Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Monday, January 20, 2020

Book Review: Birds in Minnesota by Robert B. Janssen


Did you ever wait for the publication of an updated, revised, and expanded edition of an important book with eager anticipation, certain that it would be even more splendid than its predecessors? The first book I bought when we moved to Minnesota in 1981, which I got the very week we moved here, was Minnesota Birds: Where, When, and How Many, by Janet Green and Robert Janssen, published in 1975. No one has yet even tried to revise Thomas Sadler Roberts’s epic two-volume The Birds of Minnesota, published in 1932, but the information about where, when, and how many of each species one could see changed with time, and Green and Janssen did a masterful job of bringing that information up to date in one slender 210-page volume. They included every species reported to the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union through the end of 1970.

Pip perched atop The Birds of Minnesota
The works that sparked it all: Thomas Sadler Roberts's The Birds of Minnesota.
In 1987, Bob Janssen updated that book with his 352-page Birds in Minnesota. And finally, in 2020, he’s updated that with a 584-page full color edition: Birds in Minnesota, Revised and Expanded Edition. All three iterations have been published by the University of Minnesota Press.

I was certain I would love Bob Janssen’s long-awaited book just as much as I’d loved the previous two editions. But just after I ordered it, I suddenly and urgently needed current information about the Barn Owl (I'd seen one in the bog last week), and so that was the first species I checked out. And WHOA! He has it in the wrong family! The Barn Owl is the only North American owl belonging to the family Tytonidae. Unlike the typical owls belonging to Strigidae, members of the Barn Owl family have unique heart-shaped faces and proportionately smaller eyes. Their inner toe, which is as long as the middle one, has a pectinate claw like nightjars, and their sternum has two notches and is fused with the furcula. Both these old-fashioned structural differences and also the more modern DNA differences support keeping the Barn Owls in a separate family from typical owls.

Barn Owl
The Barn Owl has a distinctive heart-shaped face. 
Barred Owl
Typical owls, such as this Barred Owl, belong to the same order (Strigiformes) as the Barn Owl, but belong to a different family. 
Oddly, Birds in Minnesota puts the Barn Owl in Strigidae, and the error is emphasized because it's listed right under that wrong family name. The Barn Owl entry is a page and a half long, but there’s an extra half page at the end of the owls, and the families have no special description—just the name and a generic graphic of a songbird on each one. It would not have taken much work from the designer to keep the total page numbers for owls the exact same, so I was mystified about this peculiar error.

A few other species are the sole representatives of their families, at least in Minnesota. Of them, the Osprey, Horned Lark, Brown Creeper, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, and European Starling are all put in the correct families, but several other birds are misplaced. The Northern Fulmar, Wood Stork, and Magnificent Frigatebird are all placed in Gaviidae, the loon family; the American Dipper and Northern Wheatear are put in Regulidae with the kinglets; and the Yellow-breasted Chat is placed with the blackbirds. That one is a little understandable—the true blackbirds belong to Icteridae while the chat belongs in Icteriidae. But the book clearly states that “The nomenclature, sequence, and taxonomy used in this book are in accordance with the seventh edition of the American Ornithological Society’s Check-list of North American Birds (1998) and incorporates changes through the fifty-eighth supplement (July 2017).” Any copyeditor should have caught these obvious errors, especially in a book published by the University of Minnesota Press.

Paying close attention to the families made me notice something else that seemed strangely off—they used the same generic songbird silhouette at the top of every family section. A sparrow-type bird setting off sections about ducks or loons or herons seems bad enough, but a songbird depicting a section about owls, hawks, or falcons that eat sparrows seems genuinely inappropriate.  If the designers wanted to use the same simple graphic for each family section, they should have selected something else—a simple squiggle would have done the trick.


I ran into other irritating errors that should have been caught by any copyeditor. The Piping Plover entry says it’s “an rare spring migrant,” the kind of error even Microsoft Word picks up. And the photo credits are alphabetized by the photographers' first, not last, names, with the species listed under each photographer taxonomically. If you simply wanted to know who took that splendid photo of the Harris's Sparrow, you'd have to go through all the photographers' names, and the species listed under each, all the way to the T's to find Terry Johnson's name. It's rare to find a publication nowadays that doesn't list the photographers' names in tiny print along the side of each photo. And again, in what alternate universe do they alphabetize people's first names?

With regard to the photos, the information in the two previous iterations of the book didn't require photos, and I don't think they really strengthened this one in any way except to make it prettier. And if photos had to be included, many of them deserved more of a caption than simply the species name. The charming Winter Wren photographed by David Brislance is a young fledgling; someone unfamiliar with the species might have thought the yellowish gape and extremely short tail are typical of adults. And Andrew Nyhus's lovely Black-throated Blue Warbler is a female. Someone unfamiliar with that species would certainly wonder how it got its name. These were great and appropriate photos, but deserved a bit of an explanation.

Trumpeter Swan

A lot has happened in the 88 years since Roberts's Birds of Minnesota was published, including the loss of some species. Some had disappeared even before that. Roberts included an entry on the Trumpeter Swan even as he noted that they'd disappeared from the state decades before. Roberts knew a comprehensive book about the state's birdlife had to include every species found in the state, past as well as present. Janssen of course includes the Trumpeter Swan in this edition, noting, "What a great success story for this magnificent species."

But Janssen isn't so conscientious about including species that disappeared more recently. The Northern Bobwhite is listed in T.S. Roberts’ book and both earlier iterations of this one, but this time around, it’s simply dropped. It may have been absent in pre-settlement times, but there were many successful introductions up until 1952 and it's still found in surrounding counties in Wisconsin and Iowa. In Janssen's 1987 book it's listed as "regular, permanent resident," wild birds breeding in five counties. Suddenly the MOU is no longer accepting sightings even in those counties, but no explanation is given.

Northern Bobwhite

To this day, people sometimes see bobwhite in Minnesota, and not just where their last stronghold was—I photographed one right across the street from my house in 2014. I happen to know there's a retriever training club not far from here, from which bobwhites sometimes escape. And I realize that the numbers in Wisconsin and Iowa may well have been augmented by introductions and escaped birds rather than being genuinely natural, but it would have been valuable for readers who come upon a bobwhite somewhere in the state to be able to look up the species' status, wouldn't it? And people who remember that bobwhites were once found here and want to find out what happened ought to be able to read the answer in a "comprehensive" book about the state's birdlife. Unfortunately, Janssen dropped the species without explanation.

American Kestrel

For diurnal raptors, Janssen includes the yearly average seen at Hawk Ridge, the maximum seen in a single year, and the high daily counts. But considering how many decades of data we’ve amassed, isn’t it time he mentioned each hawk species’ count trends? Some of our raptors have increased wonderfully, like the Bald Eagle, Peregrine Falcon, and Merlin, but you’d never know from the text that the American Kestrel has declined dangerously throughout the entire country as well as within Minnesota unless you happen to notice the tiny graph from the Breeding Bird Survey. Janssen sums up the kestrel's status in the state as, “Regular. Migrant and summer resident. Uncommon in winter,”  and doesn't mention anything about its mystifying disappearance anywhere in his text.

Maps showing the nesting and summer range of each species are solid green with a dot in counties with confirmed nesting, the dot getting darker with increasing number of nesting records. But some counties are much larger than others, making the dot system pretty confusing and messy. It was a fine system when these same maps were originally developed, in black and white, in 1975, and not too bad in 1987, but by 2020, in a full-color book with the graphics allowing much finer detail, I wish Janssen would have used our state’s Breeding Bird Atlas maps, which show a lot more nuance and include far, far more valuable, current data. And even his other maps are not detailed enough. There is a single record, from 1997, of a Burrowing Owl in Duluth, but all of St. Louis County is colored on that species' map. This huge county is larger than four states, so showing that enormous swath of gray seems graphically misleading.

Burrowing Owl

When I bought my copy of this book, it was to keep my library current, so I don’t regret the purchase. But $34.95 is pretty pricey for people who simply want to know more about the state’s birds. Last I heard, the University of Minnesota Press will eventually be publishing the state’s Breeding Bird Atlas in book form, and if that work is anything like that project’s amazing website, it would be well worth double what this book cost.

I really wish the updated Minnesota Birds lived up to my expectations. I hardly ever write negative reviews of books—I know there are important things I may have missed or didn't properly appreciate about a work, and overall, it seems more useful to promote books and projects I do like than to attack ones I don't. But this book, published by a prestigious university press, stating on the cover that it is "authoritative" and "comprehensive," and "indispensable" for "birdwatchers in Minnesota, both amateur and professional," is simply not reflective of the best information we have about Minnesota birds in 2020. I can't come up with a single question about Minnesota birds that is answered in this book that isn't answered at least as completely, for free, online at eBird.org or mnbirdatlas.org.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Northern Shrike at the Bog

Northern Shrike

When Russ and I went to the Sax-Zim Bog on Sunday, we spent a little time at the feeding station on Admiral Road. Not one chickadee or nuthatch showed up, nor even a Downy Woodpecker. This has been a hard year for seeing birds, but that’s not the reason tiny birds were so scarce. If I were a 10-gram chickadee, I wouldn’t come anywhere near the feeders right then, not when a Northern Shrike was lurking right there, watching the feeders. 

Northern Shrike

Northern Shrikes are nicknamed "butcher birds" for their habit of impaling prey on thorns, barbs, and other sharp things like that. They usually survey their domain from above—almost all my photos of them are backlit as the birds sit on treetops or on powerlines.

Northern Shrike

This particular bird may have noticed activity at the feeder from a high perch and decided it would have a better shot at some of those birds by sitting closer. I was across the road from it using a 300mm lens, so my photos are very cropped, but they’re the best I’ve ever taken for showing the shrike’s underside—it’s not white or very pale gray, as it looks in most of my photos. Rather, the whitish breast feathers are edged with soft gray, giving the bird’s plumage a very soft, gentle look—the avian version of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Northern Shrike

When we got there, two guys from Queens in New York were puzzling over it. They of course knew it was a Northern Shrike, but it has quite a different appearance from the Loggerhead Shrikes they normally see, which have a larger, much more pronounced facial mask and a beak that seems bigger somehow. Loggerhead Shrikes are southern birds with no need for all the feathers insulating their face and nostrils, so they can show off their beak with the killing tip without freezing their faces. They also are a purer white beneath, feather edging much subtler.

Loggerhead Shrike

A great many songbirds are obligate predators, if we accept the truth that the insects, spiders, and other tiny invertebrates they hunt are animals.

Black-capped Chickadee about to feed babies

Shrikes eat insects in season, but both American species also eat a fairly substantial number of warm-blooded animals—that is, birds and mammals. And they don’t necessarily restrict themselves to tiny species. The only time I ever had a Varied Thrush in my backyard, it was chased off by a shrike, though Northern Shrikes average a bit smaller and lighter than Varied Thrushes. I don’t know how that particular interlude ended, but the thrush never returned. 

The hooked tip on a shrike’s bill is the only lethal weapon it carries on its person, but it can use those thorns and barbs not only as meat lockers to store prey but also, sometimes, to finish an animal off. Weighing a mere 2 or 2 ½ ounces, shrikes have a fast enough metabolism that they can’t go without food nearly as long as large hawks or owls, so when the hunting is good, they cache away what they can against future shortages.

Northern Shrike cache

I’ve spent time with a lot of Northern Shrikes, but never heard them make a sound. Merriam-Webster says the etymology of the word shrike is “perhaps from Middle English *shrik, from Old English scrīc thrush; akin to Middle English shriken to shriek.” But I suspect any shrieking associated with shrikes is done by their prey, not them. 

Back in the 1980s when my backyard was filled with birds every day, I saw shrikes fairly often in winter. Once in a while they caught a bird and sat eating it in one of my bushes. Chickadees would often alight in the branches above to scold, spitting out every swear word in a chickadee’s vocabulary—and believe me, they know a lot of naughty words! But even when filled with angry passion, chickadees know exactly when to move on—they’d disappear when the shrike was down to the last bits of food, before it could switch from feeding back into hunting mode. 

Shrikes are almost always in hunting mode, so chickadees don’t get to voice their opinions right at them very often. But even during those brief interludes, neither the shrike nor the chickadees are shrieking. Sometimes people can’t help but shriek when a shrike gets one of their backyard finches or chickadees—I’ve even been known to do that—but somehow I doubt that it was backyard birdwatchers in the Middle English era who were shrieking at shrikes. And I certainly wasn’t shrieking at my cooperative and photogenic shrike in the bog Sunday. I sure don’t like it when one grabs one of my chickadees, and I don’t relish taking photos of them relishing their avian meals, but like everyone else, shrikes gotta do what they gotta do.



Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Twelve Owls in St. Louis County!


Back in 2011, I wrote a book for the University of Minnesota Press, Twelve Owls, about the twelve species of owls that have been recorded in Minnesota. At the time I wrote it, I’d seen eleven of them, all in St. Louis County (and some in other counties as well).

Burrowing Owl

The rarest owl I’d seen here was the Burrowing Owl who turned up for a single day in the Erie Pier area at 40th Avenue West in Duluth in 1997. That was on the day we’d set aside as a birdathon fundraiser for Hawk Ridge, with groups heading out to see as many birds as possible in the county. When the Burrowing Owl was discovered in the morning, most of us were way up in the bog, and this was before text alerts, but some wonderful birders headed up and tracked everyone down to make sure we all headed to Duluth to see this perhaps once-in-a-lifetime bird. Burrowing Owls are critically endangered in the state and no longer seen every year even where they belong, in the prairie areas of extreme western Minnesota.

Archimedes

One evening in September 2004, I was shocked to hear an Eastern Screech-Owl from my own front yard. Frank Nicoletti banded one or two that fall in or near Duluth. If a screech-owl was going to show up on Peabody Street, I’m not surprised that I was lucky enough to hear it—my licensed education screech owl, Archimedes, always called a lot in September, increasing the likelihood that a passing screech-owl would linger and call back. Eastern Screech-Owls are regular year-round residents in Minnesota, but further south. That one over 15 years ago was the 11th owl species I’d seen in St. Louis County, which seemed about as good as it could possibly get.

Nine kinds of owls are fairly straightforward up here, and I'd seen them all by 1988 or so: the Great Horned, Snowy, Northern Hawk, Barred, Great Gray, Long-eared, Short-eared, Boreal, and Northern Saw-whet Owls. The last holdout, the Barn Owl, is a southern species, endangered at the top of its normal range in Iowa and Illinois, and merely a vagrant in Wisconsin and Minnesota, so I figured that one wasn't in the cards for me unless there was a reliable one that showed up on a farm somewhere in extreme southern Minnesota.

Barn Owl

Oddly enough, ever since the time we moved to Duluth in 1981, I’ve been having a recurring dream about seeing a Barn Owl in my neck of the woods, but that 39-year-old fantasy seemed a pipe dream. On New Year's Day this year, someone reported seeing one in the Sax-Zim Bog, but no one else confirmed it even with all the birders scouring the bog to start their year lists. My daughter was in town through January 3, so I figured I’d check out the bog on the fourth, but then I had that pesky heart attack on the 3rd and had to put off birding. Meanwhile, no one else reported the Barn Owl until Saturday the 11th—I saw a text message about that around 5 P.M., when it was already dark. I figured it would be too much of a long shot to try first thing the next morning, but it was reported again Sunday, so Russ drove me up to the bog.

At least a dozen cars were parked along Highway 7 when we arrived. The bird had been seen fifteen or twenty minutes before we got there, but it stayed hunkered down for couple of hours or so. When it finally took off, I got a few flight shots, but it was never up for more than a few seconds.

Barn Owl

A Barn Owl! My body might not have been 100 percent what with my heart attack, but my eyes were about as good as they've ever been thanks to my recent cataract surgery. The bird wasn’t close and I saw it only in flight, so my photos aren’t the best, but oh, well—this Barn Owl was my twelfth Minnesota owl species, and my twelfth in St. Louis County, to boot! I don't know how many other birders have seen all twelve in the county.  It's a pretty cool distinction!

Barn Owl

The thrilling afterglow lasted while Russ and I ate a late lunch at the Wilbert Café. Then I got another text message—the poor owl had alighted close enough to some people that they could see it was in very bad condition, and they ended up capturing it to bring it to the Raptor Center. The poor thing didn’t make it—a profoundly distressing, heartbreaking end to the day.

Some people of course criticized the birders who had been “gawking” at the poor bird, as if these birders were responsible for or in any way connected to the owl’s death. Highway 7 is always busy, and in addition to the auto traffic, several loud, long trains went by while I was there, yet for some reason the owl had arrived and settled in there entirely on its own. Were the people gathered at the roadside disturbing it? Ravens harassing and dive-bombing it in the morning certainly had, but every person I saw stayed on the roadside, and there were absolutely no footprints into the snow either—clearly no one had been "chasing" or otherwise harassing it. The bird was badly emaciated and would have died whether there were human witnesses or not.

No one knows what sends out-of-range vagrants wandering, so we’ll never know why this particular Barn Owl appeared at the Sax-Zim Bog at the very start of 2020. (Actually, the landowners said it had been hanging around and staying in their barn for about a month!) At the very start of 2016, an Ivory Gull turned up in Duluth.

Ivory Gull

Hundreds of birders from all around the country saw it in the weeks before that bird started looking poorly and ended up dying. As sad as that situation was, I feel even sadder about the Barn Owl—something about owls touches my heart in a place gulls can’t approach.

After the Raptor Center necropsies the bird, we may learn something that could help the next out-of-place Barn Owl. The very first Barn Owl I ever saw, on the grounds of the Lincoln Park Zoo in December 1978, also ended up dying—even Chicago is too far north of the winter range of this bird. I’m glad I got to witness a moment of that bird’s life, and still treasure the photos Russ took of it, proof that our lives had intersected it for one brief moment. I’m sure in the murky future that’s how I’ll feel about this Barn Owl. But right now my triumph at having seen my twelfth owl species in St. Louis County is tainted with sorrow.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

January Blues

Black-capped Chickadee

Something about the first brilliant blue-sky days of January always fills me with delight and hope. The vivid sky on January 6 was especially welcome this year—that was my first morning home from the hospital after another heart attack. I’m doing fine and should be back to my usual routine pretty soon, in part thanks to the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, or WARF, which funded and patented the original research on a blood-clotting preventive named, naturally, warfarin. Although warfarin was originally used as a rat poison, it turns out to be an excellent blood-clotting preventative for people in my situation, with an aneurism on a coronary artery. Russ and I were already in WARF’s debt—they provided a research grant when he was working on his Ph.D. Meanwhile, I'm waiting for my blood levels to stabilize and can't take photos with my heavy camera for four weeks after my angiogram, so I’m thinking about these bright days of January.

Ever since the winter solstice on December 22, days have been getting longer, but it’s never noticeable at first, because right around both solstices, the day-to-day changes in daylength are measured in seconds, not minutes. The sun was setting at 4:20 pm here in Duluth from December 5 through the 17th. On the solstice, sunset was at 4:23, three minutes later than that. On January 9, it’ll set a quarter-hour later than that, at 4:39 pm.

To offset that pre-solstice gain in the afternoon, due to the sun’s angle and rotation, the sun doesn’t rise earlier until well after the solstice. On December 22, the sun rose at 7:50 am, but sunrise continued to get later, not earlier, for several days after that, and was still happening at 7:53 on January 6. Now, finally, sunrise is arriving earlier in the morning again—today it was at 7:52.

Right now, the change in daylength from one day to the next is about a minute and a half, but that will be increasing right up through the equinox. February first will be 2 minutes 44 seconds longer than January 31, and March first will be 3 minutes and 18 seconds longer than February 29. The earliest sunrises of the year will happen before the summer solstice, at 5:13 from June 12 through June 18. Of course, if there was no such thing as Daylight Saving Time, sunrise then would be at 4:13 am. And the latest sunsets will happen well after the summer solstice, with the latest sunsets at 9:06 from June 20 through June 30. 

Whatever will happen in June, right now the sun is still not coming up until almost 8 am. The little kids waiting at the school bus stop on my corner are still standing out there in the dark. Chickadees aren’t singing that early, and even crows prefer to sleep in until it’s a little lighter.

To match the small number of hours in the day right now, birds are also at a minimum, in numbers of both species and individuals. My backyard birds are few and far between this year—as of January 8, I’ve only seen chickadees, pigeons, crows, and Downy Woodpeckers in my yard. Of course, I did spend three of those days in the hospital (where I added Herring Gull to my year list), and am not up to speed with birding quite yet, but I’ve had plenty of time to look out the window and wonder where my Pileated Woodpeckers are, or what happened to the Red-bellied Woodpecker who was here on December 31. Other people have been letting me know that their birds are scarcer than usual this year, too. But it’s probably not smart of me to brood about that quite yet. Until I’m a little further along on my recovery, I’m spending my time looking at my chickadees and counting minutes, literally. As our days are finally getting noticeably longer, I’m putting my focus on the lovely times ahead.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

What Am I Prepared to DO?

White-throated Sparrow

I’m writing this on the first day of 2020. This brand-new year is filled with promise—it’s an amusing coincidence that thanks to my cataract surgery in December, I’m facing this new year with 20/20 vision, and because my cataracts were congenital, this may be the very first year of my life that I could say that.

I started doing “For the Birds” on May 12, 1986, the day after my half birthday, making me exactly 34 ½. So on my birthday this year, when I’ll be exactly 69 years old, I’ll have been producing this program for exactly half of my life. That’s pretty cool, too.

New Years Days remind us of time passing in this finite life we’ve been given—that’s why so many of us start out the new year filled with resolve. I’ve been thinking a lot about mitigation lately, because the current policy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife ended its requirement that companies and local and state governments offset major bird kills with some sort of mitigation project. It’s one thing for me to complain about an unprecedented policy change that disrupts many decades of environmental protection; it’s another to do something about it. It’s going to take a great deal of organized effort to change this—we need birding, hunting, environmental, and conservation organizations and individuals who care about the natural world to join together to press the government to return to its former bipartisan policies designed to protect wildlife and the environment that we all need for our very survival. I’ll be spending the next several months researching which organizations are effectively working to challenge the new policy, to publicize their work and to guide my own donations.

It can’t be emphasized enough how important mitigation has been in at least slowing the devastating effects of runaway development, wetland-filling, large-scale corporate agriculture, oil and gas extraction, and so much else. Doing what we can to restore requirements for mitigation is going to be vitally important.

But beyond major mitigation projects, I decided that as an individual, I need to step up my own personal efforts toward mitigating the damage that I do. It’s not enough to do my best to minimize damage—if we’re going to clean up this mess and give wildlife a fighting chance to survive for more than a generation or two more, we clearly need to do much more than we are doing now. Minimizing damage—taking fewer trips fueled by gas and driving at or below the speed limit to both conserve fuel and minimize collisions with wildlife, lowering the thermostat in cold weather and raising it in hot weather, buying more efficient appliances and cars while overall buying less stuff in the first place—all this is indeed taking steps forward. But every trip we take fueled by gas, whether to an exotic place or to the grocery store; every time we squander even more fuel by driving faster than necessary; every time our furnace or air conditioner goes on even briefly; every time we turn on an appliance or purchase any new item—every time we do any of these, we take steps backward. I’ve been making donations to organizations that protect and reforest tropical forests to help mitigate my travel, but now I’ve decided that it’s time for me to start mitigating other environmental damage I cause, too. This is the year I’ll focus on how I can do that.

[I’m going to work seriously to update my 101 Ways to Help Birds, which now numbers 106, and I’m now doing this with the help of a wonderful young friend, Heidi Trudell, a committed conservationist as well as trusted friend. I already have ABC tape on a few windows in our house, but will be upgrading every window to the “Zen Wind Curtains” that apparently do the best job of preventing bird collisions. Putting them up will mostly be a job for warmer weather, but I’ll get the supplies to start making the first set this month, and have them ready to put up during the first thaw when the ground is secure enough for us to set up a ladder against the house.

I haven’t hit a bird with my car in several years. We’ve had fewer birds in our yard this year than maybe ever before, with no real migration events, so there weren’t many window collisions, but one White-throated Sparrow, died.

White-throated Sparrow detail

I’m going to make an assumption that for every collision death I know about, one more flew away with a 50/50 chance of survival, and one more was killed that I didn’t discover before a crow, jay, or squirrel carried it off. So I'm thinking that for every bird I'm aware of that is killed at my windows, I'm actually responsible for three.

Taking precautions to ensure that I don’t hit birds with my car and birds don’t collide with my windows is important, but don’t I owe some sort of penalty for each bird that does die from my car or my windows? Setting a reasonable dollar amount isn’t really possible. All the trillions of American dollars on the planet wouldn’t be enough to restore one dead White-throated Sparrow's life.

The way people assess financial damages when a human being’s death is due to negligence or some other preventable cause involves assessing what financial resources the victim would likely have produced over the rest of their natural lifetime, but wild birds are kind of lax in the money realm. I’ve never ever believed that money was any kind of way to assess the real value of anything or anyone. When even a run-of-the-mill NFL player gets orders of magnitude more money than the caregivers providing gentle, loving care to incapacitated people with dementia; when people monetizing gossipy or mean-spirited Twitter and YouTube posts make as much or more money than the best elementary and high school teachers, and when the Boeing CEO whose decisions led to two airplane crashes that killed 346 people was allowed to resign and given a golden parachute worth an estimated $30 to 40 million—well, that little fact alone tells me I have no clue about the value of human lives relative to money, much less the dollar value of one little White-throated Sparrow. But I do know that it's not insignificant.

So I’m going to spend some time this month mulling over what a fair penalty should be when I’m responsible for a bird death. That’s just half the equation—I’ll also have to figure out where that money should go to do the most genuine good toward mitigating each loss. I’m always talking about how we need to roll up our sleeves and do something to make sure things get better. In this, the exact half-century year since the first Earth Day, that’s exactly what I’m going to be doing.