Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Hearty news on the chickadee front

Black-capped Chickadee

This year I gave a talk titled “More than You Thought You Wanted to Know about Black-capped Chickadees” for the huge northwestern Ohio birding festival called The Biggest Week in American Birding. I talk about chickadees a lot, but had never given a major program entirely about them before. I’ve amassed lots of cool chickadee facts over the years, but wanted to have some exciting new information as well. In googling to get some interesting statistics, I came across a fascinating entry in David Sibley’s blog. He’s the one who wrote and illustrated the wonderfully comprehensive Sibley Guide to Birds—both the huge field guide and the extraordinarily useful cell phone app that includes all the information from the field guide and more. 

In his blog, David occasionally posts mystery sounds, and in the blog post I found, he used this sound.

He explained on his blog:

I made this recording when I had the bird in my hand (after catching it as part of a regular bird-banding operation) and held a microphone against its back to record the sound. This is the heartbeat of a Black-capped Chickadee.

I saved the sound into my own computer, and opened it in Adobe Audition, where I could expand and count each beat on the waveform. David Sibley’s recording lasted a bit longer than 8 seconds. I counted 74 beats over one representative 5-second period, and 118 beats over exactly 8 seconds, which both calculated out to about 888 beats per minute. There were several “double beats” recorded—I counted each as a single beat, so if they were really separate beats, the result was closer to a thousand beats per minute. Imagine that!

In 1968, a researcher named Calder found that a Black-capped Chickadee at rest had a heart rate of about 480 beats per minute, and in 1941, another researcher, Odum, got 522 beats per minute at rest—he estimated that it must double during activity. David’s chickadee was under the stress of being handled, so the 888 beats per minute for that bird is quite consistent with those earlier results.

Black-capped Chickadee with deformed bill
My chickadee on April 20, 2014
It wasn’t until after my program that I got a different kind of hearty news on the chickadee front. Back in the winter of 2013-2014, I noticed that one of the chickadees coming to my feeder had an overgrown, deformed upper bill. The bill tip eventually fell off, but not before the neighborhood chickadees had paired off for the season, and that one didn’t get a mate. He not only had a problem with his bill—his three front toes on his right foot are missing. I fed him mealworms by hand throughout the winter, and again all this winter when I’ve been in town. Fortunately, my neighbor and friend, Jeanne Tonkin, has been feeding chickadees mealworms, too, and that particular chickadee has been coming to her hand as well. She recently noticed another chickadee begging from him, and on May 20, when he took mealworms from my hand, I also got to witness him handing them over to a begging female. This establishes both that he’s definitely a male—they’re the ones that provide food during courtship and nesting—and that he’s successfully found a mate this year. It warmed my heart to see this plucky little survivor doing so well.

Chickadee missing front toes of right foot, with a deformed bill
That same plucky chickadee on May 20, 2015

Killing birds with our driving

Pileated Woodpecker on my picnic table

Last weekend, when I was driving home from The Biggest Week in American Birding, a festival in Ohio, I found myself driving a little faster than normal on Highway 53 in Wisconsin.

My rule is always to drive at the slowest speed that is safe, courteous, and convenient. I prefer staying under the speed limit, but there was a lot of traffic going into and through Eau Claire, and I realized I was still going close to 70 by the time I got down to Rice Lake, where there was virtually no traffic at all. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize it until I was approaching a robin sitting in the road ahead.

There were no cars next to or beside me so I braked, the robin flew, and although it was a close call, the robin wasn’t hurt. But I was shaken. I didn’t need to be going over the speed limit there—not for anyone else’s convenience or safety, much less my own. I was shortening my long trip by a few minutes, but what could I possibly accomplish in those few minutes that would have been worth the life of a plucky bird who’d made it through the winter and was finally getting the payoff of a mate, a nest, and young?

A few miles further down the road, I spotted the body of a Pileated Woodpecker, crumpled on the side of the road. The cosmic waste hit me in the heart.

Our driving addiction exacts such a heavy toll—climate change, oil spills at wells and pipelines, toxic sludge, charring at oil refinery gas flare stacks—and if that all isn’t enough, we run ‘em down directly with our own cars.

I created a little blog at that gives some tips about how we can protect birds from all the costs associated with driving. My suggestions include ways we can reduce our gas consumption to reduce our personal contribution into the many ways extracting, transporting, and refining oil kill birds. My car shows my gas mileage every step of the way, so I’m acutely aware of how much more I use when I drive faster than about 42 miles per hour. But I also include ways we can avoid colliding with birds:
1. Combine trips and use public transportation, bike, or walk when possible so you can drive as little as possible.

2. Drive at the slowest speed that is safe, courteous, and convenient.

3. When approaching a red light or stop sign, start coasting to a stop sooner. Accelerate gently when possible.

4. Remove heavy items from your vehicle when you don't need them.

5. Keep your tires at the proper inflation.

6. Keep your car in tune.

7. When you see wildlife ahead, look in the mirror to see if anyone is following you, and slow down if you can safely do so.

8. If you know what you're doing, keep an injured-wildlife rescue kit in the car, including phone numbers for area rehab facilities.

I’m so tired of people excusing our bad behavior by pleading ignorance. If we’re going to take pride in ourselves as a species for our intelligence, claiming to be smarter than every other species on the planet, we should be using that intelligence to clean up our messes and find safer ways of getting from one place to another. Otherwise, our only claims of superiority over other species are in the areas of selfishness and arrogance.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Pip's and my "Sort-of-a-Big-Day"

Pip the Birding Dog
My plucky sidekick Pip

This weekend was the annual Hawk Ridge Birdathon—an event in which teams of birders compete to see the most species in a 24-hour period, each soliciting pledges in order to raise money for Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory. I was out of town, at a birding festival in Ohio, so couldn’t participate, but decided that this year instead I’ll do an informal "Sort-of-a-Big-Day" with my new puppy Pip.

Pip is too little to do a 2-am to 10-pm Big Day, much less a real midnight to midnight one, and since my heart attack, I get tired more quickly than I used to myself, so we’ll try for a more reasonable 5 or 6 am to as late as we can go on Thursday. The overall point is as a fund raiser, but I'm too timid to ask my friends, much less strangers, for pledges so I'm going to be donating $100 myself, but anyone who wanted to make a donation to Hawk Ridge in my and/or Pip's name (we're calling ourselves the Great Expectations team), I'd deeply appreciate it—here's the website for donations: (In the comments for vendor section, say you're making the donation for Pip and Laura's birdathon.)

So for the next couple of days I’m going to be plotting out our route. If we have more wonderful foggy weather, Park Point will be the perfect place to start out—warblers have been everywhere there this weekend (when I was gone, of course). One good strategy is to start out looking for warblers and other migrants at the point, then move to some of the shorebird spots and lakefront observation points in the Duluth area, and then work our way up to the bog, and then back to Duluth again. But if it is clear, as the current forecast calls for, fewer birds will be stopped from migrating, and Park Point won't be quite so ideal. In that case, Indian Point might be a better starting point.

As birds settle into their territories or at least spread out toward their migratory destinations, it’ll be important for us to cover a wide variety of nesting habitats. The trick is plotting out different routes for different weather conditions, and being flexible. My only constraint will be to stay within St. Louis County, but that’s hardly a sacrifice since this county is larger than four states.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird is a fantastic resource for knowing what birds have been seen where in real time, though in a big migration period, it can take longer for people to post what they’re seeing—they’re too much in the thick of watching it all. I have a wonderful app called Bird’sEye, produced in conjunction with the Cornell Lab, which tells me what birds have been seen in my area, often with specific directions to each place. All the information comes thanks to eBird. I have another app called BirdLog, which allows me to enter my data quickly and easily in the field so others can benefit from my sightings. In these ways, Cornell's eBird will be enormously helpful, but there are of course lots of places with sketchy phone connections in the wilder areas up here. Fortunately, I’ve been birding for 40 years now, since long before cell phones, and so I'm used to improvising without such aids.  I’ll do my best to have some good plans in place before heading out, and will be flexible as far as coming up with alternatives when it seems like a good idea.

To do a Big Day, you need to focus ahead of time on other logistics besides route. There is little to no time for stopping for meals, so making sure the car is gassed up, and making sure there is plenty of food and water, a quick change of clothing, and extra shoes and boots in the car is important. Having Pip along will also require that I bring plenty of provisions for her. When I’m birding, I need both hands for using my binoculars and my camera, so can’t also be tugging at a leash. Fortunately, Pip quickly adapted to my system—I put her on a retractable leash, and hook the handle via a carabineer to my belt pouch. I keep the belt pouch with leash on every moment—my car works when I have my keys on my person, and keeping them in my belt pouch makes it impossible for me to leave my keys or wallet in the car if I stop suddenly for an interesting bird. It takes about 2 seconds for me to unzip her car carrier and hook her harness to the leash. And she's an agreeable little soul, so it takes only three seconds to unhook her and put her back in the carrier.I'll bring along an extra leash just in case, and my first aid kit will include emergency supplies for her, too.

If I were doing a real Big Day—going 2 am to 10 pm or longer—I’d be shooting for 150 species. As it is, I’ll be very happy to break into three digits at all. Pip’s lifelist is now over 150. I want her to end the month with 200, and hope our Big Day will bring her up to over 175. But I’m not all that goal oriented—as Forest Gump almost said, birdwatching is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get, but it’s certain to be sweet.

(I would sure appreciate it if people donated to Hawk Ridge!)

Friday, May 1, 2015

Billy Collins's Genius

Tundra Swans at Goose Pond
Tundra Swans. (I actually don't know if Billy Collins had been watching Tundra or Mute Swans, but Tundra Swans produce a better sound for the radio.)
Every now and then, I read a poem that is so perfect—so simple and obvious and yet layered, and that speaks so directly to my heart as well as my mind—that I’m blown away. Some writers of poetry and fiction squeeze birds, flapping and thrashing their resistance, into their metaphors, like so many wannabe princesses forcing their unwilling feet into someone else’s glass slipper. Billy Collins, the Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003, lets swans be swans in his poem “Genius,” from his collection Aimless Love. Mr. Collins gave me permission to read it on the air today. (Listen here.)


was what they called you in high school
if you tripped on a shoelace in the hall
and all your books went flying.

Or if you walked into an open locker door,
you would be known as Einstein,
who imagined riding a streetcar into infinity.

Later, genius became someone
who could take a sliver of chalk and square pi
a hundred places out beyond the decimal point,

or a man painting on his back on a scaffold,
or drawing a waterwheel in a margin,
or spinning out a little night music.

But earlier this week on a wooded path,
I thought the swans afloat on the reservoir
were the true geniuses,
the ones who had figured out how to fly,
how to be both beautiful and brutal,
and how to mate for life.

Twenty-four geniuses in all,
for I numbered them as Yeats had done,
deployed upon the calm, crystalline surface—

forty-eight if we count their white reflections,
or an even fifty if you want to throw in me
and the dog running up ahead,

who were at least smart enough to be out
that morning—she sniffing the ground,
me with my head up in the bright morning air.

"Genius" by Billy Collins from Aimless Love. © Random House, 2013. Used with permission.