Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Friday, November 29, 2019

November Drear

Gray Squirrel

November is, for me, the most dismal month, and I’m very glad it’s coming to an end. Cold and blustery weather seems the default, but even when it’s calm and in the 40s, the skies seem murky and dark more often than not. Snow, the quintessential winter precipitation, doesn’t usually last long in November—after the blizzard, temperatures can reach the 40s and melt it all or leave a horrible ice crust on top. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind is no comfort. He ends with:
The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?   
Winter is not here in November. It’s very much autumn until the Solstice in December, the coldest month is usually January, and the coldest day ever in Minnesota didn’t happen until February. So when a chill wind blows in November, it’s not foretelling spring, but winter itself. No wonder November feels so dismal. 

Even as just about all the lingering autumn birds have disappeared, most winter finches have yet to arrive. We still have our faithful chickadees and other local residents. Downy Woodpeckers and both nuthatches are plentiful in my neighborhood, at least one Hairy Woodpecker is usually still about, and every day or two I spot or hear a Red-bellied and Pileated Woodpecker.

But the number of species and number of individual birds visiting my yard in late November is about as low as it gets, contributing to how bereft November leaves me. I love my Veteran’s Day birthday, but it comes with a reminder of advancing years like a ticking clock. I’m hoping right now is still late afternoon, or at most early evening, but midnight comes to all of us, and November reminds me of that more than any other month. 

But November comes with its own unique warmth and joy, too, as my backyard neighborhood settles in for the winter. Those chickadees peering in my window always make me happy, and this year I have some other critters tugging at my heart, one of them specifically tugging at my shoelaces.

We started limiting our feeder offerings last year thanks to a rat problem in our neighborhood. This year we had virtually no chipmunks—I think the rats killed them off. And the number of squirrels went down, too—probably more because of other people cutting back on bird feeding than outright murders committed by the rats. But during fall migration, I couldn’t help myself from feeding the migrating Blue Jays flooding through the neighborhood, especially because a couple of them seemed to recognize me. I’d whistle and put some peanuts on a tree stump when I knew jays were around, and they’d immediately fly in. A dozen peanuts in the shell would be gone within five minutes. The disappearance went even faster after crows figured it out. 

My neighborhood squirrels may be acrobatic and fast, but crows and jays are quicker every time. Yet I’m a sucker for little brown-eyed mammals. Several squirrels run toward me whenever I go outside, and sure enough, I toss peanuts directly to them. Now my jays are gone, but the squirrels come from a couple of neighbor yards whenever I go outside.

Mammals are almost as intelligent as birds, and so, like my chickadees, a couple of my squirrels have figured out that if they can catch my eye while I’m indoors, I’ll go out with some peanuts. All the lower branches of my good old box elder have fallen now, but one tiny dead branch sticks out at eye level when I’m at my desk treadmill, and a couple of different squirrels go there to sit and stare at me—if they make eye contact and I get off the treadmill, they’re on the back porch before I get there with the peanuts. One runs right up and takes its peanut right out of my hand, while the other holds back a bit. One time I didn’t see the tamest one when I was tossing peanuts to a couple of others, but suddenly I felt a tug on my shoelace. 

I sympathize when squirrels eat too much out of feeders, and I know some people can’t stand them. But when my bird numbers are down and my heart is hungry for warmth on a chill November day, my squirrels fill a deep-rooted need that can help sustain me through the long winter ahead.

Gray Squirrel

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Woodson Art Museum's Birds in Art Exhibit, 2019

Birds in Art Catalogue title page, 2019

On November 7, I drove with my little dog Pip to Wausau, Wisconsin, to see this year’s Birds in Art display at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum. This is one of my favorite annual events, and this year I also got to spend time visiting with a dear friend, Troy Walters. Troy used to be on the staff at Trees for Tomorrow in Eagle River where, for a while, he and I taught an annual birding Elderhostel together. I hadn't seen him since my Big Year in 2013, so it was fun catching up. 

Troy Walters and Pip!

Seeing the Birds in Art exhibit was also a bit like catching up with old friends. This juried exhibit includes one roomful of art by the year’s Featured Artist, who this year was Alan Woollett, from Kent, England. I first saw his work in 2011, and it’s been richly fun to recognize his paintings most years after that. The one that was used on the cover of this year’s exhibit catalog is a stunning portrait of four Atlantic Puffins. The original, about 9 by 27 inches, took my breath away. Because of the dimensions, half of the painting is reproduced on the front to back covers of the catalog, and half as front endpapers.

Birds in Art Catalogue cover art, 2019

Birds in Art Catalogue end papers, 2019

The title page illustration details Woollett’s arresting Secretary Bird (shown at the top of this post). I purchase the catalog every year. It’s always gorgeous, but this year’s may be the most beautiful one ever.

By now I’m familiar with the work of a lot of the artists in the Birds in Art exhibit, and it’s fun to see the same names from year to year. Except for the featured artist’s display, the exhibit includes just one work of art, which must have been produced in the past year, by each artist. Many artists have been selected more than once, and a handful are true perennials. Lars Jonsson of Sweden has had something included every single year since 1982.  Larry Barth of Pennsylvania has had a piece in the exhibit every year since 1980. Robert Bateman of British Columbia goes even further back, his paintings displayed every year since 1977. And two artists have been in every single Birds in Art exhibit since its inception in 1976.  Guy Coheleach, who now lives in Florida, painted a stunning Great Horned Owl in a snowstorm for this year’s entry. Maynard Reece was born in 1920. His gorgeous painting this year of a pair of Red-breasted Mergansers was titled “Into the Sunset.” He wrote in his artist’s comments, “At ninety-nine years old, I believe painting has kept me alive as I, too, head into the sunset.” 

One painting that arrested my attention was from a newcomer artist, Cathy Weiss of Washington, whose three Lappet-faced Vultures were magnificent, their eyes wild alive and expressive. I’ll be looking for her work in future years.

I started going to the Birds in Art exhibit in the late 70s, though I skipped most of the 80s when my children were little. The annual catalogs include beautiful reproductions of each artwork in that year’s exhibit. I have the catalog for every year going back to 1989, and wish I had a complete set. These books may spend most of their time on a shelf, but every now and then I pull them down to be inspired all over again.

As I recall, the exhibit usually closes by early November, but this year it won't close until December 1. The Woodson Art Museum is open every day except Mondays and major holidays, and admission is always free. It’s well worth a visit before this year's Birds in Art exhibit ends.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Piping Plover Day

Piping Plover

Today, November 18, 2019, has been designated Piping Plover Day in Illinois, honoring Monty and Rose, the plovers that raised two chicks on Montrose Beach in Chicago this past summer, the first time since 1955 that this endangered species nested within the city. The governor’s proclamation reads:
WHEREAS, two endangered piping plovers, “Monty” and “Rose,” became the first piping plovers to nest in Chicago in 64 years this past summer; and,   
WHEREAS, there are only 70 pairs of endangered Great Lakes piping plovers remaining; and,   
WHEREAS, Monty and Rose reared two chicks in one of the busiest parts of one of the busiest beaches in Illinois; and,   
WHEREAS, nearly 200 people volunteered their time throughout the summer of 2019 to protect these birds, educating hundreds if not thousands of beach goers; and,   
WHEREAS, Monty and Rose nested in Waukegan in 2018 and a film has been made about them which will debut on November 18; and,    
WHEREAS, plovers are particularly susceptible to the effects of climate change and habitat loss;   
THEREFORE, I, JB Pritzker, Governor of the State of Illinois, do hereby proclaim November 18, 2019, as Piping Plover Day in the state of Illinois.  
The festivities started yesterday, with a Montrose Beach cleanup. Today there are several bird walks and also a beach cleanup at Waukegan Beach in Lake County, where Monty and Rose nested last year. In true Chicago style, that group will finish the day at a bar, raising a toast to Monty and Rose. Of course, neither they nor their young will be sharing in the festivities, due to both their being underage and to their having flown the coop—they migrated south in August.

Perhaps the biggest event today will be the very first screening of a documentary about Monty, Rose, and their young, and what so many Chicagoans did to help them bring off this historic feat. The film, produced by Bob Dolgan, is scheduled to have five screenings altogether between today and December 11—all have been sold out for quite a while. The sixth and last scheduled screening, on January 13, may still have seats.

To learn more about this wonderful pair of birds and everything that Chicagoans did to protect their nesting efforts, check out the Chicago Audubon website

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Malignant Complacency and Complicity

The scariest movie I ever saw, which still has the power to make me shudder just thinking about it, is Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The image that stays with me is how the tendrils from what looked like innocent potted plants silently, insidiously grasped at sleeping people, sucking their humanity out of them, leaving them looking the same but devoid of their very souls.

Lately I’ve found myself thinking about the real-life tendrils that suck the souls out of people. I remember my profound disillusionment the first time I became aware that people who have a strong moral compass still have to be circumspect about their words, knowing how much is at stake if they clearly and openly speak truth to power. I often tell how, when I was a college freshman in 1970, preparing for the first Earth Day, professors fed us students solid information about various pesticides and pollutants and which corporations were producing them and dumping them in the environment, but they were also pleading with us not to tell anyone where our information came from. Their departments and colleagues, and sometimes they themselves, depended on grants from those very corporations.

It’s no coincidence that it was an environmental activist, Jack Weinberg, who coined the phrase “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” It had nothing to do with which generations people over 30 belonged to at that point in the 60s. No, it was about those tendrils that reach out and grab adults of every generation as the jobs and communities we depend on suck us into complicity with the very forces that may be dooming our futures.

Sammy our Ford Pinto bearing wedding sign

In 1972 when Russ and I got married, we did our honest best to protect the environment, beginning with my sewing my own wedding dress and Russ's trousers. Our thank-you notes were printed on recycled paper. We never bought paper napkins, using only cloth. We found a laundry detergent that was phosphate free, and toilet paper that seemed to be the least impactful on forests. We started recycling long before there was street pickup for it, when it involved us packaging up and bringing items to different places. We researched which car model would get the best gas mileage before we bought our 1971 Ford Pinto, and then we used that car only when absolutely necessary, taking our bikes or public transportation to get around East Lansing and then Madison, Wisconsin. Russ and I even walked to the grocery store, almost a mile away, lugging groceries home in our arms so we wouldn’t squander any more gas than we had to.

When I became a birder in 1975, I got a more visceral appreciation of the environment I was trying to protect. I did my day-to-day birding by foot, spending most of my time birding at woodlots near the MSU campus and then at Picnic Point, a few blocks from our Madison apartment. Most weekends I spent one day out with my birding buddies, but we carpooled, sometimes packing 7 into a sedan.

Russ and I were just reaching the Age 30 milestone when we moved to Duluth in 1981. We’d have loved to live in the north woods, but we decided against it because that would involve a drive for Russ to get to work and for us to get to town for doctor appointments, Audubon meetings, shopping, and other errands. Country living also adds a huge expenditure of fossil fuels squandered on mail delivery and on plowing and maintaining those country roads on a people-per-mile basis. So we picked an old house right in town, easy walking distance to school, the post office, and grocery store, and just a mile from where Russ worked. He walked or biked just about every day. But now if we went shopping together, we had to take the car, because we couldn’t leave the baby home alone.

We’d bought cloth diapers while I was pregnant. The hospital sent us home with a supply of disposables. When we ran out, we started using the cloth diapers. But by the third day, Joey had developed a raw, red diaper rash. I’m sure there were ways we could have found to prevent rashing with cloth diapers, but we weren’t about to experiment on our newborn baby, and went back to disposables. That made us increasingly conscious about all our paper use and made us do our best to conserve paper in other ways, but still, switching to disposable diapers was our first major compromise with our environmental principles.

Those little compromises have a huge cumulative effect, but when our personal needs or desires are environmentally costly, we can offset at least some of the bad effects by sacrificing in other areas. That’s the reason I wrote my book 101 Ways to Help Birds. Researching it brought home to me the huge ways that birds and other natural resources are impacted by our personal actions, transportation choices, and the products we buy.

All the problems we face today—fires, flooding, storms, warming and rising seas, and so many other issues affecting birds, insects, and other wildlife as well as us—have been exacerbated by us falling asleep as tiny tendrils of materialism, finances, other social pressures, and job responsibilities entangle and tug at us. On top of those, getting and keeping a job makes most adults learn to keep their heads down and not make waves, going along to get along, at least to some extent. Healthcare and a regular paycheck are urgent needs, so virtually all young adults eventually find themselves making the same kinds of compromises previous generations did, many of them working for the very same soul-sucking companies that have done so much damage already. 

Invasion of the Body Snatchers ended badly for humanity. We can take comfort that it’s fiction, but with so many insidious tendrils reaching out and ensnaring us in the world as it is, it’s hard to imagine how things can get better. What we’re facing right now is a case of malignant complacency and complicity that has metastasized throughout our society and our world.

Dan Rather said cynicism pollutes objectivity. Cynicism also protects us from disillusionment, because how can you be disillusioned when you have no illusions? But cynicism also robs us of hope, and we can’t attack any problem without hope. That hope must be supported by the courage and will to take action, and the willingness and sacrifices to work with others.

We’re none of us perfect, but we all can do more than we’re doing right now to cast light on and cut through those intertwining tendrils that grab us while we're not paying attention. It's time to wake up and remember a line from another movie, this one based on reality, about ordinary good people fighting and beating a huge and overpowering web of corruption. In The Untouchables, Sean Connery's character asks something we all must demand of ourselves right now. "What are you prepared to DO?"

Black-capped Chickadee

Monday, November 11, 2019

Okay, Boomer

Blue-winged Teal

Today is my birthday. Usually in anticipation of a new age, I like to focus on cool elements of the number itself. For example, 67 is a prime number, so last year I could say I was in my prime, but now, at 68, I won’t be able to say that again until I turn 71. Meanwhile, 68 is the largest known number to be the sum of exactly two primes in exactly two different ways: it's the sum of both  7 + 61 and 31 + 37. All higher numbers that have been checked are the sum of three or more pairs of primes.

To please my sense of whimsy, 68 is called a “happy number,” which means that if you repeatedly square its digits and add them up, you eventually get 1. That is, when you square and add the digits of 68 (6² + 8² = 36 + 64) you get 100; squaring those digits and adding them up you get  1² + 0² + 0²,  which equals 1. It would be nice to think that means that this year will be a happy one.

Looking at 68 in a less numerical way, in the restaurant industry, 68 is sometimes used as a code meaning to put something on the menu; that's the opposite of 86-ing something, which means to take it off the menu.

Blue-winged Teal

The 68th bird on my lifelist was a lovely little duck, the Blue-winged Teal. I saw my first when I was taking my first ornithology class the summer I started birding. That ornithology class has been the source of my annual birthday birds ever since I turned 41, a trend that will continue for the rest of my life unless I beat my family's genetic odds and manage to reach 91.

I was born in 1951, at the peak of the Baby Boom era, and it’s amusing and weird to be turning 68 at the exact moment when “Okay, boomer” is peaking as a meme meant to somehow shame us old people in a new and trendy way simply for being our age.

The reason “Okay, boomer” went viral last week was that the New Zealand Green Party MP Chlöe Swarbrick was giving a speech in favor of stricter carbon emissions standards when she was rudely interrupted by a representative of the National Party, which refuses to acknowledge the damage climate change is already doing, much less the catastrophic damage it will continue to do, exacerbated specifically because so many people in power in New Zealand, the United States, and elsewhere have for so long ignored science. Swarbrick was in the middle of her speech and justifiably wanted a quick way to shut him up so she could finish. I just wish there was a clever word summing up people who deny science and twist information to promote short-sighted, selfish goals rather than one that insults a whole generation.

In the years when Russ and I were twenty-something students, we lived in several apartments and always took painstaking care to leave each one cleaner and in better shape when we moved out than it was when we moved in. That seemed a simple matter of right and wrong—the Golden Rule. It's a rule that people of all ages follow, but also a rule that people of all ages violate. People our exact age left some of our new apartments a horrible mess for us.

Blue Jay

Following the Golden Rule to ensure that our air, water, and land are clean for future generations, and protecting our natural resources for the future, would seem to be no-brainers. I’ve always talked about how Blue Jays planted oak forests after glaciation—collecting and burying fertile acorns wherever melting glaciers gave them an opening. The jays may not have thought this through—they simply cache away food stores that they themselves might want. So their providing for future generations may have been done without thought—a literal no-brainer. 

Arguably, we humans have more brain power than birds, but some used those brains to fight tooth and nail against the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts back in the 1970s and to weaken them since their passage. Propaganda campaigns to make people think that climate change is controversial among scientists are promoted by the same energy companies that are gearing up to take advantage as polar ice melts. Selling advertising to them is how millennial Mark Zuckerberg became a billionaire. In a world where profit trumps everything, intelligence at any age is not all it’s cracked up to be.

When Greta Thunberg did her big tour, the photos that most moved me depicted the 16-year-old girl and 84-year-old Jane Goodall together. These two people so far apart in age are both dedicating their lives to making this planet better for the future. Is Thunberg doing it for the selfish reason that she herself will be living well into that future? Is Goodall's concern about the future somehow more selfless because she doesn't have more than a decade or two left in her own life? Nope. Both of these people are following the Golden Rule, treating the planet, its creatures, and future people as they'd like to be treated, and going so much above and beyond the call of duty makes them both heroes. Which generation they each belong to is irrelevant.

Dividing people into arbitrary age categories fosters distrust and squanders our energy as we look for scapegoats rather than for real-world solutions. As species disappear, oceans rise, and pollution grows apace, we must resist this divide-and-conquer strategy and start planting our acorns together, as Blue Jays do. It's a no-brainer.

Blue Jay