Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Where are the birds?

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Every year I get several letters like one that came in mid-February from WXPR listener Doug Heise, who lives in Rhinelander and has been feeding birds for 30 years. He wrote about the species he’s fed over the years: “So many different varieties. chickadees, nuthatches, many types of finches, Pine Siskins, Chipping Sparrows, cardinals, Blue Jays grosbeaks, and many more. Also way too many squirrels.” Doug continued:
What a difference a year makes. Right now I am lucky to see anything.  Maybe an occasional chickadee or American Goldfinch. My feeders are always clean and my feed is always fresh. I live in a rural area and had no habitat changes. I have not seen a squirrel since Christmas. I have talked to many people from outdoor magazines and my local DNR.  No one seems to care. I miss my birds. Can you tell me anything? Is there a group that you can lead me to that can help? After 30 years of feeding birds I think am going to quit. Change my mind.
It’s not my place to change anyone’s mind about feeding birds. We set out feeding stations for two reasons—to help the birds and for our own enjoyment. I can’t judge anyone else’s pleasure levels, so I never counsel anyone to feed or not feed on that basis. If feeding birds becomes more frustrating and distressing than pleasurable, it may be time to stop, but that is not for me to say.

What I do counsel on is how to ensure that our bird-feeding practices are genuinely helpful for birds without harming them. We know, based on several studies in Wisconsin as well as other places, that bird feeding does help winter survival of Black-capped Chickadees and almost certainly some other species. We also know that some elements of feeding can be harmful, directly or indirectly, and we need to factor those into our decision about whether our feeding practices are harmful or not.

Doug specifically mentioned using fresh seed, which is extremely important for the health of birds, especially during winter thaws and as snows melt in spring, when bacteria and fungus can thrive on shells and uneaten seeds. Some finches shun even new nyjer seed if it was overheated by the supplier and is too dry, but that wouldn't affect the numbers of other species, much less squirrels.  That's not Doug's problem.

A few kinds of bird feeders, especially mesh bags, may, very rarely, entangle a bird. Last week I heard of one case of a chickadee who got caught in the suet cage part of a feeder. We're hoping it survived. But those freak accidents never lead to the loss of all the birds in a yard, much less the squirrels.

Many registered lawn and garden pesticides present a serious danger to backyard birds—it seems very wrong to set out feeders or other bird attractants in any yard treated by lawn-care services, which refuse to divulge which pesticides they use as trade secrets. It's also wrong to use any pesticide products without researching their potential effects on wildlife and the best ways to use them to minimize danger. But although issues with regard to pesticide use contribute to long-term population declines, they wouldn't be related to a sudden winter disappearance like Doug is seeing.

When natural predators, such as nesting Merlins or Cooper’s Hawks, or domestic ones such as outdoor cats, are lurking nearby, it’s a good idea to close down your feeders for the duration. Raptors don't nest in winter, and those wintering in the vicinity of a feeding station, as well as Northern Shrikes, aren't likely to stick around week after week. Cats are more insidious than natural predators because they are subsidized killers—people feed them and provide shelter and veterinary services, and so their numbers don’t drop as prey populations decline, nor are they ever forced to move on when they’ve depleted the birds in an area, as happens with natural predators. Cats are estimated to be the number one direct cause of bird mortality in the United States, killing more than a billion wild birds in this country every year and, especially on islands and shorelines, taking threatened and endangered species in disproportionate numbers. But again, I presume Doug would have told me if he was having an issue with wild predators or cats.

The windows on our houses present another clear and present danger. Bird feeders set anywhere from about 3 feet to 30 feet from windows are associated with disproportionate numbers of bird deaths from window collisions. Many studies have found that feeders set directly on the glass or within a foot or two of the glass are much less likely to be implicated in bird deaths than those further away, unless they’re so far from the house that you need binoculars to see the birds. In my own yard, I’ve found that when I have a feeder or two affixed to the glass with suction cups or directly below the glass attached to the window frame, collisions at that window drop to zero. Many people don’t make the connection between their bird-feeding practices and birds crashing into their windows, but regardless, even worst-case scenario window mortality at one house or in one neighborhood wouldn’t cause the sudden disappearance of both birds and squirrels that Doug is seeing.

So why are there fewer birds, and squirrels, at Doug’s feeders this year? First let's look at the best way we have for accurately measuring bird declines and why it isn’t enough to explain disappearances in one backyard.

In 1966, my personal hero, Chandler Robbins, created our best measure for bird population health. The Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) tallies the number of birds seen or  heard during the breeding season on thousands of routes censused by thousands of qualified birders and biologists. The vast majority of birds counted are singing males defending their territories. Any “floaters” waiting in the wings for an opening to take over a good quality territory if the territory holder dies bide their time quietly, so they aren’t detectable on the BBS. When all suitable habitat is filled with territory holders, there’s no way of knowing how many non-singing floaters are out there.  Those birds are what we used to call a “surplus population." And the Breeding Bird Survey is not designed to measure that. It’s possible for a species to appear perfectly healthy and stable using Breeding Bird Survey numbers until we’ve lost a critical mass—that surplus population—at which point the population can show a rapid drop even if the loss of individuals per year is no larger than it was when it seemed more robust. Not even our very best system of counting birds is perfect.

A researcher specializing in assessing migrating bird numbers from NEXRAD radar, Sidney Gauthreaux, found huge declines in the mass of migrating birds flying over the Gulf of Mexico—50% between the 1960s and the 1980s, and another 50% from the 80s to the turn of the century—while Breeding Bird Surveys of various Neotropical migrants were not showing a corresponding decline. Many older birders like me have noticed fewer “good days” and generally smaller flocks of migrating birds during spring and fall than we used to. We still have exceptionally good days of spring and fall birding, of course, but not of the magnitude or frequency we remember.  

But not all species are declining, and even when the Breeding Bird Survey shows a sudden decline on a route or within a region, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the actual numbers of birds of that species have dropped—it can also mean that important habitat has been lost so those birds moved elsewhere. Of course, if there is no suitable habitat elsewhere, those individuals will eventually die out, so any decline in BBS numbers indicates a potential serious problem, and when the overall BBS numbers for a species over the continent drop, there is most certainly a serious problem.

When BBS numbers increase for a species, that can mean that suddenly there is more habitat than normal so more floaters suddenly can find and defend a territory. In the first years when a fire or logging opens up second growth, local BBS routes will show a decline or disappearance of those species that needed the old growth and an increase in species that prefer more open habitat. Those increasing birds didn’t magically appear—they were floaters that discovered the newly appropriate habitat during migration or other normal wandering. From one year to the next Breeding Bird Survey numbers for just about every species fluctuate, often quite dramatically, and the only way we have a sense of the overall trend is to look at those numbers over a wide number of routes over decades. Unfortunately, with the sequester and reduced funding of many federal agencies, we don't have updated information from the last few years on the Breeding Bird Survey website, but we can see the data to look at longterm trends from 1966 through 2012.  

Black-capped Chickadee numbers have been consistently steady or rising during that period over most of their range, with the rise both steady and significant in Wisconsin.

Black-capped Chickadees; North America

Black-capped Chickadees, Minnesota
Black-capped Chickadees, Wisconsin

 Both Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers have been holding steady, but not significantly increasing.
Downy Woodpecker: North America

Downy Woodpecker: Minnesota

Downy Woodpecker: Wisconsin
Hairy Woodpecker: North America
Hairy Woodpecker: Minnesota

Hairy Woodpecker: Wisconsin

Some species are irruptive, with wide fluctuations from one year to the next. It can be tricky to tease out whether they are increasing or declining from one year to the next, but overall patterns can be seen with decades of data. For example, Pine Siskin numbers appear to be declining over the continent.

Pine Siskins: North America
The boreal forest areas of Minnesota have historically been within the breeding range of Pine Siskins. As an irruptive species, numbers fluctuated from year to year, but the peak numbers historically have been much higher than they've been in the past decade.
Pine Siskins: Minnesota

Wisconsin doesn't have as much boreal forest as Minnesota, so has never enjoyed the major breeding bird number peaks that Minnesota has. What population peaks have been seen in Wisconsin are smaller in the past decade than earlier peaks. If you look at the scale of the graphs, the peak numbers ever counted in Wisconsin were less than a third of the peak numbers in Minnesota.

Pine Siskins: Wisconsin
If Pine Siskins are not declining but simply shifting north of where we census them, we shouldn't be seeing declines in winter numbers. Unfortunately, Audubon's Christmas Bird Count data is collected earlier in the season than many Pine Siskins wander south, and the Great Backyard Bird Count hasn't been done long enough to be able to see long-term trends yet. The number of Pine Siskins seen on Minnesota and Wisconsin Christmas Bird Counts from 1900 through 2015 has fluctuated from one year to the next without any really clear trends. So overall, this data isn't all that helpful:

Pine Siskin: Minnesota

Pine Siskin: Wisconsin

Numbers of breeding Purple Finches are declining noticeably on a continent-wide scale and in Minnesota, but not in Wisconsin:

Purple Finch: North America

Purple Finch: Minnesota

Purple Finch: Wisconsin
Red-breasted Nuthatches are irruptive, and their numbers swing crazily from year to year, but show a clear increase.
Red-breasted Nuthatch: North America

Red-breasted Nuthatch: Minnesota 

Red-breasted Nuthatch: Wisconsin
White-breasted Nuthatches are not irruptive, but also show an increase:
White-breasted Nuthatch: North America

White-breasted Nuthatch: Minnesota

White-breasted Nuthatch: Wisconsin
So where are the birds at Doug Heise's Rhinelander feeding station? And where are his squirrels?  It sounds trite and even ridiculous to say “no one really knows,” and that is certainly not an answer that Doug Heise wants to hear. Unfortunately, it’s the truth.
A secretive Great Horned Owl might have taken or scared off most of the squirrels, but smaller songbirds don’t typically flee from large owls—little birds may mob one, but aren’t all that threatened by large owls. And it’s not likely that his yard would be plagued by both a predator focused on squirrels and one that took mostly small feeder birds suddenly at the same time.

This year, I’ve had lots of American Goldfinches and quite a few Pine Siskins in my own yard. Someone in my own neighborhood closer to the Lester River has siskins and redpolls, but not goldfinches. Two weeks ago at the Sax-Zim Bog north of Duluth, I saw lots of Pine Siskins and a few redpolls, but no goldfinches. So these numbers can fluctuate unexpectedly within small areas.

What seem like minor changes in my own neighborhood habitat have occasionally led to fairly big if temporary changes in bird numbers. One or two fallen trees can lead to an increase in Pileated Woodpeckers here, and since this happens very quickly, it can’t be due to a sudden increase in reproduction—it’s almost certainly because Pileated Woodpeckers that had been hanging out in another neighborhood discover better pickins right here. And Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers sometimes follow Pileateds. So someone in another neighborhood might note a sudden decline in woodpeckers right when I’m noticing a sudden increase, even as the overall population remains steady.

Downy and Hairy Woodpecker

When my neighbor started offering mealworms to the birds in her yard, some of my birds switched from my yard to hers. It’s possible that someone not far from Doug’s place started up a feeding station and the birds and squirrels decided to switch eating establishments for a while.

Noise pollution can sometimes send birds packin’—if anyone is operating a chain saw or producing some other loud sound more regularly than local wildlife can handle, that could send them on their way.

Of course, it’s also possible that there are just as many birds as ever right there, but due to happenstance, this year there is so much natural food available that none of them are visiting feeders.

It would be interesting to hear from other readers in the Rhinelander area to find out if they, too, saw lower-than-normal numbers of birds and/or squirrels this winter. It’s unlikely that we can pinpoint an exact cause, but would be valuable to know how widespread the problem is. Let me know how your bird numbers are by emailing me at

Black-capped Chickadee

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

My North Star: Chandler Robbins (1918–2017)

Chandler Robbins in Guatemala

On Christmas 1974, my mother- and father-in-law gave me two wonderful gifts: my first pair of binoculars, and a copy of Peterson’s A Field Guide to the Birds. I devoured the book, reading every page while thumbing back and forth between the written species accounts and the illustrations, which were on separate plates. Then I discovered another bird field guide out there, even more beautiful and useful, the “Golden Guide.”

This is actually my second copy of the Golden Guide: I found it in hardcover
in a local bookstore right when the pages started falling out of my first.  

This second field guide was the book I fell in love with, the one I brought with me on every birding expedition that spring, when I saw my first chickadee and 39 other species, and for the rest of the year, as I saw 80 more new species. It's the field guide that carried me through two ornithology classes and helped me identify more than 400 of the first birds on my lifelist.


Yet unlike the Peterson guide, no author name was listed on the Golden Guide cover, much less embedded into the title. An author credit was given to three men on the title page, and it wasn’t for a couple of years that I learned that the primary author of the book—the one who wrote the text for each species and most of the other parts—was the first one listed, Chandler Robbins. This modest and unassuming man wasn’t the least bit interested in self-promotion or taking more credit than the people he worked with.

I met Robbins soon after learning his part in creating the Golden Guide. I was teaching at St. James Elementary School in Madison, Wisconsin, when the American Ornithologists’ Union met there in 1978. I volunteered to help the curator of the university zoology museum by setting out bird specimens and guiding the visiting ornithologists through the open house. I also wrote a poem for the AOU’s parody journal, The Auklet (“Happy Traill’s to You, or Ornithologists Take Their Lumps and Split”), and led a field trip to my favorite local birding spot—Picnic Point.

The meeting was held in mid-August, after birds have pretty much stopped singing for the season but before much migration has kicked in. So it felt dreadfully presumptuous for me, an elementary school teacher who’d only been birding for 3 years, to be leading professional ornithologists on a field trip at all, much less in August when there were so few birds to show them. Fortunately, two of my American Redstarts were still singing, allowing me to explain how to tell them apart by slight differences in their songs. I also happened to know where a mother Virginia Rail was still hanging out with two or three chicks. I was shocked that she was a lifer for some of them—I presumed that professional ornithologists would have seen far more species than I had.

We saw about as good a list as was possible at Picnic Point in mid-August, the redstarts and rails like icing on the cake. But this shy teacher was so intimidated by professional ornithologists that my hands holding binoculars were visibly shaking. Fortunately, one older, quiet-spoken man with a crew cut started asking me leading questions right off, and kept that up as we walked along, helping me focus my commentary throughout the field trip, making it a wonderful success.

As our group was breaking up, he told me how pleased he was to have come, mentioning that his brother had told him that if I was leading a field trip at Picnic Point, he should go. I was floored, never imagining that anyone would even think of me as a field trip leader, much less specifically recommend me. And then he then told me who his brother was: Sam Robbins, perhaps the premier birder in the entire state, who was working on his magnum opus, Wisconsin Birdlife. Sam was kind and gentlemanly just like this warm stranger, so I asked him what his name was, and he said “Chandler.”

Miraculously, I didn’t faint. And fortunately, expressions like “Holy crap!” weren’t in my lexicon at the time, since he was such a proper gentleman. But that left me dumbfounded—utterly tongue-tied meeting the man who had written my birding Bible. I can’t remember what exactly I stammered in response.

I had a free ticket to the banquet because I'd helped with so many events, but going to any social event with strangers was hard for me. When I walked into the huge banquet hall, the tables near the front were all filled, but I didn’t care—I was headed for a dark corner in back where I could sit by myself during the meal and program and then quietly disappear into the night. But I’d only taken a few steps in before Chandler Robbins walked straight up to me and asked if I already had a table—he’d saved a seat for me! On the short walk there, we were stopped by several ornithologists and graduate students, all telling him how much they loved his work and plying him with questions or asking him to review a paper or book for them.

I still wonder what it was about that shy 26-year-old teacher, improbably still wearing braces on her teeth, that made Chandler Robbins single me out as a dining companion when he had so very many better choices. It was one of the most thrilling evenings of my life—he was so fun to talk to, and so interested in my work teaching fourth, fifth, and sixth grade science and music. He asked questions about how I incorporated nature study into the classroom, and how I had started paying such close attention to the songs of individual birds. I of course found him far more interesting than me, and kept trying to work the conversation back to him—his field guide and especially the brilliant decision to include sonograms for each species in it, his field work, and anything else I could tease out of him. Looking back, that lovely dinner was wasted on a woman who was cosmically ignorant of this man’s many accomplishments, especially because he was too modest to call my attention to some of the most amazing things about him.

It was only later that I learned that during the 1950s, he led the effort to save the albatrosses on Midway Island. He did seminal research about forest fragmentation and other habitat issues that helped provide the underpinnings for the conservation work protecting the Chesapeake Bay. He wrote some of the seminal papers about pesticides that inspired and provided the essential information for Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring—indeed, he was the one who designed important DDT studies at Patuxent, with biologist Rachel Carson serving as his technical editor. And in 1966, to ensure that we’d have a consistent body of data to track breeding bird numbers over years and then decades, he started the incredibly important Breeding Bird Survey. Any one of these accomplishments would have made him a hero—I had no clue whatsoever that the man who invited me to sit at his side during the AOU banquet had done all of them. The closest we got to discussing any of this was when he asked if I had a Breeding Bird Survey route, and I confessed that I didn’t think I had enough experience to do one yet. He told me not to sell myself short, but I figured he was just being nice.

Five or six years later, after Russ and I had moved to Duluth, Russ found out that Chandler Robbins was giving a seminar at the NRRI that very afternoon. Russ took personal leave to come home and stay with the kids so I could attend. I walked into the seminar room with just a few minutes to spare. Instantly Chandler Robbins charged over and said, “Laura, I don’t know if you remember me, but my name is Chandler Robbins.”

Over the years, I ran into him only a few more times. He stayed the same quiet, unassuming gentleman. I spent the most time with him in Guatemala in 2007—the only time I’ve ever had the courage to ask if I could get a photo with him.

Laura and Chandler Robbins in Guatemala, 2007

We had lunch together one day, and while he was getting his food, I took a picture of his binoculars on the table. I still marvel at those beat-up Bushnells—the same pair he was photographed with back in the 60s. He told me he had been given a better pair, but he usually kept them on a shelf. Why risk them getting lost or stolen when his trusty old pair was still working fine? He had better things to spend money on.

These binoculars have seen a LOT of birds!

He told me that he could live perfectly comfortably on his government salary, and had donated every penny he’d earned from that huge-selling Golden Guide to support research and, especially, young researchers there in Guatemala and other Latin American countries, to ensure the future of conservation of the birds he loved. Most of us had coffee after lunch, but not Chandler Robbins. He told me he loved coffee but tried never to drink more than a cup a day because the natural habitat where coffee could be grown was so precious.

I mentioned to him that my hearing wasn’t as good as it used to be, and he told me to get hearing aids. He said even his younger brother Sam, considered to have the best ears in all of Wisconsin back when I met him in the 70s, had finally swallowed his pride and bought a pair, thanks to five Winter Wrens that Chandler could hear wearing his hearing aids that Sam couldn’t hear at all.  Now when I hear Winter Wrens as clear as tinkling bells through my own hearing aids, I think of Chandler Robbins.

Cuban Tody!!

I think it was in Guatemala that I told Chandler Robbins how fixated I’d become on the Cuban Tody, and how badly I yearned to see one. That was of course back when travel to Cuba was highly restricted. This straight-laced, life-long federal employee laughed and said, “Well, Laura, all you have to do is drive up to Thunder Bay and fly from there. You don’t have to worry—they won’t stamp your passport.” Someone who had done all the research throughout Latin America that Chandler Robbins had apparently knew just how to deal with bureaucracy and red tape, at least when it came to birds.

In one of our meetings, I learned that he grew up in Boston and majored in physics at Harvard, where he actually knew John Kennedy, a year or so ahead of him. After college, he became a high school science teacher until the war. Chandler grew up in a religious family—his brother Sam was a minister, and he himself was a conscientious objector. Because he couldn’t serve in the military, he was assigned to clear debris from blocked roadways in national forest land in New England. Then in 1943, he got an opportunity to start banding birds at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, where he soon became a junior biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, setting the course for his life's work.

In the early 1950s, Chandler Robbins learned that the Naval Air Station Midway, out on the Pacific on Midway Island, which had been decommissioned in 1950, was re-commissioned in the face of the Korean War. At that point, with planned jet aircraft take-offs and landings for the first time on the island, the military thought it best to exterminate the nesting albatrosses to avoid collisions. Robbins and some of his colleagues thought if scientists could figure out what vegetation the albatrosses preferred, what substrates they avoided, and their patterns for takeoffs and landings, they could perhaps set the runways where the birds wouldn’t affect safety. That was back in the olden days when different government agencies actually worked together to find the wisest long-term solutions for everyone concerned.

So on December 10, 1956, Robbins caught and banded 99 adult albatrosses as they were incubating eggs—they’re quite clumsy on land, so they weren’t all that hard to catch. He put band number 587-51945 on one bird. Those leg bands are sturdy, but affixed to the leg of a bird flying about 50,000 miles low over salt water every single year, they get corroded and wear out. Some birds probably lost their bands altogether, but this particular one was re-trapped five times while her leg band was still legible. Each time the worn out band was removed and a new one put on. Each time, the old number was recorded along with information about the bird’s condition and the new band number. All this data was recorded on cards—banding data wouldn't be computerized for decades.

Bird-banding recaptures happen infrequently, bands are replaced even more infrequently, and replaced bands are virtually never replaced again, so when banding data started being computerized, the system wasn’t programmed to track backwards through such a long line of replacement bands. It was Chandler Robbins himself who started wondering about how far back any birds with replacement bands could be tracked. He’s the one who in 2011 looked at an albatross with a bright red plastic band, number Z333, and dug into the data to find out what her previous band was numbered, and the one before that, and the one before that, to realize this particular albatross was one of the ones he had banded on his first trip to Midway Island! I don’t know if anyone has dug into the data to see if others from that cohort are still alive. As I said, worn bands grow illegible or even wear off entirely, and birds in that situation would be impossible to recognize now.

That particular albatross, who made international news in 2011 as the world's oldest known wild bird, was given the name "Wisdom." This year, she is still alive, and still nesting. Her egg hatched last month. This bird, once condemned to die an anonymous victim of progress, was a mother once again, thanks to the soft-spoken hero who helped find a way for birds and jet aircraft to peacefully coexist.

Of all the wonderful people I’ve known during my six and a half decades of life, Chandler Robbins has been my North Star: the person I’ve tried hardest to emulate in every way, for his generosity of spirit and his gentle, unassuming manner belying the brilliance of his work. He lived his life in service to others, including the birds he loved. He was like a chickadee—working hard, staying near and dear to his family as he also served quietly as a leader of his flock. If he knew he was the one doing the most work, and the most important work, he never let on even as he kept on doing that work long after he officially retired in 2005. In 2015, at the age of 97, he was still going to work at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center a few times a week. He explained his long career and continued dedication to his work: "When a lot is expected of you, you do as much as you can to squeeze it all in."

Yesterday I learned that the man whose book guided me every step of the way through my first years of birding, the man whose conservation work ensured that there would still be a wealth of birds for me to enjoy today, the man who has been my North Star since I first met him almost 40 years ago and who I most deeply associate with bird song because he dedicated his life to ensuring that springs would never be silent—this beloved man had passed away on the first day of spring. I picture him and Rachel Carson looking down and praying that somewhere here on earth, someone has the humility and courage to keep their legacy alive.

Chandler Robbins in Guatemala

Sunday, March 19, 2017

A question of balance

Laura producing For the Birds at KUMD in the 80s.
Laura producing "For the Birds" in the KUMD studios sometime in the late 80s.

My hearing has been going south for quite a while—apparently even longer than I’ve realized. For a while, Russ and I have been joking how we each mis-hear words the other one is saying, sometimes with funny results but usually just making us confused. My daughter and I have driven between Duluth and New York City on a few occasions, and, until I finally got hearing aids, it was getting increasingly frustrating for her when I’d constantly ask “What?” Somehow the car noise, even from a relatively quiet Prius, made understanding her very difficult unless I could stare at her mouth, which never works when you're driving.

As it turns out, there have been more people dealing with the problems of my hearing loss than I imagined. I never hear what my radio and podcast listeners say about me, but by definition, those listeners can hear me, and have been putting up with poor sound mixing between my voice and the bird songs I use, apparently for years. I now realize I've been making the bird recordings too loud, relative to my voice. I’m sure some of the on-air people at radio stations adjust the sound levels as they play "For the Birds" on air, or maybe even tweak the digital sound files, but no one has ever mentioned any of this to me until intrepid and kind podcast listener Janna Pauser sent me this email on March 16:
I enjoy your podcasts and use earbuds to listen to them one after the other. I treasure my good hearing and keep the volume as low as possible to hear your voice. However the volume of the bird song at the beginning and end of each episode is so much louder than your voice its uncomfortable. I fell asleep while listening For the Birds last night and woke up from the bird song portion even though I was sleeping on the earbud. Could you please balance the volume?  
When I started producing "For the Birds" in 1986, I recorded my voice on an open-reel tape and then mixed in the bird sounds, originally from my old vinyl records and later from CDs. I’d use the needle on the KUMD studio board to get the balance right for both. Around 2000, I started producing digitally, using a program called Cool Edit, which became Adobe Soundbooth and then Adobe Audition. I’d process my original voice recording to “normalize” the volume to a particular level, and then I’d mix in the bird sounds to make them sound right to me. But now two unfortunate issues came into play. First, I like hearing bird sounds a lot, so don't mind them being loud relative to other sounds, especially my voice. But second, I’m not hearing those bird sounds as well as I used to, which means I’ve had an even stronger tendency to put them in at a louder volume than my voice. Yet for lo these many years, not one person has mentioned this to me, but when I asked Lisa Johnson, who plays the program on KUMD most mornings, she said yep—I do that.

I think the reason the stations never told me about this problem is they know I can’t afford to consult with or hire a professional audio engineer, or take a class in sound mixing. I’ve been producing For the Birds for almost 31 years, all but one of those years as an unpaid volunteer. I cover all my own costs for production, distribution, and my radio website on what is usually a very meager annual income—the stations carrying the program may have not wanted to criticize me without providing me with a simple fix. But I do need to find that fix. If I’m going to put the program out there for radio stations to air and podcast listeners to download, I have no right to play Star Trek’s McCoy whining, “Dammit, Jim, I’m a birdwatcher, not an audio engineer!”

So in the coming weeks, I’m going to tweak my production methods to try to achieve a better balance between the bird songs and my voice. The trick is, my ears have a poor track record in recognizing if I’m doing it right—only listeners can do that. Janna has graciously agreed to let me know how new programs sound to her, but I’d also love to hear from other listeners if you notice an improvement in the audio, or if you don't. Janna’s helpful email has prodded me to prove once and for all that an old dog, even one who’s losing her hearing, can learn at least one new trick.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

15,354 Days and Counting

Black-capped Chickadee

As of today, the Ides of March 2017, I saw my first Black-capped Chickadee 15,354 days ago. I’ve seen more than one chickadee on most of those days and over 200 in a single day on a few Christmas Bird Counts.

I'm sure I haven’t seen an average of 65 chickadees a day over that time, and that's the number I’d need to have averaged to have amassed a million chickadees in my lifetime so far. I would guess I’ve averaged somewhere between 5 and 20 a day over that time, giving me a total of anywhere between 76,770 and 307,080 chickadees seen in my lifetime so far. I’m nowhere near being a chickadee millionaire—a distinction that would be harder to achieve in even a long lifetime of birding than becoming a millionaire in the monetary sense. In terms of chickadee sightings, I’m pretty sure I'm wealthier than Warren Buffett or Bill Gates, but really, the riches we gain from knowing and loving birds, even just our backyard birds, transcend such a silly comparison. When bird experiences make you wealthy beyond measure, there's no measure for comparison with anyone else.

I use Adobe Lightroom for organizing and processing my photos. So far I've tagged 12,142 photos of Black-capped Chickadees, and uploaded 557 of them onto my Flickr photostream. Black-capped Chickadees weigh about 1/3 of an ounce, so there are roughly 96,000 chickadees in a ton. I can legitimately say that I’ve seen close to a ton of chickadees in my lifetime, and possibly as many as three tons, but I've photographed a mere eighth of a ton of them. But who's counting?

Seeing my first chickadee on March 2, 1975, was a life-shifting experience far beyond simple quantification. Ever since then, I’ve thought of my life in two eras: Before Birding and After Birding. When I consider the 8,512 days that I lived before seeing my first chickadee, I wonder what the heck I was paying attention to. I walked to and from school every day from first grade through high school, somehow never once noticing a lovely “Hey, sweetie” song ringing in the trees, or a tiny bird with a relatively long, spiked tail zipping past me as I moseyed on long walks, or an adorably plump white-cheeked black-and-gray bird as I gazed out my bedroom window through the branches of our maple tree.

Black-capped Chickadee

I did notice some birds. When I was very little, I often looked out our Chicago two-flat window watching pigeons trudging on the gravel-edged street and flying about. When I was four, we moved to Northlake, the working class suburb where we lived until I was in college. My Grandpa pointed out the cardinal's easy-to-learn songs, and so I specifically listened for it.

Northern Cardinal

I didn’t recognize any other bird songs except House Sparrows cheep cheep cheep-ing away in our shrubbery or at McDonalds, where I tossed French fries to them, I recognized them from the Little Golden Activity Book, Bird Stamps, that my Grandpa gave me. That’s also how I recognized a magnificent Blue Jay when my family went to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, when I was 5 or 6. It may have been that book that helped me recognize the robins running on my lawn, too, but I didn’t learn their song until I started birding.

Little Golden Activity Book: Bird Stamps

The birds I now know as grackles occasionally hung out in gangs on our lawn—at the time, we called them crows or crow blackbirds. They weren't in the book.

I spent two years on the University of Illinois campus and four years in and near the Michigan State Campus in that era Before Birding. I used to save tidbits of my breakfast and lunch to set on the windowsill of my U. of I. dorm room—plump birds with bright yellow beaks and pretty flecks on their shiny black plumage would fly in at the sound of my window opening to feast on my offerings. By that time, my Bird Stamps book was long gone, and it wasn’t until I started poring over my field guide as a new birder a few years later that I retroactively figured out that they were starlings. At Michigan State, Russ and I took at least a dozen walks in Baker Woodlot—the very place I saw my first chickadee—without my paying much attention at all. I’m sure generic birdsong filled the background soundtrack of many of my spring and summer mornings, but except when a cardinal song infiltrated my consciousness, I was unaware of it.

And then on March 2, 1975, I set out to be a birdwatcher and a miracle happened. I focused—started paying attention—and as it turned out, birds and their sounds were everywhere. Of course, it was still wintry enough that day in East Lansing that it took close to an hour for me to find that first chickadee—the only bird I saw on that walk. I can’t remember how helpful its chickadee-dee-dee calls might have been in drawing my eyes to it, but by April I was finding a great many of my birds by sound, painstakingly figuring out the voices of each species one by one by tracking them all down. And even when they weren't calling, wherever I went, I was suddenly seeing birds.

Ever since that spring, my life has been a rich tapestry of encounters with individual birds. Instead of a generic background soundtrack, I hear a chorus of individual voices. I both notice and recognize birds as I go about my daily life. Wherever I am, I find dear and familiar avian friends and make new ones. Since becoming a birder, my world is richer visually and aurally, and a whole lot friendlier.

In the movie Pleasantville, the characters live in a dull black-and-white world until, one by one, they experience a moment of transformation, and their eyes open to all the colors of what had been dull shades of gray. I’ve always seen a colorful world, but somehow missed noticing, both with my eyes and my ears, a major component of that world for 8,512 days. After living in this whole new world for more than 15,000 days, I still look back at that child—that teen—that young woman. She was blind and deaf to a huge part of the world around her, so I can't help but wonder, what was catching her attention?

Black-capped Chickadee

Sunday, March 12, 2017

The decline, East to West, of the Golden-winged Warbler

Golden-winged Warbler

The once common Golden-winged Warbler now has one of the smallest populations of any songbird not on the Endangered Species List. An estimated 400,000 breeding adults remained in 2013—a drop of 66 percent since the 1960s, based on Breeding Bird Survey numbers. This survey, which focuses on males singing on territories, began in 1966; we have no comparable data to fill in what happened with populations before that year.
Golden-winged Warbler, Survey-wide
In the Appalachian Mountains, where the number of individuals counted on each Breeding Bird Survey Route was very high when the Survey began in the 1960s (almost 3 counted on average per survey route), the situation is beyond critical: the regional population there has fallen by 98 percent. If the species had a "surplus population" with any uncounted "floaters," (males not singing because they didn't hold a territory), they'd already disappeared before the dramatic declines shown on Breeding Bird Surveys.
Golden-winged Warbler, Appalachians
In 1966, New Hampshire numbers of Golden-winged Warblers were quite low--whether they had been in previous decades can't be determined. Their numbers were relatively high in 3 individual years of the Survey, but each of those was a genuine outlier. The Breeding Bird Survey Summary and Analysis webpage does not list the species at all for either Maine or Vermont, New Hampshire's two neighboring states.
Golden-winged Warblers have been spotty at best as far north as New Hampshire.
Pennsylvania reaches fairly far west for an Eastern Seaboard state. Golden-winged Warbler numbers were more robust at the start of the Breeding Bird Survey, but have declined dramatically.
Golden-winged Warblers declined rapidly since the start of the 70s in Pennsylvania
New York State's numbers started lower than those of Pennsylvania, and the decline has been quite steady.
New York started with a smaller population than Pennsylvania in the 60s.
Michigan's Golden-winged Warbler population was comparable to Pennsylvania's in 1966, and the downward trend was very similar.
Michigan started with a population comparable to Pennsylvania's. The decline was slower.
In 1966, Wisconsin's population was about at the level of that in the Appalachian Mountains. The decline was less noticeable in the early 70s, but since then the decline has been quite noticeable.
Wisconsin's population of Golden-winged Warblers declined slowly at first, but now is growing dire. 
Minnesota, the state at the western end of the Golden-winged Warbler's range, has the most robust population of them right now, with no show yet of a decline.
The furthest West state with breeding Golden-winged Warblers, the decline is not yet being noticed here, with current numbers comparable to Wisconsin's in the 1970s.
In Ontario, at the northern end of their range, numbers have been fairly steady.

Golden-winged Warbler population in Ontario.
Manitoba used to be further north than Golden-winged Warblers reached. Might they be extending their range north with climate change? Or might it be changes in forestry practices?

Golden-winged Warbler population in Manitoba.