Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Sunday, March 29, 2020

What is a human being worth?

Black-capped Chickadee

My husband and I were watching TV today and vaguely recognized an actor. When the credits came on and we saw his name, Barry Bostwick, we thought of course! The “Rocky Horror Picture Show”! I pulled out my laptop and googled him. And in a box near the top of the google search results was the question, “What is Barry Bostwick worth?”

I suppose that question has been right up there whenever I’ve googled people before, but in the very week when wealthy politicians and pundits have been saying people should be happy to die “for the economy,” it struck me with unusual force.

What ARE we worth? Shakespeare pondered just that question, expressing it through Hamlet:
 What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals. And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? 
Shakespeare was unfamiliar with dollars and cents, but he never suggested that a man’s value could be measured in pounds and pence, either.

Somehow, in modern America, we’ve more and more been emulating Charles Dickens's quintessential greedy Ebenezer Scrooge such that we take it right in stride to set the worth of a woman or man in dollars and cents. People suggesting that grandparents (except themselves, of course) should be happy to die for the economy are Scrooge come to life today, saying that a whole group of people “had better [die], and decrease the surplus population.”

I’m bewildered by the Scroogish mindset that individual people, many earning barely the minimum wage, should have been smart enough to have enough money squirreled away to deal with being unemployed, and thus suddenly losing their healthcare, to get through however many weeks or months this crisis may last, but that the same corporations that used the last bailout and the much more recent huge corporate tax cuts to give bonuses to CEOs and buy back their own stock deserve trillions of federal dollars to weather the storm. Obviously we need to help corporations get through this crisis, but if it’s okay to lose a percentage of human beings, it should be equally okay to lose a percentage of corporations. If corporations are, indeed, people my friend, they can suck it up like the rest of us.

This pandemic is unusual in being indiscriminate about who it sickens and kills. There is definitely an age skew, and considerably more males than females have died from it, but it seems to pay no attention whatsoever to race or nationality, education, or income level—hand-shaking politicians and well-to-do world travelers have been among the first to develop and spread the disease, and so far, it’s affected famous actors, singers and basketball players, U.S. Senators, the U.K.’s Prime Minister, and Prince Charles. When we are short on hospital beds, ventilators, and personal protection equipment for first responders and medical professionals, a highly contagious pandemic is a clear and obvious situation in which protecting everyone, including the poorest among us, is essential.

I’ve long said that we humans could learn a lot from chickadees. When a chickadee spots danger, it gives an alert call not just to other chickadees but to every potential victim, regardless of whether those other creatures agree with, support, or otherwise return favors to the chickadee. Expecting a quid pro quo for being neighborly would never occur to a chickadee, nor would yelling “hoax!” or "fake news!" the moment another bird called out a warning.

Robert Frost wrote an exquisite poem, “The Tuft of Flowers,” about two men haying a field. The first mowed it, and after he was gone, the second came to turn the grass to dry in the sun. A butterfly called his attention to a lovely tuft of flowers that the first man had spared. The beautiful poem ends:
“Men work together,” I told him from the heart,
 “Whether they work together or apart.’” 
The same could be written of chickadees.

The best that we humans do is to to protect things of little or no monetary worth yet immeasurable value, from art to clean air, water, and soil; from our fellow creatures to other human beings. Chickadees look out for one another by instinct, as do we as social animals. But we belong to the one species capable of violating our best instincts and capable of rejecting scientific and medical information produced by the best of human brains. America is resilient, and corporations will rise again; not one human corpse will.

For 33 of the 34 years I've produced my For the Birds radio program and podcast, I've been paid absolutely nothing for my labor or the fairly expensive equipment involved in creating it. I take pride in that, because no underwriter has ever controlled what I say in any way. I've loved the feeling that I can't be bought. Money can't buy me love, it can't buy me chickadees, and it can't buy me self respect.

What is Barry Bostwick worth? What is any human being worth? What is a chickadee worth? I have no idea, but I can guarantee you that it isn't measured in dollars.

Statue of Liberty

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Chickadee Therapy

Black-capped Chickadee

When we’re all of us so isolated from friends, relatives, and even close family members who aren’t in our own household, people have been finding other ways to stay in touch. That’s been gratifying for me. I’ve been hearing from more listeners than usual, and am hearing a lot about their chickadees.

Robert Frost may have been right that "something there is that doesn’t love a wall," but nothing there is that doesn’t love a chickadee. Our Black-capped Chickadee is of course my favorite, but there are several others here in North America, and one kind or another can be found over the vast majority of the landscape except in the desert Southwest.

Chickadees are almost certainly not nearly as cheerful as we think, but somehow seeing and hearing them consistently elicits cheerfulness in us. When they fly up to us, or even to our hand, it may simply be that they’re intelligent enough to learn how to fully exploit feeding opportunities, but how can we humans not see that as friendliness?

Black-capped Chickadee selecting just the right mealworm

When they tap on my window to get my attention, yes I know they associate me with food, but their recognizing me as an individual is genuinely soul-enriching.

Black-capped Chickadee peeking in my window waiting for mealworms

When the American Birding Association gave me their Roger Tory Peterson Award, how could I not feel even more honored and gratified after my backyard chickadees alighted on it, as if signaling their approval? 

Chickadee Approved!

Chickadee Approved!

Yes, I realize full well that they come to my window with the expectation that they'll receive fresh mealworms, but something there is in me that doesn’t love dry, clinical explanations that exclude more beautiful possibilities.

KAXE listener Polly Edington had written me a year ago asking about getting chickadees to feed out of her hand. She didn’t have any luck at first, but this March 13, she sent me an email with exciting news:
I got a chickadee to eat a mealworm out of my hand!!  Then on later days chickadees and nuthatches got shy...they'd come to the pine tree above me but not to my hand...so I started putting the mealworms in a  box feeder on the ground at my feet while I sat perfectly still...they loved that!  Me too!  It was fascinating just watching them!  

Going early in the morn I have gotten to observe other wildlife!  Today, looking from my bedroom window at our bird feeder on a post I saw what I think was a female goldfinch...would they be back this soon?
I told her that some goldfinches winter up here. How very thrilled I was at her excitement. On March 20, she wrote back:
Yesterday I put on Facebook a video I took after the chickadees ate the mealworms and I'd refilled my feeder with seeds...just showing the feeder and my backyard. 

What surprised me was as I was talking and filming the feeder a chickadee zoomed in and flew off with a seed. They have never done that for seeds (while I'm there)!!


Polly added:
Out of my chickadees I have two that I'm calling Mama and Youngster...'cause Mama is bigger and the Youngster is about 1/2 the Mama sized one!?
Every chickadee out there is a fully-grown adult right now. They do range pretty widely in weight, running from 9 to 14 grams (about a third to almost half an ounce), the difference comparable to adult humans spanning weights between 120 and 186—obviously our species varies far more widely than chickadees do. And the difference in size in chickadees isn’t usually apparent to our eyes, because chickadee plumage is so thick. When one appears larger than another, it’s usually because that individual is colder, with its feathers much more fluffed out. When I was getting whole flocks of chickadees at my window alighting on my hand, one at a time, I could feel that some individuals were much lighter than others, but couldn’t actually see the difference. So it’s interesting that Polly has an outlier.

On March 23, she shared more observations:
What a morning with “my birdies”!! No longer have fresh mealworms so doused some dried ones with boiling water and took the wet ones out to my wooden feeder. I never thought about the weather being cold enough to freeze them to the feeder, but soon discovered my chickadees couldn't pick the worms up. After I loosened them a chickadee flew in and then perched on the rim of the feeder and “dropped” the worm on the ground and flew up to my knee and looked me in the face and I thought she might have said: “What are you doing? I know this isn't a fresh worm...I spit that one out...I didn't “drop” it!!!” After that she flew off, I picked up the worm and put it on my knee and another chickadee landed there and flew off with the worm! 
Chickadees don't like to share the feeder so in between chickadees I whistled and called: chickadee, dee, dee...I must have offended one who flew within an inch of my mouth and hoovered there for a few seconds like a hummingbird...I imagined her saying to me, “Hey! You are NOT a chickadee!!” 
(I was really shocked when the chickadee hopped up to my knee!!)
It’s so fun to hear readers’ stories during these trying, isolating times. Polly generously shared the photos and video above. Stay safe and well, dear reader.

Black-capped Chickadee closeup

Monday, March 23, 2020

Coping in a Time of Pandemic

American Robin

Spring migration up here always starts slow, and the new-fallen snow Sunday made the day seem genuinely wintry, which of course is supposed to be the norm in northern Minnesota in March. But singing robins took away the chill.

Most of the winter I haven’t had chickadees in my yard more than once or twice a day, but suddenly those little guys are spending more time here, which brightens my spirits every time I look out the window or go outside, which I have to do every time my little dog Pip needs to go out, since a fox has been hanging out in the neighborhood. When more birds start showing up, I’ll start spending more time out there taking photos.

Black-capped Chickadee

The past few weeks have seemed surreal, and I keep finding myself drawn to television and the internet to keep up on the news. Even in the best of times, the intensity of social media and news coverage magnifies, often to the point of exaggeration, every new development. Democracy depends on citizens having access to accurate information, but the information coming out of both social media and news right now seems to be promoting panic and meanspiritedness.

Whenever we humans deal with the unknown, fear is of course our first response. Fear is important and useful in prompting us to action. Right now, our actions should include getting into good habits with regard to hand-washing; not touching our face; sneezing and coughing into tissues or the crook of our arm; frequently sanitizing doorknobs, cell phones, remote controls, and other surfaces that we touch a lot; staying at least 6 feet away from everyone who doesn’t live with us in our immediate home; and patiently, calmly stocking up on food and other necessities in case a local situation leads to shortages or we can’t leave home for a few weeks. 

But fear can also lead us to unreasonable actions, like panic buying and trying to buy medications after irresponsible media figures spread rumors that they may be a miracle cure for COVID-19. This of course leaves vulnerable people who actually need those drugs for other serious illnesses shortchanged. Fear is also stirring anger toward people in power who are responding to the crisis poorly, some even profiting from it. Understandable though it may be, exulting when various people get the virus is ugly. This is a time for us to be listening to the better angels of our nature.

So this week I’m going to try my level best to limit myself to checking news and Facebook no more than one hour each morning and evening, and to stop reflexively checking the current infection totals multiple times each hour. I’m also going to limit myself to one movie or a couple of TV episodes each day. 

I’ll spend one hour a day on household upkeep—keeping those doorknobs clean and all that. We’ll keep preparing nice meals and ordering from our favorite local restaurants for delivery or pickup. And I’ll be spending an hour each day exercising to make up for not going to cardiac rehab.

But that of course leaves plenty more hours each day to fill. I’ve been entering old “For the Birds” transcripts into my webpage database—I want to finally finish that, then digitize old “For the Birds” recordings from old tapes and CDs. When I’m done, I should have the transcripts and/or sound files of over 5,000 programs available on my website—I’m almost up to 3,500 now. As I get bored with that, I’ll also enter old checklists into the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird, and go through bazillions of photo files, deleting bad ones and making sure everything is properly backed up. All these activities will help me get my office organized and help me ensure that no one in my family will feel bad throwing out stuff when I’m gone. And even better in this immediate crisis, going through all this is conjuring lovely memories that are lifting my spirits. 

I hope you are finding things to do that lift your spirits, too. Be safe and well, dear readers.


Black-capped Chickadee

Sunday, March 22, 2020

The Crowded Outdoors

Common Redpolls and Pine Siskins
Winter finches are pathologically incapable of social distancing. 
This winter has been one of the poorest I can remember for winter finches. I had a few goldfinches back in December, but haven’t had a single siskin, redpoll, Pine or Evening Grosbeak, or Purple Finch in my yard all season. It’s probably just as well—as we adjust to the concept of social distancing, it might be disconcerting to look at these excessively sociable birds that crowd into feeders to pig out shoulder to shoulder. 

That inability to keep any distance between themselves is why redpolls and siskins often succumb to salmonella and botulism at feeders—when one bird is sick, others feeding near it are also vulnerable.

Woodpeckers, nuthatches, and chickadees—the only feeder birds I’ve been seeing this year—are very protective of their personal space. Robins join together in big numbers at some fruit trees in winter, but the ones arriving here in the Northland now are in spring territorial mode, so we’ll see them social distancing as well.

Black-capped Chickadee
Chickadees visit the feeder one at a time, taking their seeds away to feed in seclusion. They're very sociable, spending the entire winter in flocks, but always maintain this social distance except with their mate. This is exactly what we humans should be doing now!
A lot of people seem to be going stir crazy already, not a good sign when the pandemic is likely to last several months. Lots of people from the Twin Cities have been pouring up the Lake Superior shoreline to stay at the resorts. That’s scary when hospital space up here is limited, and already these tourists are stocking up on essential supplies in small-town grocery stores, putting a dangerous strain on what’s available for local residents. 

Magee Marsh Boardwalk Entrance
It's usually impossible to take a photo like this, with the entrance to the boardwalk entirely empty in May. I took this one several minutes after a Kirtland's Warbler was reported on the other side of the parking lot, which pulled virtually every birder over there. 
Some of the most popular birding destinations are still attracting larger crowds than is safe during a pandemic. The staff of the Black Swamp Bird Observatory in Ohio worked with the Ohio Division of Wildlife and the Magee Marsh Wildlife Area Manager, Patrick Baranowski, to install hand-washing stations by the porta-potties at the entrance to the Magee Marsh. But just too many people are heading there in this critical time. Black Swamp Bird Observatory director, my friend Kimberly Kaufman, posted a heartbreaking message on Facebook yesterday, writing:
I have shut down the BSBO headquarters to any visitation - even personnel. I'm the only one coming in because we have a cat and someone needs to take in the mail. This post is based on brief observations from yesterday and today. 
As much as this pains my heart, I think they need to close wildlife areas and parks where people are gathering. Under normal circumstances, the number of people going in and out of Magee today wouldn't even register. But seeing so many people going in and out of portable toilets, many that I observed NOT following any kind of hygiene protocol, is disturbing. The Refuge Wildlife Drive is open, but no bathrooms. I understand why, but the fact that these areas are a LONG way from restroom facilities means people are forced to use whatever facilities are open. I’ve also observed people gathered together, standing outside their cars, not following the six-foot social distancing protocol. These areas are bringing people together when that presents a real risk.  
I think we're at the point were we need to shut these areas down and urge people to stay home and shelter in place. And if anyone seeing this message is thinking of going out today, please stay home.
Some of us have backyards and/or live on streets that allow us to get out while keeping a safe distance from others. And some people know of secret little spots that don’t attract other people. We should leave what parks and wildlife refuges are open to people who don’t have those options. In a pandemic, we have a fundamental responsibility to look out for one another.  Chickadees are right this moment social distancing in our own backyards. Let's look to them to show us the way.

Black-capped Chickadee

Friday, March 20, 2020

Backyard Fox

Red fox next door!

The first day of spring this year was pretty yucky, with a sort of misty rain/snow mix all day, yet surprisingly spring-like, in terms of the temperature being 37 degrees at midday. This year, my backyard birds have been scarcer than ever before, but I did have quite a few chickadees, a Downy Woodpecker, a robin, and several neighborhood crows—way less than my recommended daily birds. It’s been discouraging that I’m not seeing more than this—declining bird numbers are of course most noticeable for those of us who have spent decades paying attention. 

The neighborhood crows have been very noticeable lately. Partly it’s because pairs are starting to nest, carrying sticks about, and partly it’s because a Great Horned Owl has been hanging around. Today when a group of crows started screaming bloody murder right next door, I ran out and started scanning the trees. But they weren’t at the top of one of the conifers where an owl would be roosting—they were in a big bare deciduous tree, and weren’t looking into any trees, but down on the ground. 

Crows cussing out a fox

And right there, in a big bare patch of lawn next door, was a red fox! 

Red fox next door!

The fox was very alert, watching my every move, especially as I got closer to the fence to take its photo. According to my camera, I was 34.5 feet from it, but by nature, foxes are big believers in social distancing, so I only got a few pictures with the burst function before it ran off. But what a thrill! Of course, now I’m concerned about my favorite gray squirrel—one that comes running most of the time when I call it. I haven’t seen it in a few days, and a fox living right around here may explain why. 

My dog Pip isn’t much bigger than a squirrel. She weighs between 8 and 9 pounds. When she goes into the backyard, some of my squirrels stare her down, and if she doesn’t retreat, a couple of them actually charge. So Pip wouldn’t be effective in either warding off or protecting herself from a fox. We’ll be going outside with her for the next few weeks to make sure she’s safe.

Pip!

But even though foxes can present difficulties for squirrels and small dogs, they’re gorgeous animals. Despite how little time I had before it ran off and the fact that my camera was set to overexpose for those backlit crows, my pictures weren’t too bad. If I’m going to be stuck at home during this difficult time, I’m glad that wildlife is coming to me. 

Back on March 4, I got an email from Tim Ciembronowicz in Oulu, Wisconsin, bringing me up to date about the Sharp-tailed Grouse he and his kids Nellie and Elijah had alerted me to last year.

Sharp-tailed Grouse

They’re back! Tim wrote, “four males on display on stark white crusted snow bathed by the sunrise from the east.” I so wanted to jump in my car and head right over, but my uncle had just died and Russ and I had to leave for Chicago for the services. Tim let me know on March 10 that a male harrier had returned, too. I had too many appointments to get there last week, and now I’m stuck at home for the duration. 

But I did see my first robin of the year on Monday, and after mentioning it on the air, I got an email from Robin Nelson of Proctor, who wrote, “Heard your program yesterday, and you talked about a robin, chirping away. Today, there's one in my apple tree. Yippeeeeeeee!”

I also got an email from Mary in Holyoke. She was concerned that my warnings about birding in groups and not entering closed parks might scare some people from going out at all, and made an important point. She wrote, "The healthcare recommendations urge people to go outside, just not in groups. Fresh air is great & cleaner than indoor air."

That’s important. Even in California, now on a statewide lockdown, people are allowed to get out for fresh air and exercise. Mary also contributed a lovely memory of a cool backyard wildlife encounter. She had a pet ferret that she kept in a rabbit hutch up in Toivola. She says, “I fed it cat food. When the gray jays found it, they would come in on silent wings to visit for treats - truly lovely birds.”

Gray Jay

Living right in Duluth, the only time I’ve ever seen Canada Jays in my backyard was during the amazing invasion of 1986, when the species was abundant in northern Minnesota and some individuals wandered even further, at least one making it to Murphy-Hanrehan Park in Scott county. All that winter, two or three visited me daily. So Mary triggered some lovely memories. 

I’m not sure what other critters my crows are going to call to my attention in the days and weeks ahead. I’m not going anywhere for the duration, but it’s fun to see what I can and to hear what others are seeing as well. Stay safe and well, dear reader.

American Robin

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Cacawphony

Crows cussing out a hidden Great Horned Owl

On Monday, I heard crows calling loudly, so I grabbed my binoculars and camera and headed a couple of blocks away to where a host of about 60 crows were gathered, screaming bloody murder, which is actually why this kind of gathering is called a "murder of crows." The cacophony, or in this case a cacawphony, was drawing in crows, one raven, and a couple of Blue Jays from far and wide, all because a Great Horned Owl was tucked into the dense upper branches of a big pine. I got a glimpse of the owl’s belly when the wind moved some of branches exactly right, but simply could not get a photo, though I of course photographed the crows. 

I knew the owl was somewhere in the neighborhood because I’d heard it calling the night before. Usually when crows mob an owl, it’s at least a little easier to get a good view of the owl, but this one was rooted in the thick branches. Occasionally one or two crows would go on a quick dive-bombing mission, but the owl was safer staying where it was than trying to get away from them. In flight by day, crows are faster and more maneuverable than owls. They would have followed it, stabbing it in midair, and then started up the harassment wherever the owl alighted all over again. 

The reason crows attack owls so vigorously is that Great Horned Owls kill crows by night, when crows in their roosts are usually immobile. I’ve heard in recent years that some people are noticing crows flying about at roosts throughout some nights, but those have all been at urban roosts in areas with light pollution. When I rehabbed adult crows and needed to replace bandages or otherwise handle them, I always did it in the room where I housed the crow, always dark at night, and I used a flashlight—even the feistiest crow by day was as docile as a dishrag by night.

Great Horned Owls that come upon a crow roost capitalize on that docility to sometimes kill a dozen or more. They aren’t actually eating crow, at least not the whole body—to minimize blood on their facial feathers, they tend to make a clean cut by lopping off the head and swallowing it whole. That’s why when a Great Horned Owl discovers a crow roost, it usually takes out several rather than just one. It’s also why when crows spot an owl roosting by day, they try to drive it off—not so much out of revenge or hatred but rather to prevent the owl from noticing where the crows head to roost at day’s end. The crows may or may not be thinking about this or doing it with intention, but they're certainly being crowactive. 
It was cold and windy out there, so I didn’t stay out long.

Crows cussing out a hidden Great Horned Owl

After making a short video and taking several photos of the crows, I headed home. I’d been hearing a distant cardinal, and as I got closer to home, started hearing a robin—the first one I’ve heard in 2020. It was making its low-grade alarm calls and looking pretty miserable sitting up in a bare tree. I took a few photos, and suddenly he broke into song! Oddly enough, although the song was perfect, he was singing it sotto voce. I made a very poor video, but the song was pretty quiet against the background noise.

FIrst robin of spring--crappy video, but he's singing!

I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the poor guy, out there on such a miserable day, but those first returning robins tend to be in very good physical shape when they leave their wintering ranges. Worms are staying deep in the frozen soil still, but robins can live for quite a while on berries alone, the main staple of their winter diets in many places. So seeing and hearing my first robin of spring was a most hopeful development. I may be stuck at home, but that was a genuinely joyful experience.

FIrst robin of spring

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Social Distancing while Birding

Elderhostel Birding
Camaraderie and sharing spotting scopes are big attractions to birding with friends. We can get back to these joys soon enough. 
I’m hearing via Facebook and birding listservs that a lot of people are getting out into the woods for birding, which seems like an excellent plan for social distancing, but the devil is in the details. Many parks, wildlife refuges, and other wonderful places have closed their facilities, including their restrooms, for the duration. If the bathrooms are closed, it is very bad, in every hygienic sense, for multiple people to be "using" the woods. When even a small percentage of people have bathroom emergencies while enjoying a park with closed facilities, it can be a serious problem. That is a big, and valid, reason why many parks are closed altogether.

Some birders have expressed outrage that their favorite birding spots are closed, and some have even boasted about parking and getting around or under entrance gates on foot. But very few people have the knowledge and carry the supplies to deal with their waste hygienically under normal conditions, much less when we’re in the middle of a health emergency. Imagine being the employees who will return after weeks or months, to clean up after scofflaws. When our favorite birding spots are closed, we need to make the best of it.

Dr. Peter Crosson, a birder and a medical doctor, wrote an extremely valuable post to a Massachusetts birding listserv, and he’s generously given me permission to quote it. He wrote:
In my non-birding day job I'm a physician, bracing for the ramping up of COVID cases and the horrifying specter of lives lost to this disease.  
It's become abundantly clear that this is a disease that needs to be beaten on the public health front, not at the bedside. As a member of a wonderful, vibrant birding community, with many birders "of a certain age," I feel the need to speak up a bit about our responsibilities to each other and to the country as a whole. 
As we've all heard, social distancing is key, and birding can be a wonderful form of social distancing. However, it's not social distancing when you are riding in the car with other birders who don't live with you. It's not social distancing when you are clustering in groups, and certainly not when you are sharing optics such as scopes. 
Anyone of us can be exposed to the virus through asymptomatic friends, so to restrict yourself to hanging out with people who have no symptoms is not enough. Since this began, I have gone birding once with another person. We met at the site, having come in separate cars. We kept 6 feet distance between us at all times, and did not share any optics. If you are not following procedures like that, you're not social distancing. It's also obviously important at more popular sites to avoid touching handrails that other people could be touching, as the virus can live on surfaces for up to three to five days. Frequent handwashing and use of at least 60% alcohol-based hand sanitizer is also crucial.   
It discourages me when I look on eBird and see multiple people reporting the same group checklist from a site. Maybe I am wrong, and they are all arriving in separate cars and keeping distance between themselves, but I doubt that's the case. We are at a tipping point in this crisis, and as an educated and caring group we need to commit to doing everything we can to stop COVID-19. If we lose one member of our birding community because of this virus, it will be a tragedy. Make no mistake, if we do not change our behavior, that is near certain.
Dr. Peter Crosson
It’s so hard to be dealing with this sudden massive disruption in our daily lives. Those of us who love birding are of course disappointed to be cutting back our activities right during the most thrilling time of year—spring migration, when we see so many wonderful birds when we can visit lots of habitat. Backyard birding may not be anywhere near as thrilling, but this is a time to appreciate tiny joys as we can. And building up a yard list has plenty of joys of its own. The more seriously we take social distancing now, the more of us will be able to get back into our favorite old birding practices next spring.

Northern Cardinal
Northern Cardinal photographed in my backyard.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

COVID-19: Home for the Duration

My little chickadee

I’m writing this on the Ides of March 2020, minutes after Minnesota Governor Walz declared that all of the schools in Minnesota will be closed as of Wednesday.

Pileated Woodpecker tongue!

I had a small speaking engagement at Duluth’s Wild Birds Unlimited yesterday. I wore a pair of lightweight gloves—the kind I wear when birding in the desert or tropics. They protect my hands from sun exposure, not germs, but are useful for reminding me not to touch my face or other people. But even with a very small group, I didn’t do a good job of maintaining my distance. One person grabbed and shook my hand, and I found myself hugging the store owner before I left.

Nesting Red-bellied Woodpeckers

Lesson learned. I’m in a high-risk group, both for my age and because of my recent heart attack, so I’m going to have to force myself to stay isolated. I’ll be going to go to cardiac rehab one more time this week, where I’ll copy down my exercise routine so I can do it all at home. If I go stir crazy, I’ll take a walk where few people go, but I’m going to minimize even that. Russ or I will need to get out now and then for supplies, but that’ll be it. Spring migration is just now kicking in in earnest, and I’ll be paying attention. As Rachel Carson wrote:
There is symbolic as well as actual beauty in the migration of the birds; in the ebb and flow of the tides; responding to sun and moon as they have done for millions of years; in the repose of the folded bud in winter, ready within its sheath for spring. There is something infinitely healing in these repeated refrains of nature, the assurance that night after night, dawn comes, and spring after winter. 
Fox Sparrow detail

Noted author Kenn Kaufman, who I am honored to call my friend, wrote this weekend:
I fully recognize the devastation being caused by the Covid-19 outbreak and by efforts to contain it, and I'm not making light of the situation by suggesting that people should just go birding. But I believe that in deeply challenging times, it is good for the soul to get outdoors and connect with the natural world. Being out in the open air, away from crowds, also reduces our risk of contracting or spreading the virus. And taking time to immerse ourselves in the beauty of nature can help to reduce our stress levels, thus strengthening our total health in the long run. 
At this point in mid-March the spring migration of birds is well under way across most of the Northern Hemisphere, and it will continue through the end of May. Waterfowl are among the first major groups of birds to move north. Right now, Lesser Scaup are showing up on lakes, rivers, and coastal bays all across North America, along with many other migratory ducks. They will be followed by other groups of birds, in a regular sequence, peaking with colorful warblers and other songbirds in late April and May. In a challenging time when so much is unknown and unpredictable, we may take some comfort in seeing how these seasonal patterns in nature play out in the same reliable way year after year.
Red-breasted Nuthatch

I won’t be taking very many walks out there, but even hunkering at home, I’ll be enjoying birds. Starting today, every day I’ll be posting at least one nature photo that I took in my own backyard, now or in the past.

Dark-eyed Junco

Just about anyone with a window can enjoy something of nature. After my heart attack in January, I could see Bald Eagles out the window from my hospital bed. And over the years, I’ve seen at least 20 species from the windows of my daughter’s Brooklyn apartments. Over even more years, I’ve heard from countless shut-ins dealing with injuries, cancer, and other illnesses and difficult life situations who felt a healing balm from watching wildlife out the window or in their backyards.

White-tailed Deer

This weekend, Turner Classic Movies showed The Diary of Anne Frank, which put my hunkering down in my home in perspective as I thought about what Anne Frank endured hiding in an attic for two years in such close, constant contact in tight quarters with 7 other people. Even with the constant day-to-day irritations and the ever-present, consuming terror of Nazis discovering them, she wrote:
The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quiet, alone with the heavens, nature and God. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be and that God wishes to see people happy, amidst the simple beauty of nature. As long as this exists, and it certainly always will, I know that then there will always be comfort for every sorrow, whatever the circumstances may be. And I firmly believe that nature brings solace in all troubles.
Bohemian Waxwing

Friday, March 13, 2020

A Bad Proposal Regarding the Duck Stamp

Painted Bunting
This Painted Bunting was photographed at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge in Florida
I started birding in 1975 when I was a student at Michigan State University. I took a few wildlife-management courses taught by professors who did cooperative research with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources studying game birds. When I started a campus birding club, the faculty sponsor who helped me set it up was a wildlife ecology professor who focused on waterfowl management for hunters.

Piping Plover
Piping Plover at Trustom Pond National Wildlife Refuge in Rhode Island
I've never had the slightest inclination to be a hunter myself, but from the very start of my birding life, much of the training that shaped my sensibilities was from hunters. And one of the most important things I learned was that I must buy a federal Duck Stamp every year.

The first Federal Duck Stamp, issued in 1934.
Duck Stamps are the primary source of revenue for habitat acquisition for the National Wildlife Refuge system, and I had so many memorable experiences at wildlife refuges and wildlife management areas since I started birding that I've been committed to supporting them. And the Duck Stamps were so pretty! The artwork is selected each year via a major contest. Usually it’s a closeup of one or a pair of ducks in the water or a lovely closeup of ducks winging through the sky, but competition in the Duck Stamp contest is so keen that every year’s winner is simply gorgeous.

Snowy Owl
Snowy Owl at Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge, Rhode Island
Waterfowl hunters are legally required to get a federal Duck Stamp annually. To use it for hunting you’re expected to sign your name on it. Because they’re so beautiful, a great many hunters buy two—one to serve as their federal hunting license and one to keep. Many non-hunters buy them, too—both collectors and people like me, who understand their importance for funding habitat acquisition. The Duck Stamp also serves as free admission to National Wildlife Refuges. Again, you’re supposed to sign yours to use it like this, but because the Stamp revenues go toward new habitat acquisition, not regular operating expenses, and because I like to support the refuges I visit, I always pay admission even when my Duck Stamp is in my wallet.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker at Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin
Back during the Bush era, more and more of the money from Duck Stamps stopped going toward outright buying of habitat, as wealthy landowners pressured the government to lease their lands and more and more politicians wanted to reduce government and cut back government land ownership. This gave the landowners lots of money each year with the option to stop leasing in the future if they found a more lucrative way of developing the land, which ironically was precisely what the National Wildlife Refuge system had been set up to avoid—the program was originally focused on the long-term well-being of wildlife, not a means for short-term profits for landowners. But habitat is habitat, and I hoped that eventually people would start looking more to the future again, and so I kept buying my annual Duck Stamp. Duck hunters of course kept buying them, collectors bought them, and lots of other birders and wildlife photographers did as well. It’s a system that has worked since Roosevelt signed the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act, or the Duck Stamp Act, in 1934. It was always a system most focused on duck hunters, and it’s always been a system that welcomes everyone else who loves wildlife, too.

American Avocet
American Avocet at Quivira National Wildlife Refuge in Kansas
My brother was a duck hunter and I have many duck hunting friends. They often have duck art on their walls—the vast majority being of beautiful scenes with wild ducks swimming or flying. Occasionally they display artwork with a retriever, sometimes carrying a dead duck, but the vast majority of artwork I’ve seen hunters display is of wild habitat and wild, living ducks. My brother had a male and female of each duck species he'd hunted stuffed by a taxidermist, every one of them in a life-like pose. Clearly, living ducks in natural settings are appealing to duck hunters and non-hunters.

Golden-cheeked Warbler
Golden-cheeked Warbler at Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge in Texas
In 2018, the Duck Stamp art contest had the theme “celebrating our waterfowl hunting heritage.” To accomplish this, the 2018 contest regulations required the mandatory inclusion of “appropriate hunting-related accessories and/or scenes.” The stamp that won depicted a Wood Duck with a decoy. That was a fine way to remind us all that the Duck Stamp is required by all hunters, who thus provide important habitat funding.

This was the Duck Stamp for 2019, with that year's required "hunting element," the decoy. Hunting elements have always been optional in Duck Stamp art. But they should not be made mandatory every year. 
This year, in what feels like an unprecedented attempt to create unnecessary divisions between hunters and non-hunters, the Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing a new regulation to permanently require all Duck Stamp art every year to relate specifically to hunting. 

Prothonotary Warbler
Prothonotary Warbler at Little River National Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma
These limits will decrease rather than expand sales of the Duck Stamp, which have already been declining from the high of 2.4 million in 1970-71 to 1.5 million in 2017-18, as the number of hunters has declined. The beautiful wild ducks in natural scenes that appeal to non-hunters are just as appealing to hunters. At this critical time, as the numbers of hunters dwindle, we need to broaden the support of the Duck Stamp to include even more birders, photographers, and other non-consumptive citizens who value land protection. The hunters I’ve talked to agree. This pending proposal is a step backward and should not be implemented.

Gambel's Quail
Gambel's Quail at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico

The comment period for this proposed rule ends March 16, so we don't have much time, but please let the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service know that it's important to remember how conservation is the whole point of the Duck Stamp, even embedded in its official name: the "Federal Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp."  

Federal Duck Stamp issued 2018.
Please submit a comment stating that you oppose this new regulation, not because you're against hunting but because the Duck Stamp should keep its focus on waterfowl conservation and habitat to encourage as many people as possible to buy Duck Stamps each year. Go to the Federal Register's website "Revision of Federal Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp (Duck Stamp) Contest Regulations" and click on the green button near the top "Submit a Formal Comment" by Monday, March 16. Your comment doesn't need to be long or eloquent. Just say no. 


Monday, March 2, 2020

The Heartbreak of Caring

Marge Gibson and Pip!
Marge Gibson with my dog Pip
My treasured friend Marge Gibson, the founder and director of the Raptor Education Group, Inc. in Antigo, Wisconsin, has been facing a lot of heartbreak lately. Even as she grieves the death of her beloved husband, a few weeks ago, Marge received a female Trumpeter Swan that had been run down by a snowmobile in Portage County—the driver actually seems to have cut off the bird's thick plastic neck collar as a trophy! The swan suffered such extreme liver damage on top of all its other injuries that it died. 

Marge is also treating a Canada goose with a clipped wing—the bird had obviously been held in captivity. That poor thing was captured last week near a school in Kellner, WI—it had been beaten on the head and body, and suffering a level of starvation so acute that so far it can’t even digest liquid food. It’s still in critical condition.

And last week Marge had to drive through a snowstorm to pick up an adult female Bald Eagle that had been shot. Despite everything Marge’s professional team could do, the eagle died. Another bald eagle died the week previous after being shot and hit by a vehicle.




Marge told me that REGI treated 24 patients that were shot last year, including three eagles, two loons, and 2 Trumpeter swans. This is above and beyond the birds she’s dealt with that were suffering from lead poisoning after scavenging on carcasses shot with lead ammo, or waterfowl and loons picking up lead shot or lead fishing tackle from lake bottoms. Marge Gibson told me that ¼ of all of the hundred or so eagles she takes in each year are suffering from lead poisoning. That’s on top of the many loons, Trumpeter swans, vultures, and other raptors that have lead poisoning. REGI had to buy their own lead analyzer because they treat so many. After testing positive, the drugs essential for chelation to get the lead out of each and every victim costs between $500 and $1000, and that’s not counting any of that bird's care, housing, and food for the minimum of six months recovery.

We have known for generations how dangerous lead is. Indeed, we know the meat from deer shot with lead bullets can be contaminated by virtually invisible lead particles when bullets fragment in what’s called a “snowstorm,” endangering the families of hunters as well as the hunters themselves. Gut piles the hunters leave behind, if they contain any lead shot or bullet fragments, will poison scavengers (such as Bald Eagles) that eat them. And we know that waterfowl and loons pick up lead sinkers and other tackle that ends up in the water.

Yet even though it affects the hunting and fishing communities' families as well as their own health and that of wildlife, hunters and anglers insist they have the right to keep using these toxic substances, both on public and private lands. In 1991, following a bitter two-decade battle, lead shot was finally banned for waterfowl hunting, but deer, small game, and upland game birds can still be legally hunted with lead in most places, and anglers still use lead tackle. Right now, the Madison, Wisconsin, police department is pleading with local anglers to stop using lead tackle after rescuers picked up one lead-poisoned swan in January 2019 and another in February 2020 on Lake Mendota. And right now, the Minnesota DNR is asking anglers to please use non-lead tackle, so they won’t poison so much wildlife. They've been asking this politely for decades. Meanwhile, the loss of loons and other birds continues unabated. The loss of wildlife is unconscionable, and the expense—financial and emotional—that rehabbers and rescuers pay is enormous.

It’s selfish negligence on the part of hunters and anglers who keep adding more lead to the natural environment. But many of the cases Marge Gibson has been dealing with lately are even more sinister. Shooting eagles is not the kind of thing hunters do—this wanton destruction is egregiously illegal. And the bizarre cruelty involved in not just running down a swan on a snowmobile but slicing off its neckband, or beating a goose on the head and body, is sociopathic.

Reconciling the pain and suffering birds go through with how very preventable most of their situations are is what makes wildlife rehab so frustrating and heartbreaking. And when it’s outright, pathological cruelty—so much extreme suffering witnessed far too often by the people who give their heart and soul trying to salvage what they can, it reaches a level beyond heartbreaking.

Imagine dealing with these tragedies day after day, week after week, month after month. REGI cares for 900–1000 birds a year, a hundred of them Bald Eagles. I lasted little more than a decade as a wildlife rehabber before burning out, while Marge Gibson has been at it her whole adult life. Fortunately, she has the expertise, commitment, facility, and staff at the Raptor Education Group to enjoy a very high a success rate. I read about the releases when Marge sends a Bald Eagle or Trumpeter Swan flying high in the sky once again. A week ago at the Buena Vista Marsh, Marge released a Snowy Owl and two Rough-legged Hawks back into the wild. Those successes are of course why she does it. But the suffering she witnesses, the birds who can’t be restored to life—those tragedies take a toll. The people saving pennies on lead ammo and fishing tackle have no clue what is involved in cleaning up their messes. And the disgusting sociopaths who shoot protected birds, or beat them, or run them down in snowmobiles—as Mark Twain put it, they’re enough to make a body ashamed of the human race.

Both the Minnesota and Wisconsin DNRs have TIP lines if you have any information on the shooting of native/protected wildlife. You can remain anonymous, though providing your name can be helpful in the successful prosecution of offenders.

Minnesota Turn in Poachers (TIP): 800-652-9093
Wisconsin DNR Hotline 1-800-TIP-WDNR or 1-800-847-9367

And please consider supporting the work REGI does.