Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Laura's Best Bird EVER: The Owl Who Lived

Boreal Owl

Friday, I went up to the Bog, and the highlight of the day was a Boreal Owl who has been hanging out at the Admiral Road feeding station since last month. It’s not there every day—Russ and I missed it a few weeks ago, though we stayed near the feeding station for several hours. This time it was there for hours and hours, sitting quietly on a branch.

Boreal Owl

It ignored the crowd of people gawking at it—and every single person respectfully stayed on the far side of the road, giving it plenty of space. For the most part it didn’t seem to respond to the birds at the feeder, but whenever Canada Jays flew in, it tracked them.

Boreal Owl

As fun as it was watching this charismatic little bird who has given hundreds of birders lovely experiences, I couldn’t help but think back seven years, when I experienced my best Boreal Owl EVER.

Boreal Owl

In December 2012, when she was 93, Russ’s mom came to live with us. She had been suffering some physical ailments and by then, her dementia was making it increasingly difficult for her to manage living alone in the woods. We were happy to have her with us, but the timing was a bit tricky, because I’d been planning to do a Big Year in 2013, and now either Russ or I was going to have to be home virtually all the time. I had to scale back my Big Year plans by a lot, and Russ wouldn’t be able to use his vacation time to go on any of my trips with me.

But on Superb Owl Sunday, which fell on February 3 that year, Russ and I did break away for a little morning jaunt to Two Harbors. We were having something of a Boreal Owl invasion right then, and as we drove up Highway 61, we saw two different clusters of birders with spotting scopes and cameras pointed at what I assumed were Boreal Owls. But I didn’t want to see MY Boreal Owl along the highway, and I did want to find it myself, so we kept going.

There’s a little alley in Two Harbors that runs between a ravine and the backyards of some houses where I’ve had great luck with owls and other cool birds over the years, so that’s where Russ and I headed. We parked the car and were just starting to walk when one of my friends, Jim Lind, saw us and charged down to tell us that a saw-whet owl was roosting in a back yard just a few blocks away. Russ had never met Jim, so the three of us started talking. Suddenly something caught Jim’s eye, and right as he was blurting out, “Look!” I saw it, too—a Boreal Owl, just sitting there, the sun behind us, the bird in perfect light so close that my favorite photo isn’t even cropped!

Jim Lind pointing out Boreal Owl

Boreal Owl

Russ had seen Boreal Owls before—in our house when people brought them to me while I was a rehabber, and I’d held quite a few in my hands back then.

Billie Anderson and me with Boreal Owl

I’d also seen quite a few in the wild, including one that was calling, as if for joy, in my own backyard at 1 AM the night the Chicago Cubs won the World Series, though in 2013, that one was more than three years in the future.

This Boreal Owl was uniquely special. It stayed in easy view the whole time Russ and I watched. A while after Jim left, we saw it drop down into the snow to capture, kill, and eat a shrew.

Boreal Owl

Somehow it had decided to ignore us from the start, coming in so close while we were oblivious to its presence, and then when I started clicking away with my camera, it stayed near. I took hundreds of photos, but not one shows the bird meeting my eyes or looking at my camera lens. Either it had figured out that people and cameras pose no danger, or it was hungry enough that it had more important things to focus on.

Boreal Owl

When it alighted on one stump, it held up its left foot, and I realized it was injured.

Boreal Owl

Yet it was hunting well, and looked wonderfully fit for a Boreal Owl hunting by day. We watched it for over an hour before we headed up to see the saw-whet owl snoozing on a horizontal branch on a deciduous tree, and then went home.

Northern Saw-whet Owl

In the next couple of weeks, several Boreal Owls were picked up dead, and several others ended up being sent to the Raptor Center. A couple of days after Russ’s and my magic encounter, I read of a Boreal Owl with an injured left foot that was picked up a mile or so down the shore. My heart dropped. Day after day, I waited to hear news from the Raptor Center. Some of the Boreal Owls they treated that winter died, but a few weeks later, I heard they were bringing a Boreal Owl to northern Minnesota for release—an owl that, when brought to them a couple of days after February 3, had an injured left foot.

When I look through my Boreal Owl photos, I always thrill at this stunning bird anew, both for giving me the gift of that exceptional encounter I got to share with Russ, and for surviving, the happiest gift of all.

Boreal Owl

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Cardiac Rehab

Barred Owl
I took all the photos for this blog post since my most recent heart attack.
This January 3, I had a heart attack, yet barely a week later, I was back out birding. Birding is of course one of the best kinds of cardiac rehab—it’s low-key, doesn’t need to be strenuous but can include hiking at any level, and keeps us focused on the present. And of course, by its very nature, seeing wild birds in their own element, whether in our backyard or in wilderness, has all kinds of soothing emotional rewards. 

Pileated Woodpecker

But birding is not the main thing restoring me back to health so quickly. Cardiac rehab at Duluth's Essentia Health has been even more important for keeping me going. After my first heart attack, I was very weak—the damage to the heart was more debilitating than I’d imagined. That’s why cardiac rehab was such a godsend. People attending cardiac rehab include those who’ve had a heart attack like me, but also people who’ve had angioplasty, coronary bypass surgery or other forms of heart surgery, a heart valve repair or replacement, stent placement, and people at risk for several other heart conditions. 

I didn’t know anything about cardiac rehab before that first heart attack and felt a bit intimidated walking into what looked like a fitness center. But the people on staff, including nurses, exercise physiologists, nutrition specialists, and more, were warm and welcoming. They also made it clear from the start that my program was going to be entirely focused on helping me get back to doing what I love as much as could be possible—it was completely tailored to my own personal goals, and my quality of life involves occasional strenuous hikes while lugging heavy camera equipment. I was scared that I’d never be up to that again.

Gray Jay

The staff at cardiac rehab helped me design an exercise program that centered on work to build up my endurance and strength. By the following year, I was doing strenuous high-elevation hikes in Peru and Uganda.

Black-capped Chickadee

But this January 3, what my cardiologist called my “culprit lesion,” an aneurism on my right coronary artery, got blocked by another big clot. The right coronary artery, something I’d never once thought about during my first 63 years, is like a superhighway supplying blood to the right ventricle, the right atrium, and the nodes that regulate the heart’s rhythm.

Imagine a 2-lane expressway that suddenly, for no good reason, widens to four lanes and then, after a couple of miles, suddenly narrows back to two lanes. For 63 years, my blood cells and platelets managed to travel along that highway and to merge properly back to two lanes at the end of the aneurism, but suddenly a few collisions led to a clot forming. For a year after my first heart attack, I took a blood thinner, and after that took an aspirin every day. But that was apparently not enough to prevent another eventual traffic jam. Since I don’t have any real blockages—just that pesky aneurism—I don’t need surgery or a stent or anything, but I will be on warfarin for the duration, which should prevent platelets and blood cells from sticking together even if they collide as they merge out of the aneurism.

Thanks to my first cardiac rehab and all the excellent lessons I learned there, I was a lot stronger facing this heart attack than last time around, so my recovery is going faster. Even though I’m in a lot of good habits, it’s again been cardiac rehab that has helped me bounce back again. It would be way scarier to start doing any kind of exercise on my own, without them monitoring my heart the whole time as I worked my way up to doing vigorous aerobic exercise and also some upper body strength work.

Great Gray Owl

This is National Heart Month, and last week I attended a luncheon hosted by Duluth’s health care providers and the American Heart Association, focusing on how much research and education are necessary in the area of women’s heart health. I was shocked to learn that even though heart attacks and heart disease kill more women every year than every form of cancer put together, and that cardiac rehab significantly increases both life expectancy and quality of life, women are far, far less likely than men to take advantage of it. Me, I'm back lugging my 8 and a half pound camera in the field, thrilled that I'm still alive and able to enjoy the birds on this planet, thanks in large part to cardiac rehab.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Giving Mozart the Final Word about Starlings

European Starling

When Russ and I lived in Madison, Wisconsin, our apartment was in a densely populated, very urbanized neighborhood on busy University Avenue, across from a car wash and the Erickson gas station. Yet late every February and into March and April, I’d hear, right from our yard, the songs of Eastern Wood-Pewees and Eastern Meadowlarks, not only in inappropriate habitat for both species, but also much earlier in spring than either species ever returned. I figured out the very first spring that we lived there that these songs weren’t being given by either pewees or meadowlarks—even though the songs were spot-on, they were produced by European Starlings.

Starlings, here in America only since 1890, have been a regular part of the landscape in Europe throughout written history. Their scientific name, given to them by Linnaeus himself in 1758, is Sturnus vulgaris. Sturnus is simply the Latin name for starlings. Vulgaris means common, not in the sense of being vulgar, as cynical American birders would have it, but simply in the sense of being everyday birds found throughout much of Linnaeus’s landscape.

The same year that Linnaeus named the starling, he also gave the Northern Mockingbird its scientific name, Mimus polyglottos, which means mimic of many voices.

Northern Mockingbird

One of my dear friends, David Gierlach, told me that he heard what he thought was a mockingbird “one starry morning - a mockingbird with a rough, whiskey-and-cigarettes coarseness to its voice.” But David found out from an acquaintance that his bird was a starling! Like mockingbirds, starlings can make perfect imitations of other bird songs, natural sounds, and mechanical and human-generated sounds.

European Starling

I learned soon after becoming a birder that starlings were introduced here because of being mentioned by Shakespeare. I’d taken several Shakespeare courses in high school and college, but didn’t see a references to starlings in those. My new correspondent, Timothy Flannery, has a more classical education than I, being a retired Latin teacher from the Packer Collegiate Institute. As such, he’s probably actually read Henry IV, Part 1.

Timothy sent me additional details about his Mortimer the Starling’s imitations:
Unlike your Mortimer (or Morticia?), our starling hadn't -- yet, anyway -- begun to mimic any household appliances. I actually worried about that, as we have one doozey of a series of microwave beeps that I'm not sure I'd have relished echoed ad nauseam. Motivated by similar dread, I used to lunge for the television's mute button whenever obnoxiously repetitive commercials would come on.

That said, we had the feeling that Mortimer was just warming up to his vocalizations at the point we lost him. Besides his few articulated words, he would sometimes let forth a litany of chattering, a sort of ongoing monologue, of gutturally muttered, not-quite-articulated words but with human-sounding speech intonations, as though he were practicing innumerable phrases that would likely have emerged intelligible subsequently. He would typically hold forth thus from my shoulder during the nightly dishes, his usual hour for telling me every last detail about how his day had gone.  

Mortimer did have a lovely, if sadly foreshortened, life. He was thoroughly pampered without becoming spoiled. And we spent so much quality time together, from morning to night -- just the way that incredibly gregarious creature wanted to spend his days.
There were few finer feelings I've experienced in a lifetime than being out in the yard, spotting Mortimer in the uppermost branches of our oak tree, giving him a whistle, and watching this veritable spotted angel come helicoptering down through the skies, landing, by his little heart's choice, precisely upon my own lucky shoulder. Gardening this year, and every other outdoor activity, and indoor as well, for that matter, will be a consequently lonely affair in his absence.

While Timothy was dealing with the loss when his Mortimer died, his thoughts ran to poetry. He quoted the last two stanzas of William Cullen Bryant’s 1818 poem, “To a Waterfowl”:
Thou'rt gone! the abyss of heaven
Hath swallowed up thy form; yet on my heart
Deeply hath sunk the lesson thou hast given,
And shall not soon depart. 
He who, from zone to zone,
Guides through the boundless sky thy certain flight,
In the long way that I must tread alone
Will lead my steps aright.
That puts Timothy in the same category as Mozart, who cherished his own dear pet starling for three years. Mozart was especially charmed that his bird mimicked some of his musical phrases, even transcribing one example of the bird’s song in musical notation. Mozart was distraught when that beloved bird died in 1787, but he couldn’t be comforted by Bryant’s poem—Bryant hadn’t even been born yet. So Mozart wrote his own poem for his beloved bird’s funeral. It was written in German, but here is the English translation:
Here rests a bird called Starling,
A foolish little Darling.
He was still in his prime
When he ran out of time,
And my sweet little friend
Came to a bitter end,
Creating a terrible smart
Deep in my heart.
Gentle Reader! Shed a tear,
For he was dear,
Sometimes a bit too jolly
And, at times, quite folly,
But nevermore
A bore.
I bet he is now up on high
Praising my friendship to the sky,
Which I render
Without tender;
For when he took his sudden leave,
Which brought to me such grief,
He was not thinking of the man
Who writes and rhymes as no one can.

Monday, February 17, 2020

A Tale of Two Mortimers

Joey and Mortimer

Back in 1989, I came into possession of a baby starling—a nestling whose eyes were still closed. It’s technically illegal for rehabbers to release invasive exotic birds into the wild, so our family decided to keep him permanently. I had always had a place in my heart for starlings since before I even knew what they were—when I lived in the dorm in college, I used to save some French fries from my lunch or dinner to put out on my window sill, and these plump, short-tailed birds with yellow bills and dark plumage spangled with white spots in winter and silvery speckles in spring would fly in to take them. A few years later when I got my first field guide, that was the first bird I looked up, based on my memories of those dorm birds.

European Starling

It didn’t take me long to learn that these cool little birds I was fond of were actually a big and dangerous problem for native birds here in America. A man named Eugene Schieffelen released 60 starlings in Central Park on March 16, 1890, and their population quickly exploded. Starlings are one of the primary reasons Red-headed Woodpeckers have declined, and they take out a lot of bluebirds as well.

Schieffelen’s goal in bringing starlings here to America was to “naturalize” every species mentioned in a play by William Shakespeare. In Shakespeare’s entire body of work, he mentioned starlings exactly once, never dreaming that one short speech would change the American avifauna forever. In Henry IV, part 1, in Act I, scene iii, the character Hotspur, who wants the king to ransom his brother-in-law Mortimer from a Welsh warrior, says:
He said he would not ransom Mortimer;
Forbad my tongue to speak of Mortimer;
But I will find him when he lies asleep,
And in his ear I’ll holla ‘Mortimer!’  Nay,
I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak
Nothing but ‘Mortimer,’ and give it him,
To keep his anger still in motion.”  
So of course we named our little starling Mortimer, and hoped to teach Morty to talk. My original plan was for me and the kids to repeat the word Mortimer over and over, and try to limit other sounds Morty heard, but this was a household of two talkative adults and children who were 3, 5, and 7, so it was pretty much impossible to limit what he heard to his name.

Joey and Mortimer

Our Mortimer made a lot of vocalizations, but in those days before cell phones and before I had good equipment at home, we have no recordings or videos. I wrote, at the time he was five weeks old, that when I read to the children, Morty broke out in an interesting song, making long sweet burblings that lasted for up to five minutes. Over the years, he learned to imitate a great many sounds from our home environment, including the phone ringing, the doorbell, and our smoke alarm. But Morty always strung these sounds together in long sentences along with jumbles of his own notes. And no matter how much we talked to him, Mortimer never learned to imitate a single word in the nine or so years we had him. 

I think about Mortimer every March 16—the anniversary of starlings being introduced to America—and every April 23—the anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and the day many people celebrate his birthday. Even though he was a member of our family for almost a decade, I don’t think about Morty in my day-to-day life except when I hear a burbling starling making the same sounds he once did. But a couple of weeks ago, thoughts of our dear Mortimer flooded into my mind again, thanks to some emails I received from Timothy Flannery, who had his own starling that he named Mortimer for the same reasons I did.

Timothy wrote:
Online recently, I happened upon the text of a For the Birds broadcast you made on June 19, 1989. You professed you were going to settle, once and for all, whether a starling could indeed be taught to speak nothing but "Mortimer," as Shakespeare would have us believe. You were raising a baby starling, which you had, naturally, named Mortimer.   
Across the distance of thirty years later, the moment I read that text last week I felt compelled to contact you in order to ask how your experiment went back then. Did your Mortimer learn to utter "Mortimer," then?  
I'm especially interested to know because last June I was blessed by the experience of needing to rescue a fledgling starling and of opening my home and my heart to the little fellow -- whom I promptly named...Mortimer.

The story of raising him is long, as were the months of joys with which he filled the six months he spent with me and my family. We became so imprinted that a release to the wild would have been impossible; we secretly rejoiced, having embraced him deeply into our own flock.

When he was about five months old, one evening on my shoulder as I was doing the dinner dishes, he leaned in to my ear and said, clearly as a bell, "Mortimer!" He repeated it a couple of times -- and continued in forthcoming days. He was clearly mimicking us calling and addressing him. He soon added "C'mere, c'mere!" and "Good boy!" So, please know that Hotspur's speech in Henry IV, part 1 is validated by at least one starling. Again, I'd love to know if we could call that two.   

Very, very sad to say, my Mortimer had an accident a week before Christmas. Although he was extremely precise in his swift flight and, since cold weather moved in, had become very familiar and adept with the indoor space in which we gave him several daily opportunities to soar, either due the change of configuration based on the newness of the Christmas tree in the living room or because an oncoming snow squall had so changed the lighting and resultant reflections, poor Mortimer crashed into our plate glass window, severely damaging himself. He died in my hands as my nephew raced me in his truck through the squall toward the vet.   
Life has not been the same since December 18th, believe me. Having grown up in rural Pennsylvania with a mother who loved all animals and allowed, even encouraged, me to have a diverse and long list of pets through the years, I can honestly say that Mortimer has spoiled and changed me forever. Being a recently retired Latin teacher, and having moved from Manhattan to semi-rural northwest NJ, I thought I'd probably want a dog (whom I could name Argo, of course, like Odysseus' faithful pooch). But now I am thoroughly captivated by the pronounced personalities of starlings, and truth be told, I just miss my dear talking bird so terribly.   
As I negotiate my way through these starling-less doldrums, it would help mightily to hear the end of your thirty-year-old story, how you ended up faring with your own Mortimer.  

As I explained to Timothy, our own Mortimer never did learn to say any words at all, so I’m endlessly thrilled that his Mortimer did. And I’m especially delighted to know that a starling could learn to speak Mortimer, even if he couldn’t learn to speak nothing but Mortimer. Starlings are one of the very few birds we are legally allowed to keep as pets, because as an invasive, exotic species, they have no legal protections here in America. As both Timothy and I can attest, they are winsome, intelligent, and even though they don’t belong on the wild American landscape, are delightful birds deserving of respect and love.

Timothy shared some videos of his Mortimer. How I wish we had a video of our Mortimer!

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Of Caeca and Appendices

Common Nighthawk

A couple of weeks ago, I got an email from Emily Geissler who wrote that her sister, Beth, who listens to For the Birds, is sick with a ruptured appendix. She was in the hospital for a bit, and is dealing with a fairly long recovery period, too.

I’m one of the many people who does not have an appendix at all—mine was removed back in 1979. I didn’t have appendicitis or a ruptured appendix—just an ovarian cyst, but since the surgeon was rooting around in my abdomen anyway, he said removing my appendix was a “free service.”

The appendix is a tiny dead-end pouch where our large and small intestines meet. Back in both high school biology and the biology and human physiology courses I took in college, we learned as fact that the appendix is a vestigial remnant from our evolutionary past, no longer having any function at all. Nowadays, many researchers believe that the appendix serves as a repository for “good bacteria” in the gut, so after a bout of stomach flu or other illness, it can repopulate the intestines quickly. And some researchers have found a connection between lymphoid tissues and the appendix, suggesting that it promotes the body’s immune system. Of course, people who do not have an appendix—including both those of us who lost our appendix for no good reason and those like Beth who lost it because it ruptured or became infected—don’t suffer any adverse long-term effects, so even though the human appendix almost certainly has a function, it is not essential for good health.

Wilson's Snipe
Wilson's Snipe (related to the Common Snipe Macartney was writing about)
Many species of birds also have an appendix. James Macartney wrote about the appendix in a paper for the Royal Society of London way back in 1811, when scientists very keenly focused on comparative anatomy. Macartney wrote that the snipe has a huge appendix, lined with mucous follicles; Macartney concluded that it “performs the function of a mucous gland.” He also noticed that the appendix in birds is a remnant of the embryo’s yolk sac.

Fred the Common Nighthawk

I never learned anything about birds’ appendices, but did a lot of study into a related structure, also set where the large and small intestines meet—the caecum. One of the first birds I received back when I was a rehabber was a nighthawk with an injured wing. When I first held him, he pooped on my hands, and YUCK! The mess was like no bird poop I’d ever encountered before—a dark brown, slimy liquid with a horrifying odor. Most of the time, this bird’s droppings looked fairly normal though a bit more smelly than most birds’, but once a day throughout the two and a half months I had him before he was released, he’d produce one of these yucky, messy droppings. I thought he must have a unique digestive disorder, but he was otherwise healthy and after his wing healed, a strong flier.

The next nighthawk I took in had the same weird condition. I was a stay-at-home mother at the time, with plenty of time to help birds that needed extra TLC, and so became one of the few rehabbers who was very successful with nighthawks. And I couldn’t help but pay attention to their poop.

I finally found out that the smelly dropping once a day was called a “caecal dropping.” Ruffed Grouse produce these, too—their caeca, which grow enormous in winter when they’re eating tree buds, harbor anaerobic bacteria that produce an enzyme to help them digest cellulose so they can get nourishment from woody tissue.

Ruffed Grouse
Ruffed Grouse eating aspen buds
My ill-fated Ph.D. research project was to find out why nighthawks, which never eat anything with cellulose, have such well-developed caeca—I’m very proud that I’m the one who figured out that the bacteria in them produce an enzyme to help nighthawks digest chitin from insect exoskeletons.

Herbivorous mammals have well-developed caeca, but ours is fairly tiny, like our appendix. These two intestinal structures are so strange and mysterious that people still don’t thoroughly understand them, in our own species or in most other species. I don’t know that any bird has ever been known to suffer from appendicitis or a ruptured appendix. I hope that’s because it doesn’t happen rather than that there’s no way of our finding out. As dangerous and awful as a ruptured appendix is, many of us humans at least can access medical care. I hope Beth is feeling a lot better and out enjoying birds again as soon as possible.

White-throated Sparrow
A little bird told me Beth is particularly fond of White-throated Sparrows. I hope she's completely better when these guys appear in a month or so!

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Marie's Birds

Northern Cardinal

A couple of weeks ago, I got a lovely letter from Phil Shore, who lives in Dallas and listens to KAXE. He wrote that his mother, Marie Shore, has had a number of falls and is currently in a nursing facility in Chesterfield, outside St. Louis. Life can be very boring in nursing facilities, as I remember from the months when my mother-in-law lived in one, but fortunately, Phil’s mom has a bird feeder and so can watch the birds out her window. Phil sent a list of the birds that most often visit, which includes some of my own all-time favorites, such as Mourning Dove, Downy Woodpecker, Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, White-breasted Nuthatch, Carolina Wren, American Robin, Dark-eyed Junco, and Cardinal. Phil’s mom doesn’t have a favorite.

All but three of the birds he listed also show up regularly here in northern Minnesota. We virtually never see Tufted Titmice or Carolina Wrens way up by Lake Superior, and our chickadee is different, but the Black-capped Chickadee up here is pretty closely related to the Carolina. They look a lot alike with a few subtle plumage differences, but have different songs. 

Tufted Titmouse

When Russ and I lived in East Lansing, Michigan, and when I was working at Cornell and had an apartment in Ithaca, New York, I got to spend a lot of time with Tufted Titmice. How I loved them! Their pretty “Peter Peter Peter” song always fills me with joy. I got such a kick out of them as a new birder in Michigan—Russ and I had bird feeders, and Tufted Titmice were reliable visitors every day. I love their little crest, big black eyes, and the little dark square between the eyes, giving them such a curious, innocent expression.

Tufted Titmouse

One of my closest friends lives in Kirkwood, another St. Louis suburb, so I’ve had the wonderful fortune to spend some time birding there, enjoying her Carolina Wrens and thrilling at their exuberantly loud, ringing songs.

Carolina Wren

Living with tiny House Wrens as I do, I never considered wrens feeder birds until I spent time with Carolina Wrens. What joy it is when they show up!

Carolina Chickadee

Carolina Chickadees have less buffy on their sides than our Black-capped Chickadees do. The Carolinas lack the white edgings of the primary wing feathers, and they have a cleaner bib. Black-capped Chickadees up here sing “Hey, sweetie!” or, as my less-romantic, more food-oriented friends would have it, “Cheeseburger!” (Those friends perhaps don’t realize that most singing chickadees do, in fact, have a sweetheart, but virtually none have ever eaten a cheeseburger.) Carolina Chickadees also have a sweet whistled song, but it’s more complex. One pattern has four notes: fee-bee-fee-bay, but ornithologists have reported at least 35 other versions. Their chickadee-dee-dee  call is faster than that of Black-capped Chickadees, too.

White-breasted Nuthatch

White-breasted Nuthatches are year-round backyard birds in St. Louis and in Duluth. The male and female don’t usually stay too close together in winter, though the male often follows the female to drive her from her favorite feeding places, so I much prefer seeing just one or the other, rather than both, when watching my feeders in winter. Since January first this year, I haven’t seen a single nuthatch in my own neighborhood, but it’s nice to think of them down in St. Louis.

Northern Cardinal

The bird I most firmly associate with St. Louis is of course the Northern Cardinal. Long before I became a birder, I’d watch Cubs games with my grandpa. I was fascinated with Jose Cardinal playing for the Cardinals, though it was even cooler, from the standpoint of being a Cubs fan rather than a birder, when he was a Cubbie for 6 years. 

Cool as Jose Cardinal is, I can’t imagine he can vocalize quite as beautifully as a real cardinal. We didn’t used to have them as a regular species in Duluth, but now that we do, my life feels richer, and I can feel my heart swell whenever a cardinal breaks into song here. This was the first bird song I learned to imitate. Perhaps the most magical moment of my entire childhood came about when one morning while hearing a cardinal whistle, I whistled back, and suddenly the bird flew in to the maple branch right outside my bedroom window and sang back to me.

female Northern Cardinal

It’s very hard to be stuck indoors, but even when I haven’t been able to get out birding, I’ve very much relished being able to look out the window to see birds, and am very happy that Marie is getting to enjoy birds through her window, too.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Conversation with a Grackle

Great-tailed Grackle

I spend a lot of time in conversation with birds. Not that I have a clue what they’re saying to me, if indeed they’re actually vocalizing to me, and I’m sure that what I think I’m saying when I imitate a chickadee’s song or an owl’s hoot is not at all what they’re hearing, but I find it irresistible sometimes, especially when I’m walking alone in the woods, to call back when I hear an easy-to-imitate bird call.

Black-capped Chickadee

Communication involves at least some actual understanding between individuals. Back when I had my old desk beside my window, I’d crank open the window and whistle, and instantly chickadees would fly in and I’d feed them mealworms. I have no idea how they translated that whistle, but they definitely knew that if they flew in right then, I’d give them tasty meals. If I was busy at my desk when a chickadee wanted a mealworm, it could alight on my window and tap to catch my eye.

Black-capped Chickadee peeking in my window waiting for mealworms

I don’t know if it tapped out of impatience, eagerness, or simple hunger, and obviously have no way of knowing if any chickadees ever did that when I wasn’t right at my desk, but when a chickadee did it, it always looked straight at my face, and it never flew away when I got up and opened the window.

 Handfeeding mealworms to a Black-capped Chickadee

We definitely had an understanding between us—chickadees knew I’d feed them whether I whistled first, or whether they caught my attention by tapping. This is the very essence of communication.

Great-tailed Grackle

One of my Facebook friends, Jack Shelton of Bemidji, wrote to me last week about his own experience communicating with a bird down in Central America. He wrote:
I was visiting the beach a couple days ago in Nicaragua, and listening to what I think was a Great-tailed Grackle. What a beautiful and diverse repertoire. We talked back and forth for a considerable time, him having way more sounds than I could mimic. Eventually I endeared myself to him by offering a piece of fish skin & bones which he seemed to enjoy. To think we didn’t converse seems silly. I think we both took something from our time together.
I so wish that more people understood just how much our lives are enriched by wild animals. They fill the world with beauty, both visual and auditory. And for those of us lucky enough to notice, once in a while a bird gives us a moment of grace, something money just can’t buy, though as Jack learned, sometimes we do have to pay a small price, maybe in the form of some fish skin and bones.

Great-tailed Grackle

My first baby, Joey, had a long conversation with a whole flock of Great-tailed Grackles when he was six-months old. It made the Great-tailed Grackle my Best Bird Ever!! Read all about it here.