Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Birding for Health

Northern Cardinal

On June 20, the New York Times ran a story about a 103-year-old woman, born February 10, 1916, who holds the record for the 100-meter dash among centenarians. In 2017, Julia Hawkins ran the 100-meter dash at the National Senior Races in Albuquerque in 39.62 seconds. She ran both the 50- and 100-meter dashes this year, winning gold in both, and though she was 6 seconds off her record-setting time in the 100, she reminded the New York Times reporter that “I’m two years older, remember?”

She gave the paper a wonderful interview, but what stuck with me was her final advice on what most contributes to her longevity:
Keep yourself in good shape if you can. Have many passions. And look for magic moments. That is something that I have done in my life — think of the things that are magic moments that happen to you, like sunsets and sunrises, rainbows, beautiful birds, music and people’s lovely comments to you. All of those are magic moments and they are free for all. Be sure to keep your eye open for them.  
You don’t need to be a birder to feel the magic of seeing beautiful birds, and I’ve known some birders who have seen thousands of bird species without seeming to notice magic or beauty. But when we open our eyes, ears, and hearts to birds, they do confer a kind of magic over our lives.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

For some reason, a great many people think of birdwatching as entertainment for retirees, especially those with nothing better to do than look out the window at our bird feeders, and stories about 103-year-olds enjoying birds probably don’t do anything to dispel that stereotype. I started in my early 20s, and so immediately started out with a cohort of birders my own age and was mystified why so many non-birders associated birding with being elderly, even as those of us in local bird clubs tried hard to get more young people on our boards and committees. Now we are indeed of retirement age, and there’s still this perception that birding is something boring for old people. When movies come out with a birding them, even those starring a big name actor, they’re either ignored by mainstream movie reviewers, as happened with A Birder’s Guide to Everything, which featured Ben Kingsley, or ridiculed by them, as happened with Blair Brown and John Belushi’s Continental Divide, or Jack Black, Steve Martin, and Owen Wilson’s more recent The Big Year.

But things seem to be changing. The New York Times and other mainstream publications are running stories about young people, and people of diverse backgrounds and cultures, taking up birding. And there are also more and more stories making the mainstream news about how spending time in nature, and even specifically taking up birding, can be restorative and healthy. This year, several news outlets have published articles about the health benefits of birdwatching, including mainstream news sites and health and fitness publications. 

I know that my focus on birds and my need to quickly get back outside watching them helped my recovery from both a heart attack and breast cancer surgery. The vast majority of birders won’t live nearly 103 years, and my family history as well as my personal health history set my own life expectancy much lower than that. But that doesn’t matter. For those of us who stop to notice and deeply enjoy birds, the years we do live, however many or few, are marked with fun, serenity, and joy. 

Cuban Tody!!

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Feeding Jelly to Birds

Baltimore Oriole at jelly

A few weeks ago, I received an email from KAXE listener Florence Diane Stay, who wrote:
I mentioned on FB that I feed grape jelly to the birds visiting my feeding stations.  Someone said that I shouldn’t feed orioles because it’s bad for them.  I’ve never heard this but I’ve not researched it either.  I just said I’d write you and post what you say and will take the feeders away if it is true.
Every year I get questions about feeding jelly to birds. And year after year, the online battles about it get more and more heated. (Read my most visited blog post ever, "Is Feeding Jelly Really Okay for Birds?" and the comments regarding it, here. I had to close comments on that post when some commenters got angrier and angrier without offering any actual information.) No scientific studies have ever been done to establish whether jelly is good, bad, or neutral as far as bird nutrition goes. 

In 2004, when I had exceptionally high numbers of orioles, Cape May Warblers, and catbirds coming to my grape jelly, people were finding dead orioles and warblers in the woods—there simply wasn’t enough natural food to support the large numbers of migrants that arrived just before the cold snap. Some birds almost definitely survived specifically thanks to jelly. 

Cape May Warbler

But people who disapprove of jelly pooh-poohed that, insisting that even if jelly did save a few avian lives, those birds would have done even better had we been offering cut grapes or something more “natural.” But when I’ve offered both jelly and grapes, birds have shown a definite preference for jelly, and the grapes often get moldy within 24 hours.

I feel absolutely certain that birds derive valuable nutrition from jelly, especially during unseasonably cold and snowy situations during migration. Although all I can offer is anecdotes, I have a lot more than my own personal experiences. I know people who have seen banded individual orioles and catbirds repeatedly at their jelly over multiple years, so the food choice obviously didn’t hamper their long-distance annual journeys or otherwise compromise their survival.

Gray Catbird

All this said, there are some genuine problems with feeding jelly. First, because it’s so sticky, it must never be offered in large quantities. I’ve heard heartbreaking stories from people who found dead birds mired in it. The one time I witnessed this personally, the Red-breasted Nuthatch didn’t die, but only because I found it in time and had enough experience as a wildlife rehabber that I knew exactly what to do to clean it. It also helped that that particular individual was used to coming to my hand for mealworms, so it ate lots of food during the hours it took for me to administer warm baths over and over until the jelly was gone. Only offer jelly in small quantities—one person told me about a hummingbird dying when it got stuck in jelly, so don’t give more than a small spoonful in any given feeder at a time. During spring migration, I now offer jelly two ways—after orioles clean out an orange half, I put a teaspoonful of jelly in the empty peels, and I have one feeder with a bowl specifically designed for jelly. The bowl would fit about half a cup of jelly, but again I use only a teaspoonful at a time.

Homemade jelly is very sweet, and store-bought jellies with high-fructose corn syrup are even sweeter. Again, no studies on birds have ever shown harms, or benefits, for any jellies, so we can’t base our decisions about the best jellies to feed them on research. But we can use our judgment, and there is a lot of evidence that high fructose corn syrup isn’t healthy for humans, so I can’t imagine it’s any better for birds, and I don’t buy jelly for my family or for birds with high fructose syrup listed in the ingredients.

One woman quoted an internist saying sugar could be addictive to birds, but simple sugars are an important component of the natural diets of orioles, hummingbirds, and Cape May Warblers. Saying sugar could be addictive to birds that actually need sugar in their diet is as patently ridiculous as saying food or water is addictive. No, it’s necessary. Whether the higher concentration of sugar in jelly than in natural foods is a feature or a bug of providing jelly is a subjective judgment. The birds themselves stand firmly on the side favoring jelly.

Bird feeding is a personal matter, but the one universal rule is that the pleasures of attracting birds to our yards come with responsibilities. We each must do our honest best to make sure that above all we do no harm, and that we make our best effort to actually help the birds we’re inviting to our feeders. The scientific jury on offering jelly to birds isn’t out—they haven’t even been collecting evidence yet. If I ever learn of studies that show otherwise, I will immediately spread the word, but based on the experiences of a great many people, offering small amounts of jellies made of fruits and sugar is not harmful, and orioles, catbirds, and other backyard treasures clearly appreciate it. That, for me, is the bottom line.

Baltimore Oriole

Friday, June 21, 2019

My plucky, persistent young American Redstart

Young male American Redstart
My little guy.
I spent part of the first day of summer tracking down, recording, and photographing a young male American Redstart in my backyard. I’d been noticing him singing most days since I got home from Maine two weeks ago. He hasn't varied his tune at all during the times I've been listening. Recording in my neighborhood can be frustrating because a microphone pointed in any direction picks up traffic noises, train whistles, lawn mowers, dogs barking, and other human-associated noise, and Friday was windy besides, adding even more background noise. Fortunately, my new, long shotgun microphone filters out more background noise than my shorter one, so when I can get close to a bird, my recordings can be fairly clean. And this little warbler was singing so persistently, apparently desperate to attract a mate, that I took pity. I most decidedly don’t fill the bill as an appropriate mating choice, but at least now he can boast that he attracted one female.

In my 7 minute recording, he sang  67 times. The full recording, along with photos of the plucky little guy, are permanently linked to at the American Redstart species page on my website.

Most songbirds come into breeding plumage by the time they’re one year old, but not redstarts. Males that hatched last summer—that is, the birds ornithologists call second-year males—don’t look anything like the black and orange older adult males.

American Redstart

American Redstart
Second-year males look very female-like, but isolated black feathers near the face confirm that this one, photographed in May 2013 in Ohio, is a male. 

Even though they’re perfectly capable of breeding, yearlings look quite a bit like females. By the time most redstarts are starting to nest, these young males sometimes start showing individual black feathers around the eyes, throat, and back, but won’t come into full breeding plumage, which in their case is called definitive basic plumage, until they molt during the autumn after their first birthday.

This delayed plumage maturation probably makes older adult redstarts more tolerant of the younger ones, or at least a bit less likely to attack them. Birds all prefer mates with more experience, so females aren’t likely to settle for a second-year male if any older males are available, and most second-year males spend the summer gaining experience in basic life skills in the north woods. When a male, second-year or older, does attract a mate and commences nesting, he's responsible for defending the family territory while she lays and incubates the eggs and broods young nestlings. When the eggs hatch, both parents share, pretty much fifty-fifty, the other chores of parenthood, including feeding the nestlings and cleaning up after them. Once the chicks fledge, the parents each take half. Fledglings who stay with the male often linger around the nest area with him—he's very bonded to the territory he claimed and defended from the start—while the mother and the chicks who follow her often wander more widely. This allows the family to access food from more sources, ensuring more for everyone.

All that is in the future for the little guy in my backyard. It’s not only his plumage that betrays his inexperience. My yard does hold a patch of reasonably good habitat, but only a small one. Crows nesting in the yard behind mine have been raiding a lot of local bird nests to feed their voracious young—I think they took out two batches of baby Red-eyed Vireos from one of my box elders last year. This year the vireos are wisely nesting further away, where their every movement isn't under scrutiny by the nesting crows. Grackles also occasionally prey on tiny nestlings, and a pair is nesting right above where this redstart has been singing most. To top it off, a pair of Merlins is nesting just three blocks away—they don’t raid nests, but are excellent at hunting down warblers and other tiny birds. So it’s no accident that redstarts have never nested in my yard in the 38 years we’ve lived here.

Within the next few hours, days, or weeks, my optimistic young male may figure out why Peabody Street isn't the greatest place to nest and move on, or he may simply give up when no females show up. Meanwhile, I’m thrilled to have a seven-minute, uninterrupted recording and a few photographs to remember him by. Live long and prosper, little guy.

Young male American Redstart

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

The Warmth of Love

Piping Plover adult with chicks

In the brilliantly-named movie White Heat, James Cagney’s ruthless, psychotic character is driven by a vengeful fury and hatred that we almost viscerally understand as white hot


We often refer to human emotions by temperature. Sexual passion as well as anger can be called red hot, but we tend to reserve the even more extreme white hot for fury and hatred. Ironically, we also use cold and icy to refer to anger and hatred, and if our blood runs cold, to fear or loathing. Cool and tepid can refer to simple indifference or to once-intense passions that have cooled.

We almost entirely reserve the use of the word warmth for expressing love or kindness. We wouldn’t refer to a warm touch as cruel even though hands that injure tend to be pretty much the same body temperature as hands that nurture. Most of us were at least occasionally held close to a warm body as babies, and although we can’t remember that, we retain a visceral sense of nurturing warmth. The only synonyms Microsoft Word gave me when I looked up the word warm are sincere, heartfelt, deep, earnest, wholehearted, kind, and warmhearted. We know without question that a beating heart is a warm heart, at least when it beats within a warm-blooded animal, including a human being.

I couldn’t help but think of the warmth of love on June 3, when for the first time in my life I got to see baby Piping Plovers—one- or two-day old chicks scurrying about on Maine beaches. Each plover pair produces four eggs which hold wondrously still in the nest until one fine day, when they hatch into four tiny fluff balls of Brownian motion, running helter-skelter over the beach until a magnetic force draws them suddenly back to a mother or father. They crowd against that warm body to rest and warm up before running off again.

Piping Plover settling down on eggs
Both parents incubate the four eggs, which never go anywhere. 
Baby Piping Plover
Once the eggs hatch and the chicks dry off, the babies scatter every which way.
Piping Plover mother and three chicks
As the babies cool off and get tired, they gravitate back to their parents. 
Piping Plover mother and three chicks
This mother already had one chick nestled in when these two returned.
Mammal mothers, by the animal class's very definition, nurse their young. Most bird parents feed their young, but plovers don't. The precocial chicks are fully capable of finding food and eating it from the start, even as just like baby mammals and most baby birds, they rely on parental warmth until they are fully capable of maintaining their own body temperature two or three weeks after hatching.

Piping Plover chick figuring out food

Piping Plover chick figuring out food
Even as newly hatched chicks, Piping Plovers find and eat food on their own, but still need parental warmth.
June 3 was cool with a strong wind. I kept my distance, so I couldn’t appreciate everything I saw until I got home and cropped and processed my photos. When a chick first reaches a parent, the parent holds its wings out to let the tiny thing get situated, and the baby immediately nestles its head against the parent’s side. My photos show how sparse the adult’s feathering is right where the baby’s big head snuggles in, between the parent’s upper side and underwing. The bare skin there is deep red from so many blood vessels near the surface.

Piping Plover's vascular tissue where the chick nestles its head

Most birds maintain a body temperature of somewhere between 104- and 110-degrees Fahrenheit, and the lack of feathers on that vascularized tissue where the chick will rest its head ensures that there is no barrier between the mother or father’s inner heat and the exact place where the tiny chick needs it the most.  A couple of my photos show both a parent’s vascularized skin and the look of contentment on the chick nestled in there. Some people would charge that the word contentment is anthropomorphic—that we have no idea whether little plovers can feel contentment at all—but imagining that they are incapable of an elemental emotion like contentment as they snuggle into a warm parent is bizarrely anthropocentric and unscientific.

Piping Plover adult with chicks

My photos also show how the feathers on the adult’s sides droop down to help further insulate the babies.

Piping Plover adult with chicks

As two, three, or four babies burrow in, when the parent sees that any babies who want in are accounted for, he or she closes the wings and hunkers down.

Piping Plover mother and chick

The only thing more charming than seeing what looks like a four-, six-, eight-, or ten-legged plover is seeing it while the wings are still open, giving us a glimpse at one or two chicks’ faces as they snuggle in.

Piping Plover parent and chick

Piping Plover mother and chicks

Piping Plover mother and three chicks

People tend to think of love as a uniquely human emotion, but that baffles me. When a woman harms her baby due to postpartum depression, we understand that as a hormonal imbalance, but have a harder time seeing a woman’s proper nurturing behavior as hormonal and instinctive, and hardly ever realize a father’s bonding with his young is also hormonally influenced and instinctive. The gush of love that I felt as a nursing mother was part of what kept me focused on properly caring for my babies—clearly an evolutionary advantage that fostered survival of my young. Why can’t we allow that same gush of feeling within a Piping Plover parent, opening his or her wings to and sharing body warmth with plover chicks?

Our human DNA and biochemistry are surprisingly close to that of birds, other mammals, and even what we prefer to think of as lower animals. And as creatures all living on earth at the same time, we all have the same length of evolutionary history. We share more with Piping Plovers than many people care to admit, and it seems profoundly unscientific to believe that somehow, despite millions of years of evolution, we humans magically developed a monopoly on love and contentment unique in all the animal kingdom. Parents of many species provide a warm and comforting presence to their young, and when it comes down to it, that’s what love is all about.

Piping Plover mother and chick

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Odd Hybrid Warbler

Golden-winged Warbler hybrid with Blue-winged Warbler

On June 2, as part of the Acadia Birding Festival, I was leading a field trip in Waldo County, Maine, with the wonderful Maine birder Seth Benz when a guy came over and told Seth he’d seen a weird bird, and showed Seth his photos. It was a gorgeous warbler with almost all the features of a perfect male Golden-winged, except for a large smudge of brilliant yellow on the breast. Our group of course rushed over to see the bird in the flesh. 

Golden-winged Warbler hybrid with Blue-winged Warbler

Blue-winged Warblers bear lovely golden yellow plumage, including on their throat, and white wing bars.

Blue-winged Warbler

Golden-winged Warblers bear more whitish gray plumage except for their black throat and their golden wing bars.

Golden-winged Warbler

Both colors have black through the eye—Blue-wings in a sort of Elizabeth Taylor or Lady GaGa eyeliner thing, Golden-wings in a line that thickens behind the eye.

Blue-winged Warbler

Golden-winged Warbler

Golden-winged Warblers often hybridize with Blue-winged Warblers; the two birds may actually be two forms of the same species, differing only superficially, as do humans with different hair, eye, or skin color. The genetics of their hybrid forms have been well known for decades. When I posted photos on Facebook during my trip, my dear friend Ben Yokel reminded me of the discussion of hybrids from Richard Pough’s wonderful old field guide, Audubon Land Bird Guide, published in 1949.

Information about Blue-winged and Golden-winged Warblers and hybrids from Pough

Information about Blue-winged and Golden-winged Warblers and hybrids from Pough

Because hybridization is so common and well known, there are two named hybrid forms of crosses between Golden-winged and Blue-winged Warblers. These hybrids are depicted in both of the other older field guides—the Peterson and Golden guides—and also in all the editions of the National Geographic field guide. The hybrids are shown the Sibley guide, but their names aren't indexed and they don't show up on the Sibley app, which was the field guide we all had in the field. Even if it had been, our bird wasn't exactly like either Brewster's or Lawrence's Warblers. 

One of the goals I’d set for myself for my Big Year in 2013 was to see all the warblers depicted on a 2-page spread in the Golden Guide. That meant I had to see Brewster’s but didn’t have to worry about seeing Lawrence’s. Luckily, 2013 was one of the two years I ever saw a Brewster’s Warbler. I’ve still never seen a Lawrence’s.

Golden Guide Warblers

Lawrence’s Warbler is the rarer form, with the recessive all-yellow body and white wing bars like the Blue-winged Warbler and the recessive black throat of a Golden-wing. The more common Brewster’s Warbler carries the dominant all-grayish body and golden wing bars of the Golden-wing and the dominant non-black throat of the Blue-winged. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has an excellent online article discussing the two species' hybridization and the bigger picture in terms of conservation.

Illustration from Cornell's article about Blue-winged and Golden-winged Warbler hybridization

But the bird we saw on June 2 was not a typical hybrid—this singing adult male had the black throat and broad black eye line, and the mostly gray body with beautifully broad golden wing bars, of a pure Golden-wing, but with that brilliant yellow smudge on the breast—something neither hybrid form normally has. When I reported the bird on eBird and included photos, Louis Bevier, the eBird reviewer, emailed me saying the bird was a very rare backcross hybrid.

Golden-winged Warbler hybrid with Blue-winged Warbler

The bird was as visually arresting as it was genetically distinctive. We watched it plucking insects out of a blooming apple tree, the blossoms creating a beautiful backdrop for the stunning bird. Because I was leading a field trip, I was carrying my camera with a lighter zoom lens rather than my better but much heavier lens, which lets in much more light, but my pictures turned out fairly well.  I posted way more photos on flickr than I normally would to show every possible feature of this rare form.

Tragically, none of us looking at the bird thought to record that song. Because I was leading a field trip, I didn’t lug my good recording equipment along, and I plumb forgot about using my cell phone to do this important task. But both Seth and I watched it sing and described it out loud to each other while right there; that was the basis for my description of the song on eBird:
The song was not the typical Blue-winged or Golden-winged song; rather, it was an ascending trill, in quality exactly like the final part of the second song on the Sibley app (recorded by Lang Elliott in NY), only ascending and a bit longer than that part of the song.
Right now my Maine list doesn’t include either Blue-winged or Golden-winged Warbler—hybrids don’t show up as either on an eBird life list. But listing is only a tiny part of birding—the essence is seeing and hearing birds, and documenting such a splendid one is far more wonderful for me than just one more tick on my Maine list. He may not be on my official lists, but this beautiful little guy provided one of my most wonderful birding experiences ever.

Golden-winged Warbler hybrid with Blue-winged Warbler

Monday, June 10, 2019

Gee It's Great to Be Back Home

Piping Plover mother and chick

I spent the last three weeks driving first to the Indiana Dunes Birding Festival, then to the LL Bean–Maine Audubon Birding Festival in Freeport, Maine, and then to the Acadia Birding Festival up in and near Bar Harbor. I got home Wednesday night, and Thursday had to head to Watersmeet, Michigan, to do a program at the Ottawa National Forest Visitor Center. The only car problems I had on the whole big adventure were coming home from that. We finally made it home Thursday, and now I’m home for a few weeks. I can take time to breathe again.

So now here I am, looking over photos of my adventures, and thinking wow. As much as I love traveling to new places and also to familiar ones, and seeing birds everywhere, too many adventures in one short period of time start to melt into each other. Looking at the photos and listening to my recordings jogs my memory of fantastic moments that I’d already forgotten about as new fantastic moments kept happening. That was the problem when I did my Big Year. As intensely fun as it was, much of it is a blur in my memory, and life keeps going on, with new adventures and new photos and sound recordings taking up so much time that I’ve never had a chance to go back and review all the photos and sound recordings I made that year. I’ve also never had a chance to really process most of those memories—it was all too intense, with too many experiences within too short a time.

The photos and notes I took on this trip, and my eBird lists with precise locations for each bird, are helping me keep everything from this trip straight, but my overall preference is to do one adventure at a time. I think I need more time than a lot of people to savor an experience as well as to process my photos and sounds, before heading out for another adventure.

I’ll have a few weeks before my next trip, but most of that time will be taken up on a new book project with a looming deadline, so I’ll feel more rushed going through all these photos than I like. I got some nice photos of Prothonotary Warblers in Indiana, and some nice pictures of a young bullfrog and a poor but identifiable picture of a water snake.

Prothonotary Warbler

Young Bullfrog

Northern Water Snake

I didn’t get photos or recordings of the Worm-eating Warbler I saw at Indiana Dunes State Park, but I did buy a wonderful print by the wonderful artist Kristina Knowski. That purchase turned out to be doubly apt because I got a quick look at a completely out-of-place Worm-eating Warbler in northern Maine, too. We’ve already framed and hung up the print, which will keep both parts of this trip in my memory. 

Copyright 2019 by Kristina Knowski

After Indiana, I stopped in Michigan to see Kirtland’s Warbler—that morning was cold, drizzly, and very windy, so I didn’t see much, but did hear three distant males and got a quick glimpse of a nearby female, and got a decent recording of a Field Sparrow.

In Ohio, I took my nicest photos ever of a surprisingly cooperative Warbling Vireo. My previous shots were of a badly backlit flying bird, and I forgot to change my camera settings back from overexposing, but thanks to the miracle of Adobe Lightroom, that was fairly fixable.

Warbling Vireo

Warbling Vireo

Warbling Vireo

I also got some of my best photos ever of Wilson's and Blackpoll Warblers. 

Wilson's Warbler

Blackpoll Warbler

I visited my daughter Katie in New York City for a couple of days next. I didn’t take any photos there, but being in Katie and Michael’s cozy and familiar apartment was the next best thing to being home. Then it was on to Maine, where I recorded an out-of-place Yellow-breasted Chat, saw an extremely rare backcross between a hybrid Blue-winged and Golden-winged Warbler and a pure Golden-winged Warbler, and had a splendid time at two birding festivals.

Odd Golden-winged Warbler hybrid

Odd Golden-winged Warbler hybrid

And I saved the very best for last— For many years I’ve yearned to see Piping Plover chicks. When my friend Laurie Gilman from Maine Audubon got the word that some had hatched near Freeport while I was up in Acadia, I of course stuck around an extra day and charged down to see them on June 3, the day I’d originally planned to start the drive home. That day was so intensely enjoyable that it squelched all my other memories until I went back through other photos after I got home.

Russ and I used to take trips with the kids once every year or two, and the details of those stick with me ever so much better than so many memories of so many destinations in such a short time. All in all, in addition to my Piping Plovers, I saw over 200 species on this trip—way too many to absorb all of it in three short weeks.

My career and my commitment to understanding and sharing information about birds and how to protect them require travel. My hybrid car averaged almost 60 miles per gallon on this trip, and I did my best to save energy, not use plastics, and do everything else possible to save energy and not produce waste or pollution on the trip. Now I'm home for a while. I'm ever so glad to be here, but also ever so glad I got to go to so many splendid places. Understanding the big world and all the wonders of each place, and all the wonderful people in each place, makes me that much more committed to protecting the world's environment, and the birds and people we share it with. 

Piping Plover mother and chick