Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

ALL Cats Indoors


On November 1, barely an hour before I presented my monthly Zoom presentation, about woodpeckers, I decided I should include some ways that we humans can help them. One of the ways is to keep cats indoors. Over my years as a wildlife rehabber, I had dealt with a few woodpeckers who had been injured by cats. They had all died from internal injuries or infections, but that was before I was taking many photos. So I posted a request on Facebook to a group of rehabbers asking if anyone had a photo of a cat-injured woodpecker—I'd need it within 10 or 15 minutes. Instantly people sent me several tragically gruesome photos. 

And these were just woodpeckers—had I needed photos of generic birds killed by cats, I'd have had dozens in five minutes!   

Cats kill roughly a billion birds of a great many species every year in the United States alone. Cat rescue organizations sometimes dispute the numbers, but that's tricky now that a great many different people, using various methodologies, have concluded pretty much the same thing. Some cat defenders say it doesn't really matter because the number of birds killed in collisions with windows is even bigger, as if doctors said it was perfectly okay to consume known carcinogens because heart disease kills more people than cancer.  

My cat Kasey had been part of an early trap-neuter-release program in Ohio, eating birds in my daughter's backyard until I brought her home in 2006. We had her declawed right away because our nine-year-old cat Miss Kitty had been declawed and would be defenseless against a well-armed, spunky young cat. We of course kept Kasey indoors, and overall she seemed happy, but she managed to sneak out four times over the years during construction projects or other hectic times, and even without claws she killed and brought home at least one animal, usually a chipmunk, all four times. Once, before we even discovered that she'd made it out, she'd piled up three or four animals on our back porch, including two little songbirds. The worst time was when we had filled a basement window opening with cardboard until the replacement window pane arrived. Kasey discovered it and was going in and out without us noticing. She managed to line up a dead mother deer mouse, her litter of 6 baby mice, and a White-throated Sparrow on our kitchen rug before we figured out what was happening. Cats, by nature, kill. And my sweet cat, in excellent health after regular meals and all the vet care we got for her when I brought her home, was in prime condition to do a lot of damage, even without claws. 

Foxes, hawks, and other natural, wild predators die out or move on long before their prey in a given area can be depleted, because they can’t afford to go more than a day or two without a successful hunt. Pet cats allowed to roam, or stray or feral cats fed by people, are not subject to these natural forces—they're subsidized killers. Like my sweet Kasey, these cats don't lose their killer instinct and their urge to toy with living objects just because someone is supplying them with food—those feedings actually put them in better shape to kill more effectively.  

Domestic Cat on the Prowl

When I was a rehabber, I spent a lot of time educating people about birds. I understand how widespread ignorance about the natural world is—I myself was valedictorian of my high school and graduated from college with high honors before I learned anything at all about birds, ecology, or the balance between natural predators and prey. And it wasn’t until I actually became a wildlife rehabber that I discovered that bird wounds stop bleeding so quickly that even very serious injuries aren’t noticeable at all without a close and careful examination. Where are people supposed to learn that bird lungs are set against the back ribs, beneath very thin skin? A single cat scratch or bite on the back virtually always damages the lungs. When people “rescue” a bird from their cat and set it free, that bird is essentially doomed to die from the injury hours or days later. 

White-breasted Nuthatch fatally wounded by cat
This is, I think, the only photo I ever took of a cat-injured bird. A cat had ripped off the entire pygostyle—the tail bone—from this White-breasted Nuthatch, but the cat's owner thought because there was so little bleeding, it must have been just a superficial wound. She smiled and said, "Oh, well. Cats will be cats."

People who brought me birds their cats had injured invariably felt virtuous and righteous for “saving” the bird. They may have gone to some lengths to put it in a box and drive it to me, but almost every one of those cat-injured birds died anyway. Despite antibiotics and veterinary care paid for out of my own pocket, the internal injuries and infections were usually fatal. It was endlessly frustrating trying to explain this to people. One woman in particular brought me at least a dozen birds her cat had injured. I spent at least five hundred dollars treating just the birds she alone brought me, and because I’m not a non-profit, I was prohibited by federal law from either charging or accepting donations from her or anyone else for my rehab work, not that she even offered to cover my expenses. The financial toll was bad enough—as a stay-at-home mother, I wasn’t bringing in any money at all—but the emotional toll on me and also on my children watching these beautiful, doomed birds struggle to stay alive was far, far heavier. But that woman was utterly oblivious, driving away each time feeling smugly virtuous, thinking she had done the best she could for that poor bird, and never once seriously considering keeping her cat indoors. 

For some reason, a great many people seem to believe that because cats act so independent and self-sufficient, we aren't responsible for their actions. I’m a dog person, but the cats that I’ve allowed into my life and heart were dearly loved and cared for. When we take in a cat, its life and well-being, and also its actions, become entirely our responsibility. 

People with the means and will to trap and neuter unowned cats have the same moral obligations toward them that people who have dogs, other pets, or farm animals do: keep the animals safe and don't allow them to harm other people or creatures.

People once allowed dogs to roam as they still do cats. Now cats are the top rabies carrier of all domesticated animals, and many individual feral cats are extremely aggressive and dangerous to humans as well as wildlife. The last time Russ and I were on Jekyll Island in Georgia, we got up early to walk from our cabin to the beach along a boardwalk. A feral cat sitting on the guardrail hissed fiercely at us. The beach vegetation was too vulnerable for us to step off the boardwalk, so we had to walk single file against the opposite railing to get past it. That cat was a genuine menace.  

Feral cat

The tragic way America solved the dog problem was for just about every jurisdiction to start requiring owned dogs to be licensed and kept under the owner’s control everywhere except on the owner’s actual property. Animal control officers searched for and caught loose dogs; if no one claimed one within a specified length of time, it was adopted out or, more often, euthanized. It was a terrible solution, yet the only way to solve a terrible problem. It's genuinely shameful that dogs paid the penalty for people being so irresponsible in the first place. 

Now the cat problem needs the same horrible solution. Euthanizing unowned cats is sad, but not removing them from the wild causes orders of magnitude more death. Yes, cat lives are valuable, but so are bird lives. 

Imagine a doctor who keeps one patient alive by draining all the blood from 100 other people, and then boasts about saving that one life. That is what people supporting trap-neuter-release programs, or people intentionally letting their cats outdoors, are doing. Closing their eyes to avian suffering and death, to the tune of a billion birds every year, is unconscionable. 

Feral Cat

Monday, November 23, 2020



In 2006, when my daughter was living in Oberlin, Ohio, with her best friend Stacey, a feral cat from one of the early trap-neuter-release programs was hanging out in their backyard, killing birds. Katie and Stacey’s landlord enforced a strict no-pet policy, and the girls didn’t know what to do. But when I was visiting them, we hatched a plan. Maybe, just maybe, I could lure the kitty into my car with a can of cat food and drive 800 miles home with it.  

Yes, it was a stupid plan, but no, it didn’t turn out the way one might expect. The cat didn’t want to be touched and was naturally suspicious of me, but when I held an open can of cat food out to her, she instantly followed me and jumped into the car when I set the can on the passenger seat. I quietly closed the door behind her as she started chowing down. I got into the driver seat and quietly closed my own car door. It was a Prius, so there wasn’t any noise when I started the engine and backed out of the driveway. I just drove around the block—this was a preliminary experiment—and pulled back into the driveway right as the cat was finishing up. When I opened my own door, I thought she’d bolt, but no. She stayed in the passenger seat, licking her paws as she looked all around at what she seemed to take as her new mobile home. 

It was a cool fall day. I got back in the car, opened the four windows a couple of inches, and the girls got busy. The hardware store was closed because it was Sunday, so they couldn’t buy either a pet carrier or a litter box. They got kitty litter at the grocery store along with more cat food, and fashioned a litter box from a cardboard box encased in two large plastic bags. My own things were already packed up in the car, and the cat was curled up atop my luggage in the hatchback, basking in the sun, when Katie and Stacey opened a door to put the litter box on the floor of the backseat. The cat raised her head to look at them, but again did not bolt. 

I had not seriously entertained the idea that this was going to work out easily—I was fully conscious that this was a feral cat. At this point, the worst that could happen was that she’d at least have a full stomach, giving the local prey a temporary reprieve before she started hunting again, though a good meal would also put her into better condition for that next hunt. We knew it was worthless to bring her to the animal shelter because they’d just turn her back over to the trap-neuter-release people and she’d be out killing birds within a day or two anyway.

But someone had to take responsibility for her well-being and that of birds and chipmunks, and luckily, she was young, with more optimistic feline curiosity than fear. The very idea of an 800-mile car ride with any cat, much less a feral one, was daunting, but Katie’s backyard Tufted Titmice and Carolina Wrens were at stake. So again I got into the car and started the engine. She stretched in that slow, luxurious way cats do, and jumped to the back seat, and then over the center console and into the front passenger seat as I again slowly backed out of the driveway.  

Katie and Stacey followed me the 10 or 15 miles to the entrance of the Ohio Turnpike, just in case they needed to take her back. While we were still in their neighborhood, driving very slowly, the cat strolled to the floor beneath my feet. I reached down and pushed her, saying, “No, kitty!” Then she jumped on the dashboard—again I had to reach over and push her, saying, “No, kitty!” I did both those things exactly once—she seemed to instantly grok that the person in the car with her was territorial about that section of the car but everything else belonged to her. 

We sped up on the 2-lane highway toward the turnpike. The cat continued to investigate, still sniffing and walking about as I reached my turnoff and waved goodbye to the girls. I was pretty nervous when I opened my window to take the turnpike fare ticket at the entrance, but the cat stayed in her part of the car. And then there we were, me and a feral cat in a small car tooling along the Ohio Turnpike. She walked onto the center console and to the back seat, and then back onto my luggage, where I could see her through my rear-view mirror. She seemed to like looking out at the cars and trucks behind us. Some of those drivers noticed her, too.  

The entire long car ride, including an overnight with my sister, in the late stages of cancer, in Chicago, so the cat had to spend the night in the car, and a second overnight with a friend from college, where she got to come inside, went just as well. I bought her a car carrier and she immediately walked inside when I just snapped my fingers. I didn’t press my luck by locking her inside, but figured she was at least a little safer in that than loose in the car during the times she was in it. This was no generic cat. I was shocked at my good luck—every cat we’d ever had was miserable in the car and made car rides miserable for everyone else, too. And this cat was no longer nameless—she was Kasey, smushing Katie and Stacey’s names together.   

Kasey on her first car ride. 

Kasey always looked to me as her main human. A year and a half later, when I took my job at Cornell, she made the 1200-mile journeys back and forth with me and my little dog Photon, and every car ride was just as easy, with her company making it more pleasant. Over the years, she put in a good 30,000 miles in the car. Once I was home for good, and after Russ’s mom moved in with us in 2012, Kasey stayed just as easy-going and fun. 

Kasey and Kitty help us wrap gifts.

A few years ago, Kasey developed lymphoma. For a while, it looked like we’d lose her immediately—she couldn’t hold down any food at all without vomiting violently and her pupils were fixed and dilated. But after the immediate emergency treatment, she responded well to weekly shots of Vitamin B12 and steroids. Even after she learned that her weekly trip to the vet would involve a shot, the moment I pulled out the pet carrier, she’d still walk right in. She looked sleeker again and was back to her old playful self. She made so much progress that after many months, I started giving her the medications orally. Even though her pupils remained fixed and dilated, she could see well enough to stare out the windows at my feeders, and to play with us. It was a lovely reprieve from the inevitable. But in the past few months, she started losing weight again, and this time, nothing worked; we bid her farewell on October 27. 

We’ll never get another cat. Russ was never a cat person to begin with, and I’m badly allergic. But Kasey was irreplaceable anyway.  I'll never forget her.


Sunday, November 22, 2020

A Finchy November to Feel Squirrelly

Fox Sparrow
Fox Sparrow

If I had to be stuck at home, limited pretty much to birding in my own backyard, this has at least been as good an autumn as I’ve had in years. I don’t think I’ve ever had as many Fox Sparrows during fall migration as I did this year, and they stuck around all the way through November 8—late enough and in big enough numbers that I often had to document the day’s sightings for eBird. 

Lincoln's Sparrow
Lincoln's Sparrow

I saw only one Lincoln’s Sparrow all spring, but then I had individuals now and then from October 23 through November 2, again having to document them for eBird. 

White-throated Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow

White-throated Sparrows stuck around through November 15.  Sometimes one or two show up on the Duluth Christmas Bird Count, but they certainly wouldn’t have stayed any longer in my yard this year because rats showed up again in October, meaning I had to stop all my ground feeding. 

Northern Cardinal
Northern Cardinal. Unlike every other photo on this blogpost, this one was not taken this year or in my yard.

On lucky days, I’m spotting a male cardinal or one or two females—on November 15, I was lucky enough to see all three at once. Even though on most days I don’t see them at all, it doesn’t seem to curb my optimistic hope. 

Cool as my sparrows and cardinals have been, it’s also been exciting seeing true finches this year. I’ve been keeping track of the ones being counted from Hawk Ridge, only about half a mile as the crow flies from my own backyard. What with people standing up there counting them throughout each day, way bigger numbers are tallied up there than down here, and I’ve been working on another book, so only able to check out the windows periodically.  

Purple Finch
Purple Finch

Like the counters at Hawk Ridge, I started seeing Purple Finches in late summer. The handful that I was seeing down here stuck around until November 1. Goldfinches seem to have disappeared as of Halloween down here. Many years they overwinter this far north, but this doesn’t seem like it’s going to be that kind of winter in Duluth. 

Over 1,000 Pine Grosbeaks have already been counted up at Hawk Ridge starting on October 23—I haven’t noticed a single one in my yard so far, but I’m hearing from people all over northern Minnesota and Wisconsin who are enjoying them, and also Evening Grosbeaks. No Evening Grosbeaks have shown up in my yard yet this fall. The Evening Grosbeak is one of my favorite birds, and used to be genuinely abundant up here, so I keep hoping. I was lucky enough to have a single one fly over on May 11 but yearn to see more this fall.   

Pine Siskin
Pine Siskin

Pine Siskins showed up both at Hawk Ridge and down here in early September. That was one of the most abundant birds of the season at Hawk Ridge, with well over 11,000 seen, and as many as 1500 in a single day; the most I had in a single day was 300. A few times they descended in big numbers to my birdbath when my trail cam was recording, and I’ve had a few good photo ops. 

Pine Siskins and White-throated Sparrows at bath
Pine Siskins at my bird bath (also some White-throated Sparrows)

But Pine Siskins seem to have disappeared now—the questions I’ve been hearing about them recently have come from people well south of here.  

Common Redpoll
October 20 Common Redpoll!

So far, the Hawk Ridge counters have had over 1,600 redpolls. I saw my first a few days before they tallied any—one was hanging out with the still abundant Pine Siskins at my feeder on October 20. But the most I’ve had in a single day is 10—they’ve had well over 100 on some days up at the Ridge. I’m seeing small groups some days, but overall am still missing them more days than I’m seeing them. 

When I think of it, I look out my living room window or from my front porch to scan through the branches of a few pine trees a couple of houses away, hopeful that I’ll eventually spot some Red Crossbills. Over 500 have been counted from Hawk Ridge, but I’ve not seen any yet. 

White-winged Crossbill
White-winged Crossbill

Right up until late this afternoon, I hadn’t seen a single White-winged Crossbill, either, but suddenly a flock of about 25 descended upon my big spruce tree. They were high up and the light was awful, but I got a few photos. While I was enjoying them, a flock of 30 more flew over. My dream is that they’ll descend on the spruce trees right next to my office window, where I’d have at least a chance of decent photos. 

Red Squirrel eating the seeds from a spruce cone
My red squirrel devouring spruce seeds

But even if I don’t see any there, I’ve been having lots of fun checking. This is one of the rare years when a red squirrel seems to have moved into my neighborhood. So far, the little guy hasn’t shown the least bit of interest in any of my bird feeders, apparently being on a more natural diet. I’ve taken photos of it eating spruce seeds and various fungi, and quite literally squirreling away lots of cones somewhere in the area behind my backyard. Red squirrels are most certainly not birds, but I love them a lot despite that serious shortcoming, and having this little guy here for a season when I am stuck at home is a saving grace.

Red Squirrel

Friday, November 13, 2020

An Auspicious Day?

I tend to be a pretty sciencey person, with a lot of friends who are sciencey or even outright scientists, so I don’t usually hear a lot about superstitions from the people I know, but suddenly lots of friends are confiding about being terrified about what today, Friday the 13th, might bring. This is actually the 120th Friday the 13th I’ve lived through (that was pretty easy to google) and not one of the previous ones, including the one this very March, has stood out as particularly unlucky, so I’m not worried.  

Of course, no matter how you look at it, 2020 has been a very unlucky year so far, but that’s hardly connected to any dates. The worst thing has obviously been the pandemic. Several of my friends have lost loved ones, and a few have had to deal with it themselves—as time goes by, more and more Americans will have to face the truth that Covid-19 really is dangerous and we really do need to be socially distancing and wearing masks. Oddly enough, pretty much the exact same people who’ve been denying how horrible Covid-19 is are also denying the clear and obvious results of the national election, and in both cases, this denial has been extremely unlucky for our entire nation. But that has nothing to do with Friday the Thirteenth.  

The unpredictable nature of the world explains why people seek out supernatural explanations for bad things happening. Friday the 13th isn’t related to birds, but some of the most peculiar ways people told fortunes and predicted the future quite specifically involved birds.  

All the way back in the fourteenth-century BC, according to diplomatic correspondence preserved in Egypt, the king of Alasia in Cyprus needed an 'eagle diviner' to be sent from Egypt.   

Augury was the ancient Roman religious practice of interpreting omens by watching birds and their activities. The augur—the person who interpreted these signs—was said to be "taking the auspices” – meaning, literally, "looking at birds." Depending upon the birds, the predictions from the gods could be auspicious (favorable) or inauspicious (unfavorable). Owls and other large species were the birds typically used, probably mainly for ease of observation, but many cultures have used little birds flying into a house or doing other very obvious things as signs of good or bad.   

One of the most famous auspices concerns the founding of Rome. As Plutarch tells the story, the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, argued over where the exact position of the city should be. Romulus was set on building the city upon Palatine Hill, one of the seven hills of Rome, but Remus wanted to build the city on what seemed to him to be the more strategically located and easily fortified Aventine Hill. The two agreed to leave the argument up to the will of the gods, which they’d know via augury. Each took a seat on the ground apart from the other and looked to the skies in what could be considered the first Big Day competition. Remus claimed to see six vultures, while Romulus saw twelve, so Romulus won out and Palatine Hill formed the nucleus of the Roman Empire. Whether more vultures flying over the Palatine was a true indication of it being the best center of an empire is debatable, but it almost certainly did indicate it would have been a good site for hawk-watching—the ancient world’s version of our own Hawk Ridge or Cape May.  

Plutarch’s account trusts that the two men accurately identified those vultures without binoculars or a scope and that both were completely truthful about how many they saw. Sometimes politically motivated augurs would fabricate unfavorable auspices in order to delay state functions such as elections. Apparently some people have been giving their country the bird long before now.  

Laura at Hawk Ridge in early 90s
It may not be auspicious, but it IS a lucky day when you count lots of hawks.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

The Simple Pleasures of November

Pileated Woodpecker

With our first winter snowfall—the one that took place in November as opposed to the one in October—my feeders have been pretty busy, though not nearly as busy as they were just a few weeks ago. The morning after the snowstorm, a male cardinal showed up, along with both a male and a female Pileated Woodpecker. A female Red-bellied Woodpecker has been coming every day lately, and I’m figuring she will be spending the winter—she keeps flying off with sunflower seeds to wedge into the bark of nearby trees.  

Great Horned Owl

In the evening on November 11, my son-in-law said he was hearing an owl through the window, and sure enough, two Great Horned Owls were hooting right in the yard. They didn't stick around long, but that was a splendid birthday gift!  

Fox Sparrow

This fall I’ve had more Fox Sparrows than I can ever remember having in autumn before, but their numbers ebbed away, and now I haven’t seen one in several days. I had one exceptionally late Lincoln’s Sparrow the first two days of November. Since the snowstorm, a couple of White-throated Sparrows are still here, along with a couple dozen juncos.   

Red-breasted Nuthatch

I still have several Red-breasted Nuthatches—they're appearing in a lot of places south of here this year, delighting a lot of my friends on Facebook. Here in Duluth, we have at least a few most winters, but even though they're among my "usual suspects," they're always delightful to see. All this year, chickadees have been more plentiful than they've been in several years, which I of course find delightful. Even so, where I was getting 18 or 20 species a day in my yard the last half of October, now I’m lucky on days when I have a dozen.  

Snow Bunting

I’ve been hearing from lots of people seeing Snow Buntings, especially along the highways hugging Lake Superior’s North and South Shores. I’ve only seen them on Peabody Street a handful of times over the years, always after the plows came following a heavy snow, and none this year, at least so far.  

Pine Siskin

People all over the place have been seeing winter finches, and I’m trying not to feel envious. After having hundreds of Pine Siskins a day through much of October, I’d gone several days without a single one, though after the snow, I did have an even dozen again. Facebook has been popping with photos of redpolls, but small numbers have shown up in my yard only a few times. Pine Grosbeaks, one of the loveliest of winter finches, have been seen here and there, except on Peabody Street. 

Evening Grosbeak

And saddest for me, despite the huge influx of Evening Grosbeaks I’ve read about all around here, not one has appeared yet in my yard. Back in August 2011, a flock of 16 turned up in my yard and remained for weeks, pigging out at my feeders and in my box elders and visiting my bird bath. From morning till night I could listen to them, just as I could back in the 1980s when we first moved here, and I could watch the young birds begging from and getting fed by adults. 

Evening Grosbeak family group

It seemed so promising after the species had declined so dramatically in the 90s, but that was the last time I’ve had more than a single Evening Grosbeak in my yard, and the last time I’ve had even one Evening Grosbeak for more than a few minutes or more than a single time in a whole year. This is one of my favorite birds because of all the wonderful associations I have of it when I was a brand new birder visiting Russ’s parents up here, and then from when we first moved here—the Evening Grosbeak was the first bird I heard in my yard and the first species to come to my bird feeder when we moved here in the summer of 1981, and it was a almost constant presence when my children were babies and toddlers. Periodically, Russ and I would rent a video camera back then to record our children doing adorable things, and whenever we were recording them in the back yard, grosbeaks could be heard in the background. So I’m very much yearning for them to appear once again on Peabody Street.  

Blue Jay

My family of three Blue Jays is still sticking around. I bought a special peanut feeder from my local Wild Birds Unlimited—a donut-shaped feeder made of wire. The adults figured it out instantly and come a few times every day to carry off peanut after peanut. They’ve been squirreling them away here and there, including in our electric meter box—evidence, as it is for my female Red-bellied Woodpecker, that they’ll be sticking it out for the winter. And even though it’s mid-November now, the young is still begging from the adults and following them about rather than pulling its own peanuts out of the feeder. This seems phenomenal. I wonder if it’ll stick around through spring and then help them rear next year’s young, as Florida Scrub-Jays do, or if this is a simple case of Failure to Launch.  

Blue Jay

Identifying and counting birds barely scratches the surface. I may not have as much variety or as many individual birds right now as I had in September and October, but there’s still plenty of fascinating activity to see as long as I pay attention.  

Blue Jay hiding out from the snowstorm

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

A Milestone

Our Birth Announcement Drawing: Baby and Wood Stork

Today I turn 69 years old. One millennial in my life gave me a funny smile when I mentioned my age; he clearly thought I was too old to understand the sophomorically amusing significance. But hey—I was in the high school class of ’69! Way back then, we kids thought WE were the original discoverers of the hilarity of that particular number. How could our parents have possibly known such a thing?! Every generation seems to think they discovered sex, as if they themselves had been delivered by stork or FedEx.

Sixty nine is an exceptionally cool age for me to be for several reasons. The number is the product of prime numbers, 3 x 23, making it a “semi-prime” number. When you look at the square of 69 (4,761) and the cube of 69 (328,509), those two numbers together include every digit from 0–9 exactly once. And I’ve always loved numbers that look the same whether they’re right-side up or upside down. My palindromic birthday, 11/11, also looks the same when it’s upside down, at least in sans serif fonts. So numerically, this is a splendid day for me.  

Common Gallinule

The 69th bird on my lifelist is the Common Gallinule. I was thrilled to see this handsome little swimmer with the brilliant red frontal plate when I took my first college ornithology class in 1975—who could ever have dreamed that such a bird existed? Common Gallinule was its name then and is its name today, but my copy of the Audubon Water Bird Guide from 1951 called it simply the Gallinule (Moorhen), and my original Peterson field guide called it the Florida Gallinule. 

In 1983, it was lumped with Europe’s Moorhen and called the Common Moorhen—that was hard for a lot of American birders to adjust to, but I'd already read the word "moorhen" in that parenthetical entry in the Audubon Water Bird Guide. Then, almost three decades later, in 2011, taxonomists decided it really was a separate species and once again started calling it the Common Gallinule. By any name, the gallinule is a bird I see most predictably when I visit my son in Florida, so thinking about it on my birthday gives me warm feelings of family.  

Joey, Tommy, and Katie modeling their "I'm for the Birds" t-shirts in 1988.
My kids wearing the t-shirts KUMD gave out as premiums for a 1988 pledge drive.

Today also marks an important milestone in my life. My first For the Birds program aired on May 12, 1986, when I'd just turned 34 ½.  Now I’m exactly twice that age, meaning I’ve been producing For the Birds for exactly half my life.  

Laura producing For the Birds at KUMD in the 80s.

When the program had been on the air for four or five years, I got a phone call at home one night from a young male birder whose name I have mercifully forgotten, who told me I’d done a pretty good job but it was time for me to let a real birder—that is, him—take over. He said it wasn’t fair that I had a monopoly when he could do a much better job.  

I don't know if it was because I've never been very self-confident or because I'm a woman, but he succeeded in making me feel guilty. I honestly started thinking as he was talking that maybe it wasn’t fair that I was the one birder in Duluth doing a radio show about birds, even if I was the one birder in Duluth who came up with the idea in the first place and then stuck with it. Maybe this guy really did deserve a chance. I told him what was involved in producing it: I put in a minimum of 25 and usually more like 40 hours a week researching and writing scripts, recording and mixing the programs at KUMD, and making copies of the recordings to send to the other stations that carried it. He said he didn’t need to waste time researching—he was much better informed than I—and as far as writing scripts, ad-libbing would work just as well for a competent birder. And couldn't a KUMD intern make those copies?

But then he suddenly asked how I got paid—hourly or per program. When I said I didn't get paid at all—that I did For the Birds entirely as an unpaid volunteer—he said, “You’re kidding, right?” When I made it clear that I was not kidding, he ended the conversation with a “WHOA!” and a click. I never heard from him again. 

Looking back, I don't understand why I felt so guilty, like maybe I really should have let an overbearing, presumptuous man take over a program I'd created entirely on my own, from original concept to finished product. Talking about birds on the radio seemed worth doing just to introduce northwoods people to birds they might not normally run into, like the Common Gallinule, and to enrich their understanding of everyday birds, like chickadees and Blue Jays. 

A poor digiscoped photo of the only Common Gallinule I've seen in Duluth from 2007.

I still can't wrap my head around the idea that getting paid is the only reason to do something or that money is the primary measure of a thing's value. Kurt Vonnegut famously wrote to a high school class in 2006:

Practice any art—music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.

Seriously! I mean starting right now, do art and do it for the rest of your lives. 

I can’t say I was following Vonnegut's advice in 1986, a full two decades before he even wrote that letter, but somehow, that's pretty much what I ended up doing. And not even the most overbearing, presumptuous man can ever take that away from me. 

Black-capped Chickadee

Saturday, November 7, 2020

Drawing a Nation Together

Black-capped Chickadee

Let's let these little guys be our guide now. Chickadees include EVERYONE in their winter flocks except outright dangers. A firm "no" to shrikes and hawks. A "C'mon and join us!" to everyone else.

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

November Meanderings

Grandpa and me

November is often the worst month of the year for birding and other things, but I can't help but have warm feelings about the month. I was born in November, on Armistice Day, which my Grandpa, a World War I veteran, told me was the most important day of the whole year because it marked the end of the war to end all wars. November is also the month with Thanksgiving, for me the most perfect of all holidays. I was still a preschooler when my Grandpa told me that President Abraham Lincoln declared that we should celebrate Thanksgiving as a national day to remember all the things we were still grateful for in the middle of a horrible war. My Grandpa said that even when our lives are saddest and hardest, we can always find good things to thank God for. Of course, the first things I always thanked God for were my Grandpa and birds. I’ve always associated Thanksgiving turkey feasts with abundance, and with remembering and thanking God for the good things in my life, including birds, while not forgetting that poor dead bird on the table.  

Wild Turkey displaying

I didn’t learn about Pilgrims or fanciful stories of the first Thanksgiving until I started school, after my impressions of Thanksgiving were already deeply embedded in my brain. But by the time I was in fifth or sixth grade, I started wondering if it really was Abraham Lincoln who’d started the actual holiday. I discovered that George Washington had made a proclamation celebrating Thanksgiving in 1789, but Thomas Jefferson didn’t follow suit. After that, some presidents did declare the day a national day of thanksgiving while others didn’t, right up until Abraham Lincoln, in 1863, proclaimed a national day of “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.” On June 28, 1870, my favorite president of all, Ulysses S. Grant, signed into law the Holidays Act that made Thanksgiving a yearly appointed federal holiday in Washington D.C., but the date wasn’t firmly established as the fourth Thursday in November until Congress passed a law signed by FDR in 1942.

I didn’t know any of that as a preschooler, but November was always my favorite month with the best two days of the year, my birthday and Thanksgiving, celebrating both the start of my life and the happiest things I could think about. 

It wasn’t until I started first grade in my Catholic school that I learned that for most Catholics, November conjures images of death starting right on November 1, All Saint’s Day, which is a holy day of obligation, so we were required to go to Mass; and November 2, All Soul’s Day, when we remember all the people who have died who aren’t canonized saints. I made it a practice to attend early morning Mass on that day every year, even though it wasn’t a holy day of obligation, specifically to remember and honor my grandmother. I vaguely remembered her, though she had died when I was quite small. Her name was Laura Farley, just like mine, and the only other things I knew about her from family lore were that she had gone to Mass every single day and that she really loved birds. As a child, whenever I saw birds flying in the sky, I thought of my grandma. Birds seemed my direct connection between the heaven I pictured up in the clouds where my Grandma was, and down here on earth, where I was. So I loved birds from the very start.  

In Mexico and some other countries with both indigenous and Catholic traditions, All Saints Day and All Souls Day are celebrated as Día de los Muertos.  

Lincoln's Sparrow

When I became a birder, I suddenly realized that November was one of the trickiest months to find birds, before most winter finches usually appeared in the upper Midwest but after most of our other birds had moved on. This year a bunch of interesting birds have already turned up here and there up the shore, I still have Fox Sparrows and even had an exceptionally late Lincoln’s Sparrow on November 1 and 2, but there are far, far fewer birds in my yard right now than there were even on the last day of October. November may be filled with joyful memories and gratitude for me, but bird wise, even with cool, unexpected rarities, it’s pretty sucky. 

Golden Eagle flying high

In my earliest memories, imagining birds in the sky were carrying my love to my Grandma in heaven in the clouds, I saw birds as transcendent beings carrying messages of love between here on earth and heaven above. Since I started more closely watching birds live out their lives, I’ve realized they have more important things to do with their time, but it turns out my thoughts of birds as messengers flying between heaven and earth are fairly universal. It’s no coincidence that we depict angels with bird wings. 

Bald Eagle

At my mother-in-law’s funeral, the Lutheran pastor mentioned seeing a Bald Eagle in flight on her drive to the church. She asked for a show of hands of others who had seen an eagle that day, and just about everybody raised a hand. It was appealing to imagine that proved that Helen’s soul was smiling down on us, but my birder’s brain could not forget that eagles are both common and conspicuous along Lake Superior in December, often flying above county roads and highways in hopes of finding fresh roadkill.  

But even with birder’s brain, it’s soothing to see birds flying in a beautiful blue sky or to hear them singing beautiful songs when I’m grieving. One of my favorite cousins died in the 1970s and his dad, my uncle, died in the 90s. Their funerals, decades apart but both in spring, were held at the same church. And a Brown Thrasher sang outside the church during both funeral Masses.   

Brown Thrasher

It’s unlikely that either my cousin or my uncle had ever heard of a Brown Thrasher, and I’m sure those birds were focused on attracting a mate, not mourning a human being. When my aunt died in spring in 2015, I heard a Brown Thrasher singing outside that church yet again, reassuring evidence that the habitat around the church hadn’t changed in lo those many years. Yet the comforting feeling I had listening to the thrasher soothed my soul in ways far deeper than simple ecological awareness, though I can’t explain it in mere words. 

Northern Cardinal

Over the years I’ve heard a great many stories from people who found comfort in seeing a special bird after losing someone dear. If your mother’s favorite bird of all is a cardinal and suddenly a cardinal starts singing from your own backyard the morning after she died, that is a lovely thing no matter how you look at it.  

Black Vulture

We attach darker symbolism to some birds in the context of death. When my family went to Disney World in November 1988, I stood with my three-year-old Tommy under a relentless hot sun in what seemed like an eternal line waiting to ride on Dumbo, watching a congregation of 100 or so Black and Turkey Vultures circling overhead. My brain kept telling me that never in the entire history of Disney World has anyone ever collapsed and died in even the longest lines and been left there for vultures to consume—I could imagine someone dropping dead in the heat, but certainly someone on the Disney staff would rush in and cart off the body before it disturbed other visitors. And vultures are rather shy about flying down where thousands of people are milling. I knew darned well they were there simply because all the buildings, parking lots, and paved walks were producing powerful thermal air currents. But even so, just thinking about all the people waiting in the heat under the watchful eye of those vultures left me uneasy.  

Turkey Vulture

Disney understands the connection between vultures and death. When the witch in Disney’s original animated Snow White plummets to her death, a pair of vultures swoops down to consume her, and Disney’s original animated The Jungle Book features vultures singing an amusing song about being friends to the bitter end. Vultures may take advantage of death, but they seldom impose it. 

Turkey and Black Vultures enjoying lunch

For some reason, we don’t seem to use most natural predators as symbols of death. Wolves symbolize loyalty and guardianship—the time-honored stories of Remus and Romulus being suckled by a wolf and of St. Francis of Assisi and the wolf have endured for centuries. 

Foxes often symbolize cleverness and cunning. Shakespeare’s famous stage direction, “Exit, pursued by a bear,” in A Winter’s Tale makes bears seem pretty ominous, but Rudyard Kipling’s Baloo offsets that as Mowgli’s affable teacher. Lions generally are used to symbolize majesty, strength, courage, and justice, with C.S. Lewis’s Aslan in his Chronicles of Narnia a striking example. L. Frank Baum’s Cowardly Lion specifically turns the lion’s reputation for courage on its head but remains a kindly if bumbling soul even after he gets his courage. 

Bald Eagle

As far as avian predators, the largest and generally considered the most majestic, the eagles, are used partly in the way lions are, to symbolize magnificence and courage. Golden Eagles, which are seen only rarely where the thirteen original colonies were, live up to that reputation, and are fittingly used as the national emblem of more countries—Albania, Germany, Austria, Mexico, and Kazakhstan—than any other animal.

America’s Bald Eagle catches fish, not prey that fight back, and is just as happy picking up fish already dead at dams, or stealing them from Osprey. The Bald Eagle gets most of its mammalian prey pre-killed on roadsides. Indeed, flying up above highways in hopes of finding fresh roadkill contributed to why so many people at my mother-in-law’s funeral had seen eagles the morning of her funeral. 

Bald Eagle

Ben Franklin famously wrote to his daughter that the eagle was:

a Bird of bad moral character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.

With all this Injustice, he is never in good Case but like those among Men who live by Sharping & Robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank Coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the District. He is therefore by no means a proper Emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our Country...

Barred Owl

If it's confusing why eagles aren't symbols of death, it’s understandable why vultures are, even though they so seldom actually cause death. But it seems unfair that owls, every bit as splendid and powerful as eagles, with what seems to me to be far more courage than our national emblem, are the birds associated, in cultures the world over, with death and foretelling death. The owls I’ve known personally have been intelligent, patient, and extremely gentle with their family members or, in the case of my education owl Archimedes, with me. 

An owl and his human

It’s true that to say a person is “owlish” normally means rather inoffensively bookish when real owls really are both functionally illiterate and fiercely predaceous. Disney’s large owl in Sleeping Beauty, patterned after a Great Horned or Eagle Owl, is friends with a squirrel and rabbits that would normally be its prey, and Big Mama, the kindly owl voiced by Pearl Bailey in Disney’s The Fox and the Hound, is even more nurturing toward the young mammals she’d normally pursue as prey. 

But even animated and light-hearted movies and television programs are more likely to use owls as dark, malevolent omens. Toward the end of my personal favorite holiday television special, Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, when the Ghost of Christmas Future is leading Mr. Magoo’s Scrooge through a graveyard, a spooky owl watches from a dark, looming, skeletal tree. And in an episode of the old television show Northern Exposure, just before a satellite drops down from the sky to kill Maggie’s fiancé, we hear a Great Horned Owl hooting. In Julius Caesar, Casca is terrified when an owl, “the bird of night did sit, / Even at noonday, upon the marketplace, / Howling and shrieking.” And no one doubts the omen of death in the title of Margaret Craven’s I Heard the Owl Call my Name

Boreal Owl

I like what W. J. Broderip wrote in 1894:

There are few animals that have been more suspiciously regarded than Owls. Their retired habits, the desolate places that are their favorite haunts, their hollow hootings, fearful shriekings, serpent-like hissings, and coffin-maker snappings, have helped to give them a bad eminence, more than overbalancing all the glory that Minerva and her own Athens could shed around them. 


Ironically, that Roman goddess Minerva wasn’t depicted with an owl nearly as often as her Greek counterpart, Athena, was—the Romans were far more superstitious about owls than the more sensible Athenians. 

Not being superstitious, I consider any owl I see, day or night, a joyous and even serendipitous event, because owls are so tricky to see. By daytime, the simplest way to see them is to track down swearing crows or jays and check out who they’re yelling at. By night, owls are far, far more often heard than seen. Probably 90 percent of all the owls I’ve seen at night were called in, by my own or a wild owl’s hooting or by someone’s recording of them, and all the rest only because an owl happened to call when I was close enough to see it. 

Western Screech-Owl

Last year, on an owl prowl with Laurens Halsey, a wonderful guide leading a field trip when I was at the Tucson Audubon Birding Festival, we got a quick but satisfying look at a Whiskered Screech-Owl and great looks at a Western Screech-Owl who even allowed me to take photos. A whole family of Great Horned Owls were calling all around us, but I didn’t get a single look at any of them. Nighttime birding is tricky.

A Boreal Owl was calling in my yard after the Chicago Cubs won the World Series (that sure seemed like a lovely sign!), and I got one quick glimpse of it flying through the yard behind mine. My glimpse of the only Eastern Screech-Owl I’ve ever had in St. Louis County was even quicker—in both cases, I couldn’t have possibly identified the bird had I not clearly heard it. But I got my most wonderful looks ever at a perfectly silent saw-whet owl when I took our springer spaniel puppy out at midnight one October evening. She had a small white spot on her liver-colored back, and suddenly there was the owl, feet extended, heading straight for that spot until, just millimeters from it, the owl suddenly realized this wasn’t a mouse—it was a whole puppy! The owl pulled up its talons, flipping over in mid-air, and alighted in a spruce tree next to our house. I watched for several minutes as it looked all about, its whole body bobbing up and down and turning this way and that as it searched for a real mouse, every now and then making eye contact with me. Tragically, that was before I was photographing birds. 

Great Horned Owl on my trail cam

I didn’t see it, but a Great Horned Owl alighted on my bird feeder a couple of weeks ago for less than a minute. I happened to have a trail cam on the feeder that night and it caught 30 seconds of the owl looking all about, moving its head up and down as much as sideways. 

Great Horned Owl on my trail cam

Most of the owls I’ve seen by day, including every saw-whet owl and Great Horned Owl, seemed far more Zenlike and still than those two. Two weekends ago, my neighbor Amber across the street rescued a saw-whet owl that must have chased a rodent into their backyard shed. When she let it go, it flew up into a large backyard tree where it sat very still, allowing me to take lots of photos in late afternoon. 

Northern Saw-whet Owl

As dusk approached, the little thing stretched and preened, giving me more photo ops. Most of the time, little owls are much safer when they hold still. When other birds notice them, they call out, alerting crows, jays, and robins, all of which get into full attack mode. Better to pretend you’re a bump on a log and keep your yellow eyes hidden under thick eyelids.  

Northern Saw-whet Owl

Larger owls seldom sit so fully exposed—the Barred, Great Horned, and Long-eared Owls that I usually see are hiding in the thick branches of a dense conifer or, in mild seasons, in thick, leafy foliage. When hunting by day, Great Gray Owls do often sit where they're more exposed.  

Great Gray Owl

Snowy Owls may be tricky to pick out in snowy fields, white on white, but when I do see them, there are at least no leaves to obscure the view. 

Snowy Owl

However tricky owls are for me to see, they don’t seem to foretell anything. Snowy Owls give us hints about the state of the lemming population in the Arctic, but they’re even ambiguous about that—some years lots of Snowy Owls arrive down this way because the lemming population was its cyclic low and the owls spread out to find enough to eat. Other years, Snowy Owls arrive here because the lemming population has been wonderfully high, allowing Snowy Owls to produce exceptional numbers of young. Then, as the adults settle into their winter territories, a lot of young ones can’t get a toehold and head our way. In both kinds of years, a great many of those Snowies that made it our way do return to the Arctic come winter’s end. So far this November, I haven’t heard of any Snowy Owls our way. 

Weatherwise, this year’s October winter seems to have melted into a bit of a November spring. I’ve yet to see an owl so far this month. Great Horned Owls maintain a pretty large winter territory, and the ones that sometimes show up in my yard may be a mile away for a week or more between visits, and even when they’re around, unless they hoot, crows yell out, or I luck into a trail cam video, I hardly ever know when one is literally in my own backyard. Most saw-whets and long-eareds are south of my area now, but some saw-whets remain through the winter, so I’m ever hopeful of seeing one. And when I do, I know it isn’t an ominous sign of death or malevolence—our paths simply crossed for one brief shining moment. And in a month when darkness reigns, that kind of moment can make all the difference. 

Northern Saw-whet Owl