Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Saturday, February 25, 2017

The Pathological Moseyers Visit the Bog

Gray Jay
Gray Jay
I was in Colorado this month during the annual Sax-Zim Bog Birding Festival. It’s sad when even a lovely conflict makes me miss the wonderful local event, so on Saturday I headed to the bog with my little birding dog Pip and my friend Lisa.

Electric Puppy (photo by Lisa Johnson)
Earlier in the week, the forecast had called for snow on Friday, but that didn’t pan out. The 7-degree temperature and high winds made it a little unpleasant putting gas in my car first thing in the morning, but clear roads and glorious sunny skies in the bog made up for that.

If I had a rock band, I'd call us the Pathological Moseyers. I don't like rushing from place to place, or bird to bird. Even when covering a lot of ground, as we did on Saturday, I like to take my time, driving slowly and staying at birdy spots longer than more acquisitive birders enjoy.


We saw a few crows and ravens on our way into the bog, but our first exciting sighting of the morning wasn’t a bird at all but two coyotes, crossing the road together and then splitting up. They weren’t close, but were curious enough about us to stop and look—Lisa and I both got photos. There’s genuine magic in seeing coyotes or wolves. We of course stayed in the car—my little dog Pip didn’t pay much attention.


As we approached Correction Line Road, we watched for and found 8 displaying Sharp-tailed Grouse way in from the road on their lek, too far for photos. We didn’t see the pheasant that’s been reported in the same area, nor did we see any of the Wild Turkeys hanging out in the bog recently, nor any Ruffed Grouse which are ostensibly there all the time, and which Lisa was specifically hungry to see. But I was happy with the Sharp-tails, even from so very far away.

This year, owls have been few and far between—not one Northern Hawk Owl has been reported from the bog all season. We watched for owls as we worked our way to the Sax-Zim Bog Visitors Center to check out the feeders. We got skunked on owls for the day, but did see some spectacular Rough-legged Hawks. We didn’t spot any magpies this time, and saw more Bald Eagles on our way back to Duluth than we found in the bog.

Common Redpoll
Common Redpoll
A couple of distant Gray Jays were hanging out near the Visitor Center feeders, and Pine Siskins were wonderfully abundant, making their exuberant chattering sounds, punctuated with their zippy rising song—I’ve been hearing that a lot in my own yard, too. In my own yard I’ve been seeing a handful of American Goldfinches, which I didn’t find in the bog, but did find some Common Redpolls hanging out with the siskins at the Visitors Center feeders.
Gray Jay
Gray Jay
At the feeding station on Admiral Road, two Gray Jays posed for lots of close-up photos. Boreal Chickadees have been exceptionally hard to find this season, and sure enough, we didn’t see any. But I got some wonderful Black-capped Chickadee photos at the Admiral Road feeders.

Black-capped Chickadee

Lisa was positioned in the car perfectly to get nice Red-breasted Nuthatch pictures out her window—I missed that opportunity, but was fine focusing on Red Squirrels instead.

Red Squirrel

My total of 15 species for the morning seems rather paltry, but the quality of the experiences more than made up for the low number. We birders try to set up situations to maximize the variety and the number of birds we see, but the joy comes from individual encounters, which no abstract number can truly summarize. Even if it were the only thing I saw all day, the sparkle in a Black-capped Chickadee’s eye fills me with joy that lasts.

Robert Frost took that same deep pleasure in simple bird encounters.

Dust of Snow  
The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree   
Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

High Plains Snow Goose Festival, Lamar, Colorado

I spent this past weekend in southeastern Colorado in and near a tiny town called Lamar, at the 15th annual High Plains Snow Goose Festival. This festival celebrates the huge Snow Goose migration through what can be bone-dry short-grass prairie. The ponds scattered here and there are waterfowl magnets, and the lesser Snow Geese are considered to be the most abundant geese in the world. In recent decades their population has been exploding, and they currently have a breeding population approaching 6 million. A sizable chunk of them migrate right through southeastern Colorado.

The Snow Goose festival has been set for mid-February since it began. Intriguingly, even as the number of geese has risen, the timing of their migration has been changing. We saw tens of thousands of geese from a distance, but one wildlife manager told us he’d had a gigantic flock flying en masse from his pond just the week before.

Snow Geese

Snow Geese

Of course, Snow Geese are far from the only reason to visit southeastern Colorado in February. The festival’s web page banner says the festival is “Celebrating Birding and the Heritage of Southeast Colorado.” Sure enough, on field trips the people from the area pointed out a lot of fascinating local features, such as the nearby Sand Creek Massacre National Historical Site. All the local people I met were proud of their lovely town and the historical and wildlife treasures of the area. I stayed at a lovely B&B—cozy and comfortable, with wonderful food—called the Third Street Nest Bed and Breakfast.

Third Street Nest B&B
Lamar is within the range of one of my Top Ten favorite birds, the Lesser Prairie-Chicken. Indeed, Lamar is the very town I went to in 2013 to get them on my Big Year list.

Lesser Prairie-Chicken
Lesser Prairie-Chicken from Lamar, 2013
Right now, the Lesser Prairie-Chicken population is so low due to the extended drought that birds are essentially impossible to find when they’re not on breeding display leks in spring, and even display leks have declined dramatically in both number and size. Sure enough, we didn’t see any prairie-chickens at the Snow Goose festival—I’ll have to go back in April next year to see them there again, assuming Colorado still has any at all. This is one of the few species endemic to the United States, so we have an important mandate to do what we can to protect them when their entire population is in a tailspin.

Lesser Prairie-Chicken
Lesser Prairie-Chicken, Texas 2014

I was along on two trips to a splendid little park right in town—Willow Creek Nature Trail, on the grounds of the Lamar Community College. Robins and Cedar Waxwings gathered in the trees in huge numbers, feeding and chattering, and the robins broke into an occasional early song as well. The area around the park is known for being one of the best spots in Colorado to see eastern species, and sure enough, Blue Jays, Carolina Wrens, and Northern Cardinals were both seen and heard. I also saw and heard my only Lesser Goldfinch of the trip among the more abundant American Goldfinches.

In the open country around Lamar, the birding was equally splendid. Sunday was the first time in my 42 years of birding that I have ever seen both a Loggerhead and Northern Shrike in the same day, much less in the exact same area. That was a thrill for me, even if the birds were too far away for good photos.

As usual in open country in winter, there were a bazillion Horned Larks, and as usual, not one of them cooperated for a close-up photo.

Horned Lark
Well, not too uncooperative

We had a wonderful assortment of waterfowl—15 species of ducks and geese—and the raptors were spectacular: both Bald and Golden Eagles; Northern Harriers; Cooper’s, Rough-legged, and Ferruginous Hawks; and Red-tails everywhere, many in interesting plumages. In addition to the bazillions of American Kestrels, we had a Prairie Falcon flying along right next to the bus. And we had several Great Horned Owls along with one Short-eared Owl. We also had an odd piece of bark dangling in some branches that looked exactly like a Long-eared Owl.

Not a Long-eared Owl
Long-eared Owl?
Andrew holding what isn't a Long-eared Owl
Nah--just bark.

Mammals were few and far between, but we did see several Eastern Fox Squirrels, a few Eastern Cottontails, and a couple of coyotes.

Eastern Cottontail


I was shocked at how many Eurasian Collared-Doves there were—everywhere we went, they were prominent, including one on a nest already.

Eurasian Collared Dove on nest

On the last day, we came upon the biggest flock of Great-tailed Grackles I’ve ever seen—that was spectacular.

Great-tailed Grackle

Great-tailed Grackle

And there were plenty of other wonderful things about birding in this part of the country. I ended the weekend with a total of 67 species. My absolute favorites were the abundant Western Meadowlarks, in full song. Saturday was utterly windless, and even with my aging ears I could easily pick out as many as 7 individuals singing at once. The reason the Western Meadowlark is the state bird of six states while the Eastern Meadowlark is the state bird of zero is quite simple—that magnificent song. My only regret of the weekend was not bringing my good microphone and recorder to capture it. That is yet one more reason to return.

That’s one of the miracles of birding. Every place a birder goes, she finds unique and special features of the local avifauna that give that place a wonderful particularity that is a joy to discover, and a joy to come back to. Every corner of the world is a friendlier, more welcoming place when you’re a watcher of birds.

Harlan's Red-tailed Hawk

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Cats on the Prowl


I live with two cats, which some people find unexpected because I love birds so much. To add to the irony, both of my cats were inveterate bird-killers before they moved in with me. I got Miss Kitty in 1998, making her about 20 years old now, which provides rather solid evidence that cats don’t need clever or literary names to lead long lives, and that they can be both healthy and happy indoors, even after living in the wild. Kitty had been a stray here in Duluth.


In 2006, Kasey was a young feral cat from a trap, neuter, release program in Ohio who had been hunting birds in my daughter’s yard in Oberlin. I lured her into my car with a can of cat food, and she seemed so grateful for food and a home—even a mobile home in the form of a Prius—that she rode 800 miles home with me, seemingly actually enjoying the car ride. She and my little dog Photon rode back and forth with me between home and Ithaca, New York, when I was working at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology—the two of them were excellent company for me both in my apartment and on the road.

Photon in our Ithaca apartment

Since we married in 1972, Russ and I have rescued seven outdoor bird-killing stray cats, six of which we kept permanently, and one for which we found a great home. Considering that I’m far more a dog than a cat person, and that Russ doesn’t particularly like cats at all, we’ve definitely done our share to alleviate the problems of cats—at least individual ones—on bird populations.


 Unfortunately, we humans have a much better capacity to wrap our heads around the plights of individuals than of groups or whole populations. The millions of stray and feral cats out there each, individually, kill many individual wild creatures. Even in cities and on farms where cats kill pest animals, they also kill their share of wild birds. Some cats specialize on rodents, just as others specialize on birds, but no predator ignores prey that crosses its path. According to the American Bird Conservancy, cats have contributed to the extinction of 33 species and continue to adversely impact a wide variety of other species, including those at risk of extinction such as Piping Plover.

Piping Plover

In the United States alone, cats are estimated to kill 2.4 billion birds every year. The ecological dangers posed by cats are so critical that the International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists domestic cats as one of the world’s worst non-native invasive species.

Most people seem perfectly fine with programs to eradicate other non-native invasive species causing huge ecological problems and human health issues, such as rats, mice, and pigeons. Feral and unleashed pet dogs were once a huge problem for wildlife and also for human health, being the domesticated animal most implicated in rabies transmission to people. Empowering animal control officers to catch all dogs and to euthanize untagged and unlicensed dogs was as horrible a solution as it was essential. I truly don’t know how we can deal with cats now—the number one transmitter of toxoplasmosis to humans and now the top domestic transmitter of rabies as well—except in the same way we once had to approach the dog problem.

People who love cats, like me, can bring individual cats into their homes. On a larger scale, cat protection groups can adopt out some cats, and can bring unadoptable feral cats into large enclosures separated by barriers to keep wild birds and other native species out and the cats in. That is obviously an extremely expensive solution, but if people don’t want to bear that cost in dollars, they shouldn’t expect wild birds to pay the cost with their lives.

The American Bird Conservancy has been tirelessly fighting to solve the problem of cats killing wild birds. Right now they’ve been in a battle with groups trying to subsidize a feral cat colony on Jones Beach in New York, one of the few remaining beaches in the state where Piping Plovers still nest successfully.  ABC filed a lawsuit in March 2016 against the New York State Parks Office over the cats’ continued presence at Jones Beach because of those nesting Piping Plovers, a species listed as “Threatened” in the Atlantic Coast region under the federal Endangered Species Act, and as Endangered by New York State. Two weeks ago, on February 6, 2017, U.S. District Judge Arthur Spatt denied a motion to dismiss the case, finding that ABC’s allegations “support an inference of plausible harm to the survival of the Jones Beach Piping Plovers.”

Piping Plover

I entirely support the American Bird Conservancy’s approach, even as I wish we could work together to solve the underlying cause of this tragically polarizing issue. We must find the most humane ways possible to prevent non-native cats from killing our vulnerable birds. But the burden of finding a better solution should be on the people who refuse to accept killing as one approach. We must stop exposing vulnerable people to toxoplasmosis and rabies, and we must stop the outright killing of our native birds. It’s absurd for people who romanticize the so-called wildness of domestic cats to so casually write off the deaths of billions of genuinely wild birds. Until cat defenders get serious about finding effective ways to protect birds from cats, I see no alternative but to deal with cats on the prowl the way we once had to do with dogs. And I say that even as I hold my own dear cats close, knowing I’ve at least been part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Kasey yawning

Eurasian Tree Sparrow in Minnesota

Eurasian Tree Sparrow

On January 4, 2017, Two Harbors’s wonderful birding guru, Jim Lind, reported on eBird that there was a Eurasian Tree Sparrow hanging out with a flock of House Sparrows right in town. It may have been there earlier than that, because I later read an MOU listserv post by Kim Eckert saying it had first appeared in December. We’ve had a handful of Eurasian Tree Sparrow records over the years in the southern third of the state and in extreme western Minnesota, but never before anywhere in northeastern Minnesota. And I’ve never seen one in the state. It’s so rare that I didn’t make even a cursory reference to it in my ABA Field Guide to the Birds of Minnesota. People started scattering bird seed on the ground near the parking lot behind the Do North Pizzeria, in hopes that more people would be able to see the bird if it had a steady supply of food in one place.

When Jim first reported it, I had whatever horrible flu or cold virus has been going around this year and was stuck at home. I felt better just in time for my trip to New York and D.C., but had a relapse on the trip home, so I was out for the count until early February. Meanwhile, the sparrow disappeared for a couple of weeks, but suddenly turned up again on February 3. I went looking for it with my friend Karen Keenan on February 4, and headed out again the next day, Superb Owl Sunday with Lisa Johnson. We didn’t find any sparrows at all on either day.

On Monday, February 13, I headed back to Two Harbors with my dog Pip because so many clich├ęs kept springing into my head, like “hope springs eternal,” “third time’s the charm,” and “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”

Do North Pizzeria

We pulled into the parking lot behind the Do North Pizzeria, and voila! There in a small tree was a tiny flock of sparrows. Ten were House Sparrows, and there, right in the center of the flock, was the Eurasian Tree Sparrow. The flock stayed up in the tree long enough for me to take almost a hundred photos, then dropped to the parking lot to pick at some grit under a couple of cars. They ignored the cracked corn scattered at the base of the tree; after less than a minute under the cars, the flock flew off en masse.

Eurasian Tree Sparrow

Eurasian Tree Sparrows are, as their name implies, native to temperate areas of Europe and Asia, all the way into Southeast Asia. They also have an established population in and around St. Louis, Missouri—that population reportedly began with 12 birds imported from Germany in April 1870 to be released in one of the old “naturalization” projects that introduced popular birds from all over the globe to new countries. That small population hasn’t spread much, even as starlings introduced in New York City were spreading all over the continent. Eurasian Tree Sparrows are considered a pest species in Australia—they aren’t introduced intentionally there, but sometimes start nesting on ships in various ports in Southeast Asia and stay with the ship all the way to Australia.

I saw my very first Eurasian Tree Sparrow in St. Louis on October 28, 2004. I remember the date because it was the morning after the Boston Red Sox broke their curse by winning the World Series for the first time since 1918, routing the Cardinals in four games. The whole city of St. Louis seemed sorrowful, something even a lifelong Cubs fan could pick up on.


Now I have a very close friend who lives in Kirkwood, right outside St. Louis, and I’ve visited her and seen Eurasian Tree Sparrows at her place a few times. Most recently was in 2013 when I was doing my Big Year. I was driving home from New Mexico and Texas and stopped to see Susan and her Eurasian Tree Sparrows, which I needed for the year. I needed to get as far as Madison, Wisconsin that day, so I couldn't stay long. So Susan’s husband David painted a sign on a large piece of plywood, saying “ETS for Laura.” Sure enough, they were the very first birds I saw.



When I went to Europe in 2014, I saw Eurasian Tree Sparrows in Austria, Hungary, and Germany, where they belong.

Eurasian Tree Sparrow

And I saw some in January 2015 in Quincy, Illinois, when I went down trying to find an Ivory Gull that had disappeared the day before.  That’s within the range of the population centered in St. Louis, but it was the first time I’ve ever seen them in Illinois.

Eurasian Tree Sparrow

We’ll never know where the Two Harbors sparrow came from, or why it wandered to the Do North Pizzeria in Two Harbors, Minnesota, so far from every known Eurasian Tree Sparrow on the continent. Unless it heads back pretty soon, this one won’t fulfill its destiny of reproducing to ensure that the world continues to have Eurasian Tree Sparrows, unless it’s already been there, done that, and was searching for a new experience. For all we know, this one is pulling a Paul Simon, and gone off to look for America. Or maybe it realizes it doesn’t have a green card and is desperately trying to reach the Canadian border before INS can track it down. If that's the plan, will its next stop be Sven and Ole's Pizza in Grand Marais?

Eurasian Tree Sparrow

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Dealing with Uncertainties

Black-capped Chickadee

At the end of every year, I plot out the coming year using an electronic calendar and a paper one. Year after year, I’ve always enjoyed marking in birthdays of friends and family, putting in all my anticipated speaking engagements and birding trips, and thinking how tidily the new year is shaping up.

There’s some darkness during these annual rituals, and that seems to increase as I grow older. Do I still write in my big brother’s birthday for 2017 when he died at the end of 2015? I lost three beloved aunts and two uncles in 2014, and one aunt in 2015. Leaving blank spots on their birthdays seems somehow even worse than writing them in. Calendars are a reminder both of what we think we can predict and manage in our lives, and of how very much life is unpredictable and unmanageable.

Birds don’t need planners or calendars. They’re hatched, so they technically don’t even have birthdays, and all their social engagements and other responsibilities happen organically, tied to day length, weather conditions, hormonal levels, and other things they feel in their bones. Their planning calendars are programmed into their bodies in a way no Apple Watch, smart phone, or Day Timer planner will ever do for us mere humans.

My paper calendar has space for appointments scheduled for the following year. When I got my 2017 calendar, I wrote in dozens of speaking engagements worked out many months before 2017 even began. I also wrote in a 2-½ week trip to Costa Rica for July. My plane tickets give a tangible certainty to the anticipation.

Of course, planning so far ahead is a bit presumptuous, and that presumptuousness grows as we get older. My heart attack in February 2015 was pretty clear evidence that plans can go awry in an instant, though as luck and my calendar would have it, I only had to postpone one small event. But still—at what point in a person’s life does one stop buying plane tickets seven months in advance? No chickadee would ever do that—any day can be its last.

Black-capped Chickadee

Long-term planning isn’t something that makes sense for chickadees, but neither is pessimism. They wake up each morning, do what needs to be done to stay alive and healthy, react to sudden setbacks and unanticipated good fortune with appropriate responses, cache food against future shortages, and keep on keeping on. Even with all the optimism and all the constraints that a tightly scheduled planning calendar represents for us, a chickadee’s approach to day-to-day living is pretty sound.

On Friday I got some news that put my 2017-planning calendar into a tailspin: a positive biopsy after a suspicious mammogram. Breast cancer may or may not shorten my life—that seems like one of the looming questions my diagnosis represents, but cancer does not lessen the likelihood of a freak accident or another heart attack or other surprise event killing me first. And my specific form—a papillary carcinoma that is hormone receptive and not particularly aggressive—makes dying of it pretty unlikely even in the long term.

Black-capped Chickadee

At this point, fears of mortality aren’t darkening my horizon—in that way, I’m pretty much reacting as a chickadee might. The oldest Black-capped Chickadee that we know about, a banded Minnesota bird, was alive and healthy when captured and released when it was at least 11 ½ years old (and possibly even older—it was an adult when originally banded). Most chickadees live much shorter lives than that, but they never wake up with fears of mortality crowding out their enjoyment of breakfast and the pleasures of preening in a patch of sunlight and singing or listening to that wonderful “Hey, sweetie!” song on a bright blue February morning.

At this point, my Costa Rica trip isn’t in jeopardy, but I’ll have to cancel many closer events to fit in surgery and radiation treatments. Suddenly my 2017 calendar isn’t as cut and dried as it seemed just a week ago, and I have many more question marks than certainties about how the next few months will unfold.

But when it comes down to it, question marks can be more liberating than unyielding plans. A chickadee’s whole life is filled with question marks, but she doesn’t focus on looming, dark possibilities when bright possibilities are just as likely. That’s why I look to chickadees when I’m negotiating tricky times. Their pure whistled songs ringing in my February mornings are all the proof I need that no matter what, there is beauty to be found right this very moment, as long as I can keep my eyes and ears open to it.

Black-capped Chickadee

*Surgery is set for March 2, an auspicious day because it's the anniversary of the first time I ever went birding, seeing the Number One bird on my life list—a Black-capped Chickadee!!

* I'm very lucky to have a supportive network of family, friends, and medical team here. My family has had a lot of experience with cancer, some extremely horrible, some not at all bad, and some in between. I'm not able to process other people's cancer stories right now.

*Best thing about breast cancer? My first thought when I wake up in the morning is no longer, "Holy shit! Donald Trump is President of the United States!" I can focus on a much smaller, more manageable malignancy. 

Ruffed Grouse

Ruffed Grouse

Aldo Leopold wrote:
Everyone knows…that the autumn landscape in the north woods is the land, plus a red maple, plus a Ruffed Grouse. In terms of conventional physics, the grouse represents only a millionth of either the mass or the energy of an acre yet subtract the grouse and the whole thing is dead.
In most of my day-to-day life nowadays, I don’t think much about Ruffed Grouse. Before my mother-in-law came to live with us four years ago, I’d hear them drumming at her place in Port Wing, Wisconsin, pretty frequently, and you can’t not think about Ruffed Grouse when that deep, resonant thudding pulses through your entire body.

The drums are a series of progressively faster thumps, which people used to think were produced by the male grouse striking his wings on his drumming log, but the sound is actually produced by air rushing to fill the vacuum created under the wings when they are rapidly flapped in front of the body. Males drum most frequently in spring, with a smaller surge in autumn, but as I noticed in Port Wing, you can hear drumming just about any time of year at least occasionally.

Ruffed Grouse are not part of the Peabody Street avifauna, which is part of why I so seldom think of them in my daily life now that I don’t stay in Port Wing anymore. I often encounter one along a roadside or up in a tree when I’m birding, but it’s always just one of many birds I’m seeing that day, seldom standing out more than other bird. When I see a grouse, I try to take photos, as I do with just about every bird I see, and often post those photos on my Flickr photostream, but I’ve never photographed a grouse drumming, and never taken a full-frame photo of one doing anything. My grouse photos are okay for small online illustrations, but aren’t particularly noteworthy.

Ruffed Grouse

This past weekend, when I was birding with Lisa Johnson on Superb Owl Sunday, I took a bunch of photos of a Ruffed Grouse in a birch tree at Split Rock. I had pretty good lighting, but the bird wasn’t all that close, and lots of little twigs and even large branches obscured the view; regardless, I posted the best of the lot on Flickr. They weren’t any better than the vast majority of my bird photos, and were a lot worse than my best work. But for some reason, Flickr highlighted one of these pictures in a special group called Explore, and suddenly thousands of people were looking at it for a couple of days.

Ruffed Grouse

I wonder if part of the value of the photo is that most people don’t expect to see a bird usually associated with keeping its feet planted firmly on the ground sitting up in a tree. Much of the year, Ruffed Grouse walk along the forest floor, browsing on leaves and fruits along with insects, and in fall scarfing down as many fallen acorns as they can find. But once snow covers the ground, they switch to mostly eating woody aspen and birch buds near the tops of the trees.

They have two special adaptations, one internal and one external, to accomplish this. Inside their bodies, two blind offshoots of their intestines, called caeca, grow enormous in fall. Anaerobic digestion in the caeca breaks down cellulose so they can get nourishment from those woody buds. In spring, the caeca atrophy for the warm months.

Their feet also undergo an important change for winter. Tooth-like structures called pectinations grow from the scales on the toes in fall and are shed in spring. These structures, often referred to as “snowshoes,” significantly increase the surface area of feet, and so many people believe they help the grouse walking on the surface of snow. Gordon Gullion also believed they serve as grippers when a grouse walks on ice-slicked tree branches. Ruffed Grouse in northern areas with severe winters have pectinations twice as long as those in more southerly regions. When I’ve watched grouse walking in trees in winter, I’ve been impressed with their secure footing in icy trees, so I suspect Gullion was right about that. I even noticed that while watching the grouse in the birch tree, though I didn’t get any in-focus photos when it was walking straight up a smooth vertical limb.

So suddenly I’m finding myself thinking about Ruffed Grouse, and yearning to sleep in the woods where I can hear them drumming come spring, and try to get better photos of them. Meanwhile, when I’m out birding, I’ll be watching for them up in trees or on roadsides, and won’t be nearly so quick to take them for granted.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

February's romantic rituals

Great Horned Owl

February is a romantic month for people who celebrate Valentine’s Day, and also for several kinds of birds with early nesting cycles. Great Horned Owls may start nesting in February, though in north country during most winters, they’re more likely to wait until a bit later. Bald Eagles and ravens often engage in their splendid aerial courtship displays starting in February, too.

Common Raven

All three of these species mate "for life," though the kind of pair bond each species forms is different. Great Horned Owls are not migratory, and the two birds forming a mated pair don’t move far from their nest site in winter, but they also don’t stay particularly close to one another—they’re solitary hunters, most effective as stealthy loners. If two are hunting in the same general area, there’s a larger chance that prey animals will detect one of them. So they tend to keep their distance within their large general territory, occasionally calling back and forth to maintain vocal contact, but otherwise leading solitary lives. When they do start courting and nesting in February and March, they become fully committed to their nest and young, the female with the childcare responsibilities, the male with provisioning her and, at first, their tiny young. As the chicks get bigger and more able to maintain their own body temperatures, the female spends more of her own time hunting for them, too. The pair works together on this annual project until the young are independent, and then become more aloof again for another winter.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagles are equally committed to their nest and young during the nesting season. During the rest of the year, they don’t particularly stay anywhere near each other. When they independently return to the nest area each spring, their courtship flights help re-cement their pair bond. It takes a lot of commitment to raise baby eagles, and year after year, additional repairs to the nest make it sturdier and thicker. Even though the pair has no real reason to be together away from that shared nest, they do benefit from a kind of certainty that the same reliable mate will most likely return to the nest each year.

Common Raven

Raven pairs stay together year-round, not just during the nesting season. They count on one another through thick and thin, and until death parts them, they never have a moment's doubt about their mate being there for them.

We living creatures, be we birds or humans, like to be able to count on things. To ensure long-term stability for parenting, we humans created legal and religious rituals like marriage. Birds don’t bother with that. In the wild, even in species with individuals that may survive decades, most individual birds can’t count on themselves or their mates surviving from one day to the next, much less one year to the next. So mating for life is by far the exception, not the rule. And even in the species that do mate for life, birds move on fairly quickly to find a new mate after a death.

When a Great Horned Owl dies, or an eagle doesn’t show up at the nest during a breeding season, the mate may or may not grieve—we just don’t know. Ravens almost certainly do, based on physiological changes consistent with human grieving—but in nature, life is the business of life, and a wild alive bird who loses its mate can't help but move on to a living mate and another nest fairly quickly. That approach may not sound very romantic to our species, which romanticizes grief, but it’s how those birds we depict on Valentine’s Day greetings keep their species going so we can continue to romanticize them.