Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Friday, January 29, 2016

The Quality of Mercy Can Be Strained

Katie and Sora
My daughter Katie helped me care for this Sora. Both its legs were broken in a collision with a Walmart parking lot where a marsh had been drained. Now, after 4 weeks, it was fully healed, and we were about to drive it to a large marsh for release. 

Perhaps the finest of all human emotions is mercy. There are many documented cases in nature of birds and other animals helping family and flock members in trouble—I reported on one case with ravens just last week. And there are also documented cases of wild animals helping other species—such as dolphins rescuing humans and even dogs!

So we humans may not legitimately stake a claim on uniqueness in the animal kingdom for compassion and mercy, but these qualities are among the finest characteristics of our species. The impulse to help people or animals in trouble is a noble one. Unfortunately, even those with wonderful intentions can make a lot of situations worse unless we have accurate knowledge behind that intended mercy.

One of the stories that went viral this week was about the Florida man who came upon an American Kestrel that appeared tame. News accounts don’t explain how he found it, but my guess is that the little falcon probably had a head injury from a collision. The man wanted to keep it as a pet, and when told he had to give it up because it was a protected species, he gave it a goodbye kiss, and the kestrel bit off a large chunk of his lip. 

American Kestrel
American Kestrels are fierce little predators. They are intelligent and devoted to their families, but utterly incapable of wrapping their heads around the concept of kissing.  

That story highlights two unfortunate but basic human impulses—to possess and subdue wild creatures, and to interpret animal emotions based on facial features. Falcons have large, dark eyes, rather similar to the eyes of our most successfully domesticated species, the dog. Dog faces may be endearing, but it isn’t the darkness of their eye color that indicates their disposition. And the expectation that any falcon would want to kiss anyone—even its own mate—is rooted in ignorance. Falcon mates show their devotion not by preening each other’s faces but by forking over bird carcasses. To any reasonable falcon, someone sticking their face into yours would be a dangerous act of aggression, so naturally the kestrel fought back. Ironically, the very same Shakespearean play that gave us the phrase "the quality of mercy" also gave us "a pound of flesh." 

Reading any animal’s emotions is tricky for our species. Whole books have been written about recognizing the body language of our pet dogs, and the whole reason we so successfully domesticated them in the first place was because they’re so relatively easy to read. 

Burrowing Owl
These two Burrowing Owls near the Salton Sea were used to people driving along the roadside.
I posted photos of two Burrowing Owls on Facebook this week, and lots of people commented about how angry they looked. The mated birds were standing together at a burrow while we stayed in our van on a nearby road. These birds had to have been acclimated to traffic and people to select that nesting site in the first place. Of course, our presence may have annoyed or even angered them, but what we think of as facial expressions didn’t provide evidence of that. Their "expression" was simply due to the fact that their skull protrudes a bit above the eyes to provide shade, superficially resembling the way a cartoonist draws a person’s eyebrows together to portray anger.

Burrowing Owl.
Notice how the protruding but feathered skull shades this bird's eyes from the bright California sun. How it is feeling is anyone's guess. It wasn't talking. 

How "rescuing" birds can hurt people

For being the species that includes rocket scientists and brain surgeons, it’s strangely hard for many otherwise intelligent people to think through the reality that each species has an intelligence and emotional range that encompasses its own unique spectrum, based on unique requirements dictated by its body structure and natural history. Protecting people from their own well-meant but uninformed impulses is one half of the reason we’re prohibited from handling protected species without a license—our misunderstandings about animals, even when well-meant, can lead to serious injuries for people. It may be both merciful and wise to rescue a Great Blue Heron that was hit by a car or entangled in fishing tackle, but unless the person retrieving or caring for it is properly trained and wearing proper protection, the heron is likely to jab, aiming straight for the eyes. The largest Great Blue Herons weigh less than 8 pounds, but do have powerful neck muscles and a powerful beak, and of course they're going to protect themselves with every fiber of their being. 

Great Blue Heron
Great Blue Heron bills can pack a wallop, easily poking out an eye.

Rescuing a loon stranded when ice closes in will save the bird only if the person can retrieve it safely—without the right equipment and know-how in dealing with thin ice, it’s likely that both the person and the loon will end up dead. Even when I was licensed, I never had the means, skills, or boating equipment to retrieve any birds over water. 

When a sick bird or other wild animal is found, it’s important to be able to quickly and accurately diagnose the problem, both to ensure that people handling it, along with their children and pets, don’t also get sick, and to give the animal a significantly better chance than it would have if left alone. Even with all my years of experience as a licensed rehabber, I got sick in Costa Rica after briefly handling a beautiful and healthy Blue-gray Tanager that had collided with a bus.

Blue-gray Tanager
This is my hand holding this Blue-gray Tanager that struck a window on a nearby parked bus. The bird flew off moments after the photo was taken. A glistening plop of poop ended up on my finger, and by day's end I was very sick. With all my experience, I completely forgot to wash my hands with disinfectant after handling the bird. It was nothing serious and I was fine by the next day. But still...washing your hands after handling a bird—while you're eating!—is hardly rocket science.

How "rescuing" birds can hurt those very birds

Of course, protecting humans is only one half of the equation that led to the laws prohibiting non-licensed people from handling wild birds. The other reason is that without knowledge and training, we can harm the very birds we're trying to help.

When I was rehabbing, I’d feel a visceral pain when anyone called up about the baby birds he or she had “rescued” a week or so before. More often than not, the person was now wondering why the little things seemed to be losing interest in food—at that point, the nestlings had already begun the dying process and there was usually virtually nothing I could do to save them. The kinds of food offered and the frequency of feeding both require knowledge and more time and attention than most people can give, and parent birds give their young a lot more care than just feedings. Most songbirds remain with their parents for weeks—some for months—after fledging, as their parents teach them the ropes of survival. Without that, how can we expect the baby birds we “save” to survive?

When a bird hits a window in winter, many people bring it into the house thinking that will of course be better than being in the cold. But our winter birds are so physically acclimated to cold that a comfortable room temperature for us can seem unbearably hot to them. Of course, leaving them on their backs out in the cold will also doom them. 

The simplest and best thing to do in this situation is to right the bird and put it in a protected but fairly cool place for a few minutes, in a closed shoe box or other darkened enclosure, and take it outdoors to open the box every 10 minutes or so until the bird flies off. If a wing or leg appears injured, or blood is coming from anywhere, the bird should immediately be brought to a licensed rehabber. Over the years, many people have told me that they cup the bird in their hand and breathe on it, and it miraculously flies away. This is an old wives' and husbands' tale, as cruelly ridiculous as breathing on a brain-injured person to heal him or her would be. I’ve picked up at least a few hundred birds with head injuries from collisions during my lifetime, and never once breathed on any of them—nonetheless, most of them flew away just as quickly, without being exposed to a wash of hot carbon dioxide and germs from my mouth. Tragically, about 50 percent of birds that do fly off after hitting a window still end up dying from hematomas and other injuries that we don’t see, but 50 percent survive.

Red-eyed Vireo
When this Red-eyed Vireo struck my window, it was badly dazed. I placed it on a bit of wood (easy for its feet to grip) inside a cardboard box. Every 10 or 15 minutes, I took the box into my yard and held the piece of wood, to see if the bird was ready to fly off. After 45 minutes or so, it did. 

Intervening when a natural predator strikes

Witnessing a natural predation event can be extremely heart wrenching, so I do understand the impulse to intervene even as I know how absolutely wrong-headed it is. One time I witnessed a Cooper’s Hawk tearing into my own personal backyard robin—the beloved male who sang from atop my spruce tree for at least three years running. He was screaming, his mate was squawking and dive-bombing the hawk, and the hawk was ripping chunks out of his pectoral muscles while he was still alive. Meanwhile three crows had descended to observe the scene, and maybe capitalize if the female robin succeeded in chasing off the hawk so the crows could finish up whatever of the male robin remained. 

My natural human impulse was to step in, but what possible good would that do any of the six birds on the scene? There was no way, with his breast sliced open and chunks already missing from his flight muscles, that the robin could ever fully recover. Some people told me I should have at least denied the hawk that meal, but sending it off hungry would have simply meant it would have to kill another bird that day. And compassion for wildlife has to extend not only to the victims but the hungry predators. In the four decades I’ve been birding, I’ve watched far more unsuccessful hunts than successful ones—statistically and in terms of individual birds, it’s harder to live a long life as a predator than as prey. Wild creatures are what they are. 

Why feral cats are not "natural predators."

Of course, this line of reasoning brings supporters of feral cat colonies to claim I’m hypocritical, because I do believe in intervening when domestic cats are killing birds, and I do advocate getting all outdoor cats, feral or owned, out of the wild. One of my own cats was part of a TNR program before I took her in, and both of my cats were feeding on birds before I brought them home to lead the rest of their lives as indoor cats. I love them, and wish all cats were so loved. But exactly as our society had to do with dogs running loose, we have to get rid of cats running loose in the wild, and for exactly the same reasons. Cats are now the number one domestic carrier of rabies, cats transmit toxoplasmosis to people, and cats are the number one killer of wild birds. Cat owners and supporters of feral colonies should be fined exactly the same for poaching the wildlife their cats kill as anyone else who causes the deaths of protected wildlife.

Feral cat
This feral cat in coastal Georgia posed a danger to humans as well as birds.
Aren't cats natural predators? They are indeed predators by nature, but they aren't natural in the sense of being part of the natural ecosystems in America. Rather, they are subsidized killers. As long as people provide them with supplemental food, their populations never drop when prey numbers decline as do populations of foxes, raptors, and other natural predators. Shouldn't we show feral cats the same mercy that we show other animals? Yes, in the same way that we owe rabid dogs and packs of feral dogs mercy. They should be removed from the wild and dispatched humanely if homes cannot be found for them.

In conclusion...

Taking pity on and helping animals deserve more nuanced approaches than simple sound-bytes can explain. The quality of mercy is indeed strained when we act with kindness that isn't informed by knowledge. Again, we are the species that contains within our numbers every rocket scientist and brain surgeon on the planet. Our brains and our hearts should be both engaged and large enough to guide us through these murky waters.

"Amy" the Peregrine Falcon
Peregrine Falcons, like all natural predators, die or move on when their food supply dwindles. Unlike them, feral cats are subsidized killers.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Ivory Gull: R.I.P.

Ivory Gull in Duluth!

On Saturday, January 23, the Ivory Gull that had been delighting birders and tourists in Duluth’s Canal Park since New Years Day appeared to be in serious distress. Wildwoods, our wonderful and professional bird rehabilitation organization, was called in late Sunday, and some people did try to capture the gull, but it eluded them. It hasn’t been seen since nightfall on Sunday.

It’s sad that the bird died, and also bewildering. Ivory Gull individuals do appear now and then in the Lower 48, but it’s rare enough that when one appeared last year in southern Illinois, birders from all over America made the journey to see it. The American Birding Association’s Facebook page kept birders up to date on the Duluth bird’s appearances, and again, many people made the trek to Duluth to see it.

Ivory Gull
Duluth's Ivory Gull

No one knows why individuals of some species wander occasionally. Ivory Gulls have long been known to be subject to this periodic wandering, but whether the individual vagrants leave their natural range because they’re in some distress or for another reason is beyond our ken. Thanks to the scientists putting transmitters on Snowy Owls in Project SNOWstorm, we’re in the beginning stages of teasing out some of the mysteries involved in that species’ winter movements. That work, in combination with the many insights raptor rehabilitators bring to the table in handling an even larger number of individuals during some Snowy Owl invasion cycles, is getting answers to some of our questions, even as it’s inspiring even more questions. 

Unfortunately, a Project SNOWstorm approach would be impossible with Ivory Gulls because it’s so rare and unpredictable that an individual Ivory Gull moves south, and when one does, it usually remains only a day or two, making it unlikely that a bander involved in an Ivory Gull project could even get on the scene while the bird is still present. And then, even if an experienced Ivory Gull bander were present, banders haven’t developed as many straightforward protocols to trap gulls in winter—most research projects on gulls are done on their breeding grounds.

Because no one captured it, we’ll never know why the Duluth Ivory Gull was in distress. One Ivory Gull that drew hundreds of birders to West Point Lake in Georgia in 2010 died of aspergillosis—a common and widespread fungal infection of the lungs. Did that bird leave its natural range because it was already infected, or because it already had a compromised immunity that made it more vulnerable than Ivory Gulls that stay in the Arctic? We may never know the answer to that.

In the case of such exceptional birds, every single data point is invaluable. But most birds in distress die either directly from predators or at nighttime, making it very unlikely that their carcasses can be retrieved for necropsy. The mangled Ivory Gull carcass I retrieved in Superior on January 6 was too far gone to provide any information about the bird’s physical condition before death. 

Dead Ivory Gull at Connor's Point in Superior
Mangled remains of the Superior Ivory Gull that was retrieved and sent to the Field Museum
Scientists at the Field Museum have retrieved both a louse and a mite from it--critters that were as dead and frozen as the gull. These permanent parasites live their entire life cycle on their host, and identifying them reveals important information to scientists in disciplines from taxonomy to animal behavior. So even limited amounts of salvageable body parts can contribute to our knowledge of various species.

Louse from the Superior Ivory Gull; photo taken under the microscope at the Field Museum of Natural History via Nathan Goldberg

Retrieving and providing professional rehabilitation for out of range birds if they are clearly sick or injured seems to me a wise course, both out of compassion for the bird, just in case it can be rehabilitated for release, and to augment the woefully tiny body of information we have about these birds. Our lack of physical data about Duluth's otherwise wonderfully well documented Ivory Gull lends its already sad death an additional layer of tragedy.

Ivory Gull

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

A Kindness of Ravens

Common Raven

Last week I got a fascinating message from a listener named Mike Bartz who lives up on the Gunflint trail. He writes:

Yesterday I was walking and observed 3 northern ravens on the ground. They are around all of the time flying about and scavenging. I noticed that one of them was being pushed sideways by another. Then I noticed the one being pushed, while it appeared to be a mature bird its legs were noticeably shorter compared t the other ravens. It could move on the ground but seemed to have great difficulty compared to the others.

The closer I looked it became apparent to me that the bird had some type of birth defect or injury causing both legs to be grossly misshapen and it appeared that the left foot was basically held in a knot. I could not get a good view of the right but the bird seemed to use that one to "shuffle" and put most of its weight on.

Then the one of the most amazing things I have ever witnessed in nature occurred. On three separate occasions, the bird that had been pushing or what appeared to be assisting the "crippled" raven moved off a short distance, picked up something with its beak, moved back to the handicapped bird, and placed it on the ground. Then the crippled bird reached down with its beak, and picked up and ate whatever the first bird had brought to it. I observed this three times in a relatively short period of time.
The second bird, based on what I observed, appeared to be feeding the other raven. Helping it. I have seen this behavior in canines regurgitating food brought back to the pups but never heard of it among ravens. That handicapped bird appeared to be mature and otherwise healthy. Wondering if you are aware of any thing in the literature of ravens helping one another.

Mike continues, “I am a retired game warden from Wisconsin. If someone had told me this years ago when I was working I likely would have been skeptical but I know what I saw. It was truly incredible!”

Ravens, along with jays, magpies, and crows, belong to a family known for tight family relationships, and strong ties with neighboring birds. One day when I was rehabbing a Blue Jay named BJ, who I kept in a cage next to my education Blue Jay Sneakers, Sneakers managed to get out of her own cage. When I came into the room, she was passing mealworms through the bars to BJ. I bet she’d taken at least a few for herself first, but still…

Sneakers the Blue Jay
Sneakers got her name as a fledgling because she liked to snuggle against our shoes. I don't have photos of B.J.
BJ came to me in the first place one December after a major blizzard and frigid weather. Someone found him on the ground beneath their feeder, and easily picked him up to bring to me. It turned out that BJ had a congenital deformity and simply could not open his wings at all. Because of that, or as the root cause of it, his pectoral muscles were almost non-existent—beneath the chest, I could feel the almost bare keel bone. He was near starvation when I got him. As he recovered, he was great at hopping and jumping, and outdoors could easily get from tree to tree if there were low branches or a nearby shrub. I presume his parents stuck with him from the time he hatched in early summer until winter became too pressing for them and they finally had to move on without him. I like thinking that they intentionally left him near a feeding station so he’d at least not starve.

Kevin McGowan of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has been keeping track of individual crows in the Ithaca, New York area since the 70s. When West Nile Virus hit, it decimated the crow population. Kevin discovered one male and chicks dead, and both parents in an adjoining territory. The surviving female went to her neighbors and raised their young. The following year, at least one of those chicks helped her raise her next family.

We love to pretend our species has a monopoly on intelligence, compassion, love, and empathy. But if we were indeed as smart as we think, we might pay a bit more attention to the intelligent and even compassionate living beings all around us. Thanks, Mike, for this lovely reminder.

Common Raven

Monday, January 18, 2016

Some unexpected winter birds

(Since I wrote this blog entry on Friday, January 15, right before leaving for California, there's been another appearance of an Ivory Gull immature in Canal Park on Friday (but as of this writing on Monday morning, not since), and two Black-legged Kittiwakes appeared in Canal Park on both Saturday and Sunday. Meanwhile, I got an email Friday about a Yellow-rumped Warbler that has been visiting a feeder in Hovland, north of Grand Marais!)

Ivory Gull
Duluth's Ivory Gull

This winter lots of amazing birds have been turning up here in the northland. We started out 2016 with a New Years Day Ivory Gull in Canal Park. That one stuck around for a nine days. We don’t know what happened to it—the cold front that sent it packing also sent most of the waterfowl and other gulls away.

On January 12, Bill Tefft reported an immature Ivory Gull being mobbed in an Ely backyard. That one was on the ground and seemed traumatized by mobbing ravens. Bill said that Muff Shumacher and her neighbor took it to the vet clinic for examination and subsequent consultation with the local wildlife rehabilitator. As soon as it had recovered, it flew away. We don’t know if it was the same individual that had been in Duluth, but there’s at least some chance that it was.

Birders who surged into Duluth to see the Ivory Gull also headed to the Superior harbor to see a gray Gyrfalcon that has been hanging out by a grain elevator for the past few years. This year a young female is there, too. Disturbingly, many of the acquisitive birders haven’t been satisfied with the fine looks available from the road, and have been driving into work areas that are clearly marked no trespassing. Their bad behavior jeopardizes access for all of us. 

Kathleen Preece's Mourning Dove. Copyright 2016 by Kathleen Preece
My friend Kathleen Preece has been hosting a Mourning Dove near Bemidji this winter. Most doves wisely fly the coop—their bodies are hardy enough to endure if they have enough food, but their fleshy feet are prone to frostbite if they can’t spend most of the day roosting with their tummy keeping their toes warm. Kathleen has been providing sunflower seeds, millet, and mealworms, and the dove seems content, especially after Kathleen constructed a little shelter for it.

Kathleen's dove in its little shelter. Copyright 2016 by Kathleen Preece
I’ve had a few reports of individual robins here and there, visiting feeders. We always have at least a few robins through at least January up here, usually in small flocks or mingling with Bohemian Waxwings, found mostly at crabapples and mountain ash. Some of them observe other birds at feeders and check it out. We can help them by providing frozen berries (no need to thaw them—they say easier to eat when they were purchased frozen) or mealworms. People don’t normally feed robins, so they don’t have a normal search pattern for bird feeders. Many never do figure them out, but some do.

American Robin eating fruit
Robins feed on berries in winter

The Indigo Bunting that doesn’t belong anywhere near here was still around at least through Sunday the 10th. I don’t know if it can survive the winter here, but it did at least survive the first bitter cold night. Indigo Buntings aren’t as flexible in their migratory movements as robins and waxwings, so I don’t know if this little guy will be able to head south or not.

January Indigo Bunting
Duluth's very late Indigo Bunting

In other news, the Ivory Gull that was found dead in Superior two weeks ago is still dead.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

2016 plans

Cuban Tody--my most wanted bird!
This year is shaping up to be one of the best ever for birding for me.

  • On Saturday, January 16, I’m flying to San Diego for one of Kim Eckert’s birding tours
  • At the end of May, I’m heading for Maine for two weeks to be an instructor at the Audubon camp on Hog Island
  • In October, I’m going to spend a week at my most-yearned-for destination on the planet, Cuba, looking for my most-yearned-for bird on the planet, the Cuban Tody
  • In November, I’m headed to another place I’ve yearned to go since I was a child, Uganda. 
I’ve birded enough in the U.S. that I’m not likely to see any lifers—that is, brand new birds I’ve never seen before—on the California or Maine trips. I’ve birded eight times in California now, so I’m not even likely to see many new birds for the state. But the joy of adding lifers and new state birds is more transitory than the joy of seeing and hearing cool birds.

I love revisiting places I’ve birded in, love visiting new places, and love seeing whatever birds happen to be wherever I happen to be. Yet no matter how much I like to say I don’t need new birds, I’m really with King Lear—O reason not the need! I’ll be seeing a good 300 lifers in Cuba and Uganda combined! All four trips promise to be wonderful.

Regardless of whether I’m headed to a new or old place, I like to make sure I’m abreast of the birding possibilities—something that is easier than ever before, thanks to eBird. I go to, click on “Explore Data,” and enter each spot of our itinerary under “Explore Hotspots.” I can set the date for the current year, and see where each species has been seen. eBird even provides bar charts showing how common each species on a country’s list is, month by month. It’s a great way to generate a checklist or simply a study-ahead list.

eBird bar chart showing a few of the species I may see

Of course, the old fashioned way of preparing for a trip is with books and magazines. BirdWatching magazine publishes a series, “Hotspots Near You,” with great information about a steadily increasing number of places throughout North America, and even beyond. If you don’t have back issues, or even if you do but don’t know which issue covers a specific spot, you can find each spot on their online interactive map on their website at

The American Birding Association has published a great series of books with titles beginning, “A Birder’s Guide to…” These provide in-depth directions to virtually all the good spots in each state, bar graphs showing how abundant different birds are month by month, and lots more. Even if you’re not a birder, these guides show you lovely natural areas when you’re in an unfamiliar town.

Brushing up on identification is way easier now than it used to be. My two favorite North American birding identification apps correspond to the Sibley and National Geographic field guides. Both provide all the content of the paper field guide plus the sounds for each North American species.

I won’t have to study too hard for California and Maine, but will have to master a LOT of birds before I go to Uganda. To accomplish this, I bought another app created by the same company that created the Sibley app—this one is the eGuide to Birds of East Africa. I also bought an inexpensive plastic-coated guide to the most common birds of that area—there are so many unfamiliar species that this little cheat sheet will be a good way to get started on that challenge.

 Going to a new place is fun in the planning, the going, and the remembering. And this year I’ll be doing this for four exciting places—2016 promises to be an exciting year from start to finish.

Monday, January 11, 2016

New Years Resolution: eBird!

Me looking at my lifer Kirtland's Warbler
When I was looking at my lifer Kirtland's Warbler on June 6, 1976, there was no such thing as a home computer, much less eBird!

Way back in 2002, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Audubon launched a wonderful and completely free web-based bird-listing program called eBird. When we enter the birds we see, eBird keeps track of our lifelist and our lists for every country, state, and birding location—even our backyard. Not only does this help us keep track for ourselves—it provides valuable data for ornithologists and other birders.

Unfortunately for lackadaisical people like me, eBird’s greatest value for everyone requires us to keep track of the numbers of each species that we see in each location. On a given day of birding, one can easily tally birds in 10 or more locations. For the Sax-Zim Bog alone, eBird lists 78 different locations, and anyone who has actually tried counting chickadees knows it isn’t all that easy, so contributing to eBird can be unwieldy when we just want to chill out looking at birds. And if we forget to jot down where we saw each Gray Jay and Black-capped Chickadee, so just enter it in the Sax-Zim Bog location in general, or St. Louis County, our eBird checklist for the day will be far less valuable for bird population, distribution, and conservation work by scientists.

When it was originally launched, eBird data had to be entered into the computer after we got home, which required birders to maintain a field notebook. I took two ornithology classes during my first couple of years of birding in the 70s, which got me into very good habits as far as keeping a field notebook and keeping track of individuals, but I fell out of those habits long before eBird started.

Some of my field notebooks from the 70s
My old field notebooks. 

It took a serious adjustment in my mindset to start keeping track of numbers and precise locations again, and even now I’m not nearly as disciplined about this as I used to be—my 2016 New Years resolution is to be far more dedicated to using eBird in the way it was intended.

Fortunately, the more I use eBird, the easier that gets, especially because the eBird team developed and keeps improving a great eBird app for both iPhones and android. Now the moment I arrive at any birding spot, I open the app and press the big start button.

If I select “Choose a nearby hotspot,” it uses my phone’s GPS to find the closest spot to me.

It also knows what time it is. After I choose my location , all I have to do is tap the space in front of any species I see--each time I tap, it adds 1. And if I count 224 Sandhill Cranes, I can touch the species and simply enter the number.

When I’m done, I press Review & Submit, it asks a couple of easy questions, and I’m done.

This year I intend to keep my eBird lists up to date every time I’m out, and from home on days when I keep track of my backyard birds.

I didn’t quite have the hang of eBirding during my Big Year in 2013, so I wasted a lot of opportunities. I did write down most species in field notebooks or checklists, and over the years kept most of my records in a great but now outdated program called Avisys. Little by little I’m entering that old data into eBird. I don’t have most of those locations down to individual spots—often not even the county. And I have virtually no numbers for species on my lists, at least not since I’ve been able to go on exotic birding tours. Fortunately, eBird allows me to enter “historical” data with far less precision—doing that is not nearly as valuable information for research, but the eBird team created this system as a service to birders like me.

I usually work on entering my old data while watching TV with my mother-in-law in the evenings. At this rate, it’ll take years to enter everything, but meanwhile, I’ve made sure my Minnesota list at least shows the number of species I’ve seen in the state. I’m leaving for a California birding trip on Saturday, so I got that list up to date so I’ll know what birds are new for the state.

My next goal is to get my lifelist up to date, which will involve adding birds I’ve seen in Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Germany. Then I’ll get the rest of the states up to date, starting with Wisconsin. But meanwhile, even as I go backwards in time in the evenings, I’ll be keeping my day-to-day checklists entered more precisely on the app.

EBird is a great program with enormous value for conservation and research about birds, and it’s free. Anyone who wants to keep track of birds should try it out! Head to and get started now!

Friday, January 8, 2016

Feeding Gulls vs. Feeding Owls: What's the Difference?

Ivory Gull in Duluth!
Ivory Gull dining on salmon
 Ever since New Years Day, birders have been feeding the Ivory Gull that turned up in Canal Park. The bird has gorged on salmon, tuna, and other expensive fare, and in exchange has provided amazing photo ops for people who’d never had a chance to see, even at a distance, this rare species before. I’ve been within 6 feet of it myself when it dropped down to the sidewalk on the shipping canal breakwater, right next to me.

Selfie of me and the Ivory Gull!
Selfie with the Ivory Gull

Every year, I write about how irresponsible it is for birders and photographers to bring pet store mice, gerbils, and other rodents to the Sax-Zim Bog to feed the northern owls visiting there. (Yes, I know I never complain about the bird banders I know who do this. To me, the ethical issues regarding feeding birds for better looks for birding and photography purposes are entirely different from those regarding banding and other research purposes.)

What's the difference that makes it okay ethically to for birders and photographers to feed gulls but not owls? It's a simple matter of biology and bird behavior.

Owls are obligate predators of live prey. When they acclimate to humans and, even worse, when they learn to associate us with food, they become far more likely to be killed in collisions with cars and windows, to be reported as nuisance birds, or to be shot.

This opinion is not just based on a gut feeling by me. A great many research and conservation organizations staffed by the most knowledgeable ornithologists, rehabbers, and others with decades of experience with owls all affirm that feeding owls is unethical and dangerous for owls. No organization with this kind of knowledge and experience with owls endorses feeding them.

Fortunately, most northern owls aren’t particularly disturbed by the presence of large mammals in their natural habitat—they can easily elude bears—and so they are relatively easy to see and to photograph when you happen to find them. I’ve had wonderful opportunities to photograph at close range Great Gray, Northern Hawk, Boreal, and Snowy Owls without ever tossing out bait for them. All these photos were taken of wild owls that were not lured by food. Indeed, the individual birds in first three photos each caught natural prey while I was watching them!

Great Gray Owl
Great Gray Owl

Northern Hawk Owl
Northern Hawk Owl

Boreal Owl
Boreal Owl

Snowy Owl
Snowy Owl

Gulls, on the other hand, and especially the Ivory Gull, are natural scavengers. The American Ornithologists’ Union and Cornell’s Birds of North America entry for Ivory Gull states, “It is an opportunistic, aggressive, and voracious feeder, and in certain circumstances can be quite tame and easily approached by people.” Regarding its food habits, the BNA goes on:
Like most gulls, an opportunistic feeder. Major prey includes sympagic (ice-associated) fish and invertebrates washed onto floes or caught nearby in surface waters. Infrequent sightings originally prompted observers to conclude that Ivory Gulls were largely dependent on scavenging feces and carcasses of polar bears, whales, walruses, and seals. Inuit hunters in High Arctic regularly observe Ivory Gulls scavenging marine mammals that hunters have just killed, and will readily scavenge bird carcasses when available. However, given remote pelagic habitats where species typically forages, reliance on offal and carrion probably exaggerated by early naturalists. 
Even if the Ivory Gull could eke out its own living on Lake Superior in the short term, before heading back to the Arctic Ocean, its behavior of checking out the birders for food wasn’t learned here in Duluth—this is the bird’s natural inclination. So as far as I’m concerned, there are no ethical caveats about providing nutritious fare for the Ivory Gull.

Anyone who thinks we should apply the exact same rules for owls and gulls is showing an abysmal ignorance of bird behavior and ecology, and a fundamental lack of common sense. There IS a difference between the groups, and all I can say is vive la diffĂ©rence!

Ivory Gull in Duluth!