Laura Erickson's For the Birds

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.