Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Bird Song Primer Part II

Transcript of Monday's For the Birds. You can hear it or on the podcast page here. All bird songs courtesy of Lang Elliott

Common Loon

Last time I talked about some basic bird songs that people can learn based on knowing the robin song. There are many other bird songs characteristic of northern Minnesota and Wisconsin that don’t require knowing the robin song as a baseline.

Most everyone recognizes Common Loon vocalizations, of not from hearing them on northern lakes, at least from Minnesota state lottery commercials. Loons make their long wail when calling family members toward them.

Only male loons make the yodeling calls we hear at night--these calls serve to declare a territorial lake and to warn other loons away.

What sounds like the loon laugh to our ears is actually the call loons make when they are fearful, so it’s the sound we’re most likely to hear when we bring our canoe too close to a family. For some reason, it’s also the call loons make in flight--perhaps they took Erica Jong’s book too much to heart.


Many people ask me about a song they hear from their cabin porch near sunset-- a song they describe as something like water spiraling down a drain spout. This is the Veery, a small, secretive thrush shaped like a robin with a rusty back and very delicate speckling on the upper breast.


The teacher teacher teacher song of the Ovenbird is another characteristic sound of our woods. Like the Veery, Ovenbirds are far more often heard than seen.

Winter Wren

I think my favorite of all the sounds of the north woods is the long, silver-threaded song of the winter Wren.

Black-capped Chickadee about to feed babies

Two whistled songs catch people’s attention a lot. Most people know the Black-capped Chickadee’s chickadee-dee-dee call, but not so many recognize its actual song, which I transcribe as “hey, sweetie.” In May, chickadees are doing a lot of singing, especially at dawn.

White-throated Sparrow

The other common whistled song follows a rhythm like “Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody,” though when we travel up to Thunder Bay we change the transcription to “Oh, sweet Canada, Canada, Canada.” That’s the White-throated Sparrow.

Northern Cardinal closeup

When I moved up to Duluth, Northern Cardinals were rare hotline birds. Now they nest in many neighborhoods, and we’re hearing their rich, slurred whistles more and more.
These songs are really just a tiny portion of the great many we can hear up here in May and June. Taking the time to listen, we learn many more. And each one we master makes the next one easier. The north woods is filled with auditory delights, all free for the taking. 

Bird Song Primer Part I

Transcript of today's For the Birds. You can hear it as an mp3 file on my webpage here or on the podcast page here. All bird songs courtesy of Lang Elliott
American Robin

This time of year, I get inundated with questions from people trying to puzzle through an intriguing bird song. Learning bird songs takes time and patience, and there are no shortcuts to mastering them. I learned bird songs through a combination of trying my darnedest to track down every single sound I heard and listening over and over to recordings. Richard Walton’s Birding by Ear explains what features to listen to in each song, and John Feith’s Bird Song Ear Training Guide provides mnemonics to help memorize songs. The recordings I use most often, including the ones I use to produce For the Birds, are by Lang Elliott, one of the most prolific and skilled of all bird recordists. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website also includes the sounds of virtually every species of North American bird. But to master recognizing most of the natural sounds in your area, nothing is a substitute for taking the time and effort to track down vocalizing birds.

That said, it’s fun and useful to recognize the most prominent singers, and may cut down on the phone calls and emails I have to deal with. A few birds sing long musical sentences. The one everyone needs to learn as a baseline of comparison is the American Robin. I think of that as the Julie Andrews of the bird world because of the rich, sweet quality. Robin tunes include long sentences made up of words of three or so syllables. Pay close attention to your backyard robins, and you’ll soon be able to recognize several other singers by comparison.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Rose-breasted Grosbeaks also sing long sentences. Their tone is richer and more full-bodied, seeming more operatic to me, like Beverly Sills to the robin’s Julie Andrews. And the long phrases sung by Rose-breasted Grosbeaks aren’t as easily broken into three-syllable words, but more run together.

Scarlet Tanager

Once you recognize the robin, the Scarlet Tanager is really easy--it has a raspy quality, like a robin with a very sore throat.

Gray Catbird

Three birds sing long sentences of strung-together imitations of the sounds of other species and often mix in mechanical sounds such as cell phones and chain saws. The Gray Catbird’s imitations all run into each other. Often a catbird will include a diagnostic mew, but even when one doesn’t, the string of unrepeated imitations and the tonal quality become easy to recognize with practice.

Brown Thrasher

Brown Thrashers have a similar tonal quality to catbirds, but repeat most of their imitations once. One Brown Thrasher made it into Ripley’s Believe It or Not for its repertoire of 2,400 distinctly different song phrases.

Northern Mockingbird

The most famous American bird for its mimicry is the Northern Mockingbird. The mockingbird’s song has the same tonal quality as a thrasher or catbird, but the bird repeats most phrases two or more times, so we hear most of its sounds in triplets or more.
These are a few of the basic songs that anyone who wants to be knowledgeable about birds should learn. I’ll talk about a few more in coming days.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Hairy Woodpecker

Transcript of tomorrow's For the Birds
Hairy Woodpecker

This week I went to one of my favorite Duluth birding spots, along the Western Waterfront Trail, with my son Tom. While we were walking along, we suddenly both heard a woodpecker drumming very rapidly, with an oddly metallic quality. The rapidness of the drumming made me think it must be a Hairy Woodpecker, and the metallic quality told me this bird was not drumming from a tree but, rather, on a manmade structure. Sure enough we found the bird hammering out its territorial drumbeat on a metal clip on a power pole. Woodpeckers try to find the most resonant structure within their territory--drumming on that will make their voice carry farther, both to communicate with their mate and to defend a larger territory.

Hairy Woodpecker

Even though Hairy Woodpeckers are larger, they drum faster than the littler Downy Woodpecker. I can recognize them by the fast rhythm with about 90 percent accuracy, though I must admit it took me a long time and a lot of practice to do this.

Hairy Woodpeckers are a common species found throughout most of Canada and 49 states down to Panama and the Bahamas. In some areas they focus on pine trees, but over most of their range they’re found in a wide variety of forest types.

Common as Hairy Woodpeckers are, they’re inconspicuous during the point in their nesting period when parents are incubating. So of our common resident birds, this is the species most often missed on Big Days in Wisconsin and Minnesota in late May and early June.

Hairy Woodpeckers are often drawn to the drumming sounds of Pileated Woodpeckers, and often follow them when feeding. A Pileated can dig into trees far deeper than a Hairy Woodpecker can, and after the Pileated moves on, the Hairy can dig out bugs it could never have been able to get on its own. To minimize the work involved in digging out larvae within wood, woodpeckers that probe for bugs in trees have a stiff, barbed tip to their extensible tongue. They can dig in to where they can touch a grub and then extend the tongue to hook into it and pull it out.

Hairy Woodpeckers often mate for life. During winter, when they do best in isolation, they apparently still maintain auditory contact with their mate. Up here, when they dig out a nest or roost cavity, they seem to prefer living aspens with heart rot fungal infections that make hollowing out a nest chamber easier.

Like other woodpeckers, Hairy Woodpeckers have smaller eggs relative to body size than other kinds of birds, with a relatively shorter incubation period as well. This is probably because oxygen exchange within eggs is tricky enough without being in a cavity where carbon dioxide builds up and the atmosphere gets very close, especially at night while the incubating parent hardly moves all night. The chicks hatch at a less developed stage than most hatchlings. The parents flying in and out to feed them promotes oxygen exchange, and as soon as they can, the chicks start spending much of their time up at the nest entrance where they can get plenty of fresh air. 

Hairy Woodpecker nesting

Woodpecker chicks are shockingly noisy, begging for food much of the day in such a loud way that it seems surprising more aren’t lost to predators. Fortunately, their system works for them and so Hairy Woodpeckers are here to stay.

Hairy Woodpecker

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Field Sparrow

Tomorrow's For the Birds 

Field Sparrow

One of my favorite bird songs is produced by the lovely little Field Sparrow. Field Sparrows have soft rusty and gray plumage with an eye-ring that gives them an anemic appearance, and a pinkish-orange bill that makes me think of a pre-schooler trying on lipstick.

I find Field Sparrows adorable, but am utterly charmed by their song. Their slurring notes are incomparably sweet, staying on the same pitch while picking up speed, giving them the rhythm of a drumming Ruffed grouse. When I took college ornithology, I did a study of Savannah Sparrows that nested in a large brushy field behind the house I was living in. I could work out their home territory by playing their calls on a tape recorder and mapping the perches on which they responded. The paper I wrote about the experiment was focused on Savannah Sparrows, but the bird that caught my attention was the Field Sparrow. Savannah Sparrows responded only when I played recordings of the songs of their own species while I stood within their territories, but wherever I stood and whatever species I played, nearby Field Sparrows approached and sang every time. Intriguingly, most studies seem to find that Field Sparrows aren’t particularly aggressive compared to most songbirds, and they don’t defend a territory against other species, but I found them consistently responding much more than other species to recorded songs. It’s possible that they’re simply more curious about everything that happens on or near their territories than the other species in the area.

Those of us in northernmost Wisconsin and Minnesota are at the northern border of or slightly out of the range of Field Sparrows, but just south of us they are a common species of brushy pastures and second growth scrub. Common as they are, they do tend to avoid developed areas much more than Song and Savannah Sparrows do, and so usually appear at feeders only in rural areas. 

Field Sparrow

Their numbers are strong, but overall the species is declining for a variety of reasons, including increasingly intensive farming practices, early mowing of pastures, and development. Increasing numbers of White-tailed Deer and Wild Turkeys may also be taking a toll--both game species feed on eggs and chicks of low-to-the-ground nests more than most people realize.

As with many birds, Field Sparrow diets change seasonally. In winter, seeds comprise more than 90 percent of their daily intake, but by summer more than 50 percent of their diet is made up of insects, spiders, and other small arthropods.

Field Sparrow

When Field Sparrow numbers are strong, they sing more often, and females more often mate occasionally with neighboring males such that the offspring in a nest may have more than one father.  In one Pennsylvania study, this kind of DNA fingerprinting indicated that in 1990, fully 20 percent of all nests included at least one chick fathered by a male other than the social mate. By 2000–2002, when the population size was significantly smaller, the number of young with different fathers had dropped to zero.

Field Sparrows are surprisingly nurturing and peaceable while nesting. When one pair nested less than 2 feet from a pair of Eastern Towhees, both species fed the young at both nests. In another case, a pair of Field Sparrows and a pair of Common Yellowthroats actually shared the same nest, both incubating full clutches at the same time. I treasured Field Sparrows long before I knew that. It’s yet another case in which the more I learn about a bird, the more wonderful it turns out to be. 

Prothonotary Warbler

Transcript of today's For the Birds radio program. Now 26 years old and still going!
Prothonotary Warbler

Every winter, gardeners pull out seed catalogs to dream of the possibilities the coming season might hold. I’ve always used my field guides for that. When I started birding, the pages of my Golden Guide were filled with an array of improbably exquisite and comical and funky birds that I couldn’t imagine existed in the real world, much less right in the Chicago area where I grew up. One of the birds I instantly focused on as a most-yearned-for species was the Prothonotary Warbler--a lovely Southeastern bird with intensely golden-yellow head, neck, and breast, offset to perfection by bluish-gray wings and snow-white lower belly and undertail coverts. This bird seemed too striking for me to have overlooked it my whole life, yet when I learned to pay attention to the world around me, I found a Prothonotary Warbler singing away at the edge of a Jewel-Osco supermarket parking lot bordering one of the creeks in an industrial Chicago suburb.

Of course, these glowing creatures are more typically found in wilder river bottomlands and swamps, but when a friend of mine placed a decorative copper teakettle on his cabin door in La Crosse, Wisconsin, a pair of Prothonotary Warblers successfully raised five or six chicks in the tiny decoration for at least a few years in a row. 

Predation is the main way that Prothonotary Warblers lose their chicks--this nest would be hard for snakes to access, and most other nest predators are reluctant to come so close to human habitation.

Of all the places I’ve seen Prothonotary Warblers over the years, the place where they are the most conspicuous to see and photograph is along the Magee Marsh Boardwalk, at the Magee Marsh Wildlife Area, managed by the Ohio DNR. In the two springs I’ve spent time at the birding festival called the Biggest Week in American Birding, I’ve seen these golden warblers singing, feeding, inspecting possible nest sites, and actually nesting in conspicuous places, often at eye level. Birders fill the boardwalk constantly from sunrise until sunset every day in May, and the birds seem to consider us an innocuous presence to be ignored, coming so close that I saw people taking full-frame photos using inexpensive small digital cameras and cell phones.

Prothonotary Warbler

Prothonotary Warblers are the only eastern warblers to nest inside tree cavities and other hidden spaces. At Magee Marsh, they squabble over nest boxes with Tree Swallows and House Wrens. They also use cavities excavated by Downy Woodpeckers, and the cavities left in trees after limbs fall. When we take the time to watch them, we can see them inspecting all kinds of crevices and dark holes. I’m sure their beautifully large eyes make exploring these dark places easier.

Prothonotary Warbler

The name “Prothonotary” seemed mysterious and magical to me as a young birder. One of my books said it was given to the species because high papal officials called prothonotaries in the Roman Catholic Church wore lemon yellow ecclesiastical garb, but I’ve researched the vestments of Church officials and can’t find any reference to prothonotaries ever wearing yellow except in accounts of how Prothonotary Warblers were named. Some government clerks in some states such as Pennsylvania and in English courts of law are also called prothonotaries, but again, so far I can’t find any reference to them wearing lemon-yellow garments, either. It doesn’t matter--that which we call a Prothonotary Warbler by any other name would be as sweet. Indeed, the species’ song affirms this--it’s quite justifiably transcribed as “Sweet, sweet, sweet, sweet, sweet.” 

Friday, May 4, 2012

Great Wisconsin Birdathon!

Sometime around Memorial Day Weekend, I’m heading out for a madcap day of birding in the first-ever Great Wisconsin Birdathon, established by the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin BirdConservation Initiative. Competing teams will try to get pledges that will go to the state’s Bird Protection Fund, which supports statewide bird conservation in Wisconsin. This year’s priorities are habitat management and monitoring for Cerulean Warblers and Prothonotary Warblers in the deciduous forests of southern Wisconsin, protecting and improving stopover habitats for the millions of birds that pass through WI annually via the new Wisconsin Stopover Initiative, the Bird City Wisconsin project, and wintering habitat protection and management for orioles, hummingbirds, warblers and the rest of "our" birds that winter south of the border.  

Prothonotary Warbler

I’m not much of a fundraiser, but Wisconsin’s Bird Conservation Initiative is a project near and dear to my heart, and best of all, I’ll be raising the money by doing a Big Day with two of my favorite people, Ryan Brady and Dick Verch. I’ll get to spend a whole day birding with two of Wisconsin’s finest birders—what could be better?

Our team will of course want to see as many species as possible in a single day for three reasons: first, because many people base their pledge on the number of species seen; second, because this is a friendly competition with teams covering other areas of the state—we want our neck of the woods to stand out as the best; and third, because what’s the fun of doing a Big Day unless you’re focused on making your list as big as possible?

Le Conte's Sparrow

High on Ryan’s most-wanted species list are Boreal Chickadee and Le Conte’s Sparrow, both of which are among my own favorite birds so I’m sure hoping to see them, too. We even optimistically named our team the “Invasion of the Boreal Chickadees.”

Boreal Chickadee

We’re both hoping for Connecticut Warbler—a cool specialty of boreal forest areas in northern Wisconsin and Minnesota, which happens to be one of the most poorly named of all birds. It was first described by Alexander Wilson in 1812, who named it after the state of Connecticut where he happened to shoot the first specimen during fall migration. But Connecticut Warblers never breed or winter in Connecticut, virtually never appear there in spring, and seldom in fall. It uses 2 different routes for migration: in spring it heads from South America to the West Indies and Florida, and heads northwest toward the Mississippi Valley, and then north from there. In fall it heads east across Canada, and then south along the Atlantic Coast. Connecticut Warblers are uncommon enough that it’s always a thrill to see them, even right here where they belong.

Sharp-tailed Grouse

Ryan and I both hope to see Sharp-tailed Grouse, but we’ll have to luck into them because they probably won’t be displaying that late in the season. And who knows what else could turn up? In a burst of wild optimism, Ryan listed Parasitic Jaeger and Swainson’s Hawk among his yearned-for species, saying “It's the one or two I'm not hoping/expecting to see that will be most exciting!”

Parasitic Jaeger

Plotting out a route where we’ll be most likely to see the most species will keep us busy in the next few weeks. If you’re interested in pledging or participating in the Great Wisconsin Birdathon, you can find more information at

Biggest Week in American Birding

Friday, May 4, marks the first day of this year’s “Biggest Week in American Birding”—an amazing birding festival centered at the Black Swamp Bird Observatory near Toledo, Ohio. I am leading a couple of field trips and serving as one of the keynote speakers this year, and I’m also going to spend a lot of time in the Magee Marsh, one of the premier places in all of North America for seeing warblers on migration. The Magee Marsh is just a ferry ride from Point Pelee, and based on my experience provides comparably fine birding. When I was there for a few days in 2010, I got amazing photos of a wide variety of warblers, and I hit migration early. This year I’ll be there for the peak.

Northern Parula

One of the specialties of this part of Ohio is Kirtland’s Warbler, which is found here every year. Indeed, the first Kirtland’s Warbler described for science was collected near Cleveland, and there were several more sightings of the species in Ohio before the bird’s breeding ground in Michigan was discovered. Exploring data on shows a cluster of sightings along the south shore of Lake Erie.

Kirtland's Warbler

Just as thrilling as the possibility of seeing a rare warbler or two is the assurance of getting nice and close to much more common species. Prothonotary Warblers nest in the Magee Marsh--I got some pretty good photos last time I was there, and this year will focus on getting even better ones. 

Prothonotary Warbler

I got a few nice photos of female Black-throated Blue Warblers, and want to concentrate this year on getting better photos of males. 

Black-throated Blue Warbler

I also want get close to Blackburnian and Magnolia Warblers and Northern Parulas. I’m also still waiting to get the definitive photo of a Black-and-white Warbler. But the warbler I’m most hoping to get excellent photos of is the Canada Warbler. I have only a few pictures of this gorgeous species, all taken before I had my new camera and lens.

Canada Warbler

Thrushes abound at the Magee Marsh. They don’t sing on migration, and accurate identification often requires careful scrutiny, but that’s what’s fun about birding. 

Hermit Thrush

The boardwalk at the Magee Marsh can be more densely packed with birders than is comfortable, but even when hundreds crowd in with their tripods and cameras, the birds still outnumber us. There are plenty of secluded birding spots—the joy of the Biggest Week is celebrating this huge migration event with people, and the more newcomers we bring in, the more people there will be who are not just aware of warblers but have seen just how gorgeous and valuable they are, and the better it will be for the future of birds.
Lake Erie runs east-to-west, and its long southern shore forms the same kind of barrier to spring migration as Lake Superior’s north shore does in fall. The two field trips I’ll be leading will explore other hotspots in the area, and I expect to see a lot of great birds in the company of smaller, more manageable groups than we’ll enjoy at the Magee Marsh.
In 2010, we had a dramatic thunderstorm with tornado warnings. The clouds were amazing, and the experience of watching the storm made up for the birding time lost. 


I’ll of course hope for good weather the whole time I’m there, but rain is part of the nature of spring migration, and whatever happens, I’m sure to have a great time. At the Biggest Week in American Birding, that much is guaranteed.

Bay-breasted Warbler

Heron Cam: Science and Emotions Both

This is the transcript of a two-part For the Birds for May 3 and 4, 2012. Production of these programs was made possible in part by a generous grant from an anonymous donor.

Great Blue Heron nest cam

When I started keeping track of the Great Blue Heron nest via the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s streaming nest cameras, I never imagined how emotionally intense the experience would be. It was so scientifically fascinating to observe so many behaviors at such close range. I saw how they add sticks to their nest, wedging and weaving large ones on the outside and setting small twigs flat on the floor. The male brought more sticks more often than the female, and brought many before mating with her each time, and after she laid each egg.

Great Blue Heron nest cam

I got to watch them mating, seeing close up how the male grabbed onto the female’s long spiky head nuptial plumes to hold his balance on her back.

Great Blue Heron nest cam

Four times, I watched live as the female struggled and contorted her body and suddenly stood up to reveal a brand new beautiful blue egg. I missed seeing it live but did get to see a video showing the fifth egg’s arrival.

Great Blue Heron Laying Egg

Watching the birds take turns incubating eggs and working on the nest was enlightening, both because we always knew which bird was which close up, which had been hard to do when I was watching the birds from the Lab in 2009, and also because the two birds share roles fairly equally yet each has slightly different ways of doing everything.

But familiarity leads to affection. I wasn’t online in the middle of the night when something attacked the female as she was incubating—the people watching were horrified when something seemed to collide with her and she stood up squawking. Her loud distress calls awakened people who had been sleeping with their computer on to hear the soothing sounds of spring peepers in the background. No one was quite sure what had happened in the darkness, but we soon had a grainy but decipherable video clip showing in slow motion a Great Horned Owl headed straight for her head.

Great Blue Heron after owl attack

The following day she was clearly stressed, and there was another middle-of-the-night attack. The only visible damage to her was that her head’s spiky nuptial plumes were gone, but she looked visibly shaken, and seemed entirely diminished. The owl came back a third time, when the male was on the nest. We hoped his larger size and strength sent it elsewhere for good. A few days later we noticed a cracked dent in one egg, which we think happened when she lurched up too quickly in one of the attacks. The cracks made it seem unlikely that that egg would ever hatch.

Ithaca had such warm weather in March that this pair started producing eggs over a month earlier than they’d even started building the nest in 2009. But well into incubation, on April 23rd,  I woke up and turned on the cam to see four or five inches of snow piled up all around the incubating male.

Nesting Great Blue Herons in snowstorm

He stayed hunkered down all day, not getting up for more than a few moments, but when he did, the five eggs looked so bizarrely out of place surrounded by all that snow.

Nesting Great Blue Herons in snowstorm

The female stayed away all day, and we started wondering whether she had decided to cut her losses and move on, but the male steadfastly incubated hour after hour. It was already evening when finally, after 22 ½ hours, he flew off, leaving the eggs. It seemed pretty certain that he, too, was cutting his losses, but less than a minute later he returned, and within another couple of minutes, the female came back and took over so he could finally get a bite to eat.

At each triumph, over an owl and over deep snow, we became increasingly aware of just how many bad things could doom the eggs and even the birds, even as we became increasingly attached to these tenacious creatures and those beautiful eggs. And there were more intense events still to happen..

(Part II)

Last time I told you about the emotional roller coaster I’ve been on since a pair of Great Blue Herons started nesting in full view of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s nest cam. I’ve been learning so much that the experience is extremely satisfying intellectually, but I’ve found it impossible to maintain emotional distance from this little family.

After owl attacks on three nights, leaving the mother missing some head feathers and one egg dented, and after watching the male sitting faithfully for 22 ½ hours during a deep snowstorm, I’d not have been surprised if the eggs didn’t hatch at all, and certainly expected them to hatch few days late after the extended cold snap. But no--the first and second both hatched on Friday, April 27, and the second egg to hatch happened to be the one with the dent.

Pips in Great Blue Heron eggs


The third hatched on Saturday, and the fourth on Sunday. The birds didn’t feed them much over the weekend—I wonder if they were trying to delay maturation of the first to hatch so that the last to hatch wouldn’t be as far behind.

Everything would have been idyllic except that the owl returned three times that weekend, and I kept collecting more information about how Great Horned Owls kill and eat more adult Great Blue Herons than I’d realized. The male was on the nest for these attacks, but on Sunday night the female was squawking from a branch on the nest tree, and then she disappeared. We didn’t see her at all Monday morning, even with four hungry chicks. I was pretty sure that if she had been injured or killed there would be some noticeable evidence, but no one at the Lab reported anything. Hour after hour the male stuck it out, well after his stomach was too empty to regurgitate anything to feed the constantly begging chicks. Finally in the afternoon one of my friends at the Lab spotted her, safe and sound, in another area of the pond, and people trained the moveable cam on her to show her fishing. When the male finally left the nest, he flew right past her and she immediately returned to the nest and regurgitated a nice big meal for her hungry young.

At each point, whether it was the dented egg or the snow or the female’s long disappearances, a lot of people in the heron chat room assumed the worst. The fifth egg didn’t pip until May 1, which was exactly right since it was laid 2 ½ days after the fourth egg, but people constantly asked why it hadn’t hatched yet and was the chick dead? I can usually be pretty calm about how nature works, and I had already been well aware of the many dangers that could suddenly destroy this nest filled with vulnerable chicks and the parents who were giving their all to raise them. I’d been taught in graduate school to look at birds as populations, not individuals, and it’s very true that protecting birds at the population level is what is critical in managing natural resources. But watching the hard-working parents and their five chicks, I couldn’t see any as expendable. It made me appreciate how much work is involved in creating and sustaining life even for a bird as common as a heron.

Great Blue Heron feeding chicks

This pair of herons has raised a broods of four chicks all the way to fledging each year since 2009. As I was working on this on May 3, a thunderstorm raged over the pond. The female had flattened herself with wings spread a bit to keep the force of the rain and hail on her, not the chicks. Every time lightning filled the sky over the nest and thunder rumbled, I told myself there have been many, many storms over Ithaca during the past three years, and this would be no different.  But when I awakened this morning, I felt a flood of relief to see the birds safe and sound. I’d love to be a zen-like person, learning from these birds patience and a wisdom surpassing understanding. Instead, I’m learning how valuable each individual life is, and what a triumph every day truly is.

Great Blue Heron chicks

Production of these two For the Birds programs was made possible in part by a generous grant from an anonymous donor.