Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Space Coast Birding Festival

Painted BuntingI'm in Titusville, Florida, for the Space Coast Birding Festival. Every day I'll post one photo. I took this one yesterday on the porch of the visitors center at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. They have a sign saying if you want to see one, take three steps back and keep watching. (They maintain several feeders there.) This one came in within just a minute or two.

Painted Buntings are becoming ever more common feeder birds in Florida in winter. They used to be more common like this, but declined dramatically for a while, so this is one bright spot in the world of conservation.

Sunday, January 16, 2011


Gray Jay
Originally uploaded by Laura Erickson
Erik Bruhnke and I had a fabulous time this weekend at the first annual Brrrdathon. This fun event was created by the ever-wonderful Sparky Stensaas in order to raise money toward four goals:
1. Acquire bog habitat in the Sax-Zim Bog area of St. Louis County, Minnesota
2. Build a small “Birder Welcome Center” on the land
3. Create a HD natural history movie about Black Spruce/Tamarack bogs
4. Fund educational/research projects centered on peatlands and associated birdlife

Erik and I only went out one day this year, but next year we hope to do the 2-day count. It's a great way to start a new year of birding--celebrating northern birds in the service of ensuring their futures.

Erik and I both entered the photothon, too, and he won!! We had really good conditions for photography--I'll be posting some of my photos in the next few days. We had great light and cooperative birds, though the Gray Jay in this photo didn't hang around long. If you're on flickr, make sure you check "see original size" to see the detail in some of the photos.

No one should start their year listlessly!

Friday, January 14, 2011

More about Bird Deaths

(Transcript from today's For the Birds program)

This summer, on a drive between Chicago and Duluth, my daughter and I stopped by one of my favorite birding spots outside Madison, Wisconsin. Goose Pond is a tract of restored prairie surrounding a lovely pond that serves as a magnet for migrating waterfowl and nesting grounds for songbirds, ducks, and Sandhill Cranes. Madison Audubon, which manages the property, has worked tirelessly over the past four decades to both restore the land and to work with nearby farmers, both encouraging them to manage their land in sustainable ways and to help them deal with any problem caused by birds. I was active in Madison Audubon during the years I lived in Madison, and Goose Pond is near and dear to my heart. Every time I drive along the nearby stretch of I-94, my personal tradition is to stop at the Arlington Rocky Rococo’s to pick up a slice of pizza to eat on the roadside next to Goose Pond while I scan for birds.

Katie and I stopped there in August. I love that time of year, when lots of newly-independent young birds are learning the ropes. The day was cool but sunny, and a lot of birds were gathered on the country road, basking in sunshine and picking up bugs.

But on this occasion, for the first time in the 35 years that I’ve been visiting Goose Pond, we came upon dozens of dead birds littering the roadside along the eighth-of-a-mile stretch. Apparently one or more trucks or cars had passed by at high speed, smashing into Cedar Waxwings, Tree Swallows, and Red-winged Blackbirds. I’ve come upon sights like this before, when my heart starts pounding. Every year there are fewer and fewer places where habitat is managed specifically for wildlife, and even those places are not safe. Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, one of the few jewels of natural habitat left along Florida’s Atlantic coastline, sits between Titusville and the Kennedy Space Center. The road cutting through it has a 55-mile-per-hour speed limit, and cars go much faster as drivers race to work or to visit the space center or beach. I go there every time we visit our son in Florida, and I’ve never once driven that stretch without seeing dead wildlife—sometimes literally hundreds of dead birds, after a car or truck plows through a flock flying across the road. When I started birding in 1975, I very often saw dead Red-headed Woodpeckers along roadsides. This beautiful species used to be so common that it was featured on the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s exquisite poster of birds commonly seen in backyards. Now in most of the areas where they once were abundant, Red-headed Woodpeckers have become so rare that if one is seen, it makes birding hotlines. Automobiles are also a major factor in the decline of Barn Owls and Short-eared Owls.

Dozens or hundreds of birds are killed every year near many individual ornamental fruit trees, after berries or crabapples start fermenting. The birds grow intoxicated, and collide with trees, buildings, cars, and one another. Some state DNRs provide educational pamphlets about plantings for birds, and strongly advise people to plant these trees away from roadsides and large windows to prevent the worst kills, but few people are aware of this hazard. Intoxication is apparently what caused the recent bird kill in Italy.

In the 35 years since I started birding, after DDT was banned, national and even local news media have been pretty much ignoring all of these bird deaths. Few people remember the thousands and thousands of dead Swainson’s Hawks littering South American farm fields thanks to pesticides barely a decade ago. But suddenly these stories are in vogue. Unlike when thousands of dead robins were being picked up in the 1960s thanks to DDT, this time the spin has nothing to do with protecting birds. In unsettling times, people who know nothing about birdlife are looking for evidence of a divine retribution. One minister even made national news by claiming that these bird deaths are proof that God is punishing us for ending the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy. A world without birds is apocalyptic enough for me, but none of the news media seem the least bit concerned about either declining bird populations or the tragedy of individual bird deaths—they’re seizing on the most bizarre storylines without the slightest glimmer of realization that the world we’ve created where these large scale bird deaths are becoming ever more commonplace really is a world where our own long-term survival as a species and our own quality of life are becoming ever more tenuous.


Originally uploaded by Laura Erickson
(Transcript from Thursday's For the Birds program)

In April, 2000, I was keynote speaker at a birding festival in Ohio, talking about owls. After my talk, a woman plied me with questions about my experiences handling owls as a rehabber, and how my understanding of their wild behaviors affected how I managed their care. During the course of our conversation, I mentioned that I had permits to keep an education owl, but hadn’t yet found an unreleasable bird. And at that moment, her face lit up, because she had an Eastern Screech-Owl that she’d had for almost a full year. He’d been sick and almost died as a very young chick, and his care required so much handling that he’d become imprinted. All the educational facilities in the area had their limit of birds, so she was thrilled that I could take him. Of course, I needed my state and federal permits in order to fly home with him, so I called Russ and asked him to fax them to me. Unfortunately for him, I keep the files in my four huge file drawers organized in taxonomic order, not alphabetically, but he assured me it didn’t take him too long. I had to arrange with the airline to fly with a bird and had to pay an extra $75 for the one-way flight, though he was in a little cardboard box the size a pet store puts a guinea pig in.

Archimedes has been a wonderful companion for almost 11 years. Every winter he starts calling, and we get into fun back-and-forth conversations. But during this time, it never once occurred to me to record his voice. Then on January 11, for some reason I had a flash of inspiration and brought up a microphone to try. I started with the microphone that I use for recording this radio program, and he called several times, but the mic just wasn’t sensitive enough to pick up his voice, though he was pretty close to it. So then I tried my Sennheiser directional mic. What you’re hearing in the background of this program is the recording I made of his voice.

During the year that he was kept at the Ohio rehab center, Archimedes heard quite a few Eastern Screech-Owls. Duluth is north of their typical range. I heard a wild one once in my neighborhood, but that was exceptional. So for the past 11 years, Archimedes has heard his own species calling very rarely if at all. He calls most intensely in late fall and again in early spring—this year I’ll try to get recordings when he’s making the trill call, and when he’s making longer whinnies. Here he’s making just a soft, short whinny.

For the first 45 or so years of my life, I never imagined living with an owl. There is definitely a dark side to it—sometimes I get very sad defrosting mice every night. I order them from a place in Louisiana. It was tricky finding a good dealer. First I tried a place that sells mice raised for medical research, figuring they’d at least died for a good cause. But they smelled after being defrosted, because they’d already been dissected at room temperature, and I also started thinking about the pharmaceuticals they’d been exposed to for research, and decided it was just too chancy. Many of the mice from my second supplier bore scratches and wounds that meant they’d been overcrowded and must have led sad existences. Now the mice I get look fit and healthy except for being dead. They’re killed with carbon dioxide and sent frozen in dry ice. I always feel sad at dinner time, and suspect that I’ll never want to deal with them again when Archimedes is gone.

The other dark side to living with an owl is keeping his room clean. I won’t get into details, but suffice it to say it’s not pleasant. But Archimedes has been an exceptional companion. As his 12th birthday approaches, I’m hoping he’ll set new longevity records for screech owls. He’s a treasure, and I feel lucky beyond measure to have been able to spend so much time in his company.

Birds falling from sky

(Transcript of Wednesday's For the Birds program)
Ever since New Year’s Eve, stories have been making international news about birds falling dead from the skies. On January 6, Discovery News put it this way:
It has been a bad week for wild animals. Starting just before the turn of the New Year, 500 red-wing blackbirds died together in Louisiana. Some 100 jackdaws turned up dead on a street in Sweden. And in Arkansas, about 5,000 blackbirds were found dead after crashing into roofs, mailboxes and the ground.
On January 5, a report from Faenza, a town in Italy, said that hundreds or thousands of turtle-doves were found scattered in streets and yards and hanging from trees. Some of the birds bore a mysterious blue stain in their beaks. Other reports of dead birds came from Sweden.

Large-scale bird deaths aren’t uncommon. People walking the streets of Chicago, New York, or other large cities sometimes pick up dozens to hundreds of birds on mornings after peak spring and fall migration events, because so many birds flying through the night sky collide with lighted sky scrapers and communications towers. Much larger events occur occasionally. In Baton Rouge LA, in July 1896, a shower of birds including ducks, catbirds, woodpeckers, and warblers, fell from a clear sky, literally cluttering the streets of the city. This kill was explained as an aftermath of a storm off Florida. Many thousands of birds were found under a single TV tower in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, after heavy migration during a foggy September night in 1957, and again in 1963.
On September 11, 1948, thousands of migrating birds were killed when they crashed into the Empire State Building in New York City and into the transmitting tower of Radio Station WBAL in Baltimore. On the night of October 7-8, 1954, 50,000 birds of 53 species dropped dead on the runways of Warner Robbins Air Force Base south of Macon, Georgia. A low cloud ceiling apparently drew the birds to the ceilometer lights.

On March 13, 1904, at least three quarters of a million migrating Lapland Longspurs were killed overnight in and near Worthington, Minnesota. The birds came from the Iowa prairies in a vast horde, and from 11 P.M. until morning, they were killed by crashing against buildings, electric light poles and wires, and by dashing themselves forcibly onto the frozen ground and ice. On January 22, 1998, up to 10,000 birds, mostly Lapland Longspurs, were killed at a communications tower during a West Kansas snowstorm.
So large numbers of dead birds falling from the sky is not new. The largest recent bird kill seems to have been the one in Arkansas, which was apparently caused when illegal, professional-grade fireworks were set off at midnight. In Arkansas, blackbirds, robins, and starlings roost together in huge flocks, many numbering in the millions. I’ve spent January in Arkansas, and seen the amazing density of blackbird flocks there. Unlike many songbirds, these species do not migrate by night. If tremendously loud fireworks in the middle of the night set these birds off in a panic, flying helter skelter, they’d be colliding at high speed with one another and with trees, poles, wires, buildings, and the ground. Necropsies done on many of them established that the cause of death was internal injuries from blunt force trauma.

Final reports haven’t been released about the causes of the other bird mortality events yet, but there are so many known ways for birds to die, from pesticides to collisions, that I’m sure each one has a straightforward cause. But sadly, now that our news is driven by Facebook and Twitter, items that would have made at most a 1-minute closing story on the local news are suddenly worldwide headlines, and each report feeds on and tries to top similar stories.

Some news accounts of the bird deaths have included the most recent Apocalyptic predictions. Although Matthew 24:36 makes it pretty clear that no one can know the day or hour, some of these predictions get pretty specific, like one that sets it for this coming May 21. That happens to fall right in the middle of spring migration, so I guess I’ll have to skip the Apocalypse this time around.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The truth about Woodstock

Poor Woodstock. One dark and stormy night, she had to undergo a sex-change operation simply in order to finally be taken seriously by Snoopy and Charles Schulz.

My letter from Charles Schulz!

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Up there with Bob Dylan!!!

Duluth's new DECC AMSOIL Arena was designed with quotes by Bob Dylan (born in Duluth), Sam Cook (Duluth's popular outdoors columnist), Dennis Anderson (Duluth's popular newsman), Erwin and Monnie Goldfine (prominent business owners), Jim Malosky (long time UMD Bulldog coach), Jeno and Lois Paulucci (prominent business owners), Mike Sertich (long time UMD Bulldog coach), and Al Amatuzio (founder of AMSOIL). And ME!! Oh, my! It's an honor, and pretty appropriate to have me up there over their environment display and the women's bathroom, since Sam Cook did just write about me keeping a list of birds that poop on me.

Monday, January 3, 2011

First bird of the New Year: What does it mean?

Black-capped Chickadee

Every year on January first, the moment I wake up I head to the window to see what my first bird of the New Year will be. My hope is usually that it will be a chickadee or a Blue Jay. Both seem like excellent omens. Chickadees seem to promise a year marked with civility and good cheer. Blue Jays seem to promise a year marked with intelligence and good humor.
Blue Jay

On January first, 1986, I opened a window shade to see a Great Horned Owl sitting right atop our big spruce tree. I was thinking at the time that it probably foretold a year of steadfastness and singleness of purpose. At the time I didn’t even imagine producing a radio program, much less sticking with it for 25 years, but 1986 does happen to be the year I started producing “For the Birds.”
Great Horned Owl

One would think we’d grown a bit less superstitious since the days of augury, when people foretold the future by looking at bird entrails. My forecasts aren’t so gutsy, but they’re equally grounded in a fantasy-based rather than reality-based universe. But my predictions do at least acknowledge what a bird’s life is like. If someone’s first bird happens to be a goldfinch, I predict a year marked with either vegetarian dining or one in which they change their plumage a bit more than normal. Goldfinches are one of the only vegan species in the avian world, and they undergo a complete molt twice rather than the typical single time each year.
Levitated American Goldfinch

House Finch
House Finches are originally from the Southwest and Mexico, but those released on Long Island back in the 40s have spread throughout the East, many living as far north as Duluth and beyond. So seeing them first may predict that this year, someone is going to pluck you out of your normal environment but you'll thrive anyway.

A crow predicts, in my system, a year marked by intelligence and clear communication.
American Crow

A Downy Woodpecker might predict a year of cleverly adapting to more powerful neighbors and co-workers. This I base on the fact that downies often follow Pileated Woodpeckers to peck into the deep holes Pileateds dig. That gives the little guys access to bugs way too deep in the heartwood for them to reach on their own.
Downy Woodpecker

A Cooper's Hawk may mean the year will be filled with ruthlessness and focus. (Photo courtesty of Erik Bruhnke)

A Wild Turkey may foretell a need for wariness this year, but also indicates that you’ll have the skills and strength to defend yourself.

Wild Turkey

A Pine Grosbeak may signify hardiness and a year of excellent camaraderie.
Pine Grosbeak

A cardinal foretells a year filled with song and grace or, for baseball fans, a year when the St. Louis team will do really well, like it or not.
Northern Cardinal closeup

One of my friends spotted a Turkey Vulture first this year, and was naturally concerned about what that might foretell. I predicted a year of soaring to great heights. He might occasionally find himself dining on items that other people don't have a taste for, but I told him he’d seldom dine alone. He hoped it would also indicate a year of sleeping late every day, which made sense to me. When skies are clear, Turkey Vultures often sit on rooftops or bare branches with their wings held out, soaking in a few rays to drive off parasites and dry their feathers, so I predicted that this year he could enjoy relaxing in the sunshine whenever he felt like it.
Turkey Vulture

If you see a Bald Eagle first, this year you may develop an unexpected interest in fish, or fall in love with a Pisces. Whether or not either of those things happen, you'll certainly have a year marked with strength, tenacity, and resourcefulness.
Bald Eagle detail

If your first bird is an American Robin, you may have a year filled with interesting travel that will prove enjoyable even though you won't have an itinerary. Part of the time, expect to feel convivial and sociable, but part of the time you're going to feel very prickly about others invading your personal space.
American Robin

If you're lucky enough to see a Tufted Titmouse first, expect that this year when you see something that arouses your curiosity, you'll not be able to stop yourself from fully investigating. You may spend more time with close family members than with others this year. But unlike some relatives I could name, when you're headed somewhere, you go straight there, no undulating about it.
Tufted Titmouse

Seeing a Double-crested Cormorant as your first bird promises a year in which you'll explore your world more deeply than usual. Some people may not recognize your true character and attractiveness, but those who know you best all see how wonderful you really are. You'll have a good year working with your team.
Double-crested Cormorant

If your first bird was a Dark-eyed Junco, you should be well-grounded all year. You may find yourself making more fascinating exits than entrances.
Dark-eyed Junco at my feeder

If your first bird of the year was a Common Raven, this would be an excellent year to take the SAT's, since you'll be at your peak in both verbal and mathematical skills. You'll find family communications are at their peak, too. You may occasionally find yourself picking on those who seem weaker, but you won't mean it maliciously.
Raven attacking Northern Hawk Owl

Seeing a Pine Siskin first may indicate that you're headed for an extraordinarily sociable year. People who think they know all about you may be surprised at your unexpected comings and goings, but you'll know exactly where you are and why.
Pine Siskin at my feeder

Many people see pigeons as their first bird. These birds signify a year centered on home and hearth. You are far more intelligent and interesting than most people suspect, but you don't care in the least that you are underestimated. You thrive no matter what.
Rock Pigeon

If you see a Buff-bellied Hummingbird first, you're going to zero in on the competition this year and not give an inch. Your year will be marked with feistiness and high energy levels, and also with beauty. Your year may be exceptionally sweet, but more with regard to your diet and surroundings than your character. (Photo by Kay Baughman of her actual first bird of the year!)

The first bird of the year may or may not be an auspicious event in the classic tradition, but if we pay attention to the birds around us, we’re guaranteed a year of visual and auditory delights. And that’s a good thing no matter what species is our first.