Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Correcting Past Errors

Blue Jay
I've mentioned this species in at least 278 For the Birds programs

In the three decades I’ve been producing "For the Birds," I’ve done my level best to be as accurate as possible. I’ve produced over 3,000 programs, mentioning at least 722 species. Some I’ve talked about more than others. I’ve discussed Black-capped Chickadees in at least 332 programs, and Blue Jays in at least 278. Those are of course exceptional, being my favorite birds, but I’ve talked about American Robins at least 257 times, and have covered a few common birds at least 100 times: Canada Goose, Bald Eagle, Rock Pigeon, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, American Crow, European Starling, Northern Cardinal, and House Sparrow.

The webpage my daughter created for me at makes it really easy to find programs, via date or species mentioned. I have every single transcript for 1986 through 1988, along with many recordings of the tapes, and have a lot of programs from 1989. I also have recordings of every program aired from 2005 through now. There are serious gaps in the early aughts, and lots of big gaps in the 90s. Christine Dean at KUMD found a stash of several open reel tapes with programs from the 90s that she digitized for me, and I’m little by little digitizing cassette tapes, but not all of them have labels so it’s been an interesting exercise trying to figure out when they aired—in a few cases I couldn’t even be certain of the decade, much less the year. It’ll take me years to get into the database every program I still have in some form, along with all my photos and natural sound recordings, but it’s been a fun process.

It’s also been a sobering one. I take a lot of pride in accuracy and sound information, but over the years I’ve made some egregious errors. Before I get too far into this fourth decade, I want to clear the record.

First of all, you’d think I’d have the facts straight about Black-capped Chickadees, but for the first seven or so years I was saying that on the coldest nights of winter they snuggle together in cavities. It turns out that chickadees are truly the Norwegian bachelor farmers of the bird world, very sociable but uncomfortable when other chickadees get too close. So except during the brief window of time when adult females are brooding very tiny nestlings, and during the brief window when nestlings sleep together before they fledge, chickadees sleep entirely alone.

Black-capped Chickadee--fledging day!
This was the last time these two chickadees were inside a cavity together. They fledged a few minutes later.

I’ve long known that White-throated Sparrows come in two facial color forms—those with brilliant white stripes and those with tan stripes. I’ve also known that those colors are like our eye color—both females and males can be either. And I knew that pairs could have one of each. So in at least one program I stated that the birds are undiscriminating—willing to take a bird of either color form as a mate. But it turns out the birds are highly discriminating—in about 98 percent of all pairs, a pair is made up of birds of the opposite color form, as if every human with brown eyes simply had to have a blue-eyed mate and vice versa. Since then I’ve done a couple of programs explaining how these are like Gone with the Wind characters, only in this plot Scarlett always ends up with Ashley Wilkes and Melanie always gets Rhett Butler.

White-throated Sparrow
This white-striped form White-throated Sparrow would be Rhett Butler or Scarlett O'Hara.

Those errors were a matter of my own ignorance spreading misinformation, but sometimes what scientists know about birds changes with times. Several listeners have asked over the years whether birds breed up here and also on their wintering grounds. I used to always answer no—that this is the only place our summer birds rear young. But it turns out one population of Barn Swallows nests in South America during our winter: it’s still unknown whether these individual birds migrate north and also breed up here or not. Also some birds of our American Southwest may nest again in northern Mexico during late summer/ early fall after migrating from what we thought was their only breeding grounds.

Barn Swallow
Does this Barn Swallow nest in South America too? 

In the coming decade I’ll try to keep my program clean of errors so I can’t be accused of just being for the birds when I’m Laura Erickson, speaking for the birds.