Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thanksgiving Gratitude

(Transcript of Thanksgiving For the Birds)
Russ and Laura

Sometimes I feel like the richest person in the whole world. I’m hardly wealthy—my annual income usually barely reaches 5 figures and will certainly never see 6 figures—but I’ve got everything I need and more. Russ and I are happy, our children are healthy, wonderful human beings, our house is holding together, and our little dog Photon is still perky and loving at 13 ½.


My cats, one brought in as a stray and one that was a feral cat in one of those Trap-Neuter-Release programs, are both lovely, healthy pets satisfied with life as indoor cats.


I’ve been living with a sweet little Eastern Screech-Owl for almost 12 years, and Archimedes is still easy-going and happy to do education programs with me.

An owl and his human

Photographers just about always want new lenses and the latest camera bodies, but I’m very satisfied with the equipment I have right now. Yeah, I could use a 500-mm lens and one of the cameras with a professional-level sensor, but I’m so happy with the photos that I get with my own setup that I don’t feel the least bit envious of those with better equipment, and at the end of a long hike, I’m especially grateful that I don’t have bigger, heavier gear.

Laura Erickson

After coming home from the Grand Canyon, I’m grateful for the existence of California Condors, and that there are so many individuals and organizations and government employees who have worked so tirelessly for so many decades struggling to bring this exquisite bird back from the brink of extinction. And I’m grateful for the Grand Canyon itself, along with all the other public lands in America.

Grand Canyon

In 1953, Roger Tory Peterson brought his English friend James Fisher on a 100-day birding adventure to America’s greatest locations. After they returned home, Fisher wrote in Wild America of how the media shows what America is like to Europe:

They show us too little of their earthly paradise, and publicize too little their determination to share it with wild nature. Perhaps they have forgotten that they had dedicated National Parks before we in England had even one little, local, private nature-protection society. Or perhaps they think that to tell of these things would arouse again our not-so-secret resentment at the boast that all that the Americans have is bigger and better… [N]ever have I seen such wonders or met such worthy landlords so worthy of their land. They have had, and still have, the power to ravage it; and instead have made it a garden.

Not all the places Fisher and Peterson visited are still intact, as Scott Weidensaul found during the time he was retracing their steps, recounted in Return to Wild America: A Yearlong Search for the Continent's Natural Soul. But I’m grateful for the many places that have been preserved so lovingly for you and me and the plants and animals that have so enriched every human being who has lived here from our earliest history. I’m grateful to live in a world dotted with Bridled Titmice, Mountain Chickadees, ravens, Gambel’s Quails, and Cinnamon Teal.

Bridled Titmouse

I’m grateful that someone once named a strikingly shiny black bird with a jaunty crest and red eyes the Phainopepla. I love the clear whistle that Phainopeplas make, and I especially am grateful that when I whistled to one Phainopepla, he looked me right in the eye and whistled back at me.


And after a long journey seeing all these wonders and condors flying over all of it, I’m grateful that as we walked into the house after this long journey, a cardinal alighted in the tree next to the front porch and half a dozen chickadees called out a greeting to me. On this Thanksgiving, I feel rich and blessed beyond measure. And I’m thankful for my ability to feel gratitude in the face of so much genuine wealth.

Black-capped Chickadee

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Bottled Water Battles

UPDATE 16 December 2011: Grand Canyon may be banning bottled water early in 2012.

(Transcript of Wednesday's For the Birds)

Grand Canyon at sunrise

The Grand Canyon is not just one of America’s greatest treasures—it’s one of the seven natural wonders of the world. I’ve now visited it twice: first in April, 1982, and then this month. And unlike a lot of things, the Grand Canyon has seen a lot of wonderful improvements in the past three decades. My favorites are the water refilling stations set in a great many places along the North and South Rims, dispensing delicious spring water so that people can refill their bottles for free.

Grand Canyon Spring Water Refilling Station

Fully 30% of all the waste generated at the Grand Canyon is in the form of bottles—it’s expensive for the park to lug all the trash out, and a lot of bottles and bottle caps end up being tossed or left as litter rather than properly placed in recycling bins. To make a real difference in the waste stream, Stephen Martin, a Grand Canyon park official, planned to ban sales of bottled water once the water refilling stations were all in place. But just before the ban went into effect, National Parks Service Director Jon Jarvis blocked the ban, shortly after the Coca Cola corporation voiced its displeasure. Coke donates large sums of money to National Parks, all fully tax-deductable, giving it a lot of influence, and it did not want to lose Grand Canyon sales of Dasani bottled water, a Coke product.

The waste stream at the Grand Canyon would be reason enough to ban bottled water where it’s free and easy to fill water bottles with extremely fine spring water. But there’s another element in this disturbing equation. California Condors, especially young fledglings, have a tendency to ingest litter. Dead condors are necropsied, and a disturbing number have various items of trash in their stomachs, including plastic, glass, and bottle caps.

Dasani water bottle left as trash in a national wildlife refuge

Coca Cola claims that visitors to the park deserve to choose what kind of water they drink. But Coke and Pepsi both frequently negotiate with schools and universities, highway rest stops, and other vendors to keep people from being able to choose their competitors’ products—apparently it’s okay for corporations to limit consumer choice in the name of corporate competition but not in the name of preserving America’s last remaining wild treasures in a reasonably pristine state. And because the issue doesn’t simply involve issues of trash removal but also threatens the precious lives of critically endangered birds, it would seem like a no-brainer that the Park would not bow to high handed corporate pressure, except in such a corporatized America.

Before learning about any of this, I bought a bottle of coke on our trip, and ironically, the bottle cap had a little ad about how Coca Cola is ostensibly saving the Polar Bear. I wonder if bottles of coke sold in northern Alaska and Canada tout Coke’s work to save the condor?

Anyway, thanks to Coke’s concern about consumer choice, I decided to make the choice to stop consuming their products as long as they wield such power over national parks that supposedly belong to American citizens, not international corporations. I’ve long been a Coke drinker, and must say it’s by far my favorite soft drink, but I can live without it. I cannot live without our most precious national treasures—the breathtaking land and iconic birds that represent the very best of America.

New York Times blog article about this issue.

Read an opinion piece about the issue here.

California Condor

Condors Still Face Problems

(Transcript of Tuesday's For the Birds)
California Condor

Seeing California Condors flying high in the Arizona sky was one of the most thrilling events of my life. But even as I am so deeply delighted by the reintroduction of them to California and Arizona, I’m saddened at the problems they still face. The Peregrine Fund maintains a web page with detailed information on each condor released in Arizona since December 12, 1996. Of the six birds set free on that historical day, five are now dead, only one from a natural cause—Golden Eagle predation. One female died as a breeding adult from swallowing coins. This horrible and wasteful cause of death seems related to female condors’ need for calcium during the breeding season—they pick up shiny objects which would in nature be limited to pieces of bone and small bits of minerals. Another breeding adult female condor released in 2002 suffered the same fate. We humans pride ourselves on being intellectually superior to other animals, but how smart is it to toss toxic, zinc-laden pennies into the Grand Canyon?

Don't throw coins in the Grand Canyon!

Two of the first-released condors died from lead poisoning. In 2008, Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law in California the Ridley-Tree Condor Preservation Act, which prohibits the use of lead shot or bullets in the area of California where condors concentrate, but no such law has been passed in Arizona or Utah. Many people think that we don’t need government to impose laws with regard to these kinds of issues—that education will suffice—but lead is still the most prevalent cause of death for condors: a total of 19 are now known to have been killed by lead poisoning since 2000, directly related to hunters’ use of lead bullets and shot, and several condors have gone missing in Utah during and within a month or two after hunting seasons, when loss due to lead poisoning is most common. In 2010, blood samples showed that 72 % of captured birds had been exposed to lead, with 34 of them requiring treatment for lead poisoning. Even if hunting with lead throughout the range of condors were banned, people wouldn’t necessarily comply—after all, three condors were killed in Arizona directly by shooting.

California Condor information sign

One of the original condors was killed in a collision with a transmission line less than a year after release. So the Peregrine Fund people worked out training techniques to get captive-bred chicks to avoid these lines. Since then, no more have been killed by lines. Condors are curious and intelligent, and some of the originally-released birds were too incautious near park visitors, so before release, captive-reared birds were also trained to avoid people.

As of October 31, there are 205 California Condors in the wild: 111 in central and southern California, 23 in Baja California, and 71 in the Grand Canyon area of Arizona and up into Utah. 27 wild-fledged birds now live in California, 1 in Baja California, and 12 in Arizona. Thanks to the first captive breeding programs at the San Diego Wild Animal Park and the Los Angeles Zoo, and additional programs at the Oregon Zoo and the World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise, Idaho, there are continuing to be releases of adolescent birds that may ultimately strengthen numbers of the California Condor until it’s truly self-sustaining again. But it’s going to take public will to prevent more of the tragic and senseless condor deaths that the project has so far endured.

California Condor

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Day of the Condors

California Condor
I spent my sixtieth birthday, on 11/11/11, in the Grand Canyon in order to finally see a California Condor. Heading to the Grand Canyon in November was an act of faith—faith that the weather wouldn’t turn horrible, and faith that my line of sight would actually intersect with the flight path of one of the few existing California Condors in Arizona. We made it to Des Moines our first night, and woke to almost a foot of snow and trees that had crashed down upon several cars in our motel’s parking lot. That seemed ominous, but our car was spared and we made it Flagstaff and then to our motel in Tusayan, just outside the national park, on the eve of my birthday without problems.

Smokey Bear

Russ and I started out my birthday hiking here and there along the South Rim, which was beautiful despite the woefully overcast sky.

Grand Canyon

When the visitors center opened, we headed there to get suggestions about where to find the birds. The woman at the desk said we should come back in March. That wasn’t helpful at all, but I had no intention of getting discouraged. All day I kept my eyes to the murky skies, without luck. I had to settle for the gorgeous scenery and ravens wherever I looked.

Laura photographing a most cooperative raven

Common Raven

The daily program about condors was held at 3 pm.

Ranger Elyssa telling us about condors

The woman giving the talk, a delightful and knowledgeable ranger named Elyssa Shalla, told us that most of the condors had already retreated to lower elevations further north, especially in the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument area in the border area between Arizona and Utah. There were still two nestlings in the Grand Canyon national park—they were six months old, but weren’t expected to take their first flight for another week or two. One was in a cave in a nearby formation called the Battleship, but the cave was on the opposite side, impossible to see from any vantage point on the South Rim. We could watch for their parents to return with food, but that happens only once every day or two, and sometimes the parents may even be gone for four or five days.

"The Battleship"

But Elyssa wasn’t at all discouraging—she said it was possible we’d spot one of the parents, and also said that our best chance would be at the Vermilion Cliffs site outside the park, where the Peregrine Fund releases them. This area has milder winter weather than in the canyon, which the birds prefer. Each bird covers a vast area—sometimes a hundred miles in a single day—but it was certainly worth a shot.

Grand Canyon at sunrise

The next morning the sky was brilliant blue, with high winds—exactly the conditions that draw condors into the sky—as we drove to the Vermilion Cliffs. We missed our turn onto a tiny dirt road that leads to the site and found ourselves at the entrance to the Kaibab National Forest at the very moment when two condors were flying overhead.

If you look very carefully, you can see at least one California Condor in this photo, at the border between the Kaibab National Forest and Vermilion Cliffs.

Even though they were very high up, condors are huge enough, with their 9-foot wingspan, that I got thrilling looks.

California Condor

My photos are far from magazine quality but diagnostic. Russ even managed to get a photograph showing both me and a distant but visible condor.

Laura looking at lifer California Condor

After the birds drifted off beyond the horizon, we headed to the Vermilion Cliffs to see the release site.

Vermilion Cliffs

And there were three more condors flying high in the sky! On our way back, we stopped at a gas station near the Little Colorado River, and there were three more!

California Condor

The distances were too great to get detailed photos, but some of my pictures did allow me to read wing tags that identify individual birds. (You can find out the history of tagged condors in Arizona on this page of the Peregrine Fund website.)

California Condor

California Condor

Usually I’m most excited about seeing new birds up close and personal. But I think the most thrilling thing about seeing these condors was that they were doing exactly what I’ve dreamed for so long about them doing—flying high in the sky, far above us mere humans. Seeing these eight California Condors was far and away the best birthday gift of my entire life. And the November weather didn’t turn horrible until what was supposed to be the very last day, as we crossed back into Minnesota. We got stuck in Faribault overnight, but the trip was worth it.

California Condor

(Added after posting) I read in the news today that a man's body was found by birdwatchers observing condors at the Navajo Bridge on Thursday. This is exactly where we found the third group on Saturday, the 12th. It will be interesting to find out how long he'd been dead. The story is here.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Birding Profile!

The current issue of Birding, the journal of the American Birding Association, includes a 3-page interview of me! What an honor!

I really love the ABA. They have produced some of the very finest guides to birding in various areas of the country, showing you where and when to find birds. These ABA guides are invaluable and indispensable not just for those of us who want to see rarities and very localized birds, but for anyone traveling to a new state or region who wants to know where the nicest natural areas are, along with the very best sewage settling ponds!

Although I keep lists and some of my lists are pretty long, I'm not competitive, so never submit any of my lists to ABA or the Wisconsin or Minnesota state bird organizations. But I love that you can count on ABA to keep track of and publish area and year lists for those who enjoy the sport of birding, and to publish the most useful books and checklists for birding at home and away. That's the cool thing about this organization—despite the occasional flare-ups between those focused mainly on conservation and those focused mainly on the more fun aspects of birding, it's the home organization for anyone who loves to focus binoculars on birds.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Turning comments off

Yellow-rumped Warbler

I've temporarily turned off comments on my blog because so many defenders of TNR programs have been spouting off regarding my posts about feral and other outdoor cats, using my blog as a forum for their misguided beliefs. They keep dismissing studies about the numbers of birds killed by cats, but have yet to present a single peer-reviewed scientific paper suggesting a more accurate number, reminding me of global-warming deniers who selectively rip apart scientific studies without being able to put together their own scientific research disproving it. The reason they don't present countering scientific information is because the facts are not on their side.

Meanwhile, they seem to think it's okay for cats to kill small mammals when this is equally inhumane. Also, studies suggest that cats compete with raptors and other small predators for this resource, to the detriment of kestrels and other species.

I'm illustrating this post with a photo of a Yellow-rumped Warbler. A single cat in my own neighborhood once killed at least 18 Yellow-rumped and Palm Warblers during an October migration fall-out in Duluth. I picked up the tiny victims, strewn on a sidewalk, and brought them to the cat's owner. No one was home, but I left the carcasses there, along with a note promising that I would bring the cat to the pound if I ever saw it outside again. That did the trick.

But imagine that. Eighteen beautiful birds killed in a single event—not for food but simply because cats love to play-hunt even when they're well fed. No one has ever shown that neutered feral cats stop killing birds when they are fed, either. TNR? Just say no.

Birds teaching birds to speak English

Transcript of next Monday's For the Birds

Every now and then there’s a breaking news story proving yet again that birds are smarter than people typically give them credit for being. A story in the November 6 issue of The Telegraph tells of wild parrots of various species in Sydney, Australia, saying human phrases such as “Who’s a pretty boy, then?” Apparently parrots who learned these phrases from people before escaping captivity used them often enough in the wild that parrots who had spent their entire lives in the wild have been starting to talk, too.

During the decade-long drought in the western regions of New South Wales, parrots who couldn’t handle the devastating conditions started to wander, searching out new areas where food and water were easier to find. Many settled in Sydney, where wild galahs, sulphur-crested cockatoos, and corellas are now regularly heard saying various human phrases. Martyn Robinson from the Australian Museum in Sydney, said “I just hope a pet bird that’s been taught dirty words doesn’t join a flock because we don’t want to hear that kind of thing going around the back gardens.”

People made a big thing about birds teaching one another human language, but we didn’t have to search halfway across the globe to find that out. Marge Gibson, executive director of the Raptor Education Group, one of the finest wildlife rehabilitation facilities in the world, has seen first hand how birds can pick up human language. She treated a female raven with a wing fracture for over a year, and the bird picked up some simple words such as “Hi,” “Hello,” “Hey, you!” and “How are you?” After Marge released the bird, which she called Lenore, the raven occasionally returned to the clinic grounds, and when she flew over visitors she’d call out her favorite phrases. This year Lenore raised chicks and occasionally brought her fledglings over. Marge heard them first babbling baby talk—she said “hello” came out as “hawoo, and “Hey” was “Haaaya,” and by summer’s end they were doing almost as good a job of speaking English as their mother.

This summer, Discover magazine ran a story about how scientists have long known that parrots are one of only three groups of animals, the others being dolphins and humans, who have individual names. In parrots, each bird has its own signature call that others use when addressing it and that the bird uses itself in avian “conversation.” This summer a study of wild parrots showed that even before a chick begins serious vocalizing, its parents provide it with a name which the chick will fine tune and then use throughout its life.

I wonder if research on corvids will eventually show that their social vocalizations are more complex than we suspect. When I had my Blue Jay Sneakers, she learned to say “Hi,” and “C’mon.” The first time she talked, I was on a trip. When Russ heard her saying those words in my voice, he thought it was me and was amazed when he finally realized it was Sneakers. She did most of her talking when I wasn’t around. I think she imitated me when she couldn’t see me to at least hear my voice. The last few years I had her, I was also caring for a jay named BJ who had a congenital deformity making it impossible for him to open his wings. He’d been raised in the wild, and was very scared of people. But he bonded instantly with Sneakers. When Sneakers died, suddenly BJ started saying “Hi,” and “C’mon,” exactly the way Sneakers had done. I can’t explain it except that this seemed to be his way of filling the void and hearing a sound he associated with Sneakers.

People once believed that the earth was at the center of the universe. At some point we’ll see that just as our planet is one of many similar bodies suspended in space, our species is one of many eking out an existence on this little planet. Being a member of a world of species doesn’t diminish human specialness any more than being a member of a family diminishes our individual specialness.

Conservation Big Year: Target List

Greater Prairie-Chicken
Transcript of Friday's For the Birds

Now that I’ve decided I want to spend 2013 doing a Conservation Big Year, wherein I spend the year trying to see all of North America’s endangered and threatened birds and also species of concern, my first task was to list the birds on my target list. I decided to use the American Bird Conservancy’s Watch List of declining and rare species on the North American continent north of Mexico. That list is pretty current, but I’ve added Northern Bobwhite and Evening Grosbeak, two species that are still considered common but have declined dramatically in the past decade. I can’t possibly afford the travel necessary to search for the 38 Hawaiian species on the watch list, though Hawaii is home to the most threatened and endangered species of any state and has one of the biggest concentrations of endangered birds in the world. I’ll have to save that for another year.

My target list for 2013 includes 174 species, though three—the Eskimo Curlew, Ivory-billed Woodpecker, and Bachman’s Warbler, are almost certainly extinct and so I won’t be looking for them. If I were to get all of the remaining species, it would include 34 lifers—birds I’ve never seen anywhere—along with 4 subspecies I’ve never seen and 2 birds I’ve seen in the tropics on their wintering grounds but never in North America. Searching for most of these birds will also allow me to see lots of other birds.

Le Conte's Sparrow

A few will be pretty easy to get right around home. Le Conte’s Sparrows nest in the pasture adjacent to my mother-in-law’s driveway in Port Wing, Wisconsin. I’ve seen a few other species in my own backyard—Red-headed Woodpecker, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Varied Thrush, Bay-breasted Warbler, Canada Warbler, and Rusty Blackbird—though none in recent years. Some will require serious work to get to. The Colima Warbler is found only in the Chisos Mountains in Texas, and one good access to their breeding grounds is via a hiking trail loop about 14 miles long. But Russ and I have wanted to go to Big Bend since high school, so this trip would be especially cool in many ways. McKay’s Bunting, a beautiful relative of the Snow Bunting, can be found in summer on islands off Alaska—I don’t know how I’ll get there yet, but I’ll need to figure out a way to see that one and some other northern specialties, like Steller’s and Spectacled Eider, Emperor Goose, and Ross’s and Ivory Gulls. I want to find out how climate change is affecting these spectacular birds and what their long-term prospects are.

Just about all of the birds on the list, especially the endangered and threatened species, are found most easily on public lands, so I’ll be planning lots of trips to national wildlife refuges and state and national parks. The Nature Conservancy also does a lot of splendid work maintaining habitat for declining species. Just plotting out my itinerary promises to be fascinating, figuring out when and where these birds are most likely to be. I’ll also be studying why each one is declining and what’s being done to help it.

Florida Scrub-Jay

As I plot out my Conservation Big Year, I’ll be posting a lot of information on a new blog. I’ve linked to it on my regular blog and my webpage. You’ll be able to find all this work in progress at

Planning for 11/11/11

Transcript of For the Birds for Thursday

When I was a fifth grader, my mind had a tendency to wander to a weirdly numerical fantasyland. I somehow discovered entirely on my own that the digits of every number divisible by three added up to a number that was also divisible by three, and the same with the digits of every number divisible by nine. I worked out that every month that starts on a Sunday has a Friday the thirteenth. Naturally a little girl so taken with numbers would enjoy having a birthday on 11/11, and I even figured out that on 11/11/11, I would turn 60—that is, if I could possibly live that long. That seemed cosmic, because all those ones added up to 6, the same as the sum of the digits in 60.

So I’ve been looking forward to 11/11/11 for a very long time. And somehow the coolness of that unique date deserves to be honored with a lifetime experience. So by the time this program airs, Russ and I will be headed to the Grand Canyon, where I’m hoping against hope to see a California Condor on the grand date.

I’ve never seen a condor, and the very possibility thrills me. The very last truly wild California Condor was taken into captivity on Easter Sunday, 1987, a year after I started producing “For the Birds.” Taking every single bird out of the wild was controversial, but it turns out it was absolutely necessary if the species wasn’t to be consigned to oblivion. Every one of the 22 remaining birds had very high levels of lead in its blood. They were given chelation therapy and as they recovered, were bred at the San Diego Wild Animal Park and the Los Angeles Zoo. Success of the captive program was enough that a handful of condors were released back into the wild starting in 1991.

Trying to restore this species has been the most expensive species conservation project ever undertaken in the United States. It’s still going very slowly. As of April 2011, there were 394 California Condors known to be living, including 181 in the wild. In comparison, the wild Whooping Crane flock that migrates between Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park and Texas’s Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, which numbered only 15 birds in 1941, numbered 279 in the wild as of August 2011. Thanks to captive breeding programs, there are also 97 birds in the reintroduced migratory flock that moves between Wisconsin and Florida. Along with young birds being released this year, that means there is a total of 414 Whooping Cranes in the wild and 162 in captivity. Of course, work on cranes started sooner than that on condors, and cranes aren’t still being poisoned by lead in bullets and shot. Arnold Schwartzenegger signed into law the Ridley-Tree Condor Preservation Act, a bill that went into effect July 1, 2008 that requires that hunters use non-lead bullets when hunting in a large part of the condor's California range. This law was intensely opposed by the NRA and many hunters. Unfortunately, the condor populations that have been established in the Grand Canyon and Zion National Park still suffer from high lead levels. These scavengers pick up gut piles from large game animals, which can have shot or remnants of bullets in them, and also the remains of animals that got away or were simply shot as vermin, whose carcasses are left out there, riddled with lead shot.

I won’t be looking for carcasses and with luck won’t be confronted with cases of lead poisoned birds while I’m in the Grand Canyon. I just want to spend 11/11/11 gazing upon one or more California Condors floating aloft. Just one glimpse would make this the most perfect of birthdays. And even if I don’t get to see one, spending time in an area where these birds live will be a soul-satisfying experience. Oh—and I hear the Grand Canyon is rather pretty in its own right.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Reporting Owls: The Controversy

Northern Saw-whet Owl
(Transcripts of Monday and Tuesday's For the Birds)

Last week, the listserv of the Minnesota Ornithologists Union had a heated exchange about whether or not people should post precise locations of northern owls. It’s a complicated issue. There are known cases of birds whose nests failed or who themselves died from the constant stress of hordes of birders gawking at them. In Chicago, an extremely rare Burrowing Owl turned up on Montrose Beach. So many birders turned up, each one in turn searching for the owl in the low vegetation and making it flush, that a Cooper’s Hawk flew in and grabbed it for an easy meal.

One of my favorite people, Bob Russell with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, cited some cases of what excessive pressure on birds can do. He wrote to the listserv:

Concentrations of Long-eared Owls usually require dense cover and adjacent foraging fields. Disturbing these birds from favored roosts could force a wintering owl into much less optimum habitat or lead to poorer cover where they could be preyed upon by Great Horned Owls and eagles, or harassed by crows and insensitive photographers.

Raven attacking Northern Hawk Owl

Most owls sleep during the daytime and when the noise of birders and photographers approaching too close and harassing the owl to open its eyes for a better photo, the bird obviously suffers from not being able to stay as warm as it would when it's all fluffed up and asleep. Since starvation is a factor in the death of many wintering Great Gray and Boreal owls and perhaps other owl species, even one afternoon of disturbed rest or no rest could be the difference between an owl making it or not making it through the next day. Stomping down a path through the snow to get to such roosts is not much different than beating down grass to get to a bird nest in a bush in summer. It provides an easy pathway for a 4-legged predator to approach the roost site.

Sleeping Saw-whet Owl

In my own experience, when birders flocked to the Sax-Zim Bog during the owl invasion in 2004-5, quite a few owls were killed by cars. And many birders, particularly photographers, were seen tossing out white mice and gerbils to owls, often next to roads. This is a standard practice for getting owls to fly in close for photographs, and is also used for banding certain owls, though not the ones caught in banding stations such as at Hawk Ridge, where the birds simply fly into mist nets as they migrate. I personally find baiting with live rodents to be unacceptably cruel to the little animals.

Mother and babies

People may not find rodents endearing, but they do suffer, going from a warm pet shop to being tossed out in the icy snow before being ripped apart. I sort of accept this as a necessary evil for research, because owl banding provides valuable information that helps us understand and track population trends, and has provided critical information needed to develop conservation plans. Owl banders also may provide first aid or food as they band owls, increasing their longevity. But in my mind baiting with mice is unjustifiable cruelty when it’s just for the personal pleasure or profit of getting a photo. It’s also risky. Minnesota children have contracted salmonella poisoning from pet store mice, and those children weren’t actually eating the mice. It is almost definitely more dangerous for owls.

Even worse, some photographers cast out fake mice on fishing lines to control the owl’s movements. Because of the way owls cast pellets, to conserve fluids they empty the contents of their glandular stomach before spitting up the pellet. This means that before digesting anything new, they must get those fluids back into their stomach from their bloodstream and interstitial tissues before their next meal. This process begins when they’re in pursuit of prey, and can throw an owl’s electrolytes out of kilter when it chases something it thinks is prey but comes up empty. This is particularly dangerous for owls who haven’t eaten in a while. When I rehabbed birds, I always administered fluids to emaciated owls before feeding them.

That is why I’m reluctant to post some of my own sightings of owls and other birds. But tomorrow I’ll talk about the other side of the debate.

Boreal Owl

Reporting Owls Part II

Last time I talked about a debate about whether birders should report rare owls on listservs. Because of the risks to owls, some people refuse to post exact locations of owls, and naturally some photographers and birders take umbrage. Beginning birders are especially offended that more experienced birders would keep such information secret. I can understand that viewpoint, remembering my own frustrations when I was starting out not knowing where the best places were. And to add to the frustration of novice birders nowadays, professional birding guides often know where the best birds are but may share that information only with their paying customers. This can build resentment. And knowing that experienced birders are keeping this information close to the vest also contributes to a feeling that birders are a closed community when we should be welcoming newcomers with open arms.

Northern Hawk Owl

But even as I was frustrated when starting out and not knowing where to look for birds, I got a lot of valuable field experience that made me a much better birder by searching out my own birds. I’m about to turn 60, and like any geezer have a certain nostalgia for the “good-old days” when we birders took pride in finding our own birds rather than following directions to precise locations. Even more like an old geezer, I can’t help but think that people today want too much instant gratification, expecting their life list to grow by leaps and bounds from the start. In my first year of birding, I saw just one owl—a Snowy Owl that flew right over Russ’s and my heads as we walked on Lake Shore Drive along the Chicago lakefront. My US Fish and Wildlife Service friend Bob Russell wrote:

Whatever happened to the joy of discovering your own birds? Long-eared, Northern-saw-whet, and Short-eared owls likely occur seasonally in almost any Minnesota county and I recall at least one article in the Loon in how to find your own Long-eared Owls. Check out the pine and spruce plantations and stands where you live for these owls or grape vines and dense crabtrees or young pines.

I may have been stuck finding most of my lifers when I was starting out, but then again, in my second year of birding, I got my lifer Short-eared Owls thanks to people sharing the location where the birds were hunting every evening just outside East Lansing. It took time for the word to get out back then, so staked-out birds like this could only be seen by a lot of birders when the birds stuck around for weeks rather than days or hours. We were warned to stay on the road, and back then photographers weren’t stalking these birds so intensively as they are today.

Whenever people get to see a really cool and charismatic bird, such as an owl, in the wild, it gets them excited about birds and birding. The more birders we have, the more pressure there can be to protect species that need help. And really, most of the time revealing locations for owls doesn’t harm the owls.

Northern Hawk Owl

So it’s a quandary. Flaring tempers on the listserv are like so many of today’s highly charged debates, wherein each side wants to score points rather than work to find the wisest solution for everyone. I know where I stand on the issue of baiting owls with real or fake mice—I would never consider doing it myself, and I’d never buy a photo of an owl if there was a chance the photographer had baited it. I never share information with birders I suspect of doing this, and never post on a listserv when a bird seems the least bit vulnerable. But I wish we could all state our opinions and justifications and leave people to draw their own personal conclusions, rather than ridiculing people on the other side for being selfish, either for keeping information from others or for putting birds at risk. This does nothing more than raise the temperature of an already heated debate that will never be resolved.

Great Gray Owl

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Top Ten Reasons to Look Forward to Turning Sixty!

Laura Erickson
Note: because my birthday is on 11/11/11, this list actually has 11 reasons!

11. Senior rates at the theater!

10. Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs in 1927.

9. I like the song 60-Minute Man by Billy Ward and the Dominoes. And since the song was released in 1951, the song is 60 years old, too!

8. 60 is a Harshad number—that is, a number divisible by the sum of its digits in base 10 (6+0).

7. The Babylonian number system had a base of sixty, inherited from the Sumerian and Akkadian civilizations, and possibly motivated by the large number of divisors which 60 has. Our culture has inherited our clock and some geometrical artifacts from this system, which is why one hour has 60 minutes and one minute has 60 seconds.

6. Each angle of an equilateral triangle is 60 degrees.

5. 60 is the sum of twin primes (29+31) and the sum of four consecutive primes (11+13+17+19). It’s sandwiched between two primes (59 and 61). It’s the smallest number which is the sum of two odd primes in 6 ways.

4. The icosidodecahedron has 60 edges, all equivalent. Buckminsterfullerene C60 has 60 carbon atoms in each molecule, arranged in a truncated icosahedron.

3. 60 is a composite number and a highly composite number, with divisors 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 12, 15, 20, 30, and 60. It’s also one of only 3 unitary perfect numbers within a human lifespan in years. (The first few unitary perfect numbers are 6, 60, 90, 87360, 146361946186458562560000.) It is also an excessive number with an abundance of 48. Being ten times a perfect number, 60 is a semiperfect number.

2. #60 on my lifelist was the Scarlet Tanager! (First seen on June 23, 1975, near Kalamazoo, Michigan.)

Scarlet Tanager

1. The sum of the digits in 11/11/11 equals the sum of the digits in 60!

Addendum: I just remembered another cool thing about the number 60—the coldest temperature ever recorded in Minnesota was -60 degrees F, on February 2, 1996, in Tower. It was much warmer in Duluth that night. Our thermometer only got down to -41.