Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Monday, July 31, 2017

Preying mantises: too much of a good thing

Praying Mantis

Whenever I read about the problems caused by House Sparrows, European Starlings, or Rock Pigeons, I wonder why we haven’t learned the lesson that introducing species virtually always works out badly for someone in the long run. From Burmese pythons in the Florida Everglades to the mosquitoes in Hawaii that decimated native humans and birds, invasive exotics cause all kinds of serious ecological problems, and often ones that affect human health or harm things we value.

Some introduced species turn out to be worse than others, and the impact of a single species often depends on the local habitat and wildlife community. House Sparrows that aren’t much trouble at all in big cities are a horrible scourge anywhere bluebirds live. Pigeons are a nuisance and, rarely, a public health menace for humans, but don’t seem to have much impact on wild birds except to provide food for urban Peregrine Falcons.

We usually think of introduced species as those from other continents, but wildlife introduced from one area of North America to another can become genuine problems, too. Yesterday I talked about the problems introduced Red Squirrels have caused for some non-migratory Red Crossbills—problems that had nothing to do with the squirrels actually devouring the birds. It turns out that another species introduced here and there, for the best of reasons, is outright devouring some of our most beloved birds.

Gardeners who want to control insect pests effectively while causing the least amount of ecological harm often purchase ladybugs or preying mantises to eat the pests. The gardeners of course feel virtuous about this, because this is a safe alternative to insecticides.

Unfortunately, a new study in The Wilson Journal of Ornithology suggests that releasing preying mantises and attracting hummingbirds are at dangerous cross-purposes. The authors reviewed 147 documented incidents of mantids capturing hummingbirds and a variety of small songbirds in 13 different countries, on all continents except Antarctica. In these attacks, 78 percent of the birds were killed and eaten by the mantids, 2 percent escaped on their own, and 18 percent were freed by humans.

More than 70 percent of the incidents happened in the United States, and most often to Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. They involved both native and non-native mantids. The researchers suggested caution in the use of large-sized mantids, particularly non-native mantids, in gardens for insect pest control.

I think that’s certainly prudent, especially in flower gardens that attract hummingbirds. Also, many of the attacks documented in the study took place at hummingbird feeders, so it seems wise for gardeners who do use mantises to skip the death traps in the form of feeders.  
Three years ago I wrote a blog post about a new book with an entire chapter based on a ridiculous study from 1985 claiming that hummingbirds have no natural predators. There were plenty of documented cases of predation on them, some by preying mantises. Now it’s all too easy to see graphic proof of this on social media. Insecticides are a much greater problem for hummingbird individuals and populations than mantises are, but as fascinating and even cute as mantises are, I prefer letting my own flowers take their chances with the bugs.

Praying Mantis

Friday, July 28, 2017

Cassia Crossbills: a tale of pinecones and squirrels

Cassia Crossbills, photo by Craig Benkman, from High Country News.
One of my favorite mammals, the Red Squirrel, is adorable and spunky. It’s also a serious problem for nesting birds—these cute little guys feed on an inordinate number of eggs and nestlings every spring and summer, which provides them with the protein they need to produce and nourish their own young. For the most part, native birds have adapted to this native predator, as they do to other natural competitors and predators.

Red Squirrel

Unfortunately, when it comes to introducing any new species to an area, people tend to leap before they look. On Newfoundland, back in the 60s, after pine martens had been depleted by over-trapping for their fur, tunnel vision wildlife managers brought in red squirrels. They figured the squirrels would have plenty of food—throughout the year, whenever conifers are producing cones, the squirrels eat seeds.

Sure enough, the squirrels had plenty to eat on Newfoundland. Unfortunately, martens tend to hunt at night, and mainly on the ground, so they couldn’t capitalize on the squirrels, which quickly became overpopulated.

When red squirrels feed on conifer seeds, they chew the cone off at the base first. Little by little, trees evolve to defend against squirrels, making the cone base thicker and the cone itself smaller, each one containing fewer seeds.

But the conifers on Newfoundland, which had much larger, sturdier cones than those found elsewhere in the east, had apparently co-evolved with one unique, fairly sedentary population of the Red Crossbill in a curious arms race. The conifers needed as many of their seeds to germinate and grow into new trees as possible, but the crossbills needed to extract and eat seeds regularly. As the conifers grew larger, sturdier cones to protect them from the crossbills, the birds grew larger, sturdier beaks. Scientists had been trying to figure out why the Newfoundland crossbills were so different in size and migratory habits from other Red Crossbills in the east, but long before one ornithologist started teasing out the truth, the sudden overpopulation of Red Squirrels after their introduction in 1963 left the crossbills without enough food in the one place where they’d evolved to exploit their food source without competition.

I just read a fascinating article by Nick Neely in the High Country News about Craig Benkman and how his work on another crossbill population was what led the American Ornithological Society to make a big change in crossbill taxonomy.

Benkman was the one who worked out a tight relationship between Red Crossbill body- and beak-size and each population’s preferred cone. He arrived on Newfoundland in 1988, after those crossbills had pretty much died out—that’s when he realized it could well have been that the introduced squirrels that had out-competed the crossbills. In 1993, he found a similar area in Canada—the Cypress Hills of Saskatchewan—that had extraordinarily large lodgepole pinecones and had once had another large, sedentary crossbill, but again he was too late: red squirrels had been introduced there, and the unique local population of crossbills had vanished.

Then in 1996, Benkman found that in the South Hills of Idaho, where lodgepole pines bore oversized cones, there was a crossbill with a huge bill, and no squirrels. He’s been working for years on establishing that this sedentary population is a separate species from Red Crossbills, and now he and his students furnished enough DNA information to satisfy the American Ornithological Society—just this month, the Cassia Crossbill, named for the Idaho county where it’s found, was officially split as a separate speciesand given the cool scientific name Loxia sinesciurus, which means literally "crossbill without squirrels."

Unfortunately, squirrels are the least of the problems facing crossbills in 2017. Climate change is causing even bigger changes to cone seed availability. Since 1980, crossbill numbers in general have been declining about 2 ½ percent every year, and Cassia Crossbills have had a couple of wild population drops. Their unique bill makes them wonderfully suited for the lodgepole pines in the South Hills, but these pine cones open and shed their seeds when temperatures get too warm. A series of 90-degree days could result in one-fifth fewer seeds for crossbills over the following four years.

The Cassia Crossbill is eligible for protection under the Endangered Species Act, if the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under current management doesn’t fight it. But because of climate change, the lodgepole is forecast to disappear from southern Idaho by 2080 no matter what. The one bird specifically evolved to feed on it will disappear along with it.

So what evolution gave the world over millennia will be destroyed in a matter of decades. But thanks to Craig Benkman's seminal research, we'll at least know what it is that we trampled to death under our massive carbon footprint.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Divided We Fall

Mourning Dove

As I’ve been looking at the history of America’s environmental protections, I’ve been more and more concerned and depressed about how issues that were once bipartisan have split along the same right-and-left lines as so many other issues in our horribly divided nation. There have always been politicians willing to look aside and ignore even the most toxic discharges, the most dangerous pesticides, and the most egregious “taking” of critically endangered species where protecting them might cut into corporate profits. But most politicians of both parties were once willing to stand up for clean air and water and protection of our other natural resources. What happened?

One case that illustrates the evolution of this chasm was when the Minnesota DNR designated the Mourning Dove a game bird a decade ago. Before some acrimonious hearings, all the hunters I talked to seemed perfectly happy with the idea of keeping doves a non-game species, either statewide or in the northern, forested part of the state.

I’m not sure what forces started the sea change in game bird designations right then, starting with naming the crow a game bird, then the dove, and then the Sandhill Crane. The movement was national or regional rather than state-driven because the exact same thing happened at the exact same time in Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Michigan was the one state that thwarted the effort to make the Mourning Dove a game bird, because the State of Michigan had long before passed a law designating the Mourning Dove the state’s official “Bird of Peace.” Some of the language of that law gave the dove special legal protections.

Here in Minnesota, I requested the DNR to restrict the dove season in the northeastern corner of the state where American Kestrel migration is concentrated. It's easy to mistake flying Killdeer and American Kestrels for doves, and kestrels perched on wires for doves, too. Even in states like Texas, with a long-standing dove-hunting culture, hunters occasionally mistake birds of other species for doves. It didn’t seem worth the risk to the already-declining kestrel, especially because the dove population up here is very small.

I also asked to limit the dove hunt to non-toxic shot. I’ve done a Mourning Dove survey for the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the US Geological Survey since 1988, and every year the surveyors receive a copy of the annual Mourning Dove report that includes summaries of lots of scientific research about doves as well as population trends based on the surveys. According to these papers, one of the significant causes of mortality for doves is ingesting lead pellets as grit. It seemed like a no-brainer to prevent more toxic pellets from raining down on the landscape.

At the hearing, I acknowledged that the Mourning Dove is the most heavily hunted bird in North America, and that despite its presence at backyard feeders, it’s still a federally designated game bird that generations of conscientious, conservation-minded, honorable hunters have hunted.

I was the only one addressing the issues of protecting migrating kestrels and lead shot, but otherwise didn’t take too much issue with the idea of a dove hunt except to acknowledge concern about the precedent the DNR was setting in changing the designation of such a popular non-game backyard bird to a game species, after soliciting funds for decades for the Non-Game Wildlife Program via the "chickadee checkoff," the DNR's own name for a program that entices people to contribute to help their backyard birds. Changing the dove's status seemed a disturbing precedent, and sure enough, in 2010, the DNR designated the Sandhill Crane a game bird; ironically and disturbingly, seven years later they are still using the Sandhill Crane as their poster child on their "Nongame Wildlife—Northwest Region" webpage. That cynical bait-and-switch was why I stopped contributing to the Nongame Wildlife Program for several years, and I still find it distressing.

Screen capture of the DNR webpage on July 13, 2017, fully seven years after
the Sandhill Crane was designated a game species. 

Unfortunately, most of the people speaking out against the proposal didn’t focus on expectations of people contributing to the Nongame Wildlife Program, or on specific and nuanced issues like lead shot or mistaking doves for kestrels. Based on the testimony I heard, by the Humane Society and several individuals, most of the people testifying against the proposal were against hunting and hunters absolutely. Some spoke so offensively about hunters that even I—a non-hunter my entire life—was offended.

And as a result, the hunters I knew and respected from up here whose personal inclinations had been neutral or against the dove season couldn’t help but join forces with their fellow hunters under the onslaught. And the DNR spokesmen I talked to entirely pooh-poohed my suggestions about lead and about limiting the hunt during hawk migration along the migration corridor.

Today, a decade later, inflexible people at the extreme ends of every issue are the ones driving virtually every issue. The people away from the extremes are no longer able to work out reasonable and effective compromises—and compromise is essential for any democracy to survive. I don’t know how we change this, but we sure better start working on it before it's too late for all of us.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Birds in the News Redux: Mass Extinctions

Bachman's Warbler, now extinct, was first collected for
science by Reverend John Bachman in 1833, who gave his
descriptions and specimens to Audubon, who never saw one. 
One of the fun things about archiving old programs is reading a news story from July 11, 2017, thinking it sounds vaguely familiar, and finding an old program from 2004 that breaks essentially the same news story, scooping this month’s news fully 13 years ago. The problem is that people today will pay no more attention to it than they did in 2004, as the situation continues to get worse.

Back in 2004, I did a “Birds in the News” segment about a report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources in The Scientist saying that more than 15,000 species around the world were at risk of extinction.

“We are in the midst of the sixth great extinction wave on the planet Earth, caused by the intervention of humans,” David Brackett, Species Survival Commission Chair of the study, told The Scientist. “Species should come and go on an evolutionary time scale, not on our time scale.” Bracket said, “Objective information is showing that declines are not limited to vulnerable species, but are happening across the entire taxonomic spectrum.” The report noted one major notable shift—that continental extinctions had become as common as extinctions on islands, which are normally thought of as more ecologically fragile. The report concluded that the current extinction rate is 100 to 1,000 times the “natural” evolutionary rate.

That was back in 2004. Monday, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, called the current decline in animal populations a “global epidemic” and part of the “ongoing sixth mass extinction” caused in large measure by human destruction of animal habitats. The previous five extinctions were caused by natural phenomena.

This week’s study didn’t focus on extinctions, but rather at how populations are doing: some are disappearing entirely and others are declining. Disappearances and declines are occurring globally, but tropical regions, with the greatest biodiversity, are experiencing the greatest loss in numbers, and temperate regions are seeing higher proportions of population loss.

Dr. Paul Ehrlich of Stanford and Dr. Gerardo Ceballos of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México in Mexico City told the New York Times that “There is only one overall solution, and that is to reduce the scale of the human enterprise. Population growth and increasing consumption among the rich is driving it.”  They said that “habitat destruction — deforestation for agriculture, for example — and pollution were the primary culprits, but that climate change exacerbates both problems. Accelerating deforestation and rising carbon pollution are likely to make climate change worse, which could have disastrous consequences for the ability of many species to survive on earth.”

Dr. Ceballos noted that “some species have been able to rebound when some of these pressures are taken away,” but Dr. Ehrlich said, “We’re toxifying the entire planet.”

Back in 2004 when the signs were already clear that this sixth great extinction wave was starting, Sam Gon, director of science at The Nature Conservancy’s Hawaii division, told The Scientist, “You don’t have to know everything to take action.”

When Russ and I bought our house, it had very old knob and tube wiring, which hadn’t been up to code in years. It was expensive to rewire our whole house, but it was important to do as quickly as possible. We humans were given both a big brain to anticipate risks and the capacity to take action when we see a clear and present danger, whether it’s a potential house fire or the extinction of whole species.

Thirteen years after a very clear warning, isn’t it time we got crackin’?

Bachman's Warbler, painted by Louis Agassiz Fuertes in 1907. 

Friday, July 14, 2017

The Captain of Our Soul

Common Loon

This weekend, I visited my friends David and Suzy Foster in northern Wisconsin near Boulder Lake, and they took my dog Pip and me out on their pontoon boat. We spent a few moments watching the resident loon family, and I snapped a few photos.

Common Loon

Common Loon

From an appropriate distance, baby loons seem so vulnerable and tiny near their parents, but a good telephoto lens shows us their eyes, and it always strikes me just how clueless yet self-contained they look. Every moment of their young lives, baby loons are learning, but sometimes what they’re learning is a harsh final lesson in just what those big yellow eagle talons are capable of, or why they should have darted away from that big round snapping turtle swimming toward them below the surface, or why it’s important to stay away from boat motors.

It was already July 8, but these two babies were still quite tiny—bad storms and the area Bald Eagles had set their parents’ nesting efforts back twice. If these chicks survive the next two months, their parents will fly to another lake, leaving them in hopes that the lake’s fish supplies will last until the chicks’ flight feathers have grown in entirely and they can take off before ice closes them in.

Parent birds put so much of their hearts and souls into raising young, despite the fact that so many things can and do go wrong. We humans share that with birds. We all like to feel like we are the masters of our fate, and we all rage over the dying of the light—at least of our own light and the light of our young. Bald Eagles that extinguish the light of so many baby loons do it to keep the light burning in their own babies’ eyes. Whether we’re an eagle, a loon, or a human being, we each try to preserve that flame of our essential being through our final breath.

The first time I ever watched a bird get banded—a LeConte’s Sparrow at Whitefish Point, Michigan, in 1976—I marveled at the look of defiance in that tiny bird’s eyes in the bander’s huge hand. A 180-pound man weighs 5,832 times as much as a 14-gram LeConte’s Sparrow, but that bird looked every bit as defiant as Ahab standing up to the great white whale Moby Dick himself. Fortunately, the banding episode ended better for both bird and man than Moby Dick ended for Ahab, his crew, or the harpooned whale.

When I rehabbed birds, I saw firsthand how much more defiant than fearful they seemed—bloody but unbowed as long as the light burned in their eyes. I like to read William Ernest Henley’s 1888 poem, Invictus, imagining it was written by a loon, or an eagle, or a LeConte's Sparrow:
Out of the night that covers me,
      Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
      For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
      I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
      My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
      Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
      Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
      How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
      I am the captain of my soul.

All of us, be we human, eagle, sparrow, great white whale, or baby loon—all of us live in an unpredictable and often dark universe. We may all of us try to be the master of our fate. But no matter what fate hands us, we can, each of us, stand unconquered— the captain of our soul.

Common Loon

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The Ancient Mariner Meets the Lord of the Flies

One of the bloodiest news stories about endangered species I’ve read in a long time involved six students and recent graduates of a prestigious Honolulu prep school on a camping trip in westernmost Oahu in December 2015. For an unfathomable reason that somehow calls to mind William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies, they used a bat, a machete, and a pellet gun to kill and dismember at least fifteen nesting Laysan Albatrosses; researchers found seventeen nests with smashed, dead, or missing eggs. The culprits chopped off  the birds’ feet to collect their I.D. bands as souvenirs and posted photos of the mutilated birds on social media. They also stole $3,100 worth of seabird monitoring cameras and sound recording equipment.

Seventeen parent albatrosses feeding at sea returned, one by one, to discover the destruction. Each was a separate tragedy. For example, one male who had been mated since before the current research project on Kaena Point began in 2004 lost his mate in 2008. No one knew how old either bird was or how long they’d been paired, but after losing her, he returned faithfully from 2008 through 2015. As he waited all alone on his hill year after year, he adapted to the researchers’ presence and became a popular presence—they called him Lonesome George. Then in late 2015, he finally attracted a mate. She laid an egg and then headed out to sea to rest and feed while he incubated the egg from December 8 through December 20. Then she returned to incubate and it was his turn to go to sea. Researchers found him nine days later, standing over a smashed egg and his mate’s severed feet. He remained for a day, but then disappeared never to be seen again. I guess he’d had enough of human beings.

These endangered birds are 31 inches long—the size of toddlers—with wingspans, at 7 feet, larger than the arm-span of all but the basketball player sized people, yet albatrosses weigh just 5 to 9 pounds, as little as newborns. Why couldn’t they escape the horrifying slaughter? Their wingspan is so large and their legs so short that it’s impossible for them to either run away or spring into flight. They need a very stiff headwind to take off, and usually launch themselves from the edge of a cliff, the air below catching their spread wings to keep them aloft. They are very protective of their single egg, and so some of the carcasses were found right at their nest.

That one murderous rampage set conservation efforts back ten years and caused more than $200,000 in damage, according to state and federal investigators. The nesting area is crucial because so many other albatross nesting areas are expected to be lost due to rising sea levels. This is the only predator-free, high-elevation breeding colony in the main Hawaiian Islands. And the culprits could hardly plead ignorance to the importance of the nesting colony or the defenselessness of albatrosses, because albatross conservation is specifically taught within the curriculum of their Honolulu school.

I can’t wrap my head around this horrifying crime, nor of the legal aftermath. Three of the mutilators weren’t charged at all. Two were charged in juvenile court; the disposition of those cases has been kept confidential because of their ages. The sixth, 18 at the time of the rampage, pleaded not guilty at first, claiming he hadn’t touched any of the birds. Last week he admitted to killing two of them, but his attorney said that despite the fact that he was the oldest of the six, he was just a follower, not the “architect of the of the crime,” and that he did not cut off any of their legs or tie them up. He was originally charged with 19 criminal misdemeanor counts, including theft, criminal property damage, and animal cruelty, but in exchange for pleading no contest regarding the deaths of two albatrosses, 14 of the charges were dropped. He could have been sentenced to a year in prison and up to $7,000 in fines, but on Friday he was given a 45-day sentence for the killings and a $1,000 fine for the stolen property.

I don’t know what the wisest, most effective way is to deal with adolescent boys who have committed such an atrocity. Imagine if an urban gang caused $200,000 damage and theft of over $3,000 of property belonging to some corporation. Leave out the violent criminal attacks on and mutilation of living creatures. There is no way on this green earth any of them would get a mere 45 days in jail and $1,000 fine. We value corporations above people, and privileged people attending prestigious schools who can hire good lawyers above everyday researchers expending their blood, sweat, and tears on protecting endangered species. And we don’t seem to value nature at all. I’ve seen these hand slap resolutions on cases involving shooting Whooping Cranes, too.

I’ve heard people call humans the only species on earth with a highly developed intelligence, the only species that can feel empathy, and the only species with a conscience. If so, we're also the only species on earth that can ignore so readily what we are taught, that can so willfully and directly cause suffering, and that can commit acts that so violate conscience.

In Coleridge’s poem, the Ancient Mariner killed just one albatross, using his cross bow. He didn’t club it to death, he didn’t mutilate its carcass, and he didn’t boast about it on social media. But even way back in the 1790s, people realized that the killing of even one of such an innocent bird was a crime against man and against nature. The six boys won’t have to wear an albatross around their necks for the rest of their days, they won’t have to make any restitution to the people and institutions that worked so tirelessly to help insure that these albatrosses had a safe nesting area, and they certainly will never bring back the lost creatures they murdered.  And they got away with barely a hand slap.

We have truly lost our way.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Get the Lead Out: 2017 Redux

Aldo Leopold, a true conservationist. 
When I started producing For the Birds in 1986, I tried to keep the program light and fun, with helpful information about bird feeding and solving backyard bird problems but mostly focused on the wonder of individual species and how wild birds fit into popular culture, history, literature, and art. I’d been a birder for 11 years, and a member of the American Ornithologists’ Union for 6 years. Until we had children, I spent virtually all my free time birding or reading about birds, but I was mostly focused on studying natural history. Birding was my escape from real life obligations.

California Condor

But the real world intruded into my birding world. That very year, the last California Condors in the wild were brought into captivity—the seven individuals still flying free over the San Joaquin Valley had all been suffering the effects of lead poisoning. I didn’t believe that captive breeding would restore them, but thank goodness I was wrong—thanks to that, the species is once again flying free in California and Arizona. But once again, they are suffering and dying from lead poisoning from picking up carcasses and gut piles laced with lead ammo.

The first program I did specifically about lead was in 1989, when newly reintroduced Trumpeter Swans were quite conspicuously dying from lead poisoning. Lead shot had already been outlawed for waterfowl shooting in Minnesota, and there had not been any hunting at all for several decades on the lake where most of the dead and dying swans were retrieved, but lead pellets from decades before sat on the bottom like tiny time bombs—lead is an element that doesn’t break down to anything less toxic. Waterfowl ingest pellet-sized stones on the bottom as grit to help digest their food. The 1986 drought and low water levels exposed shot that had long sat in water too deep for waterfowl feeding. The swallowed pellets were slowly ground up in the swans’ gizzards, sending lead into their bloodstreams and causing agonizing deaths.

Trumpeter Swan

In 1991, the US banned all lead shot in waterfowl hunting, after a long battle with gun rights and hunter groups. But lead was still permitted for upland game hunting—indeed, one could use lead shot to kill pheasants and grouse even in wetlands. We’ve amassed more and more scientific proof that the lead in shot and bullets kill a wide variety of birds and mammals, and contribute to lead levels in the blood of hunters and their families. Yet gun rights and sportsmen groups continue to fight for their right to spray toxic lead over land and water that belong to all of us.

On his last day in office, President Obama signed an executive order prohibiting the use of lead shot or bullets on national wildlife refuges, national parks, and other federal land. Then, the very first action Donald Trump’s Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke, did on his first day in office was to overturn that ban, claiming that sportsmen’s groups were united against that ban. If that is true, it may be because sportsmen suffer the same effects of lead toxicity that brought down the Roman Empire and the babies in Flint, Michigan. We know that the snowstorm effect when a bullet hits a deer scatters microscopic bits of lead through much of the venison that hunters and their families eat, which is why venison isn’t accepted at many food shelves now.

Regardless of why they fought so hard to keep spraying poisonous lead on federal lands, sportsmen have relinquished their claim as conservationists, as their shallow victory sends us backward toward a far, far uglier time in American history. The hunters who led the way for America’s great advances in conservation—heroes like Theodore Roosevelt, Ding Darling, and Aldo Leopold—must be turning in their graves.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Arm & Hammer Bird Trading Cards

Arm and Hammer Bird Trading Cards: "Tenth Series" undated

Last week some wonderful people who were along on most of our spring warbler walks, Don and Lynn Watson, sent me an unexpected gift—a little package of 51 bird trading cards. Most were from the Dwight & Church Company—the cards had been placed in packages of Arm & Hammer Baking Soda produced in New York..

The moment I saw them, oddly enough, I thought of Carrol Henderson’s wonderful book, Oology and Ralph’s Talking Eggs: Bird Conservation Comes Out of Its Shell, a superb book about the history of bird conservation that Henderson wrote after he spent time with a family friend examining the egg collection of the friend’s great-grandfather, an Iowa farmer named, Ralph Handsaker. I couldn’t remember why these trading cards made me think of a book about a very old egg collection, so I pulled out the book, and voila! In Chapter 3:
Many egg clutches preserved in Ralph Handsaker’s egg collection contained an Arm and Hammer trading card for that species of bird. There were lots of those cards. Ralph must have gone through a lot of baking soda.   
In the 1880s, the Church and Dwight Company of New York began a corporate tradition that lasted nearly ninety years—bird trading cards. These colorful cards originally came in Arm and Hammer Baking Soda boxes, and later they could be ordered by mail. At a time when many wild birds were being killed for their meat and feathers, the Church and Dwight bird cards featured the theme of “Useful Birds of America” and a simple message: For the Good of All, Do Not Destroy the Birds.” Each card carried a short, interesting paragraph about the natural history of the bird portrayed. The account for the Blue Jay in the New Series of Birds  (number 5) in 1910 states: “This naughty bird has a fondness for eggs and nestlings, but his jaunty reckless air does much to make men overlook his shortcomings.”   
The first series of cards in the 1880s included sixty “Beautiful Bird” cards. This series was followed by nearly twenty-four sets of cards that included from fifteen to thirty cards, each from 1904 to 1976. They featured game birds, songbirds, shorebirds, and birds of prey. These cards were coveted both by children and adult bird enthusiasts. Across the country, they served both as collector cards and as America’s first handy references for identifying wild birds. 
The Church and Dwight Company commissioned one of the greatest bird artists of all time to paint ninety species for use on some of their cards—Louis Agassiz Fuertes. … Interestingly, Fuertes’s paintings of birds of prey were placed in a vault and not published because of the negative views held by the public for birds of prey in the early 1900s. As a way of commemorating the nation’s bicentennial, the Church and Dwight Company published one last set of cards in 1976—a stunning selection of ten hawks, owls, and the Bald Eagle by Fuertes. 
Bald Eagle Arm and Hammer Bird Trading Cards: "Birds of Prey" 1975

(I happen to have bought that set that year: the set of ten beautiful cards cost 35 cents and a box top from Arm & Hammer baking soda.)

Henderson mentions some other companies inspired by the Church and Dwight Company to create their own sets of bird cards. Starting in 1898, the Singer Sewing Machine Company started producing large format cards portraying songbirds with an inset of a life-size drawing of each species’ egg. The back of each card gave some natural history information about the bird as well as promotional information about Singer’s sewing products. Carrol Henderson also discusses some companies that produced similar bird cards outside America, including the Red Rose Tea and Coffee Company in Montreal—the set of bird cards Don and Lynn sent me included three of those, produced between 1951 and 1955.  The National Wildlife Federation was involved in production of those, and they were illustrated by Roger Tory Peterson.

Red Rose Tea and Coffee Company bird trading cards

My dear neighbors Bob and Mary Tonkin gave me a very old card from the Arm & Hammer series, a “Crested Titmouse” (either our Tufted Titmouse or the Black-crested Titmouse). It doesn’t have a date on it, but the layout style was different and seems older than the ones from Don and Lynn. The artist signature seems to read “Bufford.”

Arm and Hammer Bird Trading Cards: undated very old ones
The back of the original card reads:
This handsome Bird Card though designated by a number has no connection with any lottery and does not draw any prize. The perfect quality of the Arm and Hammer Brand of Soda and Saleratus is sufficient inducement for all intelligent consumers to buy ONLY that Brand.   
A set of these cards (SIXTY in all) accumulated in the ordinary course of buying housekeeping supplies will form an interesting collection. The enormous expense of putting a card in each package of our Soda and Saleratus prevents our furnishing each one of the many thousand applicants with an entire set free. Should all the cards be desired immediately a dime or five two cent postage stamps will about pay the cost and postage and upon its receipt with your Post Office address we shall be pleased to mail a complete set of the cards. 
Your truly, 
Church & Co.
The one that appears to be the next oldest vintage, the one called “White Bellied Swallow,” (probably our Tree Swallow) has neither a date nor an artist’s name. Now the company asks for six two-cent stamps for a set. It adds a new advertising text:
IMPORTANT REASONS why housekeepers should be package soda in preference to bulk soda weighed and wrapped by the dealer. The retail price of the Arm and Hammer Brand of soda in packages is the same as for inferior package soda. Consumers gain nothing by buying unknown and inferior soda, they simply put more money into the merchants’ pockets. Package soda like Church & Co’s Arm & Hammer Brand has the guarantee of a responsible manufacturer. Bulk soda may be of anybody’s manufacture and generally of a poor quality.
The next batch also lack a series number, but these all have a copyright inscription below the drawing—I think they all read 1915. This is where the company name changes from Church & Co. to Church & Dwight Co. I could read just a few with a magnifying glass, but when I scanned them at the highest resolution my trusty old scanner can do, 600 dots per inch, and zoomed in, I could read most of them pretty clearly. The artist signature is of M.E.Eaton.

Arm and Hammer Bird Trading Cards: 1915-1918

Arm and Hammer Bird Trading Cards: 1915-1918

M.E. Eaton also did a set of these cards called “The Second Series” bearing a 1918 date and “The Third Series,” from 1922.  I didn’t have a clue who that could be, so I googled the name. She is Mary Emily Eaton, born in the U.K. in 1873 and best known as a botanical illustrator. She came to New York to work for the New York Botanical Garden in 1911. In the several articles I found about her, I didn’t see any reference to her illustrating these Arm and Hammer cards, which were all produced during her time in New York. Her gorgeous plant illustrations, produced in much larger formats, were what she was famous for. She lost her job at the botanical garden in 1932 during the Depression, and had a horrible time finding enough work to support herself, especially due to the severe paper shortages during the war. She returned to the UK in 1947.  

Starting with the Second Series, the backs of the cards started including basic information about the bird depicted.

White-breasted Nuthatch Arm and Hammer Bird Trading Cards: 1915-1918

On the one titled "Nuthatch," showing the White-breasted Nuthatch, the card reads:
Most patient, industrious and unrelenting is the feathered enemy of tree borers known as the White-Breasted Nuthatch. So conscientious is he that he disdains to take a winter vacation down South but remains at home going over the tree trunks inch by inch. Nail, in December, some lumps of suet or fat pork on the rind or other meat to your trees, about twelve feet from the ground. The Nuthatch will show his appreciation by staying the winter out and making war on the enemies of your trees. There is also a red-breasted species.
White-breasted Nuthatch Arm and Hammer Bird Trading Cards: 1915-1918

So far I haven’t been able to find out who contributed the bird information for the cards, but starting with this series, every card I have from then on also includes the message, “FOR THE GOOD OF ALL, DO NOT DESTROY THE BIRDS.”

I showed all these oldest cards to my 98-year-old mother-in-law, who loved seeing things that are all older than she is.

The ninth and tenth series cards were illustrated by Louis Agassiz Fuertes. These don’t have a copyright date. According to the Birds of Prey cards released in 1975, Charles T. Church, a naturalist in his own right as well as being a senior member of the board of Church & Dwight, commissioned Fuertes in the early 20s to produce the artwork for 30 songbird and 30 game bird species—those cards were published at various times through 1964. Fuertes also produced 30 more, including the 10 Birds of Prey cards released in 1975, all before he died in a car crash in 1927.

Arm and Hammer Bird Trading Cards: "Birds of Prey" 1975 

Back in the 1970s, when the public was very concerned about environmental issues and Carol Burnett ended almost every one of her programs with a little anti-pollution message, McDonald's produced an amazing set of teaching materials, including overhead projector transparencies, ditto masters, and other media to give teachers a solid teaching unit about basic principles of ecology. I got the set for free and used it a lot when teaching junior high science. Lots of other corporations were also capitalizing on such widespread support for protecting the environment. Sometimes it felt hypocritical, but in the case of those Birds of Prey cards, Church & Dwight had a very long and honorable history of providing wonderful educational materials. I don't know if there is another brand of baking soda, because I'd never ever consider buying anything but Arm & Hammer. And now I have even more reasons for brand loyalty.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Peabody Street's Year of the House Wren

Nesting House Wren

Every morning since May I’ve awakened to the songs of three different male House Wrens. One is nesting in my neighbor Jeanne Tonkin’s yard, kitty corner from mine. One is nesting in the back of my own backyard, the third in the woodsy area next door.

Yep—2017 is Peabody Street's Year of the House Wren. We always have wrens somewhere around here, but usually just one pair at a time, and never before have more than two pairs nested on this little corner of the block. Wrens love to hear themselves sing, but like other birds, they sing more often when they hear other birds of their species sing. In normal summers I hear several singing bouts each day; this year I hear them just about any time I pay attention. I’m pretty sure I’ve heard more House Wren songs in the past two months than I heard in my previous 42 years of birding.

Before 1982, House Wrens each weighed less than 4 pennies. Nowadays, it takes closer to five pennies to balance one, not because House Wrens have followed America’s humans on the path to obesity but because the United States Mint changed the metallic composition of pennies in 1982, keeping the exact same dimensions but dropping the weight from 3.1 to 2.5 grams. Wrens average between 10 and 12 grams.

House Wren

Ornithologists have studied wrens more than almost any other species because House Wrens so readily use human-made nest sites and are ubiquitous, relatively abundant across most of their range, and tolerant of human activity. House Wrens occupy the broadest latitudinal range of any native songbird in the New World, breeding from across most of Canada down to the southernmost part of South America as well as into the West Indies.

Current research focuses on genetics, immunology, energetics and physiology, ecology, demography, behavior, sex allocation, communication, systematics, and more. As of the mid-2010s, more than 700 research papers, government reports, theses, and dissertations had been published that touch on one or more aspects of House Wren biology. The House Wren account in the Birds of North America Online [subscription only] is rich in insights about them as it summarizes a lot of current research results.

Many of us enjoy House Wrens for a more elemental reason than research: they’re so tiny, with a song that sounds so cheerfully bubbly and exuberant to our ears, that they make us happy. But wrens don’t have quite the same effect on invertebrates—their diet seems to include nothing but insects, spiders, millipedes, and other tiny arthropods.

Nesting House Wren

I found two records of House Wrens helping other species: one 1968 report documented a male House Wren feeding a brood of nestling flickers. In another case documented in 1924, when a male House Wren did not attract a female to a nest box, he fed a brood of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks in their nest in the same tree, and also passed food to their parents to feed the young. He fed the baby grosbeaks for some time after they fledged, and then started feeding a brood of baby House Sparrows in another nest box.

Offsetting those two unique cases, there are a great many documented cases of House Wrens puncturing eggs, killing nestlings, and even killing adults of other species. In one study where a nest with quail eggs was set up near the nests of marked wrens, researchers found that males punctured the eggs only before they had attracted a mate; females punctured them only until they started laying their own eggs. No one knows the exact extent of this destruction, but many ornithologists believe that the decline of Bewick’s Wren in the East was due to the expansion of the House Wren range. Birds of many species are known to chase House Wrens, apparently with good reason.

I got lots of photos of the pair of wrens nesting in Jeanne Tonkin’s yard.

Nesting House Wren

Nesting House Wren

The longer birds care for their eggs and then nestlings, the more invested they become, and so as the nestlings have started appearing at the nest box entrance, the parents have grown much more wary of my presence. I don’t like stressing them out, so I don’t have any photos of the young looking out of the nest box. I’d rather picture in my mind’s eye little baby wrens peeking out at the big world than get a photo of it knowing their first sight was of a paparazzo upsetting their parents. The modern world poses enough stresses on birds without me adding to them.

House Wren

Monday, July 3, 2017

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness Depend on Clean Air and Water

Yellow Warbler
Baby birds need breathable air even more than they need food. 

When I think about the Fourth of July and the Declaration of Independence, I remember the self-evident truths that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The Founding Fathers didn’t envision these self-evident truths about the intrinsic and unalienable rights of man to include all human beings, much less birds, but from the moment of our birth or the moment we start developing in an egg until the instant of our death, the most absolute and ever-urgent need for human and avian life is breathable air; clean drinking water comes in a close second. These fundamental rights, without which liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and everything else cannot exist, were why the Clean Air Act of 1970 passed the Senate by a vote of 73–0 after passing the House 374–1, and the Clean Water Act of 1972 passed unanimously in the Senate and overwhelmingly in the House; Richard Nixon’s veto of the Clean Water Act was quickly overridden by large bipartisan majorities. The essential need for clean air and water won the day.

Clean air and water are ostensibly free, but dirtying them up is free, too, and usually easier than cleaning up after spewing stuff into the environment. Whether individual people are burning wood in a fireplace or peeing into a swimming pool, and whether corporations are releasing toxins into air or water, it’s way, way simpler and cheaper to not worry about it than to have to clean up after yourself. Ironically, the reason the Clean Water Act got so much bipartisan support was that some states with extreme pollution problems were starting to make laws limiting toxic emissions. Corporations that couldn’t afford to move to states with less stringent rules or to compete with companies that could decided it would be in their interest to set basic rules for everyone, to at least even the playing field.

Until the late 1960s, pollution was like the weather—everyone talked about it, but no one did anything about it. The problems got so enormous in California that the state started talking about auto emissions long before the rest of the country was willing to do anything at all.  As a matter of fact, it was then-Governor Ronald Reagan who signed into law California’s Air Resources Act in 1967; that same year, the National Air Quality Act allowed the State of California to set and enforce its own emissions standards for new vehicles based on California's “unique” need for more stringent controls.

Yet in 1980, even with the Clean Air Act in place for a decade and California’s more stringent standards in place even longer, California’s total auto emissions were still at abysmal 1970 levels thanks to the state’s 17 million vehicles, traveling 155 billion miles every year in the state. The air was thick with ugly yellowish brown smog. Even with his own first hand experience in California, when Ronald Reagan was elected president that year, he immediately started moving the EPA backward on regulations. And in the 80s, Congress allowed auto manufacturers to circumvent mandated average fuel efficiency for their passenger vehicle fleet by classifying two new types of passenger vehicles, minivans and SUVs, as light trucks rather than what they obviously were, passenger vehicles.

At every step of the way, corporate greed has trumped our fundamental right to clean air and water unless government regulation and oversight stepped in. But the clever tactic of getting people to see the very words “government regulations” as a bad thing, which started in the 1980s, started moving us backward. And with so much corporate influence over Congress, we now have at the very top of the Environmental Protection Agency Scott Pruitt, who built his career out of suing the EPA on behalf of egregious polluting corporations. In the few months he’s been in power, he’s delayed a rule that would require fossil fuel companies to rein in leaks of methane from oil and gas wells, delayed the date by which companies must comply with a rule to prevent explosions and spills at chemical plants, reversed a ban on the use of a pesticide that the E.P.A.’s own scientists have confirmed is linked to damage of children’s nervous systems, and much more.

On this Independence Day, let’s remember that our liberty and our right to pursue happiness are meaningless without our right to breathe clean air and drink clean water. No one, no matter who you supported in the election; no matter what your religious beliefs, your education level, your socioeconomic status—no one can live without clean air and water. Please urge the president and your representatives in Congress to defend our environment. Don't send us back to the days of smog and burning rivers all over again.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

America: the Land of the Free and Brave Chickadees

Black-capped Chickadee

On Independence Day, I like to think about the essential elements of my country that make me proud to be an American. The songs that most famously express patriotism focus on the natural beauty of this nation, "from the mountains to the prairies to the oceans white with foam," celebrating America being "beautiful, for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain, for purple mountain majesty above the fruited plains." And our national emblem is neither gold nor silver nor any other symbol of materialism—it’s a Bald Eagle.

Bald Eagle

As well as America’s natural beauty, my joy in being an American citizen involves my sense of community. Throughout history, our nation has been strongest and best when our feeling of community has been strongest. After all, the root of the word community is unity. And my understanding of community is informed by my understanding of chickadees as well as the words our Founding Fathers used to write our Declaration of Independence and Constitution.

The Declaration of Independence set forth ideals of community that the Founding Fathers themselves did not live up to, holding as self evident truths that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…” These very words were a refutation of the concept of slavery, even as so many Founding Fathers themselves were slave owners.

Liberty within a democracy depends on an educated public, so Thomas Jefferson was a strong proponent of publicly funded schools for all “free” children, girls as well as boys. The man who wrote “all men are created equal” did not promote education for slave children, who would have had a visceral sense of the obscene contradiction of a nation claiming liberty and justice for all while allowing slavery. It’s ironic and unsettling that the man whose words embodied one of the great and unique principles upon which our democracy rests did not take them to heart in his own life. Nevertheless, it's wonderful that almost two centuries after his death, even as we ever fall short of those ideals, Jefferson’s words endure, a lasting reminder of what we should be aspiring to.

Chickadees know, even without reading old documents, that all birds are created equal. They readily invite into their social flocks every other little songbird. Good capitalists, each chickadee amasses a stockpile of food against future shortages. And good socialists, each chickadee knows if its own stockpile gets destroyed in an ice storm or bolt of lightning, all the other chickadees will share their stockpiles. Chickadee flocks embody in the real world the truest ideals of community.

Chickadees sort out their differences by enforcing a strict hierarchy within each flock that roughly corresponds to their ages and fitness. Each chickadee’s place in the hierarchy is fairly stable, but year after year as they individually gain in wisdom and experience, they ascend the ladder.

When chickadees encounter another flock or another small songbird of a different species, they don’t squabble—chickadees are not into tribalism or exclusivity. Their sense of community encompasses woodpeckers, nuthatches, creepers, kinglets, warblers, and vireos. If you’re a stranger in a strange land and come across a chickadee, you’re alone no more. They share local information, helping strangers as well as friends to avoid predators and other dangers, and also share their food and water resources. When a manageable danger, such as an owl, appears, chickadees band together to attempt to drive it away. When an unmanageable danger appears, chickadees warn one another as they each use their wits so the community will endure.

In other words, chickadee flocks do everything the preamble to our Constitution laid out as the purpose of government: they form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to themselves and their Posterity, all by recognizing the most basic tenet of ecology: diversity equals stability.

Chickadees live free or die without squelching the freedoms of other individuals or groups. They seem meek and mild, but any bander who has ever held one against its will knows that chickadees resist capture and pack a wallop harder than even Blue Jays, which weigh more than seven times as much. Every chickadee embodies steely self-determination as well as sociability.

Taking revenge

So on this Fourth of July, I’m remembering that America is indeed the land of the free and home of the brave Black-capped Chickadees, embodying the very best that we human Americans, individually and as one big community, can aspire to.

Black-capped Chickadee peeking in my window waiting for mealworms