Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Evening Grosbeaks

Evening Grosbeak in box elder tree

2020 has been a nightmare year in a great many ways, but one saving grace for birders has been what’s called a “finch superflight.” Matthew Young, president and founder of the Finch Research Network, wrote a post about it for the American Birding Association’s Field Ornithology website:

In superflight years, the search for food will drive southward representatives from all eight species: Pine Siskin, Common Redpoll, Hoary Redpoll, Purple Finch, Pine Grosbeak, Evening Grosbeak, Red Crossbill, and White-winged Crossbill. This year, Red-breasted Nuthatches began the march in the early to mid-summer, ultimately ending up in Mexico, and then an enormous push of finches in late summer into fall began to show up at migratory hotspots like the Tadoussac Bird Observatory in Qu├ębec; the Higbee Beach Wildlife Management Area in Cape May, New Jersey; and Hawk Ridge in Duluth, Minnesota. By mid-fall, a Common Redpoll had shown up in Albuquerque, New Mexico; Evening Grosbeaks were spotted in the Florida Panhandle; Pine Siskins headed out over the ocean to Bermuda; and Hoary Redpolls visited Cleveland, Ohio.

From August through November at Hawk Ridge, just above my own neighborhood in Duluth, Pine Siskins were wonderfully abundant, with 11,542 counted. More than 2,000 White-winged Crossbills and Purple Finches flew by along with more than 1,000 Common Redpolls and Pine Grosbeaks. Sadly, even in this exceptional year, only a paltry 52 Evening Grosbeaks flew by.  

Common Redpoll

Bazillions of Pine Siskins and Purple Finches visited my yard in late summer and fall. My first redpoll showed up at my feeder on October 20, and several small redpoll flocks stopped by in November, but not one since December began. And as closely as I paid attention, being home every single day because of the pandemic, I didn’t see a single Evening Grosbeak all autumn. 

I’ve been yearning for flocks of Evening Grosbeaks in my yard for decades. Abundant as they were when we moved here in 1981, I haven’t seen them regularly in my yard since the mid-1990s, and the only time I had an appreciable number since the turn of the century was in 2011, starting on August 4, the morning after Russ was released from the hospital after surgery. We both slept poorly that night, and I’d have been groggy except that the very first sounds I heard when I woke up were the sweet calls of Evening Grosbeaks. I sprang from my bed, and away to the window I flew like a flash, when what to my wondering eyes should appear but a group of 16 individuals belonging to 2 or 3 family groups, the juveniles still begging from adults. They gave both of us such balm for our souls. 

Evening Grosbeak

They went to my birdbath and my feeders, and mainly stayed in my boxelders eating bazillions of seeds. 

Evening Grosbeak in box elder tree

For two weeks the flock stayed in my yard or adjacent ones virtually all the time. After August 18th or so, appearances became more sporadic, and they vanished for good in early September. 

When we moved to Peabody Street in 1981, Evening Grosbeaks were a staple. I saw them at least a bit every month of the year, most abundantly from late July or August through April or May. We were going through 50 or even 100 pounds of sunflower seed every week in fall and winter. No one knows exactly why they disappeared. There are suggestions that their astonishing abundance in northern Minnesota in the 1960s through the 80s was an exceptional bump rather than normal for them, but in 1936, T.S. Roberts wrote in The Birds of Minnesota that they nest in coniferous forests of northern Minnesota and were regular in winter throughout the southern part of the state.  

A lot of factors are implicated in their decrease, including pesticide applications to kill spruce budworm, which is an important food source during nesting; managing northern forests for short rotation aspens rather than the hardwoods that produce their favorite seeds; and all kinds of other problems we humans cause. Evening Grosbeaks are killed in window collisions much more than other birds, are killed by cars when drawn to roads for salt and grit, and may even have been hurt as eastern gray squirrels expanded northward. I never thought about that one until this summer. My maples and boxelders produced plenty of seeds, but squirrels devoured them all within weeks. 

Gray Squirrel
Squirrel eating a box elder seed

One reliable group of grosbeaks is seen regularly in the Sax-Zim Bog each winter, but we can’t count on seeing them in other places up here. 

Whatever the cause of the Evening Grosbeak’s decline up here, it remains one of my top ten birds. I’ll make at least one trip to the bog this winter in order to see them for 2021, and I’ll keep my fingers crossed that during this finch superflight, at least a few Evening Grosbeaks flying along the North Shore take it into their heads to visit my yard. That’s my New Year’s wish. 

Evening Grosbeak

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Eagle "Rebirth" redux

Bald Eagle 

Back in 2017, after a bizarre video about eagle “rebirth” went viral, people started flooding me with questions about whether it was true.  According to the video, when an eagle is in its 40s, its long and flexible talons can no longer grab prey, its long sharp beak becomes bent, and its "old-aged, heavy wings become stuck to the bird’s chest making it impossible to fly." At this point, it has two options—die or go through a painful period of change that lasts 150 days. Despite those stuck wings, it magically flies to a mountaintop where it knocks its beak against a rock until it plucks it out. After a new beak grows in, it plucks out its talons and all its feathers. After this rebirthing ordeal, the renewed eagle takes off and lives for 30 more years, apparently hiding out from bird banders and the US Geological Survey Bird Banding Laboratory for the rest of its life so no one will ever confirm its longevity.  

I wrote a blog post debunking every bit of the video, focusing on the Bald Eagle’s basic biology and natural history.  The American Birding Association’s Rick Wright did a blog post about the historical underpinnings of the myth. And in the way that viral videos go, eventually people stopped emailing me about it.   

Then this weekend, in 2020, I received an email from a man in St Vincent and the Grenadines in the Caribbean, who wrote:   

In our morning devotions today, my wife read a scripture about the eagle renewing its strength.  I wanted to find out more about that subject so I checked the internet and found your transcript commenting on the slides entitled as captioned, and I chuckled all the way through.  

I also noted from your article the absence of information (documented or from personal experience) on the actual rebirth process.  Is this a myth or is it factual?   

Eagle "rebirth" is entirely mythical. A great many eagles have been banded as nestlings, and tracked through life, and this simply doesn't happen to them. Birds struggle through life as we humans do, and those lucky enough to grow old eventually die just as we humans do. People have always created myths about animals, such as that owls foretell a death, or a bird flying into a house is an omen. Augurs once told people's fortunes by killing birds and looking at their entrails.   

We humans often long for a chance to start afresh. Myths about the Phoenix rising from the ashes and the eagle "rebirth" are meant to give us hope, and are often retold around the winter solstice, when nights are longest and darkest and we most long for light and rebirth—that's what New Year’s resolutions are all about. Every bird molts its feathers, a kind of rebirth. The beak and claws of captive birds often become overgrown and require trimming, but in nature, birds keep their bill and claw growth in check except in unique cases. Overgrown bills in chickadees in Alaska are caused by a novel picornavirus, and can happen to the birds at any age, but they don't have a magical rebirth to shed that overgrown bill.   

It's comforting to imagine that eagles, and we, can be physically reborn, but I've found that watching and learning about real eagles in their natural habits is even lovelier and more comforting. Many of the naturalists of the 18th and 19th centuries studied animals specifically to better understand and appreciate God's creation. For them, learning about nature was a profoundly religious experience, drawing them closer to the creator. I wish people who were still promoting these animal myths would learn from their example.

Bald Eagle

Monday, December 28, 2020

Christmas Bird Count 2020

Madison Audubon Christmas Bird Count 1979
Madison CBC Compilation, 1979

In December, 1976, I did my first Christmas Bird Count, in Madison, Wisconsin. It immediately became a treasured annual tradition. After doing four bird counts in Madison, we moved to Duluth in 1981 and I switched to the Duluth counts. My daughter Katie was born on December 10, 1983. We came home from the hospital on the 13th, but I wasn’t nearly ready to participate in that year’s count on the 17th. That was the only year I missed until Katie was in college and needed a ride home from Oberlin right on the weekend of the count. I also had to miss in 2008 and 2009 when I was working at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Since then, I’ve missed several counts due to spending time with Katie in New York. 

The Christmas Bird Count is a sacred tradition for a great many birders—some even do several year after year. As much as I love both the feeling of tradition and doing the actual count, I never felt too bad missing it for my daughter. 

Now, thanks to the pandemic, Katie and her husband refugeed to Duluth to live with us for the duration. If it were still just the two of them, I’d have been able to do the bird count on December 20, with modifications for social distancing but sort of close to normal, but there’s also a new baby in the picture. I spend at least a couple of hours with Walter every morning, after Katie feeds him, so she and Michael can get a bit of uninterrupted sleep. 

And this year, because of the pandemic, we’re being extra cautious anyway. Russ and I are both pushing 70, putting us at higher risk, and my heart attack this past January puts me at even more risk. No way would we consider putting a baby and nursing mother at risk with carelessness, so I didn’t go out with my usual Christmas Bird Count group. Janet Riegle, who does a much better job of leading the group covering our count area than I did anyway, did most of the route with JR Kelsey while I kept track of the few birds at my feeder during my precious Walter time. Then Russ and I took a nice walk to cover at least a couple miles of our count area.  

Black-capped Chickadee in Northern White-Cedar
Black-capped Chickadee on our CBC route, a few blocks from home.
Bald Eagle
Russ's and my Bald Eagle on the CBC

We didn’t see any species that other people hadn’t also seen, with only 6 species on our walk—a Bald Eagle was the only one I hadn’t seen in my own yard. And my yard list was pretty paltry, too—just 9 species, the best being Red-bellied and Pileated Woodpeckers.

So my contribution was pretty paltry, but the overall Duluth Christmas Bird Count results were surprisingly good. Two never-before-seen species were added to the official count list—Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and Eastern Screech-Owl. My dear friend Erik Bruhnke planted himself at Hawk Ridge all day, where he counted a record-smashing 83 Bald Eagles. Other birders tallied 44 eagles, but only individuals that were unlikely to have passed by Hawk Ridge were included in the day’s final tally of 112. This year’s 36 Pileated Woodpeckers tallied broke the previous record of 34 set in 2007.

Other splendid birds found on count day included California Gull, Great Gray Owl, and Townsend’s Solitaire. Tim Dawson had a Brown Thrasher at his feeder—a December sighting of that bird, one of my very favorite species, would be a thrill, but there were already 10 previous Duluth Christmas Bird Count sightings of that one. Two Northern Flickers were also tallied, the 10th time for that species. Janet found a Hermit Thrush in our count area—had I been part of my usual group, it would have been the first I’d ever seen on a Christmas Bird Count.

There were more Rough-legged Hawks than usual—11, the third highest total ever—which makes sense in a year when so many were tallied from Hawk Ridge in the fall. Common Ravens, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, House Finches, White-winged Crossbills, and Bohemian Waxwings were all seen in above normal numbers. And the species that have been steady in my backyard—Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers and both nuthatches—were counted in much higher numbers this year than last year. 

The Sax-Zim Bog count on December 14 broke its all-time record with 39 species, including a first-time-ever Red-bellied Woodpecker. 

One of my favorite counts, though I’ve only been able to participate a handful of times over the years, the Isabella count, takes place on Saturday, January 2. I won’t be participating thanks to the pandemic and grandma duties, but one of my favorite annual winter traditions is reading Steve Wilson’s wonderful pre-count invitation and then his post-count summary. The Christmas Bird Count season lasts through January 5. 

During this once-in-a-lifetime emergency, it’s lovely to maintain the traditions we can, even if they must be modified so we can protect each other. If people stay prudent about social distancing and getting vaccinated as their turns come up, next year I may be back doing Christmas Bird Counts the normal way. But even when family priorities keep me from fully participating, it’s always fun keeping track of what other people are seeing. 

I hope you’re having a lovely, if subdued, holiday season, too. Stay safe and well, dear listener. 

Monday, December 21, 2020

About clocks, including a cuckoo clock, but not about birds

Russ and Laura 50 years after our first date

My husband Russ has an amazing track record for gift-giving. For the first anniversary of our first date, he gave me my Snoopy.  

Snoopy's 46th birthday!

When we had absolutely no budget for gifts, both being students, he told his mom to get me binoculars and a field guide for Christmas 1974. 

Laura's new binoculars!

When I was still going to the University of Illinois in 1970, he gave me a steeple clock. We’ve had to replace the movement a few times, but here it is in my office. 

Steeple clock

And for Christmas 1975, he gave me a wonderful cuckoo clock. 

Cuckoo Clock

I've always been inordinately fond of clocks. I think it started after my uncle, who'd been stationed in Germany for a few years in the 1950s, brought back an anniversary clock for my parents. How I loved watching it, mesmerized by the little balls turning one way and then the other! Russ and I saw a clock similar to it once when we were dating, and I said it reminded me of the one from my uncle, but that the one from my uncle had the word “Kundo” on the face. My parents had thrown it out long before—anniversary clocks are notoriously finicky, and they tired of fussing with it. 

So what to my wondering eyes should appear when I opened my present from Russ on the Christmas before we got married but what I’m pretty sure was the exact same model as that beloved clock! 

Living up to the reputation of an anniversary clock, mine has always been a little finicky, and when we moved to Duluth in 1981, a big chunk broke off its glass dome, but it remains one of my treasured possessions. I was once good friends with a man who could repair just about any clock, but he did not like working with anniversary clocks both because they’re so temperamental and because most people who own them lack the patience to start them up over and over and over until the mechanism catches and the clock keeps going on its own.

In other words, most people aren’t insane enough to want to operate an anniversary clock, at least by the definition that insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result. Once the clock does finally keep going on its own, it can keep running for a full year (hence the name “anniversary clock”) as long as you don’t knock into the table or dresser it’s on or have to move it. 

I had to stop my anniversary clock a few weeks ago, and since it’s been almost a year since I last wound it, I decided I might as well get that over with so I wouldn’t need to stop it again until the end of 2021. That was on December 1. Ever since then, at least two times a day, usually three or four times and sometimes six or seven, I’ve been starting the clock by turning the pendulum around and around and letting it go. It takes about 15 minutes for it to wind down if it doesn’t “catch,” and each time I started it, the next time I walked into the room, it had stopped yet again, so I tried yet again. Exactly the same thing over and over for 19 days, at least 70 or 80 times in total, each time expecting a different result. And then yesterday, voila!

Whether it’s patience or insanity, I’m glad I stuck with it. I try not to be too materialistic, but I love my clock. 

Anniversary clock

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Buying Binoculars

Laura's new binoculars!

A lot of people ask me for recommendations for binoculars. Back when I had a job with an optics retailer, I used to keep track of the various brands and models, but I don’t have access to test models anymore, and my focus has always really been birds rather than equipment.   

I used to feel a little weird when people would call about a rumored new high-end product coming out a right after they’d bought a competing high-end brand, asking if I thought it would be worth it to exchange their new binoculars for even newer ones. I wanted so badly to ask why the heck they were still reading about binoculars when they had a brand new pair they should have been using—Why would anyone with excellent binoculars waste their time sitting around reading ever more material about optics when they could be out there using them to look at birds?  


Even though I don’t keep track of brands and models anymore, my recommendations are pretty much what they’ve always been. My own favorites back when I could compare were Zeisses, and now I have their top-tier Zeiss SFs, but I could never have afforded them on my own—they were a gift. I’d make a blanket recommendation of Zeiss for people who can easily afford them except that I know too many people who prefer Swarovskis or Kowas—I can’t fairly compare because I haven’t tried recent models of any other binoculars. A lot of rock star birders get sponsored by optics companies. They wear branded baseball caps and other swag and strongly recommend their sponsoring brand, but the vast majority of them have not made fair comparisons.   

The truth remains, as it has since I was evaluating binoculars, that the jump in discernable quality between $300 models and $3,000 models isn’t nearly as big as the jump between $50 binoculars and $300 ones. I absolutely believe that you should never spend more than you can comfortably afford—if you do, you’ll be afraid something bad will happen to them and will be less likely to bring them when you’re canoeing or biking. We did spend my family’s entire discretionary income in 1988 when I bought my first high-end binoculars, because I was counting birds and my eyes got seriously fatigued at the end of an 8-hour stretch looking up at the blue sky before eyeglasses had UV protection and my binoculars were slightly out of alignment. But those pretty cheap pocket binoculars had served me just fine for well over a decade. Now that I’m photographing birds, I’d put the lion’s share of my discretionary income into an excellent camera and lens—most of the birds I look at through optics nowadays are seen via my camera, not my binoculars anyway. A great many beginning birders also want photos of the birds they see.     

If you are economizing on binoculars, remember that the quality of the lens coatings and quality glass for any price point are directly related to the magnification power. So if you’re buying a less expensive pair, you’ll get clearer optics the lower the power of a given brand and model. I’d never even consider getting inexpensive 10-power binoculars—for the cost of a given model, 7x or 8x would be much better.   

Also remember that light gathering increases directly with the size of the outer, or objective, lens, and the higher the power, the more light you need. A good rule is to make sure the second number (the diameter of that objective lens in millimeters) should be at least four and, even better, five times the first number—the magnification power. So 7x28 or 7x35 is comparable in brightness to 8x32 or 8x40, or to 10x40 or 10x50. But the bigger that second number is, the heavier the binoculars are. Heavy binoculars are much more comfortable to use when you have them on a harness rather than a neck strap.   

Once you buy a pair of binoculars, don’t waste energy second-guessing your decision. Get out there and use them. Don’t spend time studying other models until you’re ready to buy a second pair. I have my older binoculars set at windows overlooking our feeders so if I notice an interesting bird when I’m glancing out, binoculars will be right there where I need them. Birding optics are a useful tool, so use them to get out there and use them. 

Laura and John Richardson
Laura in Arizona last year with the wonderful John Richardson.
(I strongly recommend his guiding services!) 
Notice that we're both lugging binoculars and a camera. 

Monday, December 14, 2020

Bird feeding ideas

Pileated Woodpecker

Gift giving for bird lovers and for birds often involves feeders and feeding supplies. Some of my feeders, both homemade and store-bought, have lasted a decade or longer while others haven’t lasted more than a few months. It’s reasonable to expect a feeder to stand up to squirrels, large woodpeckers, and weather systems. Some feeders are sold as “bear resistant.” My mother-in-law had a few of these, and some did stay functional after a bear pulled them down and emptied them. Others we aren’t sure about because the bear ran off with them. 

Some inexpensive feeders stand up to heavy use. A suet cage constructed of plastic-coated hardware cloth is usually a very good deal. My father-in-law used to make ours from regular hardware cloth, but I think plastic covering the metal is safer for birds and any flying squirrels that come under cloak of darkness. 

Suet is technically the hard, white fat around the kidneys and loins. Back when I started feeding birds in the 1970s, butchers in just about every grocery store gave it away for free, and they were also happy to get rid of other fat trimmings. Now few groceries even sell, much less give away, suet and fat trimmings. Suet cakes are now big business, and are sold at bird feeding stores and a lot of hardware, gardening, and big box stores. 

Some suet cakes are better than others. For a while now, I’ve been using “Super Suet” cakes from Duluth’s Wild Birds Unlimited store. In addition to my everyday chickadees, nuthatches, and Hairy, Downy, Pileated, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers, I’ve occasionally had warblers, Fox Sparrows, and a redpoll and a couple of Pine Siskins coming to the Super Suet. 

Leucistic Yellow-rumped Warbler

Since the years when I could get real suet for free or a nominal price, I’ve never had as good luck with plain store-bought suet cakes as when other ingredients are added, unless those other ingredients are cheap seeds like oats and red millet. Fruits, dried mealworms, and sunflower chips are excellent ingredients. I do sometimes buy these kinds of products with corn or peanuts added, but I keep track of the birds using them. When corn or peanuts get wet, they can mold, producing aflatoxins, which are extremely toxic. Corn and peanuts sold for human, pet, or livestock consumption must be certified as aflatoxin-free, but there is no such legal requirement for corn or peanuts sold for wildlife consumption, including bird feeding. I’ve been complaining about this for decades, but in a world where the very term “government regulation” freaks people out, I’m not expecting that to change during my lifetime. Meanwhile, I buy whole peanuts only from the grocery store so I am certain they’ll be safe. 

My personal friendly Blue Jay getting a payoff

But speaking of peanuts, a pair of local Blue Jays is spending the winter. All summer and during migration, I was bringing out peanuts several times a day, and a few jays and my crow family started associating me with them. Now when I take my dog out each morning, I put a handful of peanuts on my big platform feeder and whistle—that draws in the crows. The jays aren’t always around then, and their timing in my yard is not as predictable, so I bought a peanut feeder from Wild Birds Unlimited. It’s constructed of thin wire in a loose spiral. I hook it into a donut-shape and fill it with peanuts through the open ends. My crows haven’t investigated this at all—I’m not sure the wire could easily support them without wobbling too much—but my Blue Jays easily alight on it and pull the peanuts out, and chickadees occasionally work at opening a peanut shell through the wire to pull out peanut kernels. 

Black-capped Chickadee

I have good squirrel baffles on the three poles supporting most of my feeders, though a few acrobatic squirrels occasionally figure out ways to get into the feeders anyway. Russ made the baffles long ago, and thanks to the wonders of duct tape, they're still working. They don't work on our old swing set, where I usually hang one or two nyger seed feeders because the squirrels don't seem to go for that. My only commercial squirrel baffle hangs above a suet feeder on that swing set, but some squirrels manage to get past that, too. A large safety pin holding the top of a suet cage closed can at least keep squirrels from pulling out the whole cake. 

Wild Birds Unlimited bird feeding station

Until this year, I’ve always shied away from suet cakes laced with capsaicin, the chemical that gives hot peppers their hotness and repels squirrels and other mammals. Birds can’t taste capsaicin, or at least aren’t repelled by it, but  I was always afraid that if they couldn’t taste it, they might eat enough to irritate the moist tissues in their mouth and esophagus. 

But as it turns out, the pepper plants that naturally produce capsaicin do so specifically to attract birds while banishing mammals. These plants have fairly soft seeds that get crushed and destroyed by chewing mammals. Birds swallow berries and small fruits whole and bite off and swallow larger chunks of fruits such as peppers without chewing them, allowing most of the seeds go through their digestive system intact. Wild pepper plants evolved specific bird-attracting features, such as the bright red color of their fruits, specifically to attract birds to eat them and spread their seeds widely—if the capsaicin was actually bad for birds, they’d have adapted to avoid them long ago. 

Now that I know this, this season I put out some squirrel-repellant suet cakes without a squirrel baffle. Immediately one squirrel jumped on and started eating, and almost instantly it jumped off. Meanwhile, I’ve had lots of chickadees feeding on it, along with both nuthatches and, so far, Hairy, Downy, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers.  

Suet cakes with a good assortment of nuts, fruits, and sunflower chips are expensive, and unless they have capsaicin, they will attract squirrels. I put one Wild Birds Unlimited “No Mess Seed Cylinder” out on our old swing-set frame with a good squirrel baffle to protect it, and all four of my woodpecker species are using it a lot as well as my chickadees and nuthatches. I had my trail cam camera set on a tripod to catch the action, but a couple of squirrels started climbing up the tripod and jumping on the feeder from the camera itself, so you’ll just have to take my word about this. 

Red-bellied Woodpecker at my new feeders

For the past couple weeks, I’ve been testing a few other food types from Wild Birds Unlimited. My birds seem to really like their Winter Super Blend, but I haven’t seen any takers yet at the butter bark.  

Wild Birds Unlimited bird feeding station

If you buy just a single kind of seed in winter, black-oil sunflower is best. During migration, when I’m not having problems with rats, I scatter white millet on the ground to attract a wide assortment of native sparrows—that’s not necessary or useful this far north, but is a good strategy for people with lots of juncos or other native sparrows unless House Sparrows are an issue (it’s been years since I’ve had any in my yard). Red millet and other fillers are not just a waste of money where few local birds eat them—they can be outright harmful when uneaten seeds start molding, leading to disease outbreaks unless you clear them out frequently, which few people bother to do.  

Some of the feeders we put bird food into are better values than others, and some are better for birds than others. Flimsily constructed wood feeders waste both money and natural resources, and flimsily constructed plastic feeders exact an additional waste of the fossil fuels used to produce the plastic in the first place. Some feeders are made of recycled plastic. Sturdy tube feeders, especially those with metal ports, can last for many years. Cages around feeders can sometimes keep gray or fox squirrels out, but red squirrels squeeze right into most of them and seem to enjoy how the cage keeps them out of reach of the bigger guys. Feeders with weighted perches to exclude squirrels may also exclude Pileated Woodpeckers, Mourning Doves, and other desirable species.  

Pileated Woodpecker

Window feeders with plastic suction cups can be wonderful—that’s how I always offered mealworms for my chickadees when I was in my old office with the crank-out window right next to my desk. You need to wait for a day that isn’t too much below freezing to get suction cups to stick, and even in summer they won’t hold on forever. To have any luck at all, the window glass must be freshly clean. Then I either rub my thumb around and around the inner surfaces of the suction cups to warm them and possibly coat them with skin oils or I soak them in hot water and leave them wet when I stick them on the window. Sometimes they stick well on my first attempt, but sometimes it takes several frustrating tries.  

Evening Grosbeak family group

I don’t solicit products to evaluate and usually shy away from commercial endorsements because I simply don’t have the time or inclination to make sure whatever product I like is better than the alternatives. I’ve been very partial to the Wild Birds Unlimited store in Duluth for years because they virtually always have the specialty items I need, like white millet, and introduced me to many useful products such as the suction-cup tray feeders that were such a hit with my Evening Grosbeaks long ago. Now, during this pandemic, my local shop has both curbside pickup and delivery. But it’s also the only bird feeding specialty store in town, so I don't have other businesses to compare it with. This winter, some Wild Birds Unlimited stores are selling “Share the Joy” boxes that have a combination of bird food and feeders that could be very helpful if you want a gift for a beginning bird feeder. Many of the new feeders and offerings I’ve put out in the past week have been from two "Joy" boxes.  

Wild Birds Unlimited bird feeding station

Wild Birds Unlimited bird feeding station

Whether you're looking at bird feeders for your own backyard birds or as gift ideas for others, and whether you're choosing store-bought or homemade ones, providing nutritious food in a safe way for backyard birds benefits both those individual birds and the individual humans who love to watch them. And no matter how you look at it, that's a Good Thing. 

Northern Cardinal

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Free and Very Inexpensive Gifts for Bird Lovers

My little chickadee posing

America’s season of gift-giving seems to grow increasingly materialistic, but this year, thanks to the pandemic, more and more Americans have much less to spend, barely getting by on smaller incomes than usual or are out of jobs entirely, so many people are seriously cutting back on present buying. This week I’ll be focusing on holiday gift ideas for bird lovers. Today I’ll start out with things that are absolutely free or as close to free as possible.  

My personal friendly Blue Jay

If you know a bird lover stuck in a hospital or nursing home right now, photos of beautiful birds, especially ones they personally know and love, can brighten their days at least a little. If you want to give someone bird art and you already have a computer and a reasonably good printer, for the cost of paper and ink, you can print out bird photos from my website. Most are not magazine quality, but some actually are. 

Ruby-throated Hummingbird at bee balm

If you don’t have a good printer, you can put any of my photos on a thumb drive and take it to one of the many stores that make prints. My photos are all copyrighted, but I herewith grant permission to radio and podcast listeners and readers of my blog to print them for personal use or gifts that will be for personal use. 

Pileated Woodpecker close-up

To find photos of the species you want, go to the top right of this blog page (or the top of any page on my website), click the “Search Birds” button, and enter the species you hope to find photos of. That will take you to my species page, which shows a dozen or so photos I’ve taken—usually the most recent. Click on the “More Photos (see all)” button and it’ll link to all the photos of that species that I’ve entered into Flickr. I disabled Flickr’s “download” long ago, but if you click on the download arrow in the bottom right, it will give you the option to “view all sizes.” After you click on that, select the largest size offered to get the highest quality print. Some photos are huge—some more than 5,000 pixels wide. Right click on the photo and you should have the option to save it to your computer. You have my permission to print for personal use or personal gifts as many as you like.

Atlantic Puffin 

Piping Plover

Least Tern

When I spent time in the hospital in recent years, I loved putting on headphones and listening to bird songs, both to block out all the hospital noises and to escape to lovelier settings. Except for snowmobiles and the roaring wind during winter storms, we’re into the quietest time of year outside, right when we need balm for the soul more than ever, and for me and many other birders, sounds are even more evocative than photos. 

Each species page on my website links to any bird song recording(s) I've made that feature that species, some fairly good. And my ambient bird sound page has lots of longer recordings—some are really nice. I made one that lasts more than an hour and a half at nighttime in Panama when I was there in 2019. The howler monkeys are far enough away to not be jarring, and it’s a pleasing background when you’re focused on something or just trying to fall asleep while your hospital roommate is watching television or chatting loudly on the phone. 

Many of the recordings are short—a couple of the shortest ambient recordings I provide on the ambient bird sound page are a 2-minute Greater Prairie-Chicken lek (from Minnesota) and 2-minute Lesser Prairie-Chicken lek (from Colorado), but some of my older ones are longer than a half hour, and some of the best ones I made this year last 2 and even 3 hours. All my recordings are downloadable for free, and can then be added to your own music playlist software or can be recorded on a CD for shut-ins with a boombox or other player. Again, they're all copyrighted and may not be used for commercial purposes without permission, but I herewith grant permission for people to download and copy on CD or electronically any of my recordings for personal use or personal gifts. 

Pileated Woodpecker

To encourage bird visits to benefit both hungry birds and people hungry to see them, you can make a simple peanut butter feeder by drilling holes into a thick branch about a foot or so long and screwing a hook into one end. Above is a photo of one my father-in-law made me long ago. 

Pine cone feeders are another great way of providing peanut butter to smaller birds—just smear a lot of peanut butter into the spaces in an open cone and hang it in a tree. That's a time-honored project to do with children, and much better for birds than anything with popcorn. (NEVER use microwave popcorn for birds!) If you want to really simplify, just scrape peanut butter right on a tree trunk. Best to do it in the same place from day to day. Squirrels love it, but so do chickadees, nuthatches, and woodpeckers, including Pileateds. The few times I’ve had a Boreal Chickadee or two in my yard over the years, it’s been at my peanut butter but no other feeders. At the Sax-Zim Bog, Boreal Chickadees are always most easily seen at peanut butter feeders. 

Boreal Chickadee

I use whatever popular brand of chunky peanut butter is on sale. I never buy "natural" varieties—the oils separate too easily. And NEVER feed birds peanut butter with any artificial sweeteners. In recent years, some generic and cheap brands have been adding Xylitol, which may be fine for humans but is lethal for dogs. I don’t know that it’s been tested on any birds, so no way am I risking my chickadees to find out for sure whether it’s safe. And even ostensibly safe artificial sweeteners have absolutely no nourishment. The calories in table sugar and even corn syrup give birds energy, which they especially need in cold weather. 

Common Redpoll

I don’t use heated bird baths, though many of my friends swear by them and I’ve gotten lots of excellent bird photos in winter in backyards that do have heated bird baths. The contribution of burning fossil fuels to climate change is not worth it for me, but I can’t argue with the success many people have with heated bird baths. On relatively balmy days—say, in the upper 20s or above—I do set a plastic cereal bowl filled with water on my platform feeder, and the birds definitely enjoy that. No cost to me at all, and lots of pleasure for my birds. In a year like this, that's a definite win-win. 

Boreal Owl

Barred Owl

Great Gray Owl

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Hanging Together

Black-capped Chickadee

As pandemic cases swell and more and more Americans die from it, I’ve been turning to birds to cope. When my family started seriously social distancing back in March, every day I could see new wonders while staying almost entirely at home. All spring and early summer I had wonderful fun taking photos and making sound recordings of the many birds in my yard each day.  

Red-eyed Vireo

Now the days are so short that I’m eating both breakfast and dinner while it’s dark outside, and those shorter days are producing very few birds. We had some lovely influxes of winter finches here—for a few weeks, Pine Siskins were wonderfully abundant in my yard, redpolls have turned up several times, and I’ve had a couple of flocks of White-winged Crossbills show up, too.  

But I can no longer look out the window and expect to see birds. Every day or two, one of my neighborhood Pileated Woodpeckers turns up for a few minutes, or a female Red-bellied Woodpecker, and a small flock of juncos has turned up a couple of times in the past week, but my daily total of species hasn’t exceeded 10 species in December so far.  

Pileated Woodpecker

In early November, before the White-throated and Fox Sparrows disappeared, I was seeing 17 or 18 species most days, but both those late migrants and wandering winter finches have dried up now. I’ve been trying to teach my brain to be delighted with chickadees when they appear several times a day with their attendant nuthatches, but I can’t but feel disappointed with the paltry numbers, especially when I think about how these short days will grow even shorter and drearier before they finally start lengthening imperceptibly on the solstice. With luck and as the weather grows more wintry again, I can hope for more winter finches to show up, but that is not guaranteed. 

Over my lifetime, some of the biggest blockbusters of all movies have been about disasters. I suppose people feel a kind of thrilling empowerment imagining themselves as the protagonist conquering a horrifyingly evil force against all odds. Armageddon in our imagination may seem interminable, but the movie version lasts just 151 minutes (several minutes fewer if you walk out during the credits) and you get to munch on popcorn. When you go outside, life is entirely back to normal. 

Living as a real-life disaster unfolds is a little trickier. Some of the very people who envision themselves making the ultimate sacrifice that Bruce Willis character did in Armageddon refuse to wear a mask in public spaces to save the lives of actual, real-life human beings even as we’re now averaging more than 2,000 deaths from Corvid-19 every day. December 9th, we hit a gruesome death toll of 3,243 according to My own Congressman is refusing to work with the incoming administration to make a smooth transition even as my district is among the worst in the nation for number of infections. 

Anne Frank 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. 

Life was horrifyingly scary in the Annex where her family was hiding out from the Nazis and where she wrote those words before she was taken prisoner and died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.  

At that same time, four British soldiers being held as prisoners of war in a terrible German POW camp managed to hold onto their sanity and a small sense of purpose in life by watching birds (I wrote about this in my book review of Birds in a Cage), even as so many American soldiers were fighting the Nazis and languishing in POW camps in their struggle to keep that sort of fate from befalling us. 

As our soldiers fought overseas, civilian Americans were rationing, dealing with air raids, and trying to cope with the terror of receiving a telegram from the War Department—407,316 American soldiers were killed in the four years of that war. 

So far, just since February, we’ve lost almost 300,000 Americans to Covid-19. American involvement in World War II lasted 4 years; we’re on track to surpass our World War II mortality numbers in just one year, well before enough people are vaccinated to give us herd immunity. 

For this year’s Christmas Bird Count, I’ll be doing a simple yard list and walking around my neighborhood rather than doing my usual route. Some people have been deriding people like me as “cowards” for staying home as much as possible and masking when away from home, but when did conscientiously looking out for one another and doing what we can to protect our vulnerable family members ever constitute cowardice? 

I try to remember how much my minor sacrifices right now are at least slowing the spread of this disease a bit, though it's of course not nearly enough because not nearly enough people are doing the same thing. It's certain now that I’ll be spending another spring migration hunkered down at home, watching bird numbers slowly and then rapidly rise again, listening as their calls and songs swell with the increasing day length. It’s not much when I'm so hungry for variety right now, but I try never to forget that it’s better to safely enjoy the sparkle in a chickadee’s eyes than to be on a ventilator in an isolation ward, away from my family and those beloved chickadees. 

I can't help but think of the words attributed to Ben Franklin, "We must all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately." He wasn't thinking about how very separately people are dying in isolation in Covid wards as hospitals exceed capacity, but I am. My chickadees remind me of how good, resourceful beings DO hang together, warning one another about danger even as they maintain proper social distancing. It’s not much consolation right now, but it’s something. Please stay safe and well, dear reader.

Black-capped Chickadee