Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Tuesday, July 9, 2019


Keel-billed Toucan

At about 8 am on Monday, June 10, and then at about 8 am on the following Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday, I swallowed live typhoid bacteria in the form of an oral vaccination. This week I’m headed to Panama to research and photograph the birdlife, and the CDC recommends this four-pill regimen, and a daily anti-malarial drug that I’ll start taking closer to the trip, for protection in the places I’ll be going. I’ll also be bringing some Cipro tablets along just in case I get a bacterial infection while I’m traveling—I almost certainly won’t need it, and would just as soon avoid Cipro’s nasty side effects, but tropical stomach bugs can give lie to the old saw about the cure being worse than the disease.

The vaccine gave me a stomach ache for a few days and made me more tired than normal, but being a Ulysses S. Grant fan, I can’t imagine not taking every precaution before a July trip to Panama. In July 1852, well before construction of the Panama Canal, Grant was assigned as regimental quartermaster to accompany a regiment to California. They took a steamer from New York to Panama and a train trip through part of the isthmus to where construction of the railroad ended at the Chagres River. From there, most of the regiment was sent via small man-powered boats through the marshy, watery area to Gorgona, and then took mule teams to Panama City, where they boarded a steamer to California. 

But the soldiers traveling with their families, and all the tents, mess chests, camp kettles, and other equipment, had to be transported in larger vessels, and Grant was charged with taking all these people and material in boats to Cruces, a few miles higher up the Chagres River than Gorgona, where they were to meet an American contractor who was supposed to supply them with enough mules to make the journey to Panama City. The mules weren’t there when Grant’s regiment arrived, and never did show up. While stranded there, suddenly cholera broke out.

Ulysses S. Grant

Fully a third of the people with Grant died. The still-healthy soldiers refused to get close to anyone sick, so Grant was the one who took care of them, so tenderly ministering to them that many of the survivors wrote accounts of his heroism. Granr never forgot that miserable time in Panama, writing "The horrors of the road in the rainy season are beyond description."  Grant thought it was foolish to build a passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific through Panama, supporting an alternative project through Nicaragua. He was concerned about how many people would die trying to construct a canal through Panama.

Like Grant’s, my visit to Panama will be in the month of July. It’s expected to rain every day, but the rain hardly ever lasts long. It’s also expected to be hot, but right now it’s a lot hotter in Anchorage, Alaska. Somehow I can deal with heat much better in the latitudes where you can find toucans than where ptarmigans live.

I theoretically could see up to 50 lifers on this trip, though it’ll probably be closer to 20 or 30. The one bird I desperately want to see, because I need photos and first-hand experiences with it, is the critically endangered Harpy Eagle, the national bird of Panama.

By Jitze Couperus - Flickr: Harpy Eagle II, CC BY 2.0, Common 
The Harpy Eagle is the largest, most powerful bird of prey in all the Americas, once found from southern Mexico all the way through Central and South America, but has been extirpated from most of its range, in part because it’s so approachable that it was easy for people to kill most of them. The Harpy Eagle’s expressive face was, by some accounts, an inspiration for the design of Fawkes, Dumbledore’s Phoenix in the Harry Potter movies. Now that my foreign travel is ebbing to a close, this is probably my last shot to ever see one in the wild. It’s also the very first trip I’ve taken in decades without a computer. I'll be keeping a map and photos of my trip as I go along, and will upload them whenever I have access to wifi. That won't be every day probably, but this link will provide the most up-to-date information about my trip until I return.

Friday, July 5, 2019

Lee Guthrie's House Wrens

House Wren

I recently received an email from Lee Guthrie, who wrote: 
I’ve been listening to the house wrens in my yard. This year they nested in a house which I mounted on my porch. I have a long history with these birds going back to when I was a kid. They would build their nests of sticks in our newspaper box, completely filling it. Their call is one of the cheeriest and one of my favorites. It's amazing how such a strong, prolonged song can come from such a tiny bird. They aren't being scrappy at all. My question is, why are they continuing to sing so much right now. I believe their young are out of the nest so I don't understand why they continue to bring attention to themselves.  
Lee is absolutely right that the first batches of baby House Wrens are out of their nests now. “Empty nest syndrome” strikes different birds in different ways. In House Wrens, even though those fledglings are still dependent on their parents for food and learning how to negotiate life, the mother often wanders off in rather a midlife, or at least midseason crisis, attracted to a new male singing. Meanwhile, the father faithfully feeds the young even as he starts singing again. That attracts a new mate—usually another female wandering after raising her own batch of nestlings. He shows her the cavities on his territory, she picks one, and soon she’s laying eggs. None of this is too time-consuming for him even as he continues feeding and educating his original brood. By the time the new eggs hatch, that brood will be independent, and he’ll be ready to focus all of his attention on the new brood. 

So that answers Lee’s question—when the young are out of the nest, the male must call attention to himself to attract another mate. Both males and females maximize the number of offspring they produce using this system of serial monogamy. But Lee managed to put a lot more into the email than that simple question. There’s something so warm and homey about House Wrens—how they select all kinds of sites for their nests, from bird houses and newspaper and mail boxes to an old sneaker sitting out on a picnic table or a pocket in a pair of overalls hanging on a clothesline. It’s the male who builds those nests of sticks, and he hardly ever stops at one, or even two. The more cavities he takes over and marks as his own with those sticks, the more likely one will be accepted by a future mate so he can raise a second and maybe even a third batch of young in a single season. 

The male stuffs the nest cavity with sticks, which seem to provide a barrier keeping out predators and competitors. The female constructs the actual cup nest in a depression in those sticks. House Wrens often incorporate spider egg sacs into the nest, probably so emerging spiderlings will eat mites and other nasty parasites that build up in the cozy nest during warm weather. 

House Wrens weigh 10–12 grams—the weight of two nickels, sometimes throwing in a dime for good measure. That entire tiny body quivers with the effort or excitement of producing that loud, robust song.  We mere humans don’t know how to translate the meanings and nuances of bird vocalizations, so we can’t be certain that singing House Wrens feel cheerful, but hearing that warm, bubbly song sure arouses good cheer in us. 

House Wren