Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Duluth Flood

Today's For the Birds radio program

One summer day when my kids were very little, they were playing down the street when Tommy suddenly came running home in a panic, crying and clearly scared out of his gourd. He kept repeating that a tomato was going to be coming down Peabody Street. All I could picture in my mind was the Oscar Meyer Weiner Mobile, which occasionally went down my own block when I was a kid. But that would have charmed Tommy, not frightened him. Joey and Katie came home a few minutes later and told me their friend had told them there was a tornado warning and they should hide in the basement.

I turned on the TV, and sure enough, we were supposed to take shelter. I tried not to sugarcoat the truth with the kids, but we do live in a sheltered neighborhood. We brought books and toys and the pets into the basement, and then I explained to Tommy that even though it was important to be careful, a tornado wasn’t at all likely because if it came from the east or the south, it would turn into a waterspout on Lake Superior, and if it came from the north or west, since we’re right under Hawk Ridge, it would be up too high as it passed over us to do any damage. I don’t know if that’s strictly true, but in the 31 years we’ve lived here, there’s never been a tornado anywhere near our neighborhood.

I told them that our neighborhood was safe from flooding, too, because we don’t live by a river, and Lake Superior can hold a lot of rainwater. And sure enough, our neighborhood got away with only minor damage during this week’s huge flood. Our sump pump went out and the storm sewers were so backed up that for a while our basement didn’t drain, leaving 6 inches of standing water in it. And our roof, which is almost 20 years old, sprung a leak under the deluge. But those caused only minor damage and a bit of inconvenience--overall, we got off pretty lightly.

The worst dangers from flooding for birds are for ground nesters, whose eggs and chicks can be drowned, and for any birds within a tree that topples down if they can’t react in time. Flooded basements and cars do release dangerous contaminants into the storm sewers or open water, too. But overall, flooding is far worse for humans than for animals. Sure enough, this morning the rain has stopped, the sun is shining, cardinals are singing, and I’ve watched my chickadees feeding their fledglings.

Overall, except for the chances for flooded nests, birds produce the most young during years with the most rainfall. Rain fosters insect and fruit production, essential for feeding baby birds. Where our eyes aren’t drawn to sinkholes and devastated property, we can’t help but notice how very beautifully green Duluth is this year, even this morning as the cleanup begins in earnest. It’s a mess out there, and the losses at the Duluth Zoo are too horrible for me to want to think about, but it sounds like no people were killed. When most birds lose their nest and young, they almost certainly grieve but get right back on task, starting over again. It’s not that they’re heartless or, for all we know, devoid of emotions such as grief--indeed, when researchers are able to assess the hormones associated with stress and joy in birds, they often seem to have the same kinds of physiological responses that humans do, releasing endorphins while singing, and showing high stress levels when facing losses. The difference is that birds don’t let their emotions stop them from doing what needs to be done--providing an excellent example for us logical, intelligent humans to imitate the morning after a flood.