Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Countdown to 11/11: 11 days to go!

I'm starting a countdown to 11/11—the day I turn 59—with 11 things to look forward to about being 59 years old.

Number 11: A regular icosahedron has 59 stellations, which makes it very pretty.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Terry Tempest Williams article

Everyone should read this article, by Terry Tempest Williams. She was in the Gulf beginning about when I arrived there, and everything she said is spot on.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Chance Encounter

Snow Bunting
Originally uploaded by Laura Erickson
(For the Birds transcript--October 14)

This fall, I’ve been watching flocks of all kinds of birds, from huge groups of sparrows and juncos to this year’s unusually abundant Blue Jays. I tend to focus on groups of birds in autumn, and I think of migratory movements in terms of populations or species, not individuals. But this week I took notice of the particularity of one bird I came upon at the Port Wing marina. This Snow Bunting had made a journey spanning a couple thousand miles to reach northern Wisconsin from his high arctic breeding grounds. His flickering white wing patches caught my eye as he picked off bugs clinging to the side of a bridge—a narrow but vertical structure far enough above the rocks that the bunting had to hover to snap them up. Most songbirds cannot hover for more than a few seconds, and by the time I got my camera focused, the little guy had dropped back down to the rocks.

Snow Buntings usually associate in flocks with other Snow Buntings and occasionally longspurs or Horned Larks. I see them most often on the stubble of farm fields long after harvest, the birds eking out their existence on waste seed and bugs. They’re especially drawn to fields after a farmer spreads manure, a veritable cornucopia of insects and semi-digested grass seeds, often steaming with warmth. Of course, the steam also carries a certain level of odor, but songbirds aren’t gifted in the olfactory department and their sensibilities not so rarified as ours, so they don’t seem to mind at all. The landscape would seem barren and desolate if not for these beautiful “snow flake” birds. When a flock of Snow Buntings feeds on the ground, those at the back fly forward to the front, making the flock appear to be rolling along. This would be beautiful enough if done by any other species, but reaches ethereal heights thanks to their flickering white wing patches. Snow Buntings are usually very gregarious, but their flocks are like families of squabbling children. Even during the times of year when they’re not defending a territory, Snow Buntings almost continuously bicker with one another. Many flocking birds establish a hierarchy to reduce the conflicts, but Snow Buntings are too independent to submit to the rules a hierarchical society requires. Those of us who witness their skirmishes are treated to a lot of beautiful wing flashing. If we’re not paying attention, we may not catch on that the birds are fighting. So being in the presence of bickering buntings is far more pleasant than being stuck in a car with bickering children.

Snow Buntings breed in one of the harshest environments on the planet—the high Arctic. They nest under boulders in boulder fields, in cracks in large rock surfaces, or cliff faces. Temperatures in these nests can be very cold, so the buntings line their nests with thick insulating layers of feathers, mosses, and grasses. I wanted to tease out the entire history of the Snow Bunting I was watching—he moseyed about, allowing me to take 122 photographs at close range over the course of an hour—but he wasn’t talking. He didn’t open his wings again for me, either—Snow Buntings spend most of their lives on foot. So I couldn’t verify by the size of his white wing patches that he was a male, though that is definitely the impression I got when I first saw him feeding. His cap didn’t seem quite dark enough for an adult male, but even that wasn’t definite in fresh fall plumage. I was in Port Wing without my bird books, so I emailed my photos to my good friend Mike McDowell to see if he could figure out the bird’s age and sex. He wasn’t sure either, so he forwarded them to two top Wisconsin birders, Tom Schultz and Ryan Brady. Even though the photos show the bird very clearly, at high resolution and large size, none of us could be 100 percent certain without the bird in hand, though Ryan and Tom both had the impression of a young male, too. This added a mysterious flair to my encounter. I’ll never know if this was his first migration or whether he’s a seasoned traveler, whether he got separated from others by accident or by choice, how he chanced to be at the Port Wing Marina exactly when I was there, or even if he was a “he” at all. And I’ll never recognize him again if I see him, alone or in a flock. It was one of those lovely brief encounters we make as we pass through this lovely little planet. I’ll always remember him—those photos turned out well enough that I’ll be referencing them for decades—but I found him far more interesting than he found me, so I’m sure the moment I moved on, he breathed a sigh of relief to have that intruder out of his face and simply moved on to the rest of his life.

Monday, October 11, 2010


(For the Birds script for 10-12-10)
Every now and then, I read something that twists the theory of evolution to conclude that we humans have evolved to dominate and exploit our fellow human beings, our neighbor species, and our environment. People who believe this seem to think that altruism exists only as a rather sneaky strategy for individual profit rather than a broad approach to ensuring that an entire community remains strong and sustainable.

Darwin developed his theory based on his study of songbirds, which are more evolved than humans in a great many ways. They’ve been on the planet longer, both in terms of years and generations, yet their lines continue to radiate and thrive, while we primates as an order are declining, and our species seems to be digging itself into some serious dead end tunnels. Songbird bodies are far more evolved than ours, including their vision, hearing, ability to physically discern changes in air pressure, and cardiovascular and respiratory systems. Chickadees, which have been here longer and may very well outlast us, have social hierarchies much like ours, though chickadees, in a more sensible and arguably more evolved manner, maintain their hierarchies not with fighting but with songs and other vocalizations. Every chickadee society includes members of all social strata. If the lowest chickadees on the hierarchy have to wait the longest to get food resources, the flock still remains in an area until all the birds have fed. Over generations, their society couldn’t support the disparities in income that our own society seems to think are sustainable.

In every case I can think of, when a single species increases and multiplies by dominating and altering its environment and unsustainably consuming necessary resources, it eventually hits a peak and declines rapidly, often to the point of extirpation or even extinction. Chickadee social flocks allow for much longer-term stability and success. Chickadees join with a wide variety of other bird species in cooperative feeding flocks to insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to themselves and their posterity in a manner that is very much in keeping with the spirit of the Constitution of the United States. Our Constitution has lasted us for roughly 12 human generations, but now our civil system seems to be crumbling. We are fighting within our own population and against other populations over limited resources, often while squandering or destroying the exact resources we are fighting over--a strategy that seems, in the long run, neither an evolved nor an intelligent approach. The chickadee system has allowed them to not just survive but to thrive over tens of thousands of generations—something no human civilization has ever managed to do.

If we're going to look to Darwin, especially for those of us who think it was our species' intelligence that brought us as far as we've gotten and who believe in the concept of free will rather than predestination, we’d be wise to consider what evolution really is about and how populations and species collapse. The militaristic strategies we're using right now worked beautifully for Tyrannosaurus Rex, right up until the time that they didn't. If we're going to call on Darwin for the answers to human destiny, let’s look to those songbirds that inspired his theory in the first place rather than to dinosaurs, especially because we all know how that turned out.


(Today's radio program script)

Ever since, at some point early on in elementary school, I discovered that my birthday was 11/11, I’ve been looking forward to 11/11/11. In fifth grade I calculated that this was the day I’d turn 60, and so although normally a 60th birthday isn’t a milestone elementary school children anticipate with excitement, it has for the past 48 years or so been something I’ve genuinely looked forward to.

10/10 is a similarly exciting date. I turned into a mother and my older son, Joe, was born on October 10 in 1981. And people all over celebrated 10/10/10 with parties and with rallies for various causes. Douglas Adams fans got a special thrill, because 101010 is binary for the number 42, which is his answer to life, the universe, and everything.

I didn’t think birds paid much attention to this sort of thing. A bird’s internal calendar is based on day length and changing seasons, much as our calendar is, but birds don’t seem to have codified it as we did with the human-centered Gregorian, Julian, Islamic, or Hebrew calendars. At least, I didn’t think birds paid attention to things like 10/10/10, until yesterday.

Every October I see the same patterns of bird occurrences. Juncoes get more abundant as White-throated Sparrow numbers start to ebb. The smattering of Harris’s and White-crowned Sparrows can stick around well into the month, but most of them eventually disappear, the Fox Sparrows dwindling soon after. I see migrating kinglets every September, but they start passing through in earnest in October. This year has been no different.

But my backyard chickadees apparently decided to celebrate 10/10/10 by hosting a huge kinglet gathering. My backyard, already rich in autumnal color and teeming with sparrows and juncoes, suddenly came alive to my ears as well as my eyes. From seemingly every branch of every tree, I heard lovely triplet call-notes of Golden-crowned Kinglets. Usually Ruby-crowned Kinglets limit their fall vocalizations to their rather strident call notes, but this year I’ve heard several of them make a feeble attempt at their spring song. The sound is a mere shadow of what it is in spring, lacking both the full richness of the tonal quality and the full quantity of notes, but on 10/10/10, I heard a few of them make a rather serious if comical attempt at singing. The chickadees, who serve as the neighborhood welcome wagon for all the passing little songbirds, were also in top form. They always look a little bedraggled in August as their newly emerging feathers encased in sheaths push out their old feathers. But through September, as the new outer feathers finish growing, chickadees are also plumping up their down underwear. At their 10/10/10 party, they were at their most handsome. Their acrobatic antics added both beauty and levity to the backyard festivities.

No one fired up the grill—the kinglets were content to picnic on little bugs stirring on the unseasonably warm day, and the chickadees enjoyed both that and the vegetarian fare they found in my feeders. Whether the gathering was simply a coincident passage of significant numbers of kinglets migrating through the area or a jolly 10/10/10 celebration, it brightened my day and made me consider that even in a sour and scary election cycle, there really is a lot to celebrate on this lovely little planet.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

They're off!

Operation Migration!
Originally uploaded by Laura Erickson
This year's young Whooping Cranes following the Operation Migration ultralight aircraft to Florida took off this morning! Let's hope their start on 10-10-10 is an auspicious one, foretelling a simple, straightforward flight!

Follow their progress at the Operation Migration Field Journal: