Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Bird Beer!

My daughter gave me both nine wonderful birthday presents (belated because she just got home from NYC for the holidays) and a game which I had to play in order to get each of them. Match each bird with the city where the brewery is.

Last night she and I drank the Moa. It was exceptional!!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Fences and Owls

(Today's For the Birds transcript)
Last week I got a sad email from Mary-Ellen Holmes, who wrote from her farm south of Superior, Wisconsin, “This morning about 5:30, I went to check my horses. Unfortunately what I found was an owl attached to my electric fence. My fence is hot wire, cold wire, hot wire—all about a foot apart. It looks as if he was coming in for a mouse. His talons are outstretched and his wings are up and forward as if about to pounce. He made a direct hit with his feet on the bottom wire and grounded himself on the middle wire with his wings. It looks as if it was instantaneous as he appears to be in mid-flight. It was -21F at my house this morning so he is frozen solid…beautiful and perfect. This is such a freak accident. I have never seen anything even remotely like this. I feel terrible. But I have no idea how I could have foreseen this.” Mary-Ellen added, “I feel this death is a real loss. I try to live as closely and respectfully with the natural world as possible.”
Mary-Ellen’s fence was necessary, so this tragic loss couldn’t be helped. Fences kill millions of birds a year. The very most vulnerable species include owls and prairie grouse such as Sharp-tailed Grouse and Greater and Lesser Prairie-Chickens, because these birds fly low across open spaces. Owls have trouble seeing fences in the darkness. Prairie grouse probably do see but ignore fences. In their world, anything the width of grasses is soft and simply bends out of the way when they walk or fly through it, so they never suspect that anything so unyielding as wire exists until it’s too late.

In the early 90s, some Minnesota birders and I were headed to Arizona’s famous Madera Canyon for some early morning birding when we came upon a Barn Owl that was ensnared by a barbed wire fence. It had apparently been carrying a packrat to its nest when its dangling leg hit a barb, which ripped a three-inch tear in the skin and hooked firmly into it. The bird dangled upside down, both legs bloody and slashed up by the time we arrived on the scene. The temperature was already above 80, and the owl was starting to go into shock. Had we not discovered it until we were headed back for breakfast, it would almost certainly have been dead. Fortunately, I had enough experience as a rehabber to help it until the nearest veterinary clinic opened that morning. We left a message on their answering machine, and by the time we got there, a wildlife rehabber was on the scene. The bird needed quite a few stitches on both legs, and steroids and antibiotics. The rehabber kept it for four or five days, until it made a complete recovery. They released it exactly where we’d found it. In all likelihood, it immediately returned to its family.

This weekend, the Duluth News-Tribune reported that Kathy Paquette of West Duluth had found a Northern Saw-whet Owl ensnared in the mesh fence surrounding her garden. Fortunately, she found it while it was still doing well, so she untangled it and brought it to an area rehabber. This bird was held for observation overnight, and released at Paquette’s place the next day. The paper quoted her, “Oh, my god,” she said. “That was a dream come true for me. I love animals. I like to save animals… I was in tears, I was so happy I found him before he was dead.” I’m sure Mary-Ellen Holmes dearly wishes she could have saved the beautiful Great Horned Owl that had been electrocuted. Sad as its death was, at least this poor bird died instantly. Its body will be donated to a nature center for education, and Mary-Ellen said I could use photos of it in my own programs. There’s not much we can do about necessary fencing. But after fences have served their purpose and land use changes, old fencing should be removed. If photos of Mary-Ellen’s bird jolt even a few people take down unnecessary fences, the bird will not have died in vain.

Good fences do not make good neighbors, at least not for birds. Fortunately, good people do.

(Fence wire is still partly attached to this poor Barn Owl. I took this photo on August 6 at the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in Alabama. The bird was en route to a rehab clinic.)

Friday, December 3, 2010

Tapeworm Makes the Big Time

(Today's For the Birds script)

Back when I was rehabbing injured birds, I specialized in the care of Common Nighthawks. They were far more abundant in the 1980s and early 90s than they are now, and frequently were struck by cars or collided with transmission lines and guy wires. Of the dozens of nighthawks I cared for, a few had tapeworms. These intestinal parasites didn’t seem to weaken the birds—successful parasites often cause no ill effects—but I was fascinated. The perfectly rectangular, pearly cestode fragments glistened in a bird’s droppings. And in 1994, when humor columnist Dave Barry mentioned a factoid about duck tapeworms in a blurb he wrote for my first book, I was so grateful that I sent him a tapeworm in a tiny vial of alcohol, inside a velvet jewelry box. He sent me a postcard saying “Thanks. It was delicious,” and signed, Dave “Nighthawk” Barry.
Months later, when I was working on the computer, my son tapped me on the shoulder. I took off my headphones and he said, “Mom, there’s a man on the phone and he says he’s Dave Barry.”
Sure enough, Dave Barry was on the phone, wanting to know more about this particular tapeworm and the bird it came from, for his 1994 Holiday Gift Guide. And the following November, there was a photograph of the little tapeworm in its vial in newspapers all over the world. Dave Barry wrote:
Bird Tapeworm
This is the perfect gift for the person--such as your immediate supervisor--to whom you would really like to give an intestinal parasite.
This is an actual tapeworm. It came from a bird, and it was sent in for reasons that we still do not totally comprehend by Laura Erickson, who wrote a book entitled For the Birds: An Uncommon Guide (published by Pfeifer-Hamilton). This book contains a lot of amazing information about birds, including the fact that they get tapeworms. In fact, according to Erickson's book, a single duck can contain as many as 1,600 tapeworms, which explains why ducks always seem so cranky.
Erickson told us that the tapeworm she sent us came from a nighthawk named Bullwinkle. She didn't tell us the tapeworm's name, so we've been calling it Roger. Roger is only about the size of a grain of rice, but he has a lot of personality considering that he's dead and floating around in some kind of chemical solution. We talk to him a lot about things that are on our mind.
"Roger," we say, "Can you believe some guy wants $100 million a year just to play basketball?"
Roger doesn't say much--he's not a big sports fan--but he's a good listener, which is more than you can say for a lot of people. Plus you can put Roger in your pocket and carry him anywhere, which means that not only do you always have company, but you also have protection against assault by violent criminals. ("Get back! I have a tapeworm!")
Unfortunately, nighthawk tapeworms are not available in stores. If you want one for yourself or that special someone on your holiday gift list, you'll have to use the technique that Erickson used to obtain Roger: "You sit around and wait for the nighthawk to go to the bathroom."
You will do this if you really care.”

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Another Dave Barry story, about tapeworms.

During my 25-week countdown to the 25th anniversary of For the Birds, I’m reminiscing. Last time I talked about writing to humor writer Dave Barry after a Barred Owl dropped down someone’s chimney and caused a lot of damage that was not covered by the people’s homeowner’s insurance policy. That happened sometime in the late 1980s, and the postcard I got back from Dave Barry was one of my most prized possessions.
Then, in 1993 my first book, “For the Birds,” came out. The publisher, Pfeifer-Hamilton, was extremely good at marketing, and though marketing is not part of my own skill set, I was pretty cooperative, and quite a few top ornithologists wrote really nice blurbs for it. But Pfeifer-Hamilton’s marketing department wanted someone famous outside the birding world, not Chandler Robbins, Frank Gill, or Joe Grzybowski. They kept pressing me, insisting that I must know someone famous, and finally I blurted out that I’d once gotten a postcard from Dave Barry. They seized on that, and were going to ask him for a blurb for my book as one of my quote “correspondents.” I already knew that he had a policy of not writing blurbs for books, much less bird books, so I told them I’d write to him myself. The whole thing felt awkward and weird, but I finally composed a letter explaining what had happened and how I knew he didn’t write blurbs and asked him to just donate the book to his son’s school library. I thought that would be the end of it.
But less than a week later, what should appear in my mailbox but a blurb about my book, from Dave Barry! He wrote, “This book is invaluable. For example, it states that as many as 1,600 tapeworms have been found in a single duck. This is the kind of information I use every day.—Dave Barry.”
My publishers were elated, and I was in heaven. I needed to think about some way to thank him—something more than just a simple letter seemed in order. I was rehabbing birds at the time, and just happened to have a nighthawk who had tapeworms, so I cleaned one off, put it in a tiny vial of alcohol, placed it in a velvet jewelry box, and sent it to him. He quickly sent me back another postcard saying, “Thanks. It was delicious. —Dave ‘Nighthawk’ Barry.”

I was thrilled beyond measure.
Not long after that, my publishers called and asked me to go to the ABA convention in Los Angeles. This was thrilling—I felt like a jet-setting author—and even after I discovered that for them, ABA did not stand for American Birding Association but, rather, the American Booksellers Association, it was still exciting. All the authors were expected to do book signings. Dave Barry was so popular that they gave out tickets for his, setting the limit at 500 people. The first thing I did the moment I registered was to get one of those tickets.
The line at my own book signing never had more than 10 people, but Dave Barry’s stretched down the hall almost to the doors of the convention center. It moved fast. He just signed a book and handed it to the next person in a robotic rhythm. My heart was beating fast when I got to the head of the line. I’d wanted to say something pithy when it was my turn, but he was too busy for that, so I just smiled at him. But as he handed me the book, he noticed my nametag and stood up saying, “You’re the lady who sent me the tapeworm!” Of course, the next moment he was back in his chair signing “Dave Barry” and handing the next person a book, but to have one moment of recognition by Dave Barry was one of the coolest things that had ever happened to me. And the best tapeworm story was yet to come.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Homeowners Insurance

Barred Owl
Originally uploaded by Laura Erickson
In another program recounting 25 years of "For the Birds," I talked about my first encounter with humor writer Dave Barry today on For the Birds. Here's the script:

In the late 1980s, I got a call from friends of mine who lived north of Duluth in a big house in the woods. The biggest room was built as a sort of dormitory for a logging crew, and was prohibitively expensive to heat, so they’d close it off for most of the winter. That winter they started noticing that their two dogs were spending a lot of time at the door of the closed off room, so they finally went into it to investigate, and what to their wondering eyes should appear but a Barred Owl who had dropped down the chimney and been trapped in the room for apparently several days, pooping all over their walls, furniture, and rugs. The bird had perched atop several of their expensive art prints, leaving long streaks of slimy, acidic whitewash along the frames and glass, ruining the finish on the frames and in a couple of cases seeping between the frame and glass, wicking up onto the matting and actual prints. The bird had knocked expensive bric-a-brac off their fireplace mantel and shelves, messed all over their sofa and chairs, and even slashed through some of the upholstery with its talons. All in all, it had done an impressive amount of damage for a bird that weighs barely 2 pounds.
My friends, being civilized people not bent on revenge, captured the bird and safely released it outdoors, and then attended to the mess. They got estimates from professional cleaners for things they didn’t know how to begin to deal with, searched out their receipts for items damaged beyond repair, and brought all the documentation of their losses to their insurance agent. That’s when they got an even more distressing surprise—he told them that their homeowner’s policy doesn’t cover wildlife damage.
I looked at our own policy and, sure enough, wildlife damage is indeed excluded. So I called a few insurance salesmen asking about this, and they confirmed that standard homeowner’s policies do indeed exclude wildlife damage. I asked about the cases, particularly common in the 1800s before good building codes, when House Sparrows often picked up smoldering cigarette and cigar butts to incorporate into their nests, setting houses afire. The agents assured me that fire damage is always covered. Then I asked about a situation that happens fairly frequently up here, when Ruffed Grouse collide with a window, breaking the glass and sometimes causing damage indoors. Nope, that’s not covered by standard policies unless glass breakage is specifically added. I asked what happens when a kid throws a rock into a window, causing almost identical damage. That is covered, as vandalism. So what would happen, I asked, if a kid threw a Ruffed Grouse through the window? Every one of the agents laughed at the question, but none knew the answer, so they referred me to a couple of insurance adjustors. I asked them the same series of questions, and neither of them laughed—they both instantly asked, “Why do you want to know?”
So I wrote to Dave Barry, the Pulitzer Prize-winning humor writer, asking him to investigate the situation. He sent me back a postcard saying that his question was, “Is it covered if you shoot an insurance adjustor and he bleeds on your furniture?”
That postcard started a fairly long and always funny correspondence with Dave Barry; even now the National Outdoor Book Award website calls me “Dave Barry’s tapeworm advisor.” Next time I’ll share more stories about how that came about.