Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Friday, September 20, 2019

A Child Shall Lead Us

This afternoon, September 20, 2019, Russ and I will be headed to our old high school to have a tour of the school and attend the homecoming football game. Ironically, if we were students there today, we’d both be skipping school—today is the day students all over the country are on strike, boycotting school to make a powerful statement about climate change, inspired by one sixteen-year-old Swedish girl named Greta Thunberg, who has been traveling the world to get people finally stirred up enough to do something. She sailed to the United States rather than squander fossil fuels for the journey. 

Russ and I never skipped school in high school, but by the time we were in college, that form of protest was suddenly what students did. I don’t recall skipping classes for the environment except on Earth Day 1970, but there were several straightforward strikes protesting the Vietnam War. Adults told us in 1970 that skipping school was not the way to accomplish anything, but by 1974, the war was over and Nixon was no longer president—that was at least partly due to a sea change in public opinion, and we students had been a genuine factor in that. 

I’m mystified why some living, breathing Americans still think the jury is out on climate change. The vast scientific consensus has been settled for decades, and all along, most climate scientists have agreed that burning fossil fuels, for transportation and electricity production, and burning forests for agriculture and development, are driving it. The major energy corporations, US Defense Department, and insurance industry have long accepted the truth of this, and spent billions of dollars preparing for and responding to worst case scenarios, energy companies still wanting to capitalize on the opening of now frozen Arctic waters, the Defense Department recognizing that rising water levels are creating more and more desperation in countries hit worst, making our country less secure, and the insurance industry responding to and calculating new risks as the number of storms, floods, and fires rises. The strategy for energy corporations to keep giving those quarterly profits high has been to deny climate change to the public, pulling politicians into this denial so they can keep extracting and squandering more and more fossil fuels even as the situation grows more dire. Our focus on short-term economic gains has made us not merely short-sighted but actually blind. 

Gray Jay

Climate change isn’t just a problem for the future that people my age and older won’t have to face. For the fifth year in a row, huge numbers of seabirds have washed up dead here and there—the warming seas causing massive crashes of their food supplies. Gray Jay populations are declining wherever winter thaws rot the food they cache away—these late winter nesters use stored meat to feed their young. Damage by hurricanes threatens to entirely wipe out those endemic species like the Bahama Nuthatch, whose populations are already threatened by overdevelopment and habitat destruction. More and more baby puffins starve each year when their parents can’t find the right sized fish to feed them. These are all happening right now. 

Yet we Americans—the only one of all technologically and economically advanced nations in the world—continue to play Alfred E. Neuman—“What, me worry?” After Sharpie-gate, wherein the actual president of the United States altered an actual weather map to defend his completely erroneous prediction that Alabama was in the line of Hurricane Dorian, I asked an actual weather man what he thought about a politician altering actual scientific facts to somehow save face, and that weather man instantly started talking about Al Gore, suggesting his discussing climate change is just as bad! Americans no longer look at information objectively—they pick teams and stick with them no matter what. If their team includes corporations that profit from polluting and from squandering energy, they’re happy to ignore the vast body of scientific information to tout the findings of a handful of charlatans. I, along with hundreds of scientists and prominent people, from Al Gore to Jane Goodall, have been talking about the issue for the past three decades. If people had listened to us from the start, we might not be seeing quite so many devastating storms and floods and wildfires, and our air and water would be cleaner to boot. 

Whenever I talk about these important issues, people call their radio station to complain. They don’t present facts to show that I’m wrong—they just don’t think I should be given a forum to discuss the problem. Maybe a little girl from Sweden can do what so many scientists and environmentalists could not, igniting millions of children here to get the adults to face reality. I hope for my own children’s sake that Greta Thunberg succeeds. A little child shall lead us.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Too Old for This

This week, Russ and I are headed to our 50-year high school reunion. A couple of times recently people used the phrase “a woman of a certain age” when talking about me, though I prefer being straightforward and specific. I turned 67 ½ years old on May 11, the day that mathematically I was exactly three-quarters finished with my seventh decade of life. I’m still younger than the oldest known bird, a Laysan Albatross nicknamed Wisdom, who is at least 68 years old right now. But birds hang onto their youth way more successfully than we humans do—Wisdom produced a healthy egg and chick this year while I haven’t done anything remotely productive like that in over three decades. 

So based on all this data, I’m getting old. I may not be so old that I’m reminiscing about Corn Pop and pomade on men’s hair and record players, but I am old enough to remember the first time I flew to Los Angeles, in 1994. There were no clouds, but smog enshrouded the city in an ugly yellowish brown haze that made it hard to distinguish any buildings. My publisher, Nancy Tubesing, and I took a cab from the airport to our hotel, and the cab driver said yeah, the smog was bad, but nowhere near as bad as it had been in the decades before.

I grew up in Chicago, which was itself plenty polluted back then. Within hours after every snowfall, the snow along even low-traffic residential streets was coated with an ugly black crust from the emissions coming out of automobile tailpipes. But the worst city air pollution I can remember as a child was nothing like what I witnessed in Los Angeles in 1994, more than three decades after California passed their first auto emissions laws.

Why does California have stricter emissions standards than the rest of the country? It started long before the Clean Air Act was passed. The Los Angeles basin’s unique combination of enclosed topography, rapidly growing population, and warm climate was causing uniquely persistent, dangerous smog. In 1952, the year after I was born, a Dutch chemist named Arie Jan Haagen-Smit discovered that worsening Los Angeles smog episodes were caused by photochemical reactions between California’s sunshine and motor vehicle exhaust. People were dying, and birds and other wildlife were also in trouble. Something had to be done.

So in 1961, California’s Motor Vehicle Pollution Control Board mandated using the nation’s first vehicle emissions control technology in cars, and in 1966 they developed the nation’s first vehicle emissions standards. The pollution didn’t miraculously dissipate, but it did stop increasing at such an out-of-control rate, and so two years later, the EPA mandated standards identical to California’s for all model year 1968 cars sold in the United States. Ever since, California has led the nation, setting standards that little by little cleaned up their air so noticeably. Congress and most administrations, under pressure by the automakers, no longer even give lip service to trying to keep pace with California’s improving standards despite the fact that, according to the EPA, more than 110 million Americans still live in counties with unhealthy levels of pollution, and Los Angeles and California’s Central Valley still deal with ground-level ozone, which forms when other pollutants react in the presence of sunlight and heat. This smog damages lungs and causes other serious health problems and death for humans and most assuredly for birds. Currently 13 states and Washington, D.C. have stricter emissions standards than the EPA requires. 

Auto manufacturers have dealt just fine with California’s strict emissions standards, which after all have been stricter than federal standards for almost six decades. But now the president has announced his intention to strip California of its right to set those critical air quality standards, despite the unique conditions that make pollution so uniquely severe there. 

This 67-year-old woman, who saw so many horrifying environmental disasters in my own lifetime, is mystified about why a man 6 years older than me, who would have witnessed even more, is so eager to jettison state regulations so important for the health and welfare of so many millions of Americans. Our nation has never been anywhere close to perfect, but now we’re making a cataclysmic turn away from the one value that really did make America great—the willingness of so many diverse people to make sacrifices in the present in order to make the future better for our children and our children’s children. 

Right now, an estimated 100,000 Americans die prematurely each year of illnesses caused or exacerbated by polluted air. That’s human Americans—we have no way of assessing the effects of air pollution on living creatures who can’t come indoors during smog alerts. The laws that people worked so hard to implement to clean up the environmental horrors of the 1960s and 70s are being thrown to the wayside by people who either can't remember how bad it was back then or simply don't care about the world we're bequeathing our children and grandchildren. I’m getting too old for this.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Where are the birds?

Black-capped Chickadee

Last week, I got a troubling email from Kate Salus, who lives about 7 miles north of Solon Springs Wi. She writes:
We have had chickadees forever here but they stopped coming for the summer totally. Usually we would see some during the summer but have not. It is September now and we still haven’t had any come to our feeders. I tried to search this problem but nothing. Are you experiencing a lack of chickadees????
Unfortunately, Kate, I’m not the right person to ask, because we’ve let most of our feeders go dry until our neighborhood rat problem gets solved. We do have a couple of hanging feeders which chickadees visit a few times a day, so they definitely haven’t disappeared from my neighborhood, but I can’t really comment about whether their numbers are above or below normal. I haven’t seen as many migrants as I usually do, but again, I’ve been busy with a book and so haven’t been focused out the window as much as normal, either.

But in the past week we’ve also had a string of emails on the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union listserv about a dearth of birds that people seem to be noticing here and there. These accounts are about birds in general, not specifying chickadees one way or the other. And what’s happening in a given spot in a single year doesn’t give us any trends, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore the data points.

Chickadees disappeared suddenly and dramatically throughout a big swath of their range around 2002 when West Nile Virus hit. Some Christmas Bird Counts in Great Lakes areas back then found ZERO chickadees, or just one or two. Like crows and Blue Jays, chickadees are extremely vulnerable to the virus, with exceptionally high mortality. Little by little, they’ve “returned”—meaning the survivors have reproduced and chickadees from other areas have moved in to fill the void. 


In my own neighborhood, mosquitoes, which transmit West Nile Virus to birds and mammals, haven’t been much of an issue this year, but when I suggested the possibility of West Nile to Kate, she responded that where she is, “mosquitoes are always aplenty.” So that is one possible explanation. Now that most people have been exposed to West Nile Virus and have immunity, it isn’t the human health hazard that it was 15-20 years ago, and funding to get birds tested isn’t as easy as it was, but regardless, even when the disease was being thoroughly investigated and thousands of birds tested, chickadees were virtually never found dead anyway—they tend to retreat to their roosting cavities when they’re sick, so die entirely out of sight. If West Nile is the culprit, there should be some evidence in the form of disappearing Blue Jays, too, though that can be hard to assess in mid-September when they’re migrating, and jays from unaffected areas may suddenly appear en masse anywhere.

But as I noted, Minnesota birders are noticing a big decline in other species as well. And this is growing troubling in other places as well. Meanwhile, just this week a major study out of Canada, published in Science, reveals that birds are declining because of the same pesticide killing off bees. National Geographic reports:
The world's most widely used insecticide has been linked to the dramatic decline in songbirds in North America. A first ever study of birds in the wild found that a migrating songbird that ate the equivalent of one or two seeds treated with a neonicotinoid insecticide suffered immediate weight loss, forcing it to delay its journey. 
Although the birds recovered, the delay could severely harm their chances of surviving and reproducing, say the Canadian researchers whose study is published today in Science.  
“We show a clear link between neonicotinoid exposure at real-world levels and an impact on birds,” says lead author Margaret Eng, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Saskatchewan Toxicology Center.   
Spring bird migration occurs when farmers are planting, and most crops in the United States and Canada are grown with neonicotinoid-treated seeds. Birds may suffer repeated exposure at successive stopover sites where they rest and feed. That may extend migration delays and their consequences, the study concludes.   
Neonicotinoids, introduced in the late 1980s, were supposed to be a safer alternative to previous insecticides. But study after study has found that they play a key role in insect decline, especially bees. 
Right around the time Neonicotinoids were introduced, the Reagan and Bush administrations were engaging in an active assault on environmental laws. One of the things I talked about on For the Birds way back then was how the Bush administration discontinued all field testing of pesticides before they could be registered. In retrospect, I wonder how much that was influenced by pesticide manufacturers knowing how dangerous neonicotinoids were? The EU banned the use of Neonicotinoids in 2018 because they were killing pollinators. 

Declining numbers of bees has horrible implications for both the natural environment and for agriculture here in the US and Canada, too. Now that we know these pesticides are also taking a big toll on birds, will we finally follow Europe’s lead? I won’t hold my breath. Meanwhile, I sure hope Kate’s chickadees return.

Black-capped Chickadee fledgling

Monday, September 9, 2019

Of Blue Jay, Squirrel, and Human Intelligence

Blue Jay

On Sunday, September 8, I was writing away at my desk treadmill when I noticed a Blue Jay sitting in the box elder right outside my office window, staring straight at me. It’s been at least one full year since I set out peanuts for jays. A couple of squirrels often approach me when I’m in the yard and I usually toss them a peanut, but I haven’t been leaving extras out for birds because of my neighborhood’s rat problem. 

On the off-chance that this Blue Jay remembered me from a year or two ago, I went outside with a handful of peanuts and left them on the usual stump. I whistled the way I used to whistle when I fed jays and started back for the house. Before I reached the door, the jay was already on the stump sorting through the peanuts—it grabbed the biggest one and flew off. Within 5 minutes, that jay and some others had taken them all, so I didn’t have to worry about any rats getting a free meal. I went back to work, and twice more, the jay showed up, gave me a long, hard stare until it caught my eye, and got rewarded with peanuts. The fourth time, another Blue Jay came with it—I think the first jay had told it, “Watch this—I trained a human to hand out peanuts!” Some Blue Jays may doubt that humans are intelligent, but they have to concede that some of us are trainable. 

Gray Squirrel

That same day, I read a New York Times story about a study done at Oberlin College that showed that squirrels not only notice when birds make alarm calls; they also seem to relax when birds are making relaxed calls.

People continue to be surprised that animals notice and respond appropriately to obvious signals within their environments. The more animals are discovered to be able to make and use tools, like Green Herons using bits of bread to bait fish, or New Caledonian crows fashioning hooks to pull food from otherwise inaccessible crevices, the more desperately members of our own species try to affirm our superior intelligence. Of course no bird or squirrel has ever invented a bomb, nuclear weapon, or even just an assault rifle, nor has one ever been able to learn to read in any language, invent a vaccination that could save millions of lives, or write or read ridiculous, easily disprovable studies saying vaccinations cause autism or that there is no such thing as climate change.

It feeds my ego to believe I’m smarter than the Blue Jays and squirrels in my backyard, but I’m not entirely sure that it makes sense to believe my species is. Birds and squirrels take note of potential dangers and figure out what to do to protect themselves, their families, and their whole neighborhood—squirrels may be noticing bird calls to tell them about local conditions, but they also alert those birds with their own calls when they discover something dangerous. Blue Jays are credited with planting the eastern oak forests following glaciation, ultimately providing food for thousands of generations of Blue Jays. Their eagerness to plant acorns may have been based more on instinct than genuine forward thinking, but I wish we humans could cultivate that kind of instinct to give our children and grandchildren a better future.

Squirrels are smart enough to know that paying attention to how well birds are faring directly affects their own well-being. When, by a huge, bipartisan majority, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act of 1973 and Richard Nixon signed it into law, I truly believed that our species was now enlightened enough to have set in stone permanent protection of every one of our fellow creatures, for their own sake and for ours. After all, even rodents are smart enough to know that when birds are safe, so are they.

But since the 1980s, corporate America and wealthy developers have been lobbying to eviscerate the Act, pressing to make it almost impossible for new species to be listed for protection no matter how devastatingly their numbers are declining, and to chip away at enforcement. 

Now suddenly science itself—the discipline that, more than anything else, is cited to prove our so-called superiority to animals—is in jeopardy.  Last week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued a memo cautioning scientists that even if people in their area were preparing for a hurricane that had no chance of hitting them, meteorologists must *not* correct totally inaccurate weather predictions made by an angry old man shaking his fists at clouds and drawing his own weather maps with a sharpie.

Are we humans as intelligent as Blue Jays and squirrels? The jury is still out, but it’s not looking good. 

Eastern Gray Squirrel

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Nighthawk Migration

Common Nighthawk

Friday, August 30, was Russ’s and my anniversary, so we went out for an early dinner at a restaurant in downtown Duluth, and then went to an ice cream shop in West Duluth while it was still light. I’ve been out of town way too much lately, and that means I’ve been stuck indoors most of the time when I am home, trying to meet a big deadline for a new book. And my focus on Friday was not supposed to be birds but my husband, who I've been ignoring even worse than I've been ignoring birds, but as we drove downtown, I couldn’t help but see dozens, and then hundreds, of Common Nighthawks winging through the sky. They were mostly paralleling the shoreline, sometimes darting this way or that chasing down a flying insect, but the birds were making steady progress toward the tip of Lake Superior. When they got there, they’d head more directly south. 

We got a parking space right in front of the restaurant so weren’t outside for even 30 seconds, but at least half a dozen nighthawks flew overhead, and when we came out, nighthawks were still flying. Russ was driving so I could keep watching nighthawks course over as we went for ice cream, and there were still some flying not far above treetop height as we drove home before sunset, but at that point most were no longer visible. I think they fly lowest when starting out, feeding while afternoon insects are still numerous, and then rise to higher altitudes for their more serious overnight flights—they’re headed all the way to South America. 

Common Nighthawk

I associate nighthawk migration with family events, perhaps because the first huge migration of them I ever saw was on an August 14, 1983—it was Russ’s dad’s birthday and we were driving home to Duluth from Port Wing. On good migration days—those still, quiet days in mid- and late August when green darner dragonflies are aloft—nighthawks could once be seen any time in the afternoon, often swirling above open fields. When my kids were little, there were often nighthawks flying over during their soccer games, distracting me. One time I was so transfixed by them that it was only Russ jabbing his elbow into my ribs that grabbed my attention in time so I didn’t miss Tommy scoring his first goal. Back in the 80s we saw lots more nighthawks than we do now, with many, many more counted on the best days, and more good days each season. As flying insects disappear, the birds that depend on them are disappearing, too. We’d had a couple of decent days this season, but I’d been out of town or too busy to enjoy them until August 30.

Cedar Waxwing devouring a dragonfly.
Nighthawks and many other birds depend on dragonflies and other insects for food. Dragonflies eat insects, too--their disappearance is due both to pesticide use killing them and their food directly, and to problems with water quality—dragonflies spend a year or longer as aquatic nymphs before emerging as adults. I include several ways we can help protect water quality and insects at my Ways to Help
Every summer I give a talk at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Minocqua, Wisconsin, and this year it happened this weekend. I headed there on Saturday, and in early afternoon saw a small group of nighthawks hawking for insects above Highway 2 and some surrounding fields near Iron River. On Sunday when I drove back into Duluth in late afternoon, nighthawks were back on the move, cruising along the lake shore between the harbor and my neighborhood. 

Fred the Common Nighthawk

Seeing them always thrills me—nighthawks have long been one of my favorite birds for many reasons. I started specializing on their care when I was a rehabber, studied their digestion during my ill-fated Ph.D. research, and had a dear nighthawk named Fred as my licensed education bird for several years—how could I not deeply love these gentle-spirited birds? Watching them this year made me sad, knowing that a great many of them are headed straight for Brazil with its massive fires, mostly set to grow soybeans and beef by destroying the rainforest. 

My favorite cow
Eating less meat, especially beef, helps birds as well as reduces our impact on climate change. See my Ways to Help #2: Eat lower on the food chain, and especially eat less beef. 

This world is growing less and less recognizable to me, and certainly less and less recognizable to a great many creatures. Lovely evenings with nighthawks aloft in the sunset sky are a precious reminder of something genuinely worth fighting for. 

Fred the Common Nighthawk