Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Laura Hears from the Charles M. Schulz Museum about Woodstock!

Yesterday, I received a letter from Rachel Fellman, an archivist at the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, California. She writes: 
Dear Laura: …We’re tidying up a collection of his fan mail from the late ‘90s, and in the process came across your witty and informative letter … speculating on Woodstock’s species. It’s particularly apropos because we are planning a[n] exhibit about Woodstock for next year.   
At this point in his career, Schulz was overwhelmed with mail and rarely answered letters – however, I wanted to ask if he did reply to you? You ask such interesting questions, and as a lover of obscure facts, I’m sure he enjoyed your ideas about Woodstock’s plumage and his distinctive flight pattern.  

Ms. Fellman included a copy of my letter, which I’d written on February 2, 1996, when I was writing my book, Sharing the Wonder of Birds with Kids.

I’d written:
Dear Mr. Schulz:   
I am writing a book for parents, grandparents, Scout leaders, naturalists, and teachers, about how to teach children about birds. My publisher … plans a September release. I emphasize the vast array of birds in the world around us, some outdoors and some closer to home, like on the comic page. Since one of my favorite birds is Woodstock, I would love to include information about him. I would deeply appreciate it if you would answer one or two of the following questions that I could quote in the book.   
What inspired you to create Woodstock? Might it have been, in part, to provide Snoopy with an outdoorsy friend to highlight Snoopy’s more urbane interests? To show how Snoopy, as America’s most genuine individualist, doesn’t interact with birds in ways that other beagles do?...   
Did Snoopy ever figure out what kind of bird Woodstock is? Last I recall, he was “thumbing” through a field guide and speculating that he might be a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, though I can’t find that strip and don’t have a clue where it might be indexed. As an ornithologist and avid birder, I’ve noted that Woodstock’s flight pattern is exactly like that of a Cedar Waxwing after eating fermented berries, his plumage rather like a Yellow Warbler’s, and his crest like a Great Curassow or a Resplendant Quetzal. I might have guessed that he was a unique hybrid of these species except that his friends look just like him. So my conclusion is that they belong to a rare and unique species thus far undescribed in the ornithological literature.   
Ornithologists classify birds primarily by analyzing mitochondrial DNA and other cellular samples from blood and other tissue, and a thorough examination of the skeleton, but I assume Woodstock doesn’t want to donate tissue samples and his skeleton is obviously still in use. There have been rare cases where a newly discovered species was named based on drawings or photographs. Since you are the only person who has actually seen Woodstock and drawn him from life, you are the only one qualified to assign him common and scientific names. Have you considered doing this?   
Woodstock (and his unique relationship with Snoopy) appeals to the child in everyone. I would deeply enjoy the opportunity to provide information of substance about him. Thank you for your help.   
Charles Schulz indeed responded to my letter. Less than two weeks later, I received this charming letter from him:
Dear Ms. Erickson: 
Your questions concerning Woodstock are difficult, especially the question “what inspired you to create Woodstock?” Comic strip inspiration happens so gradually that it’s virtually impossible to explain. One thing leads to another and something finally happens Drawing is also very important and it took me 20 years to learn to draw Woodstock so that he was a good character.    
He and Snoopy have never been able to figure out what kind of a bird he is and a lot of people forget that he was originally a girl bird – for she was Snoopy’s secretary.    
Kind regards,    
Charles Schulz. 
My letter from Charles Schulz!

Next year’s planned exhibit about Woodstock at the Charles M. Schulz Museum sounds right up my alley. I hope I can get to Santa Rosa to see it! 

** (added as a postscript) **

By the way, I did use this information in my book, Sharing the Wonder of Birds with Kids. On Page 3, in Chapter 1, "The Magic of Birds," I wrote about birds children see in everyday life.
If there's no way to determine the answer to a question, encourage kids to guess. How do you think the Nintendo company came up with the design for Mario's "Koopa-Troopas," which look like turtles but sometimes have bird wings? How might Charles Schulz have come up with the idea for Woodstock? I wondered about that, so I wrote him a letter. He responded, "Comic strip inspiration happens so gradually that it's virtually impossible to explain. One thing leads to another and something finally happens. It took me twenty years to learn to draw Woodstock so he was a good character." If not even the creator of a cartoon character understands how he got his ideas, kids obviously can use their imaginations to guess.
 In a sidebar on Page 58, in Chapter 4, "Bird Identification Starters," I wrote:
Is Woodstock a warbler? When I asked Charles Schulz what species Woodstock is, he wrote, "He and Snoopy have never been able to figure out what kind of a bird he is." Schulz reminded me that Woodstock "was originally a girl bird, for she was Snoopy's secretary."

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Susan's Favorite Bird: Carolina Wren

Carolina Wren

Last week I got an email from one of my closest friends, Susan Eaton, who lives in St. Louis. She and I met when we were roommates on a birding tour to Ecuador back in 2006. Since then, I’ve spent time with her in Missouri a couple of times at birding events, and in her backyard a few times looking at Eurasian Tree Sparrows, and we went to Costa Rica together this past summer.

Susan and Laura at Selva Bananita

Susan has become a world birder of the highest order, having traveled all over the place. She writes:
Laura, I've been working in my garden the last three days, today while binge-listening to For The Birds Podcasts. I am enjoying the stories about others' favorite birds.   
In the back corner of my yard where I was working a few days ago, I noticed a quiet high-pitched little whistle. I saw a Carolina Wren flirting about in some tall bushes. As I watched her, one by one, three little babies popped into view! They followed her from branch to branch. It must be a safe place for her babies because I have seen them in the same area for three days now.   
Several years ago, a friend wanted to thank me for something. As we were leaving a rehearsal, she asked me what my favorite bird was. The first one that came to mind was Carolina Wren. She painted a beautiful picture of a Wren for me! She had never seen one before so she had to do some research. I think she did an amazing job!   
My eBird list says I've recorded birds in 42 different countries (only part of those were dedicated bird trips), so I've seen many spectacular birds. But that feisty little Wren with the LOUD voice has to be a favorite. I know from my experience with my bird banding team that they are the species most likely to escape before we finish our processing, so they are loud, squirmy, beautiful little creatures with lovely markings. Carolina best bird ever!  
Carolina Wren painting by Carol Hassler 
I can certainly attest to the fact that Susan’s backyard is primeCarolina Wren habitat—I took some nice photos of them there last summer.

Carolina Wren

Carolina Wren

Carolina Wren

These splendid birds sing their loud song a lot. One captive male Carolina Wren sang nearly 3,000 times in a single day. Birds pair off at any time of the year, and once bonded, the pair stays together for life, usually remaining on their territory year-round, and foraging and moving around the territory together.

Paired tropical wrens in the same genus as the Carolina Wren tend to sing duets, with the male and female both active singers. Unlike them, only male Carolina Wrens sing. Carolina Wrens are bigger than House Wrens, but their tea-kettle tea-kettle song has an extraordinary ringing quality and carries really far, belying the size of the bird.

Climate change seems to have expanded the Carolina Wren range northward. Once they become independent, Carolina Wren young scatter in any direction. Those that head north can thrive, even north of the species’ range, until a severe winter knocks them out.

Although wrens are almost exclusively insectivores, Carolina Wrens survive on suet, too. This kind of adaptability helps them make it through winters if they aren’t too severe. As Susan’s yard attests, they are superbly adapted to St. Louis County, Missouri. Although we have several records of individuals wandering into St. Louis County, Minnesota, it takes two to tango, so I suspect Carolina Wrens won’t be breeding up here regularly for quite some time. So I’ll just have to keep visiting Susan in her neck of the woods to see this excellent favorite bird.

Monday, September 3, 2018

How are this year's fires affecting nighthawks?

Common Nighthawk

As August melts into September, or sloshes, as it did this year, the late afternoon migration of Common Nighthawks over my neighborhood ebbs away. When we first moved to Duluth in 1981, nighthawk migration along the North Shore of Lake Superior, flowing right over my neighborhood, was a magically impressive and predictable annual event. Walking with my boys the few blocks from our house to Lakeside Presbyterian Church for Cub Scout meetings, we’d count hundreds or even thousands of nighthawks in the sky above us, even as houses and neighborhood trees obstructed our view in most directions. Counting more systematically, on August 26, 1990, Mike Hendrickson counted 43,690 nighthawks in just 2 ½ hours from the Lakewood Pumping Station. 

Laura at Hawk Ridge in early 90s
Here I am counting raptors at Hawk Ridge in the 1990. I don't remember if nighthawks were flying that day, but I was assisted by Fred, my education bird (standing at front of open carrier) and Annie, a young bird I was rehabbing. Fred would call rit rit rit and retreat to the back of the carrier whenever a Peregrine or Red-tail flew over.
We still get days with counts of well over a thousand, sometimes into five figures, but those big days are far fewer, and the maximum counts much smaller, than decades ago. Nighthawks used to nest on flat rooftops, but urban populations have dwindled and disappeared just about everywhere because of changes in rooftop construction and increasing urban populations of gulls and crows. But nighthawks are declining outside of towns and cities, too. As with Purple Martins and Chimney Swifts, declining numbers of flying insects are the root cause.

Sad as declining numbers are, we still do get to enjoy nighthawk flights from mid-August through the first week in September. On days when dragonflies float in the air everywhere, nighthawks about to embark on a flight start hunting voraciously by mid-afternoon. When my kids were little, I always brought binoculars to their soccer games to watch the nighthawks darting in the sky. The year Tommy and his best friend Max were five and started playing soccer, it was funny watching all the little kids on the field with no clue what to do—more than once a kid scored a goal for the other team. I remember thinking the kids on the field moved about with the same apparent randomness as the nighthawks above them, darting this way and that, only the birds were chasing flying insects rather than soccer balls.

As afternoon proceeds into early evening, those feeding flocks start rising in the sky, still feeding, but now starting to take on a more directional flight. By the time they can’t see well enough to catch many insects in the night sky, they’re up high enough to cover greater distances in a night flight. 

On August 21, I received an email from a listener named Will Bomier, who wrote: 

Over the weekend my wife and were sitting on the patio at our house in Mahtowa, watching/enjoying the Common Nighthawk Migration.  It's an event we certainly enjoy and use it to mark the passing of another summer.  This year we noticed that it was difficult to see many of the birds that were flying higher in the sky, because the smoke from the Canadian Wildfires seemed to reflect the sunlight and make it too bright for good viewing.  We also noticed that many of the birds were flying lower than what we've observed in the past.   
That got us to do these historic fires impact migrants?  Surely when the sky is obscured by smoke and habitat is on fire, this must have some impact and seems like another way in which we humans are creating additional struggles for already struggling populations of wild birds.  Even fires that are burning 1,000's of miles away can have an impact on birds passing in our backyard.   
Anyway, I wanted to pass my thoughts it seemed like they should be shared.  Enjoy the end of the summer and the passing of our friends of flight!   

Thanks to Will, I started researching this interesting question. Obviously, summer fires kill any nestlings or chicks that can’t fly out of harm’s way. Most conservation biologists, looking at populations rather than individuals, minimize the importance of this, because fire has always been important in habitat cycles and species living in fire-prone areas have evolved to deal with fire, but as fire seasons start earlier and earlier in summer with climate change, the implications for bird reproduction need to be taken more into account. And as fires cover more and more areas year after year, again due to climate change, habitat losses do become important. Nighthawks often nest in tracts that had been burned over the previous year, but repeated fires make this increasingly difficult.

The flames themselves aren’t the only danger to birds. On several days in August here in Duluth, the sky was hazy and we could actually smell smoke from fires a couple of thousand miles away in British Columbia, and smoke from California fires made it all the way to the East Coast this summer, compromising our air quality. At such a distance, this smoke was detectable but not nearly as dangerous as closer to the fire. Air quality in Seattle on some days this summer was worse than the most polluted cities in China. That air quality obviously impacted wild birds with no escape into the more filtered atmosphere of air-conditioned buildings. 

Olivia Sanderfoot, a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow at the University of Washington Seattle, is studying how air pollution affects birds. She was quoted in an article for Audubon last year, “We do know that exposure to particulate matter, which of course is of great concern for human health, can affect birds as well.” She noted that veterinarians and poultry scientists who study captive birds have found that smoke can damage lung tissue and leave the animals susceptible to potentially lethal respiratory infections, but how that plays out in the wild is largely unknown. 

Sanderfoot’s current research aims to track changes in bird populations and diversity after exposure to smoke from large wildfires. Thick smoke may have contributed to the deaths of 50 adult White Ibises during a 1999 fire in the Everglades, as she reported in a recent paper. And some low-flying species might succumb to smoke inhalation or exhaustion before they can escape forest fires, according to the Alberta Institute for Wildlife Conservation.

Tracking nighthawks is way trickier than flocks of larger, colonial species—it’ll be many, many years, if ever, before we can accurately tease out the ways fire specifically affects them. But this splendid bird, already facing so many problems thanks to us humans, now is almost certainly facing ever worse problems thanks to climate change. Attention must be paid.

Common Nighthawk