Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Bad bear! Bad! OR Summer Bird Feeding Issues

Black Bear
Transcript of For the Birds for August 31
This weekend, my mother-in-law and I came back at her house around 4:30 pm to a big mess. A bear had knocked down her birdbath and pulled apart her hanging feeder.

Bad bear! Bad!

It’s constructed of sturdy PVC, but the bear had ripped out one of the feeding ports by its screws and bent the thick wires holding the top in place.

Bad bear! Bad!

While she was repairing it, I found her old bleach bottle feeder crushed and chewed up in the undergrowth.

Bad bear! Bad!

Bears have long wandered through her yard in rural Port Wing, which is why she’s in the habit of bringing in her feeders every night except in winter when bears are hibernating. Unfortunately, this year a handsome young one has been turning up in broad daylight, and right now, when natural food should be most abundant, he’s coming more rather than less regularly.

Black Bear

He ripped apart her tray feeder so many times it’s irreparable, so Russ is building her a whole new one.

Bad bear! Bad!

But for now, because the bear just won’t stay away, she’s closing down her feeding station in hopes that he’ll head back into the woods where he belongs.

Black Bear

This particular bear is easy going and has allowed me to get some lovely photos. I’m partial to bears in general and very fond of this one, but it’s difficult to protect the needs of bears and people in the same space, and the bears who grow most accustomed to free food in backyards come to associate people and houses with free meals. Bears don’t necessarily discriminate between individual people, or at least are optimistic enough to generalize that if one person sets out free food, maybe others do, too. And when bears start approaching houses or people, it usually ends up very badly for the bear.

Summer feeding is a tricky issue because virtually no summer birds need bird feeders at all. Even so, some do benefit from feeders. Adult birds who spend most of their time incubating eggs or searching out insects for their young can benefit from quick meals for themselves between trips to the nest. During droughts and when flowers are scarce, hummingbird feeders enable more hummers to survive. And feeding summer birds can be a lovely pastime for us humans.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

But summer feeding can subsidize bears, squirrels, pigeons, starlings, blackbirds, and House Sparrows, and warm temperatures and wet soil can lead to fungal and bacterial growth fostering diseases harmful to birds. It’s also critical not to leave out so much food that it rots after a rain. Even birdbaths can cause more harm than good if they’re not kept clean, providing a medium for diseases to flourish and allowing mosquito eggs to hatch and emerge. Clean and refill birdbaths at least every 2 or 3 days.

Evening Grosbeak

This week a man in Bloomington was sentenced to a year’s probation for violating his city’s bird-feeding ordinance. He was dumping seed on the ground, attracting so many rodents and ducks that his neighbors complained. In some online forums, people have been complaining about draconian laws and ordinances, but really, unless we face the fact that bird feeding does have a dark side and do our best to ensure that it’s a positive experience for birds, other wildlife, and our neighbors, we’re going to make things tough for everyone. People who end up hating squirrels or birds thanks to our feeders are not going to feel very conservation minded, and people with grudges often start trapping or otherwise harming animals. And really, it’s our responsibility to be neighborly toward human as well as animal neighbors. Being conscientious about bird feeding is the right thing to do.

Purple Finch

Monday, August 29, 2011

Translating Owl Calls

Great Horned Owl
Transcript of For the Birds for August 30.
When my son Joey three, one day he came home from nursery school distressed at what he thought was egregious misinformation being disseminated to him and his fellow pupils . His teacher had read a book to the class in which dogs said “bow-wow,” cats said “meow,” chickens said, “cluck cluck,” and pigs said “oink.” Joey was indignant—he said everyone knows dogs go “Rrrrrrufff!”, cats go “mrrrrowwww,” chickens say, “brrrack, buk, buk,” and pigs snort. Russ and I had always done our best to mimic animal sounds, and I think it just must not have occurred to Joey that normal people have too much dignity or too little experience with animals to approximate their voices.

People have always come up with words—some making sense, some not—to describe animal vocalizations, especially bird songs. Owls are perhaps the easiest to assign a word to, because Great Horned Owls really do produce calls as close to “who who” as a wild non-human would want to. Nonetheless, people assign pretty strange sets of words to owl sounds. I’ve yet to hear a Barred Owl call out from a tree, “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?” Even if that does match the rhythm of their standard call, it’s odd to use a mnemonic about cooking for a bird who most assuredly prefers its meat raw.

Barred Owl

Shakespeare wrote in Love’s Labours Lost, “Then nightly sings the staring owl, To-whit! To-who!—a merry note.” In this case he was probably writing of the Tawny Owl, a European species found in England, related to our own Barred Owl.

An anonymous 13th century poem features a long debate between an owl and a nightingale. They weren’t precise about which species of owl, and it would be impossible to hazard a guess based on what he says, starting with,
Do you think that I can't sing just because I can't twitter? You often insult me and say things to upset and embarrass me. If I held you in my talons---if only I could!--and you were off your branch, you'd sing a very different tune!
He continues with a long soliloquy to the nightingale which includes,
I'm so fierce because of my proper nature. That's why I'm hated by the small birds that fly along the ground and through thickets. They scream and squawk at me and fly in flocks against me… I don't want to quarrel with the wretched creatures, so I give them a wide berth…One shouldn't quarrel with fools… My voice is confident, not diffident; it's like a great horn, and yours is like a whistle made from a spindly half-grown weed. I sing better than you do; you gabble like an Irish priest. I sing in the evening at the proper time, and afterwards when it is time to go to bed, the third time at midnight; and so I regulate my song. When I see dawn coming far off, or the morning star, I do good with my throat and call people to their business. But you sing all night long, from evening till dawn, and your song lasts as long as the night does and your wretched throat keeps on trilling without stopping, night or day. You constantly assault the ears of those who live around you with your piping, and make your song so cheap that it loses all its value.

That anonymous Middle English writer was sure giving some poor owl an awful lot of words besides “hoo, hoo.” I think Charles Dickens deserves the last word on owl vocalizations. In his magnificent book, A Tale of Two Cities, he wrote, “The owl made a noise with very little resemblance in it to the noise conventionally assigned to the owl by men- poets. But it is the obstinate custom of such creatures hardly ever to say what is set down for them.”

Northwoods Dawn Chorus

Northern Parula
Now that it's the end of August, I'm really missing the dawn chorus. When I need to focus on writing, and playing human-generated music grows distracting, I just play bird songs I recorded in years past. Of course, sometimes a bird song will distract me, but overall after I'd heard it often enough, a recording starts working as an ideal background. It brings me to a happy time and place while allowing me to concentrate on my work.

I made this recording, lasting 1 hour and 13 minutes, at dawn on May 24, 2009, when I was staying in Natural Lakes, near Presque Isle, Wisconsin. I'd set my omni-directional microphone on the deck and gone back in--until the screen door opens at the end when I stop the recording, the only mechanical sounds heard are an occasional bird hopping too close to the mic, though if you have your bass too high, the hummingbirds may sound like motor boats. I hear at least 31 species (thanks, jmj!). Let me know if you can add to the list.

You should be able to download the mp3 file to listen to whenever you like, though the file is almost 68 megabytes, so may take a while to download. Let me know if you have problems.

Trumpeter Swan
Common Loon
American Bittern
Mourning Dove
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Belted Kingfisher
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Pileated Woodpecker
Least Flycatcher
Great Crested Flycatcher
Eastern Kingbird
Blue Jay
American Crow
Tree Swallow
Barn Swallow
Black-capped Chickadee
Red-breasted Nuthatch
American Robin
Common Yellowthroat
Northern Parula
Yellow Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
Song Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Red-winged Blackbird
Common Grackle
Baltimore Oriole
American Goldfinch

Friday, August 26, 2011


(Transcript of For the Birds programs for August 26 and August 29, 2011, sponsored by Anne and Bob House. Thanks so much!)

When I got my first Golden field guide in early 1975, I spent hours poring over the pages, envisioning all the amazing species living in the wild right here in America—something this city girl from Chicago had never dreamed possible. One of the most surprising for me was the roadrunner. I’d grown up with the Looney Tunes Roadrunner, but it never occurred to me that the character always eluding Wile E. Coyote was based on an honest-to-goodness real bird.

The Greater Roadrunner has the scientific name Geococcyx californianus, which literally means the ground cuckoo from California. As the scientific name implies, the first roadrunner to make it into a scientific collection was shot in the Golden Gate state. A young French surgeon-naturalist named Paul-Emile Botta served on a French merchant ship on a voyage to California from 1826 to 1828.

The voyage was a disappointment as far as trade went, but during idle times, Botta headed out on natural history excursions to shoot all kinds of animals, some for food for the crew and some for scientific collecting. In 1829, he presented the Duke of Rivoli with a collection of bird carcasses he’d preserved from the voyage. The Duke in turn loaned the specimens to ornithologist Rene Lesson of Paris’s natural history museum. Lesson is the one who saw the bird’s relationship to cuckoos, thanks to its interesting feet, with two toes forward and two backward, its long tapered tail, and some other body features. This poor dead bird is the official type specimen of the Greater Roadrunner. Ironically, that means a French ornithologist who never came to America gets official credit for “discovering” a bird very well known to native peoples for millennia. But some of those native people got back by pulling the ship’s captain’s leg with shaggy dog stories. They told him roadrunners trap large poisonous snakes within a circle of cactus plants, so that the snakes get pricked all around by the needles and end up biting themselves to death. In a book the captain wrote about the voyage, and then in other published accounts of roadrunners, these stories ended up being reported as fact.

The Loony Tunes Roadrunner goes by various, far more fun scientific names, including Accelerati incredibilus, Velocitus tremenjus, Hot-roddicus supersonicus, Speedipus rex, Disappearialis quickius, Burn-em upus asphaltus, and Ultrasonicus ad-infinitum.

And roadrunners have a wide variety of nicknames, including Paisano, Chaparral Cock, Snake Killer, and Medicine Bird. They’ve been persecuted because they sometimes feed on quail eggs and chicks, but they also take venomous scorpions, spiders, and rattlesnakes. A single roadrunner can kill smaller snakes, but they also work together in pairs to take on larger ones. Quail are probably better off having a few roadrunners around than not. Although roadrunners drink plenty of water when available, they don’t need to, thanks to salt glands in front of their eyes, which excrete excess salt from their blood.

Greater Roadrunner

Except in the cartoon world, adult roadrunners seldom have run-ins with coyotes, but coyotes, raccoons, skunks, crows, ravens, and large snakes often take roadrunner eggs and nestlings. The only predators that occasionally take adult roadrunners are Red-tailed and Cooper’s Hawks. My friend Bob, who put me up while I was in New Mexico, told me that once a roadrunner wandered into his shop and just kept hiding behind things. When most wild birds find themselves indoors, they head for higher vantage points. Bob thought this one might have been going through his office shelves because hidden among various industrial supply catalogs was The ACME Catalog, the sole purveyor of products used by Looney Tunes characters.

The cartoon Roadrunner produces a sound just about everyone recognizes. It was recorded by Paul Julian, a background artist for Looney Tunes. Although that’s a Merrie Melody indeed, real roadrunners make a call more appropriate for a member of the cuckoo family.


On December 27, 1978, when Russ and I were camping at Texas’s Falcon State Park, I saw my first Greater Roadrunner. I was so thrilled to see my lifer after months of anticipation that I had trouble falling asleep, and then kept dreaming about roadrunners. At sunrise, I took a walk and saw two or three different roadrunners sitting high in trees, holding some body feathers erect to direct the sunlight to their black skin, heating up their body after a night of torpor. I watched one of them fly out of the tree, make a long glide to earth, and instantly snap up a lizard. By then I’d read about all these behaviors I was now witnessing in person. Seeing them for the first time, in a beautiful setting on a solitary walk during a lovely dawn, filled me with a soul-deep satisfaction that still makes me smile.

We were in Texas for a week, and managed to see roadrunners often enough that I stopped recording every detail in my field notebook, but not so often that I ever said, “It’s just another roadrunner.” Since then, I’ve seen roadrunners on fewer than 20 occasions, in Texas, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, and California, so most of my understanding of this bird is based more on reading than reality. Even so, the magical encounters I’ve had with this bird sealed the roadrunner’s place in my heart.

When I was in New Mexico, I spent an hour when I was supposed to be paying attention to a seminar watching a roadrunner outside a convention hall window. The bird seemed to be examining her reflection in the glass, moving her head about while apparently maintaining eye contact with her image, but even as she seemed engrossed, if an insect or lizard moved anywhere within three or four feet of her, she instantly snatched and swallowed it.

Greater Roadrunner looking through the window at us

She slowly worked her way along the windows of the large hall, and twice I changed seats to stay in line with her. When she reached the end of the windows and I lost sight of her, I went outside to watch her some more. She glanced at me occasionally as she worked her way down another line of windows, but was far, far less interested in me than I was in her.

Greater Roadrunner

When I was leaving Las Cruces, I had to stop at a border checkpoint, which surprised me because even though I was close to the border, I’d not left the United States. While I was in line waiting, a roadrunner stopped to take a dust bath right next to my car. I pulled up my camera, but as fast as a roadrunner snatching a bug, one of the homeland security guards ran up to my car and told me I was prohibited from taking any photographs there. I didn’t bother to argue—his charging toward me scared the bird off anyway.

Roadrunners maintain a long-term pair bond, and work together to defend their large territory year-round. Every year around their anniversary, as their hormones rev up, each pair goes through a series of elaborate courtship displays in which the male bows and prances, wags his tail, and offers nesting material and food items to his mate. She does most of the nest building while he gathers most of the materials, which include twigs, snakeskin, leaves, feathers, and dry flakes of cattle and horse manure. The female lays 3–6 eggs. The parents, who both have a brood patch, start incubating as soon as the first egg is laid, because protection from dry desert heat is as critical as protecting eggs from freezing. Both parents feed and protect the chicks throughout the 3-week nestling stage, and then for at least another month as the chicks become independent. Then the parents may produce a new clutch.

Studying nesting roadrunners is not for the faint of heart. Starvation is such a risk in the desert that occasionally a chick will weaken, grow lethargic, and stop begging for food. When one parent notices this, it tosses the chick into air and then either swallows it whole or feeds it to a stronger nestling.

Roadrunners are clever, fast, and fierce, but their lives are difficult and their world harsh—the oldest wild Greater Roadrunner known to the US Geological Survey’s Bird Banding Lab lived only 3 years 9 months. Even captive ones don’t survive much longer—the record for survival at the National Zoo was only 5 years 3 months. It seems brutally unfair that such a splendid bird doesn’t get to spend more time on this little planet. Fortunately, one individual Roadrunner raises the average lifespan of its species appreciably, because that one is apparently immortal.

Production of this episode of For the Birds was made possible by a generous grant from Anne and Bob House. I’m Laura Erickson, speaking For the Birds.

You can sponsor a For the Birds program about the bird of your choice.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Gazing in wonder at nighthawks!

John Schoenherr's drawing of nighthawks
from the book Rascal

(Transcript of today's For the Birds)
Over our lifetimes, a few moments of a few days stand out with such amazing clarity that we can look back, decades later, with vivid memories. I had a lot of these moments when I was a new birder, but even now, 36 years after I started, I have an occasional experience with birds so splendid that it sears itself into my very soul. And last night I had one of those exceptional, glorious, once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

I went up to Hawk Ridge at 6 pm sharp for orientation with Julie O’Connor and a group of new volunteers. As I got there, Karl Bardon, the raptor counter, was just packing up for the day. He told me he’d been seeing 3–4,000 nighthawks wandering back and forth along the shore. Orientation was already starting, so I headed over to join the others. And when we started scanning the skies, voila! A huge but loose collection of nighthawks numbering at least 500 and maybe closer to a thousand was straight out from us, wending its way up rather than down the shore. Julie was getting everyone used to Hawk Ridge’s style of showing people how to use binoculars and how to locate birds in the sky, and these nighthawks made the lesson fun.

Juvenile Common Nighthawk

Then we went up to the counter’s elevated perch. A small flock of Cedar Waxwings sat in one of the bare trees just a few feet away—one was so intent on snapping up a small moth that it flew right above the head of one of the volunteers.

Cedar Waxwing

And a hummingbird flew right up to a volunteer’s waistline to examine the muted red stripes on his belt. These fun experiences with some of Hawk Ridge’s characteristic August avifauna were already making the evening memorable.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

But then, those nighthawks that had been down by the shore started working their way up the hill. And suddenly we were surrounded! There were nighthawks everywhere—darting this way and that all around us, some coming just inches from our faces as they bounced about the skies in a pre-migration pig out. Their graceful wings sliced through the air at such close range that the white crescents near the tips glowed in the early evening sun. At such close range the white throats on the adult males stood out like beacons. I stood there transfixed, drinking in details like the capacious mouth when a bird took aim and flew straight into a flying insect.
The birds didn’t seem to be going anywhere—I could keep a single one in my field of view as it circled and veered and rose and fell in the sky for 30 seconds or more, until my attention veered to another at half the distance. A few had very short tails. These were juveniles who maybe had a late start but were holding their own with the grownups. Even when there were at least a hundred within a 10-yard radius around us, each one flying its own erratic path, there wasn’t a single collision.

Juvenile Common Nighthawk

Twenty-one years ago, on August 26, 1990, Mike Hendrickson counted 43,690 nighthawks in 2 ½ hours up the shore from Duluth. I’ve had nights counting nighthawks by the tens of thousands through my neighborhood. Now their biggest flights are more likely to number in the dozens or hundreds as their troubling decline has been steady and significant. This flight was an order of magnitude less than the biggest flights of the past. But not one of the evenings when I was counting thousands decades ago holds a candle to my being right in the midst of so many birds. This was an experience I’ll treasure for the rest of my life.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Red-breasted Nuthatches

(Transcript of today's For the Birds program)

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Every summer, one or two pairs of Red-breasted Nuthatches nest in my neighborhood. In August, this handful of birds is joined by plenty of others. Suddenly their adorably whiny little calls come from my trees just about all day every day. They’re very curious, and quickly discover the little feeder on my upstairs window, which I fill a couple of times a day with mealworms. At first the nuthatches defer to the bigger chickadees, but as they work out my habits and those of the individual chickadees, they become bolder about flying into my hand before I can even get the mealworms into the feeder.

Red-breasted Nuthatch

These feisty little birds are very sturdy and able to fly long distances. Indeed, the Red-breasted Nuthatch is the only North American nuthatch to have crossed the Atlantic to Europe as a vagrant.

There are two nuthatches in the northland. The larger of the two, the White-breasted Nuthatch, is more associated with hardwood trees, has beady black eyes set off within its white face, and has a cranky call.

White-breasted Nuthatch detail

The tinier Red-breasted Nuthatch is associated with coniferous forests, has a conspicuous black eye line, and sounds whiny. Anyone who has dealt with toddlers can distinguish between cranky and whiny.

Red-breasted Nuthatch

In my backyard, the Red-breasted Nuthatches are seen both in my spruce trees and my deciduous ones—the birds that visit my window feeder spend a lot of time in the box elder right out the window from me. I watch them moving up and down the trunk, and also inspecting the twigs and small branches, probing little crevices and leaf surfaces.

Red-breasted Nuthatch

If I keep one in view for several minutes in summer, I just about always watch it catch a surprisingly large insect larva. These plump, juicy larvae aren’t available in winter. Rather than waste a lot of time probing for frozen insect eggs and pupae hidden more deeply in woody crevices, Red-breasted Nuthatches focus a lot of their attention on conifer seeds, which they feed on voraciously and also cache in bark crevices. They often hide seeds under pieces of bark or lichen. At our feeders, they prefer sunflower seed and peanuts, and also suet.

Red-breasted Nuthatch

By mid-August, Red-breasted Nuthatches are entirely done breeding for the year. Their nest holes are about the same size, and in the same kinds of trees, as chickadee nest holes. But if you discover a tiny hole in a rotten tree, during the breeding season or when you’re chopping wood in fall and winter, it’s easy to figure out whether it was built by a Red-breasted Nuthatch or a chickadee. Red-breasted Nuthatches collect resin globules from coniferous trees and plaster them around the entrance of the nest hole. They can carry the resin in their bills or on pieces of bark that they use as applicators. The male puts resin primarily around the outside of the hole while the female puts it around the inside. The resin may help to keep out predators or competitors. The nuthatches don’t get sticky feathers from it because they dive directly through the hole without resting on the edge.

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Red-breasted Nuthatches are an irruptive species, which can disappear from large areas of their range during years when cone production is poor, and be abundant in years when there are plenty of cones. We virtually always have at least a few all winter in the northland, but some years they’re scarcer than others. So far, 2011 is shaping up to be a good one for these spirited, charismatic little birds, and for those of us who treasure them.

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Link to Red-breasted Nuthatch on All About Birds.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

August Birding

(Transcript of today's For the Birds)
Last year, 2010, I spent the second half of August and the first few days of September staring at and photographing birds in our cherry trees, which were laden with fruit. At any moment, the tree might have half a dozen tanagers, orioles, and warblers, along with robins, jays, chickadees, and hummingbirds.

Scarlet Tanager in my cherry tree

I couldn’t imagine an August being any more wonderful. This year the cherries ripened at least three weeks earlier than last year, and were fewer in number. They started turning red in early July and were totally gone by August 9, over a week before most early migrants arrived. I did have a couple of orioles, two Cape May Warblers, a host of young robins and jays, and plenty of neighborhood squirrels and chipmunks.

Baltimore Oriole in Russ's cherry tree

But if the cherries didn’t lure in much variety, it turns out that I’m still having at least as much fun watching my backyard birds this August as I did last year. The most joyful element in this year’s backyard birding has been the flock of Evening Grosbeaks that arrived on August 4. I’d gone well over a decade since last seeing flocks of them in my yard, but for the past two weeks, I’ve been waking up to their calls, and have been seeing them in my box elder and maple trees, bird bath, and feeders all day every day. I’ve been able to get lots of splendid photos by hanging out various windows. Evening Grosbeaks were a constant presence in my yard back in the 1980s, and having them back again fills me with contentment even as I realize they’re almost certainly not going to be a constant presence anytime soon.

Evening Grosbeak

Their constant calls may be luring in other birds who happen to be passing over, because I seem to have more of other species than normal this early in August, too. Goldfinches and Purple Finches are around most of the time, along with Red-breasted Nuthatches. I’m hoping that I’ll get lots of fall warbler photos as their migration swells.

American Goldfinch

Adult male hummingbirds are at the peak of their migration right now, and adult females are starting to move through, too. For one brief and shining moment, I had another species—probably a Rufous Hummingbird—but it was instantly chased off by a Ruby-throat. I only noticed that it was different because it was noticeably smaller than the male Ruby-throat. Checking for vagrants makes hummingbird-watching more suspenseful, but it’s fun and exciting even when the only birds are Ruby-throats. I’ve got three feeders set up, and the hummers fight over them. Their sputtery notes catch my attention whenever they come in. I just got a new flash for my camera, and I’m going to be playing with it on sunny days to try to freeze the hummers’ wingbeats.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

A family of baby jays has been visiting my feeders and bird bath. Their crests and back are grayer than on older birds, but otherwise these adorable birds look pretty indistinguishable from adults, except for their awkwardness when learning new skills. They’re especially clumsy when trying to get fruits—their feet are too big to wrap around the outer twigs of most trees and shrubs, and a couple of them figured out how to get cherries by simply crashing into them in flight, and then dropping to the ground to pick them up. One of my baby robins seemed to have worked out the same strategy.

Blue Jay grabbing one of the last cherries

I’ve also been watching a baby Mourning Dove figure out independent life. I got an amazing series of photos as the little bird preened on the power line to my house. Yes, watching birds in August is as rich and satisfying as birding can possibly be.

Mourning Dove

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Mourning Dove preening

A young Mourning Dove took a nap on the powerline to my house and then started preening, while I was leaning out my upstairs window clicking away.
Mourning Dove

Mourning Dove

Mourning Dove

Mourning Dove

Mourning Dove

Mourning Dove

Mourning Dove

Mourning Dove

Mourning Dove

Mourning Dove

Mourning Dove

Mourning Dove

Mourning Dove

Mourning Dove

Mourning Dove