Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Minimum Daily Requirement of Birds

Very cold American Pipit first thing this morning

Red-throated Loon a loooooooooooooooooooooooooong way off


Oh, my! I went out on my first Cornell Lab Spring Field Ornithology class. We went to two local birding hotspots--Stewart Park and Myers Point--and ended up in Sapsucker Woods. And I got my Recommended Daily Allowance of birds and more. And it made me think about the differences between the standards for the Recommended Daily Allowance and the Minimum Daily Requirement. According to the definition, the Recommended Daily Allowance is "The amount of each nutrient that provides for the animal's nutritional requirements; abbreviated RDA. It is greater than the minimum daily requirement (MDR), allowing for individual variation."

I think 20 species, in most areas of the country outside really urban spots, are more of a Minimum Daily Requirement than a Recommended Daily Allowance, since the more species we see, the better we feel, and unlike most vitamins, you can't have too many birds. So I'm going to set 20 species as my Minimum Daily Requirement, and set my Recommended Daily Allowance as 40 species in spring. I'm picking that number because my first spring of birding, in 1975, I saw 40 species the entire season. Today we got the Recommended Daily Allowance and more:

Canada Goose
American Wigeon
American Black Duck
Ring-necked Duck
Lesser Scaup
Common Goldeneye
Hooded Merganser
Common Merganser
Red-breasted Merganser
Ruddy Duck
Red-throated Loon
Common Loon
Pied-billed Grebe
Double-crested Cormorant
Great Blue Heron
Turkey Vulture
Red-tailed Hawk
American Kestrel
American Coot
Ring-billed Gull
Herring Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Pileated Woodpecker
Blue Jay
American Crow
Fish Crow
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
Eastern Bluebird
American Robin
European Starling
American Pipit
American Tree Sparrow
Song Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
Rusty Blackbird
Common Grackle
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Recommended Daily Allowance of Birds

A goose a day provides 5% of one's Recommended Daily Allowance of Birds.
Every now and then a friend of mine comes up with an idea so splendid, yet so obvious, that I’m bummed out that I didn’t think of it first. My friend Rob Fergus, Senior Scientist for Urban Bird Conservation for the National Audubon Society, wrote this in his blog, called the Birdchaser:
Most people don't eat enough vegetables, or fiber. They also don't see enough birds. This year I've decided that I need my minimum Recommended Daily Allowance of Birds. For me, and for most folks in the Lower 48, a good Bird RDA is probably 20 species. It takes a little work to see 20 species each day, but it can usually be done.

When I thought back to probably the healthiest time of my life, when I was teaching junior high school before having my own children, it hit me—Rob is exactly right! I walked or rode my bike to school on fine days, and when I took the bus, I’d usually hop out to spend 20 minutes checking out one good birding spot and then get the next bus with a transfer. On weekends I spend most days birding. I would bet that I saw 20 species a day at least 95% of the time—maybe more. And sure enough, I was in excellent shape—as a matter of fact, the morning that I heard my first Golden-winged Warbler, I missed the bus while scouring the bushes trying to see it, and ended up running 3 miles. Students who saw me from their school bus took bets about whether I’d make it to school on time—those that bet against me lost, and all of them were surprised that I wasn’t even winded. Apparently that fitness came from reaching my Recommended Daily Allowance of birds.

Rob came up with his brilliant idea on January 5, and ever since then he’s met his Bird Recommended Daily Allowance every day. In the northern states, it’s way trickier and more uncomfortable to meet the Bird RDA every single day in January and February than it is in March, but even at this late date it’s worth getting started. This morning I took Photon on our normal half-mile trek down Ellis Hollow Road to the marsh and back, and checked out the birds at my feeder and around the Sapsucker Woods parking lot—I had 19 species, and since I want to start the day right, headed to the Cornell Lab’s employee lunchroom and added 5 more looking at the pond. I didn’t feel a whole lot healthier. Meeting our Bird RDA is probably like taking vitamins—it may take a few days or weeks to notice the health benefits. But unlike vitamins, just seeing those birds made me feel a lot happier, so as far as general well-being, meeting one’s Recommended Daily Allowance of birds gives us instant results.

I’m going to set myself a goal of seeing at least 20 different bird species each day for the rest of the year. If I’m healthier at the end of December, I’ll have Rob Fergus to thank. And, of course, all those birds.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The dimensions of the cat situation

Rob Fergus made the following interesting calculations on a conservation listserv last week, and kindly gave me permission to quote:

The problem is there are no agreed upon numbers of birds killed by cats each year. The trick is to come up with a calculation based on:

a) The numbers of cats roaming the landscape
b) The number of birds killed by the average cat

There is no agreement about either of these two figures, so the trick is to try and come up with a number that you can most solidly defend.

Here's my take on it:

Number of cats
Really there are three important numbers here, the number of pet cats, the number of those cats that are allowed outside, and the number of feral or stray cats. The first figure is the easiest to come close to. The American Veterinary Medical Association provides numbers of pet cats (and other animals)

They calculate that in 2007 there were 81,721,000 pet cats in the U.S.

Now you have to determine how many of those cats are allowed to roam outside and potentially kill birds. According to the $1,195 American Pet Products Manufacturers Association survey (, 43% of cat owners allow their pets to roam outside (as quoted by the Cat Fanciers Association:

If we accept these numbers (and they are probably the least controversial of all the numbers here), that gives us:

35.1 million outdoor pet cats in the U.S.

Now we have to add the number of feral and stray cats. This number is a lot squishier. We need better numbers here for sure. I haven't seen a good study on this, but the numbers published by feral cat advocacy groups seem to range between 60-100 million cats. In the absence of good numbers, for now you can probably get away with saying there are as many feral and stray cats as there are owned cats. So lets say 81 million again.

So that's 81.7 million + 35.1 million = 116.8 million outdoor cats

More realistic might be a range of 95.1 to 135.1 million (based on possible feral range).

But for arguments sake, lets just stick with 116.8 million cats for now.

How many birds killed by cats?
Here's where the cat advocates want to really fight about the numbers. But here are some options--

According to a study in Michigan by Lepczyk et al (online at
Outdoor pet cats across an urban to rural gradient killed an average of .683 birds each week during the breeding season.

IF you can extrapolate that across the full year, that would be an average of 35.5 birds killed by each cat/each year. IF you can use that figure for all outdoor cats, you get a calculation of 4.1 billion birds killed each year.

But maybe cats don't kill birds at the same rate all year long, or at the same rate everywhere that they do in Michigan. But lets presume that the ONLY kill birds during the breeding season (22 weeks in MI), that would still be 1.76 billion birds killed per year.

Another study in San Diego (Crooks and Soule 1999 cited here: found each cat to kill an average of 15 birds per year (and 41 other small animals). IF you multiply this number by the number of outdoor cats you get 1.75 billion birds killed per year. And that's just in the U.S. and doesn't take into account our migratory birds killed by cats in Canada or Latin America.

You can play this game all day, based on numbers from studies. The cat advocates will try to cast doubt on these predation rates, but there are arguments to be made that real average predation rates may be higher (these are mostly studies of owned cats which may hunt less, owners may not be seeing all birds killed by their cats and consumed or left elsewhere, etc.).

So what's the number? I think you could make a strong argument for the 1.7 billion based on either the San Diego study or the MI study. If you wanted to be more conservative, you could probably say "at least 1 billion birds a year and quite probably higher". That's what I've said at Audubon. That would still be an order of magnitude higher than the cat people you encounter will want to accept. You can read their own thoughts about this in a series of articles here:

It's tricky, but I think the low numbers promoted by the cat advocates contain many more flawed assumptions than these estimates here, and are not based on the "best available science".

Hope this helps outline some of the issues involved with coming up with a number!

Walden in Ithaca

Contentment is a quiet, perhaps mute emotion—we often don’t realize how contented we are until something takes away our source of contentment—one of those “don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone” things. Or maybe it’s just that contentment is a Le Conte’s Sparrow emotion—calling too softly for us to hear unless we’re paying attention.

This Saturday morning after I watered my houseplants, smiling at the abundance of streptocarpus and African violet blossoms that bring so much vivid color to my apartment, I took Photon for a walk in the rising sunshine. Most of the ice along the marshy stream down Ellis Hollow Road had melted. Red-winged Blackbird epaulets glowed like burning embers in the sun. A Carolina Wren sang his jubilant song and a Hooded Merganser drake displayed to his mate, that funky black and white crest going up and down.

When we got back to the apartment, I gave Photon her Saturday morning chew bone and made a cup of coffee for myself. My cat Kasey joined us as we sat at my balcony window, watching a crowd of redpolls and goldfinches pigging out and chickadees and titmice flitting in one by one. And suddenly a wave of contentment rushed over me—no little Le Conte’s Sparrow whispering from a hidden tuft of grasses, but a big honkin’ Trumpeter Swan right in my face. I was filled with that same deep joy that I’ve felt on a few occasions—when I looked into Russ’s eyes while we said our wedding vows, when I first held my newborns in the hospital, when I stood at the Fort Kearney bridge in Nebraska witnessing the spring Sandhill Crane spectacle for the first time, the moment I first enticed a Black-capped Chickadee to alight on my hand, when I walked into the Cornell Lab of Ornithology as the brand-new science editor on January 7th. These heady rushes of contentment all came after eager anticipation, and although I can conjure up memories of joyful moments, it’s hard to drum up genuine contentment once it’s dissipated.

But lately I’m finding it easier to feel deep contentment. I miss Russ and Tommy and my Peabody Street chickadees and all my Duluth friends, but it turns out I’m finding solitude as comfortable and joyful as Thoreau did. It’s enlightening to live alone, making day-to-day decisions that don’t affect anyone else. I wake up at 5 and move about without fear of waking anyone else up. When the television only goes on when I turn it on, I don’t miss it at all. I keep my thermostat set to 50 degrees at night, 58 in the day, without making anyone else uncomfortable. I’m plenty warm at night—the sheets feel cold when I first climb into bed, but Photon snuggles on one side and Kasey on the other and soon it’s toasty under my blankets and quilt—and the growing warmth fills me with contentment. To stay comfortable in the daytime, I put on CuddleDuds longjohns—the very act of putting them on and feeling their silky warmth fills me with contentment. I turn off my hot water heater just before taking a shower and don’t turn it on again until a couple of hours before the next shower—if I have a load of dishes to wash, I do that on the same tank. Saving energy this way feels good.

Of course, my flowers need more warmth than 58 degrees, and sometimes so do I. The warmest room in my apartment is the upstairs south-facing bedroom. The plant lights keep it warmer, and the brightness from the big window and the plant lights make this room my favorite—the one I use as my home office. I keep the other lights off when I’m in this room, and even at night I don’t need more light than the wide-spectrum fluorescent bulbs give off. Even in the dead of winter, they keep my spirits high. It’s much cheaper to keep one room lighted with fluorescents and at 64 or 65 degrees than to light and heat a whole apartment, and it’s just as comfortable when you spend most of your time in that one room.

To me, the very essence of immorality is to turn a blind eye to the difficulties facing other human beings or the critical dangers facing whole populations of some animals and plants. But I have more of myself to give to the causes I believe in when my life is filled with contented moments. I don’t know why suddenly at the age of 56 I’m being given so many moments of sublime contentment, but I’ll take them as they come. Unlike Thoreau, I’m not truly alone—I have my dog and my cat after all. But like me, he had the Walden birds to keep him company. I’ve found my personal Walden, and who could ask for more?

Facing dining area from staircase. The moose picture, a gift from Russ, came from the Sivertson Gallery in Duluth. The abstract picture over the dining room table was one in my house in Northlake when I was a little girl. I put together the dining room table and chairs and the little cart table next to the door--they and the rugs came from Target. If you look very carefully to the right of my jacket, you might see the scarf that Lisa Johnson gave me a few years ago.
More Target furniture--I built the two chairs but the afghans, Roman shades, ottoman, and side tables were already put-together. Russ and I bought the owl lamp when we were in college. The steeple clock you can barely see over the fireplace was a gift from Russ back in 1970--the ticking used to drive my dear college roommate Bosco nuts. The Audubon prints are from old calendars that some wonderful radio listeners gave me back in the 90s. The beautiful blue circular afghan was knitted by Billie Anderson--she gave that to me quite a few years ago now. I don't usually keep it on the floor, but am doing what I can to make the room warmer. The coyote in front of the fireplace came from Taos, NM--I bought that when I was there with my SIL Jeannie. The picture directly over the fireplace is of five White-throated Sparrows, and was a gift from my children from the Sivertson Gallery this Christmas. I'm especially fond of it because white-throats are nicknamed the "Peabody birds" and there are five of them--just like my own dear Peabody Gang.
Russ gave me this Snoopy on the first anniversary of our first date--so Snoopy is almost 39 years old! Joey painted the bright red painting. I put together the shelves (another Target special) and hung the lights.
The Ivory-billed Woodpecker flying over the stove is Jimmy--I got him in Brinkley, AR, when Paula Lozano and I spent January, 2006, searching for a real IBWO. The canisters, towels, potholder, and teakettle came from Target. The piggy cookie jar came from my Grandma. In the bathroom you can just barely see a poster from the movie Hairspray--that was a gift from Jeanie and Mike this year.
From this angle you can see the lovely print Russ gave me for Christmas a few years ago, and the anniversary clock he gave me for Christmas in 1971.The Saucy Walker doll on the chair is identical to one my Grandma gave me when I was a baby--she was my most treasured possession until her leg broke and she got thrown in the garbage. I was SO lucky to find this one (not a genuine Saucy Walker, but the exact kind I had) on eBay. I bought the TV at Best Buy with gift money from my sister Mary and my practically a real sister Jeannie and Mike. The watercolor next to the window was painted by an art student at the Treehaven Elderhostel back in the 90s.This is my bedroom. That's a Sleep Number bed--well, the mattress--on the floor. Photon prefers a #40, but I'm more a #35. The mother and child print came from the Chicago art museum back in the late 60s--I have the same print, better framed, in Duluth. Kasey LOVES playing in those cubes--she was especially adorable when I was putting them together (another Target special).This is the only south-facing window without any kind of awning blocking the light. I love this room!The other side of the room. I put together this shelf set and fluorescent light fixtures, which all came from Lowe's. Most of the plants came from The Violet Barn. Here are a few of Rob's African violets and streptocarpus plants:

(Other photos here.)

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Caring for birds and cats BOTH

Wow--I was just sent a link to a cool program called TAP (Trap-Alter-Protect).
Feral cats are unsocialized to humans, but they are still domestic animals. Whether feral, stray or pet, domestic cats are companion animals and their home is not outdoors. They are not wildlife.
And there's also this interesting site about Trap-Neuter-Release programs that set neutered feral cats loose: Check both these sites out!

Monday, March 10, 2008

Check out the current Birder's World!

Not only does the cover have a gorgeous Blackburnian Warbler photo, but the current Birder's World also has this article I wrote!

Friday, March 7, 2008

Mourning Dove season and Dennis Anderson's diatribe

This post is in response to Dennis Anderson's diatribe in today's Minneapolis Star Tribune.

I chucked when I read Dennis Anderson's sentence, "History has shown that if you want to save something on this planet, make it a huntable or fishable species and allow a constituency to form around it."

Does this include the now extinct but formerly popular game bird called the Passenger Pigeon? Or, much more recently, the Greater Prairie-Chicken? (I saw my first in Michigan—that population is now as extinct as the Passenger Pigeon and dodo.) Hunters have done a great deal for conservation. But they've also hunted and fished some species to extinction, they fought tooth-and-nail against lead shot bans on waterfowl long after its toxicity and deleterious effects on waterfowl and raptor populations had been fully documented, and they are reluctant to even temporarily close seasons on species whose populations are in a tailspin, including Lesser Prairie-Chicken, Greater and Gunnison's Sage Grouse, Northern Pintail, Greater Scaup, Northern Bobwhite (the Number 1 most rapidly declining bird in North America, according to a National Audubon report last year) and the American Woodcock—a species Mr. Anderson uses as an example of an appropriate game bird while apparently being ignorant of its declining population.

The most successful comebacks of birds on the verge of extinction are of such species as the Bald Eagle, Peregrine Falcon, Whooping Crane, and Kirtland's Warbler. All but the Whooping Crane were never considered game birds, and in the case of the Whooping Crane, their comeback is in large part because their game bird status was entirely removed. Even today, hunters with poor identification skills jeopardize their recovery. Hunters in California did their best to prevent the state from adopting a non-lead-bullet law despite the critical state of the California Condor population, and despite compelling evidence that these inoffensive scavengers were dying specifically from the lead they were picking up from game animal and "vermin" carcasses shot by hunters.

Throughout American history, every bit of good that hunters have done for conservation has been done in concert with farmers, land owners, and organizations such as Audubon, The Nature Conservancy, and the Humane Society. There have always been antagonisms between these groups as well, but in the end, civilized debate has led to reasonable compromises. These compromises include the federal Migratory Bird Act and the various state regulations elucidating which species can be lawfully hunted. For 60 years, the Mourning Dove was not legally hunted in Minnesota. What reason has there now been to change this except the current and dramatic drops in the populations of so many legal game birds, giving hunters few options short of working harder and more passionately to help those species recover? Mr. Anderson may decry the passion that so many anti-dove-season people have brought to this debate. But where was the passion that hunters brought to the debate about non-lead shot? Where is the passion that hunters bring to the debate about closing the woodcock season until we learn why its population is in decline? Mr. Anderson apparently only accepts passion over reason when it's his own. One expects newspaper columnists to have strong opinions. But in a civilized world, these passions should be based on sound information, not ignorance.

There may be valid reasons why Mourning Doves were added to the list of legal game species in Minnesota. But in his entire mean-spirited, passionate diatribe, Mr. Anderson hasn't provided his readers with a single one.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

A whole month??

Wow--it's been almost a month since last I posted! In that time I've driven down to St. Louis with Photon and Kasey to do a program for St. Louis Audubon, then headed up to Duluth, still with Photon and Kasey, to do a program and field trip for the Sax-Zim Birding Festival, and then all the way back here to Ithaca. Then last weekend I drove, with just Photon, to East Lansing, Michigan, to do a couple of programs for a Michigan Audubon conference. On these long drives, I hit some of the worst winter driving I've EVER dealt with, and am absolutely sick of long drives. Kasey seems to prefer coming along on a long drive to staying home alone--she was literally falling all over herself to be petted when we came back.

I've gotten pretty settled into my apartment--I have plant lights now, and some plants, and more of my clothes and books. I haven't done much birding at all, but am signed up for the Lab's spring ornithology class, so I'll get to go out with Steve Kress and see where all the good local places are. I've had to invest way too much money in cheap rugs to cover my floor, since there is no insulation between the floor tiles and the unprotected slab my apartment is built on. I took the temperature between the tile and the rug, and it varies between 49 degrees and 51 degrees. My apartment is heated with propane which is VERY expensive. For next winter, I may have to figure out another way to heat it, because it's going to run a good $300 a month for just heat--and I only keep the thermostat at 60 in the daytime and 50 at night! Any suggestions about saving energy on heating without dying in the process would be welcome!

I figured out one way of saving electricity. Since I'm all alone and take three or (sometimes) four showers and (sometimes) one bath a week, and only need to run my dishwasher every five days or so, it's silly and wasteful to keep my 53-gallon hot water tank running constantly. So I turn it off at the circuit breaker box right before I take a shower, and don't turn it back on until a couple of hours before my next shower. Most of the light fixtures are charming but use odd-sized bulbs for which I can't find fluorescent substitutes, so I brought two fluorescent floor lamps and two smaller fluorescent lamps from home. Any other suggestions about saving electricity are also welcome.

The well water here is extraordinarily smelly and hard and so my apartment water comes through a water softener. I'm drinking bottled water for now, though I should be able to spring for a Brita filter eventually, but I'm also watering my plants with that--I have to figure out where to get a rain barrel so I can use that water for the plants. Any other suggestions about conserving water are also welcome.

I'm having lots of fun. Next week I have to drive to Syracuse and fly from there to Duluth for another program (for the Unitarian Church of Virginia). Then I'm done traveling until mid-May (unless I can somehow manage to scrape up money and transportation to get to that Ernie Banks event I mentioned in the last post). I'll be SO happy to settle in some!

Ernie Banks!!!

Oh my--doesn't this look like a wonderful event?