Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Friday, June 29, 2018

Engaging with an Anonymous Letter Writer

In the past year and a half, many people have talked about how important it is to engage in meaningful dialog with those we disagree with, and to talk about our differences in an open, honest, and polite way. When I put my opinions out there, whether on my podcast, blog, a letter to the editor, or social media, I take responsibility for my words, never hiding behind a cloak of anonymity. I’m not sure how I’m supposed to engage when someone sends me an anonymous letter with nothing but a St. Paul postmark, but since I got one today, I’ll take a stab at it. First the letter:
June 27, 2018
You are not to be taken seriously.
You revise History, distort History,
The hate + rage against Trump is what’s unprecedented.
You seem to be afflicted with Trump Derangement Syndrome.
You have no compassion, no caring for the 4,000 baby boys + girls being destroyed every day in America in their mothers’ wombs.
Is this what you are fighting for: more dead babies? Really?
It’s time to come to your senses, Laura, to reconnect with morality, with right + wrong. Read Isaiah 5:20-21.  
Uncle Sam
I’m presuming that “Uncle Sam” is distressed about my letter to the editor that was published in the Duluth News-Tribune Tuesday. I wrote it after witnessing an old, angry white man giving the finger at the crowd who were marching against Trump last week, and specifically glaring at and making that obscene gesture toward families with small children.

I’m not at all sure why “Uncle Sam” brought abortion into it—this is a topic I’ve never publicly discussed. But I guess in this new era of civility, I’m supposed to engage.

The problem is, I can’t find anything in the Bible that discusses the morality of abortion; indeed, the God of the Old Testament killed a lot of unborn fetuses and embryos in Sodom and Gomorrah Himself, and those of every pregnant woman in the world if she wasn’t lucky enough to be on Noah’s ark. But the God of the Old Testament wasn't very consistent. I was hoping “Uncle Sam’s” Isaiah 5:20-21 would clear this up somehow, but it turns out those lines are not at all about abortion:
Woe to those who call evil good
    and good evil,
who put darkness for light
    and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet
    and sweet for bitter.
Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes
    and clever in their own sight.
I can honestly say I’ve never called abortion either good OR evil, dark OR light, bitter OR sweet. If I had been confronted with an unwanted pregnancy during the decades of my life when an unwanted pregnancy was possible for me, I’d have made my choice of how to deal with it by following my own lights. Of course, my personal code of morality is irrelevant when considering the needs of anyone else facing that situation. The guiding words I find in my Bible regarding the moral choices of others are pretty clear and straightforward, by Jesus himself, as quoted in Matthew 7:1-3:
“Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?” 
Where personal morality is concerned, I even apply those words to Donald Trump, though I’d be very careful to keep my daughter as far from him as possible. I try hard not to wonder about the many women he’s boasted publicly about having sex with or "grabbing by the pussy" (his words, not mine), and whether any of these women were ever confronted with an unwanted pregnancy by Mr. Trump.

Nebulous as the Bible is about abortion, right this very moment there are thousands of living, breathing, crying babies and toddlers being held in “tender age” detention centers. If the Bible is where we find answers to good and evil, light and dark, and sweet and bitter, I’d suggest that “Uncle Sam” read a few more lines in his Old Testament, which is pretty specific about how we should treat strangers, immigrants, and asylum seekers. Just off the top of my head, there’s:
  • Exodus 22:21 – “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien; for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”
  • Leviticus 19:33-34 and 24:22 – When the alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien.  The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt:  I am the Lord your God.”
  • Numbers 9:14 and 15:15-16 – “…you shall have one statute for both the resident alien and the native.”
  • Deuteronomy 1:16 – “Give the members of your community a fair hearing, and judge rightly between one person and another, whether citizen or resident alien.”
  • Deuteronomy 10:18-19 – “For the Lord your God...loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.  You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
And for Christians (“Uncle Sam” doesn’t identify himself as one—I'm making an assumption here), in the New Testament, Jesus was pretty specific about our obligation to other human beings. Beyond his parable of the Good Samaritan, there are these verses "Uncle Sam" might read:
  • Luke 10:25-28: And one day an authority on the law stood up to put Jesus to the test. "Teacher," he asked, "what must I do to receive eternal life?" “What is written in the Law?” Jesus replied. “How do you understand it?” He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. Love him with all your strength and with all your mind.’ And, ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself.’” “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do that, and you will live.”
  • Matthew 7:12: Do to others what you want them to do to you. This is the meaning of the law of Moses and the teaching of the prophets.
  • Matthew 25:39-40 says, “When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you? And the King shall answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, Inasmuch as you have done it to one of the least of these my brothers, you have done it to me.’”
I find it curious that “Uncle Sam,” who took the time to search out my home address and handwrite an anonymous letter about Donald Trump as a moral icon, would say I’m the one “afflicted with Trump Derangement Syndrome,” but that's a judgment call, and Jesus said not to do that.

Listener Favorite: Amelia's Cardinals

Northern Cardinal

Last month, I received an email from a listener telling me about her favorite bird:
Hi, Laura: My name is Amelia and my favorite bird is a cardinal. When my husband, Andy and I lived in Green Bay, Wisconsin, we had a large backyard and one year we had a brood of three boy cardinals and at least one girl. The boys would chase each other around the yard and house in a big loop. They were so much fun to watch. 
We also liked listening to them sing from our screened-in porch. We occasionally whistled back and a couple of times repeated their song incorrectly. As a new birder, I was wondering if they would ever learn the wrong song or if that was harmful to them in any way.
I understand the pleasure to be had in whistling back and forth with a cardinal. My fondest memory of my own childhood was learning to whistle by imitating my neighborhood cardinals. One morning when I was in my bedroom whistling back and forth with a neighborhood cardinal, he flew in to a maple tree branch that pressed against my bedroom screen. His sparkling eyes meeting mine as he started a new song ignited my heart in a blaze of joy that still burns.

I also understand Amelia’s worry that her whistling back and forth could somehow harm these baby cardinals in learning their own proper song. I wrote a whole book about the many ways we people hurt birds and how not to. When we learn how difficult it is for birds to negotiate this human-altered planet, those of us who love them can’t help but worry.

But Amelia can let this particular worry go. As baby cardinals learn their song, they imitate one another and adults, but it’s the proper songs that they hear over and over that influence what their final song becomes. Our poor human imitations, even when they’re good enough to draw an adult cardinal in, can’t match the complexity of songs a real adult cardinal sings. The young birds will of course respond to our imitations, but what they learn comes from the real deal.

In thinking about this issue, I pulled out my copy of Don Kroodsma’s exquisite book, The Singing Life of Birds, published in 2005 and which I still consider one of the best bird books ever written. In his chapter about the cardinal, Don focused on how the female sings, too, and about the nuances he hears in the conversations between males and between male and female. Don writes:
And, oh, how he sings. In my mind’s play-center I hear his what cheer, cheer, cheer, his whistles as brilliant as he is handsome. The short what may slur briefly up, each cheer then taking most of a second to slur smoothly down the scale. What cheer, cheer, cheer, birdie-birdie-birdie follows, as he adds a little flourish on the end, then another what cheer, cheer, cheer.   
I hear other songs, too, of a clearly different pattern. Perhaps it’s pichew pichew tiw tiw tiw tiw tiw tiw tiw, over and over. I count them as he sings: 10, 15, 20 or so times and then it’s another song, perhaps a wooiit wooiit wooiit wooiit chew chew chew chew. All consist of pure whistles, some slurred up, some down; some are almost a second long and repeated slowly, others just a fraction of a second and delivered rapidly. It is fairly easy to hear the 8 to 10 different songs as he sings—he repeats each one enough times that I can get to know it, and then he goes on to another, each so different from the others. I soon hear his favored sequences, too, as I can often predict the next song based on his current song. 
Like many other songbirds, the males engage in community conversations.  I’ve heard them here in the cemetery, the resident male and two of his neighbors hurling identical songs back and forth at one another, as their repertoires are much the same. In heated debates the songs become longer and more complex, with extra whistled phrases and perhaps even a red squirrel-like chirr added to the end of the song. In these vocal skirmishes they switch to new songs more frequently, too, and match each other more often than not, typically repeating each song just a few times before introducing another, as if the war will be won by who switches to a new song first, or by he who refuses to follow the leader, or in some other conversational convention that only cardinals know. Yes, I’ve heard them here in the cemetery, and elsewhere, too, on Cape Cod, and in almost every state down to Florida, west to Texas and north to Minnesota, as they play the same games everywhere.   
And she also sings. It is she who has brought me here, to know her and her singing role better. By March or April, perhaps a month after he’s been in full song, she chimes in, at least according to the expert accounts I have read. She sings far less than he does; it seems that her songs are not repeated as precisely as his, and they seem not to be as loud, either. She often sings from under cover, too, while the showy male is perched in the open. There’s nothing second-rate about her songs, though, as her repertoire is essentially identical to his. She sometimes uses her songs to defend her territory against an intruding female, but mostly she duets with her mate, and usually when they are rather close by. And when she duets with her mate, she almost always matches him, his pichew pichew tiw tiw tiw tiw tiw tiw tiw followed quickly by hers, his what cheer, cheer, cheer by hers.
Listening to cardinals sing while trying to figure out which birds are doing the singing is richly rewarding, whether we whistle back or not. When I was in the Florida Everglades in April, I made the recording of cardinals that I used as a background sound on the podcast corresponding to this transcript; the recording of a male/female duet was taken from the CD included in Don Kroodsma’s book, The Singing Life of Birds, a book that is very much worth reading AND worth listening to.

[Kroodsma, Donald. The Singing Life of Birds: The Art and Science of Listening to Birdsong (Kindle Locations 6144-6176). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.]

female Northern Cardinal

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Laura’s Best Bird EVER! ™ Chapter 11. Geppetto the Pileated Woodpecker

Katie and Gepetto

In 1998, someone in Two Harbors brought me a newly-fledged baby Pileated Woodpecker that had been hit by a car. The bird had a minor wing sprain and no experience yet in getting his own food, but like most woodpecker fledglings was full grown.

I’d never before touched a Pileated Woodpecker, much less held one in my hands (though now that I think of it, I had been pooped on by one long ago). You can’t help but look at that huge beak and think about how easily it can hack into a hardwood tree—I found myself wondering what kind of damage it could do to me. But from the start, Geppetto was extraordinarily and unfailingly gentle.

Baby pileateds take food by pulling a parent’s bill into their own and, pumping their head back and forth, stimulate the adult to regurgitate its stomach contents down the baby’s throat. Much as I want to protect baby birds from hunger, I’m neither equipped nor inclined to go to that extreme to feed one. Fortunately, I didn’t need to. I whipped up a slurry of high-protein baby food developed for feeding baby parrots and fed Geppetto with an eyedropper, which happened to be the length of a Pileated Woodpecker’s bill. He grabbed it in his bill and pumped his head back and forth, and I squeezed the bulb. He took to this so instantaneously that it must have seemed at least a little close to what he’d been expecting.

His wing healed very quickly, but there was no way of reconnecting him with his parents, and he wasn’t nearly ready to fend for himself yet. Fledgling pileateds stick close to their parents even as they start exploring the big world—we humans may think we invented education, but birds have been educating their young long before we emerged from the evolutionary ooze. Several times I took Geppetto to an anthill in my backyard. Pileateds eat a lot of ants, apparently enjoying the formic acid taste, and sure enough, Geppetto pigged out. At such close range, I could watch him extend his long tongue and reel it in with half a dozen or more ants along the sticky surface. This was before I was taking many photos—I so wish I had photos and video of this! When he was sated, he’d hop over or, as his wing improved, fly over, and climb up my pants leg to perch on my arm.

That was his favorite spot—my arm. He often hitched his way up and stood with his feet on my shoulder and his beak less than an inch from my ear. He never stuck his beak into it, but he frequently extended his long, flexible tongue, tracing every fold of my ear in a most optimistic way. I trust he never found any bugs in there, but nevertheless he persisted.

I had him at home only ten days or so before I was scheduled to teach a two-week Elderhostel class up at Camp Du Nord on Burntside Lake, just outside the Boundary Waters. Katie and Tommy were coming along, and we decided that would be the perfect place to slowly "hack out" Geppetto, subsidizing him with food and protection as he learned to be wild.

To transport him to the camp, I put an open box on the front passenger seat with a thick 2- or 3-foot long birch branch sticking up. He perched on that the whole ride, looking out the window with interest. We went through some construction on Highway 1, and I can still remember driving along at a snail's pace, construction workers and people in cars going the opposite way staring at Geppetto, the little guy staring right back.

At camp, he stuck near us for the first several days and was even more clingy than he’d have normally been because the territorial adults of a nearby pileated family kept chasing him. At some point he realized that when he flew to me, they disappeared, and after that, a couple of times he actually seemed to approach them to get them to chase him. Then he’d fly straight to me and face them as if taunting, “My mom’s bigger than your mom.” That seemed to work—they stopped harassing him. (I saw this exact thing in one other bird I rehabbed, a baby Blue Jay when I was back in Madison, Wisconsin.)

I couldn't show him how to slam his face into a tree to root out bugs, but I did bring him to several trees I’d seen the other pileateds working in, and he quickly picked up the idea that there were wood-boring beetle grubs and carpenter ants in there and he could dig them out. He was still flying to me and my kids for meals, but that didn’t surprise me at all—I’ve watched fledglings with a parent before. The babies start figuring out how to get their own food, but until they grow proficient, they can't help but grow impatient and start begging again, and the parents seem always to indulge them. In the same way, Geppetto was figuring out how to find food while secure in the knowledge that he wouldn’t get too hungry with us to depend on.

Tom and Gepetto

By the end of the first week, we were growing nervous that Geppetto would not be ready to be on his own by the time we left the following week. He was still insisting on sleeping in our cabin, and still wanting a dozen or so meals a day from us. But early the second week, he reached two important milestones—by Tuesday he wasn’t asking for meals more than once or twice a day, and that was the day he started sleeping outside somewhere. I don’t know if he found an abandoned cavity or what—he was managing to elude our observation except on his terms. And he didn’t once ask for food from us on Thursday or Friday. The last we saw him was on Friday afternoon, when he flew to us in a friendly greeting, but then flew off again.

Tom and Gepetto

Just in case he got into trouble, I left some food with the camp program director, who later told me that he thought he saw Geppetto a few times but couldn’t be sure. It’s an unsettling and bittersweet feeling to stop seeing a beloved bird, knowing he’s probably but not definitely still out there, and hoping he's doing what wild Pileated Woodpeckers should be doing. As we drove away on Saturday, my kids and I looked back with sadness and hope. I whispered, “Farewell, Geppetto. Live long and prosper.”

And that was that. I hope he did live long and prosper. My own life was so much richer for having known and nurtured this magnificent creature, who made me the only person I’ve ever known who was French-kissed in the ear by a Pileated Woodpecker. Geppetto was the best bird EVER!!

My letter in the Duluth News-Tribune Today

Here's the link.

On June 20, as thousands of peaceful protestors marched down Lake Avenue, I found myself sandwiched between two young families. Our march was festive and happy. That's what a sense of solidarity and camaraderie does for people joined in a shared dream. Protestors' signs focused on the clean air and water that all living things require, basic fairness for all, or on the babies and children right that moment being held in cages and detention centers by order of the current administration. Everyone had different priorities but the same vision for protecting America's natural and human resources, fundamental decency to other human beings, and the values of democracy.

Suddenly a car went by at slow speed, the driver blasting his horn with one hand as he thrust the other hand in an aggressive obscene gesture toward us; he glared with malignant fury. As his eyes locked on the tiny children around me, his toxic anger seemed to grow, not dissipate.

What is it about President Donald Trump that arouses such overwhelming dark passion? These people who currently have the presidency, both houses of Congress, and the Supreme Court on their side are still not happy. If anything, their rage is growing, not dissipating, their wrath fueled by Trump even as their party dismantles ever more of the laws and policies they disparage.

We live in polarizing times, but in my entire adult life, beginning with the Vietnam era, I've never seen genuinely malignant wrath until Trump entered the political scene. The only thing that has matched this ugliness during my lifetime was the hateful wrath of white supremacists during the Civil Rights era.

This cancer is fueled by one man, fanning a rage that grows the more he gets his way — a cancerous growth metastasizing before our very eyes.

Monday, June 25, 2018

June Walk along the Superior Hiking Trail

Cedar Waxwing on nest

(Transcript of podcast/radio program for June 25. You can listen to it [with many of the bird sounds] here.)

On Saturday, I was a leader on a hike along the Superior Hiking Trail sponsored by Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness. We started at the parking area at the Oberg Mountain entrance up by Tofte, and hiked a little more than a mile up the Leveax Mt. Trail and then back down again. We’d lucked into a perfect June day, both weather-wise and bird-wise.  As always happens when hiking in a wonderful forest in June, birds were much more heard than seen, but one of the first things we saw, from the parking lot, was a Cedar Waxwing on a nest—that was a thrill.

Lots of birds were singing, especially Red-eyed Vireos and Ovenbirds, with enough American Redstarts, Blackburnian Warblers, and Black-throated Green Warblers to provide steady diversions. We had several wonderful moments, even though they were mostly auditory. Best for me were a Black-throated Blue Warbler and a Scarlet Tanager who stayed hidden but sang at fairly close range. Then just before we made it back to the parking lot, we heard a distant Wood Thrush. We’re at the extreme northern edge of Wood Thrush range, and so this bird was completely unexpected. I talked to Grand Marais’s bird guru Molly Hoffman at lunch, and she said she had documented several Wood Thrushes in the area over the years. I recorded the song with my iPhone for eBird.

We heard three Canada Warblers, one so close he was maybe even close enough to touch for a moment—but we could not pick out the little guy in the dense understory. A couple of distant Pileated Woodpeckers yelled and drummed, and we came very close to a third. We could hear soft pecking and scrutinized the dead tree—a couple of people got a good look, but most of us didn’t see it until it took off. Even a quick view of a Pileated is something I never tire of even though they’re a regular backyard bird for me.

On the other end of the size spectrum, we got great looks at a couple of tiny Golden-crowned Kinglets. One searched the ground at the base of trees for bugs; then he hovered at a spider web and a couple of branch tips, plucking out almost invisible insects, close enough that I could hear its high frequency call notes. Even with my hearing aids set on the special program my audiologist made to help me hear birds, I can only pick out the closest Golden-crowned Kinglets.

We heard one distant chickadee—they’re too busy stuffing food into nestlings right now to waste time chickadee-dee-dee-ing. Indeed, there were far, far more birds present than what we saw or heard. A few species don’t bother to sing at all now, and a great many limit song production to the dawn chorus, when all the forest creatures tune in for news of who made it through the night. Most territorial squabbles have been worked out weeks ago, and most birds who want a mate have found one. Baby birds of some species must hear their father singing to acquire their own song, so there will be a resurgence of song as babies get more self sufficient.

If you want to hear the wonderful warblers and other songbirds that make our north woods among the most diverse areas in all of the US and Canada, take a morning walk in the next two or three weeks. You’ll hear mostly Red-eyed Vireos and Ovenbirds, with others piping in occasionally. As summer progresses, even the dawn chorus will end. The Ovenbird will stick it out longer than the others. As Robert Frost wrote:
There is a singer everyone has heard,
Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird,
Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.
He says that leaves are old and that for flowers
Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten.
He says the early petal-fall is past
When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers
On sunny days a moment overcast;
And comes that other fall we name the fall.
He says the highway dust is over all.
The bird would cease and be as other birds
But that he knows in singing not to sing.
The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing. 
Here's the eBird list of all the birds we encountered (by sound or sight):
 31 species 
Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens)  1
Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus)  3
Least Flycatcher (Empidonax minimus)  2
Red-eyed Vireo (Vireo olivaceus)  7
Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus)  1
Red-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta canadensis)  1
Golden-crowned Kinglet (Regulus satrapa)  2
Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula)  1
Veery (Catharus fuscescens)  3
Swainson's Thrush (Catharus ustulatus)  2
Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus)  1
Wood Thrush (Hylocichla mustelina)  1     We did not see this bird, but heard it. I recorded it with my iPhone.
American Robin (Turdus migratorius)  4
Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum)  3
Ovenbird (Seiurus aurocapilla)  8
Nashville Warbler (Oreothlypis ruficapilla)  1
Mourning Warbler (Geothlypis philadelphia)  1
Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas)  1
American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla)  6
Northern Parula (Setophaga americana)  2
Magnolia Warbler (Setophaga magnolia)  1
Blackburnian Warbler (Setophaga fusca)  6
Chestnut-sided Warbler (Setophaga pensylvanica)  4
Black-throated Blue Warbler (Setophaga caerulescens)  1
Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata)  1
Black-throated Green Warbler (Setophaga virens)  5
Canada Warbler (Cardellina canadensis)  3
White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis)  3
Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea)  1
Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus)  4
Purple Finch (Haemorhous purpureus)  1
We also saw quite a few lovely plants, but I only focused on a few (with my Canon 100-400 lens):

Nodding Trillium
Nodding Trillium

Wild Ginger
Wild Ginger

Wild Ginger
Wild Ginger
Some kind of wild orchid
Wild Orchid

Usnea Lichen
My favorite plant in the known universe, Usnea lichen

Friday, June 22, 2018

A Brief History of the Boundary Waters

Common Loon
Tomorrow, June 23, I’ll be leading a bird hike at 7 am along the Superior Hiking Trail starting at the Oberg Mountain parking area. Spaces on the hike are limited, but last I checked there were still a couple of openings: call (​218)-370-8342 for more information. Then at 11 I’ll be at the Grand Marais Community Center for lunch and to give a presentation, and there will be an update from the Save the Boundary Waters campaign. These events are sponsored by Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness.

In 1978, Congress passed into law the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act. The Boundary Waters is a 1,090,000-acre area within the Superior National Forest in northeastern Minnesota, administrated by the U.S. Forest Service. It is one of the most visited wildernesses in the United States, a popular destination for canoeing, hiking, and fishing.

Although the Boundary Waters Act was passed forty years ago, protection of the land to ensure preserving its primitive nature was occurring long before that, and was not particularly controversial. All the way back in 1902, Minnesota's Forest Commissioner persuaded the state to reserve half a million acres near the BWCAW from being sold to loggers. In 1905 he visited the area on a canoe trip and was impressed by the area's natural beauty. He was able to save another 141,000 acres from being sold for development. He soon reached out to the Ontario government to encourage them to preserve some of the area's land on their side of the border, noting that the area could be "an international forest reserve and park of very great beauty and interest."

By the early 1920s, roads had begun to be built through the Superior National Forest to promote public access to the area for recreation. In 1926 a section of 640,000 acres within the Superior National Forest was set aside as a roadless wilderness area by Secretary of Agriculture William Marion Jardine. In 1930, Congress passed the Shipstead-Newton-Nolan Act, which prohibited logging and dams within that area to preserve its natural water levels. Additional land purchases and shifts in boundaries expanded the amount of protected land owned by the government , and in 1938, the area was renamed the Superior Roadless Primitive Area. In 1948, the Thye-Blatnik Bill authorized the government to purchase the few remaining privately owned homes and resorts within the area. In 1949, President Harry Truman signed an executive order prohibiting aircraft from flying over the area below 4,000 feet. I’m 66 years old, and all this happened before I was even born.

The area was officially named the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in 1958. The Wilderness Act of 1964 organized it as a unit of the National Wilderness Preservation System. The 1978 Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act established the Boundary Waters regulations much as they are today, with limitations on motorboats and snowmobiles, a permit-based quota system for recreational access, and restrictions on logging and mining within the area. More than a quarter million Americans visit the Boundary Waters every year.

People sometimes tell me that environmentalists like me who want to protect what’s left of wilderness and wildlife on this over-developed planet love nature and not people. (Ironically, it’s pretty much those same critics who complained this week when I spoke out against a federal policy taking helpless immigrant children from their parents and putting them in what were euphemistically called “tender age” facilities.)

The truth is that I love people—I’m a human being myself, and my husband and I produced three brand new people while we’ve never produced a bird. I have and drive a car and have taken great pleasure in riding in motorized boats on several occasions—my very best baby loon photos were taken from a motorized boat. I also love visiting my daughter in New York City and my son in Orlando—two places where people abound. I firmly believe in the value of human beings, individually and collectively.

Many people make the argument that wildlife and the natural world deserve to exist for their own sake. I believe that, too. But I would not argue politically for this fervent, deeply spiritual belief over the fervent beliefs of other people. But I do argue politically for us to protect the rights and needs of large groups of people. Wilderness, something there is very little of left in our nation, is something that a great many people need. Indeed, as I pointed out, people recognized this need for roadless, pristine areas over a century ago.

I record birds. Not a lot of us do that anymore, at least not to produce pristine bird and natural ambience recordings, but it’s getting nearly impossible to find a spot where I can make an hour-long recording that has no unnatural sounds in at all. Virtually all campgrounds are set up for RVs now, and even in areas designed for tent camping, it’s almost impossible to go to sleep without hearing vehicle motors, generators, and a cacophony of sounds from other campers’ entertainment technology. Most people are capable of loving human beings while wanting at least a little respite sometimes. I also love history. Other people love visiting historical sights and even reenacting today such things that happened historically as Civil War battles—they’ve had land set aside for their needs. I love seeing at least some wilderness set aside as my historical heroes such as Longfellow, Thoreau, Emerson, Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir valued it.

Those of us who need to experience a little solitude or tech-free quiet, and the chance to experience the kinds of wildlife that thrive away from people, deserve at least a few areas of designated wilderness in our democracy. It’s scary to me that people without a real understanding of a large segment of humanity can’t acknowledge this deep-rooted need for natural beauty, and that politicians are using wilderness areas, be they national parks, monuments, or forests, as political bargaining chips. We northern Minnesotans have a treasure in our backyards valued by millions of Americans, one that has been recognized and protected since 1902. Let's keep it that way.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

To Sell My Immortal Soul

(This isn't a radio show/podcast transcript.)

I went to a Catholic elementary school from 1957 to 1965—that’s where the foundation of my moral code and world view were formed. The only thing I learned about birds was that St. Francis believed they had souls. At the time, that was plenty enough ornithology for me.

Most of my teachers were nuns who had taken a vow of poverty. They were the ones who taught me that a synonym for money was filthy lucre. My lay teachers were paid so little that they might as well have taken a vow of poverty, too.

My beloved St. Francis renounced worldly ways—his Franciscan order was the first to require a vow of poverty. I wanted to be a nun, and welcomed living as Francis did, renouncing wealth and the moral compromises so many people make in order to amass riches. Indeed, for the past 32 years I’ve been producing For the Birds without any compensation except the satisfaction of thinking that St. Francis might have appreciated my life of service to birds.

But parents must provide for their children, and in 2005, when we had three kids in college, I took a paying job at a local optics retailer, writing a blog. From Day One, I defined the purpose of that blog as “For the love, understanding, and protection of birds.” I didn’t like reviewing binoculars and spotting scopes—I got freaked out one day when a customer, who had just two weeks before bought a premium pair of binoculars, called me to ask about a news release about another top brand that was about to offer a competing model. He wanted to know if the new binoculars would be better than his. When I asked him if he liked his, he said they seemed perfect, but he was still concerned that there could be something even better out there. I wanted to slap him and tell him to shut up and go birding, but managed to hold my tongue—I hope that was more due to my innate desire to be polite than to my selling out for a job.

But in 2007, my boss sold the company to a large corporation—one that boasted to us on a visit to its Omaha headquarters that their salespeople base recommendations for customers not on what binoculars would be best for someone’s unique circumstances, but which models are best for the company’s profit margins. They also sold a lot of cheap crap from China, including stuff that was demonstrably horrible for birds, like metal bird houses that would cook or freeze baby chickadees and wrens. I could not allow my name to be associated with them, period.

If I’d held on, I probably would have been laid off anyway, which would have given me a few more paychecks and then I’d qualify for unemployment, but instead I wrote a bridge-burning letter to the company on March 15, my version of Brutus sticking it to the man on the Ides of March.

In seventh or eighth grade religion class, one of our priests defined prostitution as taking money for any action that violated one’s conscience. He said it would be a sin for even a parent with hungry mouths to feed to take a job that required him or her to hurt human beings. He made the point that some violations of conscience are more egregious than others—that working in Hitler’s concentration camps would be a worse sin, and a more profound example of prostitution, than a desperate woman committing the more narrow legal definition of prostitution. Yep—accepting even a single paycheck with that corporation’s name on it would have made me a prostitute, clear and simple.

I’ve long worried and wondered what it was about Germans that allowed them to take jobs in those concentration camps, much less about the ones who turned a blind eye to them. But right here in America, people working for ICE and a bunch of for-profit prisons and detention centers are showing me how many people either don’t have any moral qualms about harming other human beings or are willing to violate their conscience for pay.

Ironically, the very man who has referred to human beings trying to immigrate to America as “infesting” our nation liked undocumented workers just fine when they were building Trump Tower for $4 an hour. Now that he would have trouble getting away with that, he’s basing his immigration policy not on stopping wealthy Americans from exploiting undocumented workers but on harming those poor, desperate people who arrived here, just as my great great grandparents and two of this president’s wives as well as his own mother and paternal grandparents did, as immigrants.

A few of the people working for ICE and the Border Patrol or for the detention centers where children have been sent are speaking out; some have quit their jobs. But prostitution—doing evil for pay—is the order of the day now. Selling one’s soul for filthy lucre is the Trumpian way.

For the Babies

Red-eyed Vireo

I started out yesterday morning listening to my Red-eyed Vireo singing his laid-back song; later in the morning, suddenly I was hearing more than one Red-eyed Vireo making anxious, distressed call notes in my tree. I ran out to see a Blue Jay sneaking about in the upper limbs, being divebombed by three adult vireos. I yelled, but it was the vireos who finally and successfully chased it off.

I’ve focused my entire adult life on the love, understanding, and protection of birds, but also on human children. I was a teacher for four years before having my own children, and loved introducing my students to birds—indeed, the ones I’ve reconnected with over the years have all mentioned my teaching them about birds. I started producing For the Birds when my own youngest nestling was 7 months old, and I was as fiercely protective a mother of small ones as my Red-eyed Vireos are. My love for birds and children are entirely intertwined.

We humans like to think we’re superior to other animals for our ability to feel empathy and for our powerful ability to nurture babies of other species. But the quality of empathy varies greatly within our species. Sociopaths are defined in large part by the absence of empathy.

Many laws and regulations relate directly to the well-being of babies and children, or to the natural environment that human and avian babies and children as well as we adults depend on. I get frustrated and even angry when politicians use weasel words to set policies that put the profits of corporations and the wealth of the 1 percent above the needs of children and the environment, but overall I’ve never thought those politicians were necessarily sociopaths, or that they would do anything egregiously outrageous to score political points, like hold children and babies literally hostage, in literal holding cages or other enclosures, ripped from their parents, in order to force other politicians to bow to them and pass an otherwise unconscionable law.

Yesterday morning I heard vireos in distress, and last night just before bed I learned that the President of the United States had created what are literally called “tender age shelters” to house the babies and toddlers who have been stolen from their helpless parents and are being held hostage until Congress funds an obscene wall along the entire Mexican border—along that sensitive Rio Grande habitat that so many of us birders, and all the wildlife we see down there, depend on. I learned yesterday that there is no prescribed mechanism for getting these children being held in what are surely concentration camps back to their parents, no matter what the outcome, and that at least one Guatemala mother was deported while her child was kept here.

In my lifetime, not one president would ever have considered using babies and children as blatant political bargaining chips, but now the politicians of an entire party are bowing to the current president's desires—even those very Republicans who pooh-poohed the concept of that wall during their own campaigns for president in 2016, talking about how expensive and destructive yet fundamentally ineffective that wall would be. A local Duluth politician running for the District 8 Republican seat in Congress said yesterday that tearing children from their parents is “heartbreaking,” yet he is perfectly willing to allow this to continue until Democrats cave and allow that expensive and destructive yet ineffective wall to be built. He’ll be toadying to a sociopath tonight, when the man responsible for this evil policy comes to Duluth.

I’ll be at the protests today. Babies and children are in distress, and everyone with a conscience must do something.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Gypsy Moth Spraying in My Neighborhood

Airplane spraying Bt in my neighborhood

I woke up this morning, as I usually do in June, listening to my neighborhood Red-eyed Vireo and robins singing away, and baby Song Sparrows chipping with hunger. Two or three different pairs of chickadees are nesting within a stone's throw of my yard, and cardinals are nesting on the next block, their songs conjuring up some of my finest childhood memories.

It’s fun to lie in bed a few minutes hearing the neighborhood gossip. The Song Sparrows fledged this weekend, and their parents are running themselves ragged keeping track of the chicks as they search for insects, especially caterpillars, to stuff into them. In June, robins are always somewhere in the nesting cycle—after one brood fledges, Dad shows them the ropes of life on Peabody Street while Mom incubates a new batch of eggs. Red-eyed Vireos are more mysterious, with Dad singing so persistently no matter where in the nesting cycle they are, and the fledglings hiding deep in foliage, so usually the best I can do is imagine what they’re up to.

Black-capped Chickadee
Caterpillars: the stuff of life for baby birds.
This stuff happens every year, but as Rachel Carson wrote, “There is symbolic as well as actual beauty in the migration of the birds… There is something infinitely healing in these repeated refrains of nature, the assurance that night after night, dawn comes, and spring after winter.”

I was jolted out of this morning’s reverie about baby birds fulfilling the promise of bird migration in a most un-Rachel Carson way, by an airplane spewing pesticides right in my neighborhood in a ridiculously hopeless attempt to control a pest that is so pervasive right now that it would be impossible to eradicate, using a pesticide that targets caterpillars of every species.

Gypsy moth "control" is based on Bacillus thuringiensis, nicknamed Bt, a naturally occurring soil bacterium. A May 29 article in the Duluth News-Tribune summarized a Minnesota Department of Agriculture news release, reassuring readers that:
The treatment product is organic certified for food crops…. It has no known health effects for humans, pets, birds, fish, livestock, bees and other insects, but to avoid it residents may wish to stay indoors during the treatment and keep windows closed for a half hour after application. The residue does not cause damage to outdoor surfaces and can be removed with soapy water.
(The article was updated Friday to announce today's spraying, with the same PR fluff about how harmless Bt is.)

One line is an outright lie. The statement that Bt has no known health effects for bees "and other insects" is absolutely false. Bt outright and indiscriminately kills all lepidopteran caterpillars, and caterpillars are, indeed, insects. For the Duluth News-Tribune to print such a clear falsehood without question, straight out of industry PR materials, can't even be called shoddy journalism—it's not journalism, period.

Russ and I still subscribe to the News-Tribune, but my Red-eyed Vireos and other neighborhood birds don’t. They won’t be poisoned outright—it isn’t a false claim that the bacterium has no direct health effects on birds. But it’s absolutely untrue that it has no effects on them. There is no pesticide in the known universe that targets nothing but gypsy moths—this variety of Bt may not kill bees, but it takes out every single lepidopteron caterpillar, from luna moths to monarchs. The last time I was watching a Monarch caterpillar in some milkweed in my yard, it was killed by this exact kind of Bt spraying. And one's health is pretty clearly affected by the food one eats. Bt may not outright harm birds, but destroying their main summer food source certainly does have an effect.

My poor backyard birds will have no clue why caterpillars are suddenly harder to come by. I’ve written and talked a lot over the years about how most of the insects that Whip-poor-wills, nighthawks, and songbirds depend on are declining. Meanwhile, gypsy moths are doing just peachy despite all the spraying. They pose a serious economic problem for which spraying has simply not helped—they’re cyclic and keep coming back even as the many, many harmless and helpful lepidopteron species, already in trouble, continue to dwindle.

Spraying Bt from airplanes may at least be better than spraying DDT from trucks, another vivid childhood memory. We were told that was harmless, too, yet my big brother, who chased the truck with the other little boys night after night, developed weird fatty subcutaneous lumps all over his body as a young man. Was it DDT or the Agent Orange he was exposed to in Vietnam that caused this and ultimately led to the cancer that killed him? We’ll never know.

That DDT spraying didn’t end mosquitos in my town or anywhere else, and this spraying won’t end gypsy moths in Duluth or anywhere else. We keep making the same mistakes, and the companies that manufacture and administer pesticides and write proposals to ag departments and release PR news statements, and the news media that repeat those PR claims verbatim without investigating, keep making the same profits. This time people may not pay—well, except for those of us who plant milkweed and love to watch our caterpillars grow—but the chickadees, Red-eyed Vireos, cardinals, robins, and Song Sparrows in my neighborhood will start struggling to find enough caterpillars to bring their young to independence. We people may gripe about being awakened by an airplane at 5:30, but most of us won’t even notice the lasting effects our birds will be dealing with.

I’m the age right now that my brother was when he died. Like the problems the older generation left us boomers with, we’ll be leaving our young people plenty of problems to deal with. Overblown assurances that “it’s organic!” and “it won’t hurt you—promise!” will keep Bt spraying for a long time to come, and the gypsy moths still won’t go away. A handful of people will keep profiting, a smaller handful will keep protesting about how it hurts beneficial insects and the birds that eat them and isn’t solving the gypsy moth problem at all, and most people will keep ignoring the situation. I guess I’m glad that I won’t be around to see what finally wakes people up this time.