasslands that cover much of the once-forested East. During the breeding season each pair usually has a fixed territory within which the female lays its eggs. The rest of the year they travel in flocks, often with other “blackbirds.” 
That didn’t sound so bad, but every time I heard people talking about cowbirds, they disparaged them, saying the females were bad mothers. The way I saw it, those females had themselves been raised by foster parents and had no instinct or concept of nest building, incubating eggs, or brooding and feeding young. Historically, Brown-headed Cowbirds were birds of the prairies, feeding on seeds and insects in disturbed soil. Thick prairie sod made that difficult except where the bisons' heavy hooves cut up the sod. When bison moved on, the cowbirds had to follow or starve. It was impossible to predict when the bison would head on, but it didn't matter as far as baby cowbird survival went because the cowbirds left their young to be tended by species that had other, more steady and reliable ways of procuring their food.

Cowbirds instinctively follow any large mammals, so even as settlers extirpated bison, the cowbirds quickly adapted to cattle, extending their range into areas that had formerly been forested. Now there is plenty of disturbed soil everywhere, so the cowbirds theoretically don't need to follow large mammals at all, but they are instinctively drawn to large mammals and still lack every nesting instinct.

But female cowbirds are exactly the kind of mothers their babies need. Cowbirds invest way more physical resources into egg production than most birds, laying an average of 41 eggs per nesting season, putting each one almost always in a different nest. Cowbirds invest a lot of time and energy sneaking around searching out nests of such birds as Chipping and Song Sparrows, Yellow Warblers, and American Redstarts. Human parents usually put less effort investigating the best daycare facilities for their children than cowbirds do.

Cowbird babies have their best chance of survival if they’re the only cowbird in the nest. That’s the best for the foster parents' other babies, too. When a mother cowbird lays her egg, she invariably tosses out one of the eggs already there, so there is an automatic survival rate drop of about 25 percent for the natural babies in that nest. But baby cowbirds are not particularly aggressive—they’re absolutely nothing like Eurasian cuckoos, which actively push out any eggs or chicks in a nest the moment they hatch.

There are several good reasons why cowbird chicks don’t need to be aggressive like that to thrive. First, their incubation period is only 10-12 days while that of most little songbirds is at least a day or two longer. This is exacerbated by the fact that cowbirds usually select smaller species, with smaller eggs. The large cowbird egg sits above the rest in the nest, so just by basic mechanics it gets the lion’s share of the mother’s body heat, speeding its development while slowing down development in the other eggs, giving the cowbird even more of a head start. In the case of the endangered and very tiny Black-capped Vireo, whose incubation can take 17 days, the cowbird may be a huge bruiser close to fledging before the vireo babies even hatch.

Black-capped Vireo
Black-capped Vireo
Parent birds don’t recognize their nestlings individually. When they come to the nest with food, the most assertive baby, with the widest open mouth, gets fed first. When all the babies are the same size and food is reasonably abundant, the hungriest at one feeding will be less hungry at the next feeding; over the course of hours and days, it all balances out.  But cowbirds are big, requiring more calories than smaller species. If they're begging at all, their large size just about always makes them look like the hungriest, so they get the vast majority of food per nest. One by one, the other nestlings may get too weak to beg at all. But when food is plentiful, at least one or two nestlings in most nests usually do survive.

In the case of Song Sparrows and other species that nest a second or even third time in a season, parents can produce a goodly number of babies in a summer even if one nest is parasitized. But cowbirds are a significant problem in the case of some endangered species, so the rosy picture portrayed by my Audubon Land Bird Guide was not entirely accurate. In particular, birds like the Black-capped Vireo of Oklahoma and Texas and Kirtland's Warbler of Michigan cannot sustain their numbers without extensive cowbird trapping.

American Bison

Ironically, the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, my favorite place of all to see Black-capped Vireos, is also home to a population of bison, so the cowbirds there seem to be leading a historically natural life. But historically, those bison didn't stay in the Oklahoma's heat in summer. They wandered north to cooler areas to have their own young, so there weren't bison or cowbirds present when the vireos were nesting. Today, fences keep bison from wandering outside the refuge where they could be a hazard on highways. Fences don't hold the cowbirds there—they just like hanging out where the bison are. Extensive cowbird trapping is the only way the vireos can survive now.

Fortunately, the cowbirds we see in most areas aren’t causing any critical population losses of our backyard birds. We can enjoy hearing and seeing the males’ displays without feeling guilty.

That said, it's kindest all around to avoid subsidizing cowbirds, which do fine without supplemental feeding. It really is best to limit ground feeding when and where they abound, especially while backyard sparrows and warblers are nesting—the same female cowbirds visiting feeders and coyly watching the males displaying are also keeping track of where every one of your backyard songbirds is nesting. The world would be less rich without cowbirds, but every individual cowbird does represent at least one tossed away egg of a sparrow, warbler, vireo, or other little bird, and as much as I like cowbirds, I love my Song Sparrows and Chippies.

Brown-headed Cowbird

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Spring Update

Clay-colored Sparrow
One of my Clay-colored Sparrows last week. 
My backyard was a happenin’ place from mid-April through last week. With the cold weather, many birds moved elsewhere—probably closer to the lake or even backtracking a bit—and few new ones have flown in to replace them.

I had my first oriole on Friday, the ninth. He stuck around all day, coming to my oriole feeder for jelly, sugar water, and oranges, and to a hummingbird feeder, but next day he was gone. I’ve heard a distant Brown Thrasher a couple of mornings, too, and finally saw on on Wednesday the 13th, singing away in my neighbor’s yard. I had a lovely Rose-breasted Grosbeak on Tuesday the twelfth, but just for a while in the morning. 

I’ve not had all very many sparrows this year, and didn’t start recording the dawn chorus until April 29, so I didn’t get any beautiful Fox Sparrow songs, but White-crowned Sparrows were singing up a storm for a few days last week, and a couple of Clay-colored Sparrows spiced things up too. South winds carried a bunch of birds close to the lake, but no one new showed up on Wednesday the 13th—it was the second day in May that I didn’t see a single new bird for the year. 

Canada Goose
Baby geese always stay with their parents. 
Here in Duluth, migration hadn’t progressed far before the very cold weather set in, so I don’t think we lost many birds—they’re just late—but people further south and east did already have warblers and hummingbirds before they got heavy frosts and even snow. The saddest story I heard was in an email from New Hampshire saying:
I have a pair of Canadian Geese who hatched 5-6 goslings. Then the temps dropped to 28° for 2 nights, and it snowed 6". I have seen the parent geese, but NO goslings, since. They honk and swim past my pond frontage. Do you think the goslings survived?   
Tragically, after baby geese hatch, they absolutely, 100 percent of the time, stay with their parents. So they must have died.

American Robin
This robin nest was right outside my Ithaca apartment in 2009.
A scary email from Randi, in Excelsior, Minnesota, came on May 12:
I have been watching a nest of robins right outside my back door. They have been active in feeding their chicks. But today, just this evening I noticed a pile of feathers in the yard. They appear to be Robin feathers. And I have not seen any activity on the nest. My son checked and the chicks are still alive. Is there anything I can do?  Tonight will get too cold for them to survive. Is this just nature? Or is there something I can do?   
She wrote a bit later: 
I feel horrible about this. I keep watching and hoping I’m wrong.  But when I come out, I see neither male or female but the chicks are reaching up out of the nest for food when they hear me.  
The wildlife rehabilitation center in Roseville was already closed for the day, so she was going to bring in the babies before dark to keep them warm and deliver them to the center in the morning, but then she wrote:
We brought the nest in - safe in a small cardboard box with holes.  Two of the four nestlings seemed ok.  Set part of it on a heating pad on the counter on low.  I turned out the lights and watched the spot that we took the nest from and after about 20 min., a bird returned.  We immediately returned the nest, But not before I noticed all four open mouths - and the bird returned again.  I’m leaving it there for the night.  Outside.   
She added:
Thank you for responding.  It’s such a small little catastrophe when compared to the larger scope of things.  But for some reason, it really got to me.  I was rooting for her and we were getting used to each other.  Silly stupid bird!  Made me tear up!   
When we consider all the problems facing the world today, this really was a small little catastrophe, but nevertheless, it was a catastrophe, and a big one to those robins. We lose a chunk of our own humanity when we can’t feel compassion and empathy for hungry baby birds or for an adult robin when it loses its mate and must raise the young on its own. So many of us are being overwhelmed with losses right now that a happy ending was exactly what I needed. So I found myself invested in this little family, too, and felt very happy in the morning when Randi wrote again:
I went out when it was finally light enough.  There is a robin on the nest.  I just watched it pulverize a big fat worm for the chicks and fly it back to the nest.   
That’s exactly the way scary bird stories should end, especially during scary times. Stay safe and well, dear reader. 

American Robin

Monday, May 11, 2020

Blast from the Past: Sneakers and the Jumping Beans

Sneakers the Blue Jay
Sneakers was named for her habit, as a nestling, of snuggling up to people. At afternoon story time, if no one was holding her on their lap, she'd snuggle up to our shoes. (This is my neighbor Mary Tonkin's foot)
In 1991, while I was a bird rehabber, I became permanent caretaker of a Blue Jay named Sneakers, who became my education bird as licensed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the State of Minnesota. I wrote a lot about Sneakers during the 8 years I had her. This story, written at the time it happened in 1995, is one of my favorites.

I had gone on a birding trip to Arizona, and as a souvenir for my 9-year-old Tommy and 11-year-old Katie, bought home a little plastic box with some Mexican jumping beans. Authentic jumping beans are just regular old seeds from a Mexican shrub that belongs to the spurge family. A moth lays its eggs in the shrub's flowers, and when they hatch, the caterpillars burrow in the newly growing seeds of the shrub. As the seeds grow, they develop a hard outer wall that conceals the caterpillar inside. 

The caterpillar eats the inside of the seed, and eventually builds a web along the inner wall. The seed jumps when the caterpillar grasps this web and jerks its body. Jumping beans remain active for several months, and then the caterpillar cuts a circular hole into the seed wall, forms a cocoon inside the seed, and turns into a moth. When metamorphosis is complete, the adult moth pushes through the lid, and leaves the seed. 

So, anyway, my little box of jumping beans charmed and entertained Tommy and Katie for a full two minutes before they lost interest. I set it on my desk and pretty much forgot about it, until Sneakers the Blue Jay suddenly started squawking to beat the band. I came running, and found her yelling every Blue Jay expletive she could think of from her cage next to my desk, her crest fully raised. 

Usually she stopped yelling and lowered her crest when I came in, but this time she kept yelling, looking intently at the little box of jumping beans and then back at me like Lassie showing Timmy the killer rattlesnake lurking in his bed. I picked up the box and showed the seeds to her, and she cocked her head this way and that, studying them, and lowered her crest a little. Suddenly, all three seeds jumped, clicking on the plastic, and up went her crest and she squawked again. 

I took the seeds out of the box and held them in my hand. My body heat set them to jumping at a faster rate, but now she was more interested than angry or scared. This was the most novel thing she had ever seen—she'd gone her entire four-year-old life knowing darn well that seeds are inanimate objects, and now her universe was toppling.

I explained to her about the caterpillars, and although she didn't understand a word I said, my tone reassured her. I gave her a little piece of wood about the size and color of one of the seeds and she hacked it into a bazillion pieces with a fury I'd never seen in my sweet little Blue Jay. It seemed the height of rudeness to give her one of the actual seeds after the little caterpillars had already been taken from their home and lugged on a long plane trip.

After a few days, she got used to the seeds, but until the larvae pupated and the beans stopped jumping, I could still find Sneakers cocking her head studying them. I was sure if I gave her one, there'd be a Spanish-speaking caterpillar whose remaining minutes would be numbered. (These moths never did emerge.)

Entomologists believe jumping bean caterpillars jerk to scare away birds and other animals that might eat the seeds, but if Blue Jays shared their range, Mexican jumping beans wouldn't last a week. Of course, the most valuable lesson I drew from this experience is that it's a lot easier buying a vacation souvenir for a Blue Jay than it is for children. 

Sneakers the Blue Jay

Here's to Margaret Morse Nice!

Margaret Morse Nice (December 6, 1883 - June 26, 1974), American ornithologist, lying flat in grass to study nest of baby field sparrows. Photograph taken by Al Fenn, circa 1956. From Wikipedia
On May 11, 1935, an ornithologist named Margaret Morse Nice went outside and tracked one particular male Song Sparrow bearing a color band for an entire 24 hours. The bird, nicknamed 4M, spent roughly 10 hours singing, 9 hours roosting, and 5 hours eating and doing other miscellaneous Song Sparrow activities. During the song bouts that added up to 10 hours, he sang 2,305 complete songs. 

Song Sparrow

Margaret Morse Nice had earned her B.A. from Mount Holyoke College in 1906. She and her husband, a professor of physiology at Harvard medical school, married in 1908 while she was working on her M.A. in biology at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. In 1910, her husband took a job in Norman, Oklahoma, and they started their family, five children born between 1911 and 1922. She finished her M.A. in child development, using her children as subjects for her thesis, “Development of a Child's Vocabulary in Relation to Environment.” She published 18 research papers about language development in children, mostly between 1915 and 1922.

Margaret Morse Nice had always been interested in birds, too. She’d published a paper about the diet of the Northern Bobwhite back in 1910, and in Oklahoma, she started conducting research on Mourning Doves and updated the huge tome, The Birds of Oklahoma. She studied and recorded hierarchies in chickens three decades before the Norwegian zoologist who coined the term “pecking order.” 

Song Sparrow

Her husband took a job at Ohio State University in 1927, where she started doing the work she is most famous for, on Song Sparrows. She was also the first person to notice that a whole lot of the basic information about birds published in books and even scientific journals had never been verified by anybody in the real world. Indeed, when she started tracking them down, some of the incubation periods listed for American songbirds came originally from Aristotle!

Over her lifetime, she wrote nearly 250 papers about birds, 3,000 book reviews, and books such as The Watcher at the Nest, Research Is a Passion with Me, and the two-volume Studies in the Life History of the Song Sparrow. In the bibliography of the very first ornithology textbook I used,  by Welty, copyrighted in 1975, eleven of her works are cited. And much more recent ornithology textbooks still cite her work on Song Sparrows and also a paper she wrote for the Linnaean Society, “Development of behavior in precocial birds,” published in 1962. 

Margaret Morse Nice was made an honorary member of the British, Finnish, German, Dutch, and Swiss ornithological societies. She received the AOU's Brewster Medal in 1942 for her studies of the Song Sparrow, becoming only the second woman to receive it. She received two honorary Doctorates. A Mexican subspecies of song sparrow is named after her. And in 1997 the Wilson Ornithological Society established the Margaret Morse Nice Medal for work in ornithology. She died at the age of 90 in 1974.

I first heard about her in the two ornithology courses I took at Michigan State University in 1975 and 1976. In both classes, the professors described her as a “bored housewife” who studied Song Sparrows in her backyard. She may not have had a paid job in ornithology, but she set standards for field studies that few ornithologists before or after her, including those ornithology professors, could match.

I thought about this a few years ago when I leading a field trip with a prominent ornithologist and another woman who had done seminal work came up. We pointed out a Red-eyed Vireo singing away, and I said that one male sang 22,197 songs in a single day. He added that they were counted by a woman who had nothing better to do with her time. He couldn’t remember her name, so I interjected that she was Louise de Kiriline Lawrence, who also happened to be the person who wrote more informational pamphlets and articles for Audubon than anyone ever.

Back in the 1700s and 1800s, a great many men became well-known ornithologists who did not have jobs at universities or museums—they simply studied birds as part of their daily lives. Army doctors in particular became prominent bird researchers. A handful of women quietly went about their work and managed to get published in prestigious journals, yet even today they are  somehow dismissed as “housewives,” despite the seminal work they did, of a higher level than anything the modern men dismissing them as hobbyists ever accomplished in their so-called professional careers. 

I thought about Margaret Morse Nice this year on Mother’s Day, and today, as I write this on the 85th anniversary of her going out and following one Song Sparrow not just from sun up to sun down, but from midnight to midnight. My own backyard Song Sparrows are singing up a storm right now. I don’t need to go out and count their songs one by one—that’s already been done, by Margaret Morse Nice. Here’s to her.

Song Sparrow