Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Friday, July 31, 2020

Laura's Best Birds EVER! Baby Flickers

Northern Flickers

Back in the ‘90s when I was a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, one summer I was brought two baby flickers. Their nest tree had broken off right at the nest cavity in a storm. The babies were apparently okay in there, and the parents continued to feed them, but then crows discovered the open nest. They’d carried off at least two nestlings when people climbed up to save the survivors.   

The two nestlings were pretty well feathered already, but one of the surprising things I learned about woodpeckers because of this experience is that nestlings don’t flutter or hop anywhere, except, as they get a little bigger and stronger, they work their way up to the entrance hole. They stay securely inside the cavity until they’re capable of powered flight. So even as they grew and became almost full-sized, they stayed put wherever I put them. At night I kept them in an open ice cream bucket, and in the morning brought them into the dining room. I put towels on the backs of two chairs, and newspapers on the seats. The babies clung to the towels for the day as if stuck with Velcro.   

Northern Flickers

Yet even while they are still in their nest cavities, baby woodpeckers start toddling up to the entrance hole, where they get sun exposure, important for their bodies to manufacture Vitamin D. To make up for being stuck indoors, I took a daily walk with them clinging to the pockets of my cargo shorts.   

Northern Flickers

I fed them a powdered commercial baby bird food mix with an eyedropper. Baby woodpeckers grasp their parent’s bill and the parent regurgitates semi-digested insects down their throats, which was pretty easy to mimic with the eyedropper. Keeping them on two separate chairs, we didn’t notice how aggressive baby flickers can be with their siblings.   

Northern Flickers

Baby birds have a wider mouth than adults, often with colorful mouth linings and gape, where the upper and lower mandibles meet. These baby flickers had harder tissue projecting outward a bit there—a firm, pearly projection. I’d never had any baby woodpecker before, so didn’t know this was a feature common to the whole family.   

The flickers may have been easy to keep indoors while they were nestlings, but I knew that as soon as they could fly at all, they would be in danger in our house, where not one room was big enough to allow them more than one or two wingbeats without them crashing into a wall. Luckily, I figured this out in time, and started keeping them in a Wood Duck house in a dead apple tree in our yard before they even tried flying. From the start, my sons and I had always whistled before we fed them, and kept this up consistently, so when they could fly, they’d come right to us if we whistled when they were hungry. 

Northern Flickers

Northern Flickers

That’s when we discovered that, if they both came in at once, they’d attack each other viciously, often aiming for each other’s eyes. Some people believe the whitish projections on baby woodpecker mouths help the parents aim for their mouths in the dark nest cavity, which makes sense, but watching these flickers jousting, I noticed that those mouth projections deflected an attacking sibling’s bill away from the eyes, so these little projections probably serve a bit of a protective function, too.  

Northern Flickers

From the start, we could tell the two apart by their breast markings. One had nice bold spots, leading of course to our calling that one Spot. The other’s spots were far smaller and more delicate, as if painted on with a much finer brush. That one we called Speckles.  

After a few days in the backyard, Spot and Speckles started exploring the neighborhood. I took them to a few anthills, but otherwise, they had to pick up all the skills of being wild on the street, so it took them longer to be independent than it would have if they’d grown up with their parents. One of my sons or I would go out in the backyard every half hour or so every day from late July well into October and whistle and Bam! (they flew fast, and landed hard)—one of the flickers would fly in and land on us, and then the other would.   

If we got a good meal into the first before the second arrived, everything was easy. But if the second came just moments after the first, we spent an inordinate amount of time trying to keep them from murdering each other. It seemed odd how absolutely opposed they both were to sharing food, because they always flew in from the same direction and every time we spotted them in the neighborhood, they were together.   

By October, they weren’t flying in as quickly when we whistled, sometimes disappearing for hours at a time, and weren’t eating as much when they did come in. That’s how we knew they were getting successful at finding their own food. The big surge of flicker migration had ebbed in September, but there were still some others in the neighborhood when Spot and Speckles stopped coming altogether. We never knew if they had started associating with other flickers, but figured they must have worked out migration somehow.   

Usually that’s the end of a rehab story—the bird dies or disappears, never to be seen again. But the next spring, one fine morning when Joey was doing his paper route, he heard a flicker and looked up to see it studying him, so he whistled. And Bam!—it flew right to him. He of course didn’t have any food on him, and even a perfectly natural flicker would not be expecting its parents to feed it at this point, but what a thrill to know that at least one of our babies had definitely survived the winter, and definitely remembered us. Those baby flickers were the Best Birds EVER!  

Northern Flickers

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

August 1 Zoom Program

When: Saturday, August 1, 2020, 7:00 pm CDT
Where: Laura's Zoom Conference Room

My Patreon supporters (and people who contributed back-channel) should have already received an email invitation. Let me know if you did not. 

If you received an invitation, feel free to forward it to friends and family, too.
People who sign up to support my podcast and blog via Patreon by Saturday morning (minimum $1 per month) will get an invitation to this program. 

Topic: Birds of Late Summer

Chestnut-sided Warbler in fall plumage
Chestnut-sided Warbler in fall plumage

In August, some birds may still be nesting, especially goldfinches and a few Cedar Waxwings, while others are already heading south, including hummingbirds and a lot of shorebirds. Many young birds are still hanging out with their parents, depending on at least some handouts as they learn to negotiate the world on their own. And many young migrating birds are studying the night sky; they may have magnetite in their brains to serve as a low-tech compass, but when the stars are visible, celestial navigation can be more reliable. 

This is a great time to add birds to our yard lists, including species that don't live in the kind of habitat our yards provide. An interesting assortment of birds may fly over, and water features can lure in more. My favorite birdbath, with a recirculating flow, broke down this year and I couldn't replace it with anything similar, so I'm trying something new. 

Blackburnian Warbler at my birdbath
Blackburnian Warbler at my old birdbath

The birdbath that no longer works looked like a rocky pool. We had another birdbath that was way too deep, with a shallower little pool at the top with a solar fountain. The main, too-deep part cracked, but I put the solar fountain in an old kitty litter box filled with small stones. Some backyard birds have been using that. 

American Robin preening

Blue Jays at my birdbath

Now I've also set up a shallow pan-type bird bath on a short stand, with a spray dripper hooked up to our hose, slowly spilling into another pan-type bird bath on the ground. So far I haven't seen any birds at it, but we'll see what August brings. 

Birdbath with mister and second level

The program will include plenty of photos of interesting August birds, and I'll try to give you a good understanding of their lives. 

More than you thought you wanted to know about Northern Flickers

Northern Flicker

I have a lot of memories of the first time Russ and I came up to northern Wisconsin to visit his parents in Port Wing after I became a birder. That first week of September in 1975, I added 13 lifers, and even more memorable were some of my experiences—walking with Russ on Sand Beach in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, we saw raccoon and mink footprints but no human or dog prints, and I studied a little Lapland Longspur working its way along the beach, moving slowly and deliberately enough for me to have plenty of time to page through my field guide figuring out who it was. 

Cedar Waxwing

Before this trip, I’d already seen plenty of Cedar Waxwings, but suddenly they were conspicuous and everywhere, whole flocks perched in big snags and slender dead branches rising above shrubs, darting out to catch flying insects. Some were tucked into those shrubs, feeding on berries, but even they were noticeable, making their high-pitched sleepy snores, contrasting with the raspy mews catbirds were making within those same shrubs. 

I not only added ravens to my lifelist but also had ample opportunity to compare their calls and flight silhouettes to those of crows. I had somehow managed to miss both Yellow-rumped and Palm Warblers entirely my first spring of birding, despite their being two of the very most abundant of all warblers, but in Port Wing that early fall, I made up for lost time, seeing them everywhere and memorizing their call notes. The dry chip of the Yellow-rump sounded to my ears like an annoyed math teacher; the slightly more liquid one of the Palm Warbler more like an annoyed music teacher.  

Northern Flicker

But of all the memorable birding experiences I had that September, most vividly impressed on my memory are the flickers. I’d seen my first one way back in May, and saw them here and there throughout spring and summer, but now, that first week of September in northern Wisconsin, they were everywhere, acting not at all like the woodpeckers I knew they were. Whenever Russ and I walked or drove along any dirt road or my in-laws’ gravel driveway, flickers flew up ahead of us, showing off their unmistakable bold white rump and flashes of brilliant yellow on their wings and tail. I found quite a few fairly large feathers along the beach with bold yellow shafts and the vanes on just the underside vivid yellow, giving me an appreciation of the dangers of migration as well as the beauty of flickers.  

Flicker wing on Port Wing Beach

When I could park myself down before flushing one, I could watch them picking up ants. I vaguely remembered something about that from ornithology class, but it was much more vividly impressed on my brain when I could actually watch them. Flickers eat more ants than any other bird, and also take a wide variety of beetles, wasps, grasshoppers, crickets, grubs, and other insects. They’ve even been reported flycatching—that is, darting out to capture flying insects on the wing.  

To sweeten their diet, about 40 percent of their food is vegetal, especially berries and other fruits. They seem especially fond of poison ivy berries, helping to disseminate their seeds. They also take some acorns, beechnuts, and other seeds.  

Flickers are one of the birds that are beloved by just about anyone who sees them, and they’re seen by a lot of people in North America. They can be found year round in most of the Lower 48 states, Cuba, and well down into Mexico and Central America. The vast majority of them retreat south from the northernmost states in winter, and a great many breed in the northern states, much of Canada, and Alaska. Indeed, they breed further north than any other woodpecker except the Three-toed Woodpecker.   

Northern Flicker

The website gives this bit of history:  

The common flicker is the State Bird of Alabama. Alabama has been known as the "Yellowhammer State" since the Civil War. The yellowhammer nickname was applied to the Confederate soldiers from Alabama when a company of young cavalry soldiers from Huntsville, under the command of Rev. D.C. Kelly, arrived at Hopkinsville, KY, where Gen. Forrest's troops were stationed. The officers and men of the Huntsville company wore fine, new uniforms, whereas the soldiers who had long been on the battlefields were dressed in faded, worn uniforms. On the sleeves, collars and coattails of the new cavalry troop were bits of brilliant yellow cloth. As the company rode past Company A, Will Arnett cried out in greeting "Yellowhammer, Yellowhammer, flicker, flicker!" The greeting brought a roar of laughter from the men and from that moment the Huntsville soldiers were spoken of as the "yellowhammer company." The term quickly spread throughout the Confederate Army and all Alabama troops were referred to unofficially as the "Yellowhammers."  
When the Confederate Veterans in Alabama were organized they took pride in being referred to as the "Yellowhammers" and wore a yellowhammer feather in their caps or lapels during reunions.  
A bill introduced in the 1927 legislature by Representative Thomas E. Martin, Montgomery County, was passed and approved by Governor Bibb Graves on September 6, 1927.
Roger Tory Peterson often wrote about the flicker that sparked his love for birds. In a 1937 National Audubon Society leaflet , he wrote about an experience he had when he was about 11 years old with his friend Carl, who:

found a dead bird on a tree…There it was, about four feet from the ground, clasping the trunk, its bill nuzzled into the feathers of its back. It was a flicker, a beautiful thing, the first one we had ever seen. We were wondering how the poor creature had died in such a manner when I ventured to poke it with my finger. The “dead” bird suddenly came to life, looked at us in amazement, and bounded away!
Arthur Cleveland Bent, the author and compiler of the comprehensive Life Histories of North American Birds was also struck by a seemingly lifeless flicker when he was a boy, though in his case the bird really was dead. He wrote: 

I can remember as clearly as if it were only yesterday my boyish, enthusiastic admiration for this beautiful bird, though it was between 50 or 60 years ago that my father first showed me a freshly killed flicker. I was simply entranced with the softly blended browns, the red crescent on the head, the black crescent and bold spotting on the breast, and, above all, with the golden glow in the wings and tail. Few birds combine such charming colors and pleasing contrasts. I have never lost my admiration for it, and still consider it one of nature’s gems.  
Franklin L. Burns listed 123 vernacular names for this species in a monograph about flickers. Arthur Cleveland Bent included only one nickname in his Life History, “the ‘partridge woodpecker,’ suggestive of my boyhood days, when flickers, meadowlarks, and robins were considered legitimate game.” John James Audubon did not consider flickers good eating—he disliked the bitter taste flicker meat took on from the formic acid permeating the bodies of the flicker’s favorite food (and the reason ants belong to the family Formicidae). Unlike Audubon, many people enjoyed the spicy flavor enough that flickers were commonly seen strung up with other birds at old meat markets. 

Reading Bent’s account, originally published in 1939 when he was 73 years old, certainly reflects the sensibilities of earlier generations, and not only in terms of people eating flickers. He extolled the beauty of their eggs: 

The eggs of the flicker are pure lustrous white, with a brilliant gloss; the shell is translucent, and, when fresh, the yolk shows through it, suffusing the egg with a delicate pinkish glow, which is very beautiful.  
Yet most of his discussion of eggs relates to collecting. In particular, he focuses on how many eggs various collectors managed to take from individual flickers, inducing them to produce additional eggs which they in turn collected. He wrote:  

My neighbor, Charles L. Phillips, tried the experiment of taking one egg each day, leaving one as a nest egg; he holds the extraordinary record of having taken 71 eggs from one nest in 73 days; the poor bird rested only two days in the long strain of over two months. 
Unlike the humans who didn’t show much mercy to flickers, at least one wild predator was quite tender with a flicker family. Bent writes:  

W.I.Lyon (1922) tells an interesting story of a screech owl that adopted and brooded a family of young flickers, after its own nest in the same tree had been broken up twice; the owl even brought in part of a small bird, perhaps intending to feed it to the young flickers, which were all the time being fed by their parents and were successfully raised. 
Nesting deep in cavities protects woodpeckers from the elements and many predators, but it comes at a cost—when an adult is incubating eggs or brooding young, both energy-intensive jobs, carbon dioxide builds up because there is so little air circulation. Both parents take turns during daytime, but perhaps to even up their physical contributions to the young after the female produced the clutch, the male takes night duty. Once the babies hatch, the adults will be flying in and out with food, which keeps bringing in fresh air, but to minimize the amount of time in the egg, baby woodpeckers are hatched out while they’re extremely undeveloped compared to most birds. 

(You can see some amazing photos of the eggs, chicks, and adults inside a flicker nest in my book, Into the Nest: Intimate Views of the Courting, Parenting, and Family Lives of Familiar Birds. I can't post the photos here because they are copyrighted, so you'll have to take my word about how great they are.) 

Bent quoted Althea Sherman’s lovely description of a newly hatched flicker:  

The pellucid color of the newly hatched Flicker resembles that of freshly sun-burned human skin, but so translucent is the nestling’s skin that immediately after a feeding one can see the line of ants that stretches down the bird’s throat and remains in view two or three minutes before passing onward.  
I got lots of flicker recordings this spring—they were among the most vociferous of my backyard birds in terms of the amount of time they spent vocalizing and the volume of their calls. As Arthur Cleveland Bent wrote, “The flicker has an elaborate vocabulary; no other woodpecker, and few other birds, can produce a greater variety of loud striking calls and soft conversational notes.”  

The name flicker fits the species visually because of the flickerings of brilliant color we notice when we see them in flight, and the word flicker has for hundreds of years, at least since Chaucer, been used with reference to birds in general, but the reason the name stuck for American flickers may well be that one of their calls seems to be flicka, flicka, flicka—Merriam Webster says the etymology of the name for the bird is “probably imitative of its call.” 

Northern Flicker

There are lots of dead trees in and around my backyard. I don’t like tracking my birds too closely, because my crows track me, and I don’t want to inadvertently give away any other birds’ secrets, but I know my flickers nested either in my own old aspen tree or in one of the dead trees in the little woodland behind my house. After the babies fledged, there were a couple of days when I got to observe them, but they were so quiet and still that it took some luck to notice them in the first place and some work to keep track of them. Intriguingly, they seemed to fly off when they heard a parent call, rather than noisily calling the parents to them. I blundered into that strategy of calling the babies to me when raising our flickers, but it turns out to be what real flicker parents do, too.  

Northern Flicker fledgling

Northern Flicker fledgling

The flicker babies and their parents are all growing new feathers right now, feathers that will have to serve them for a full year. Now that the young are flying well, they seem to be accompanying their parents more, meaning none of them need to call very much, so these families are mostly silent. The parents are still subsidizing the chicks with feedings even as those youngsters grow skilled at finding their own food. This last week of July, I have heard a few flickers yelling out, but haven’t heard any drumming or the extended calls that made this spring so thrilling.

Soon these families will be moving on for the year, gathering with other families in loose but rather large flocks, especially conspicuous on volleyball, soccer, and other sporting fields, dirt roads, and gravel driveways. They often migrate along shorelines, their swoopy flight, yellow underwings and tail, and white rump making them easy to identify.  

Their rather slow, predictable flight makes them fairly easy for Peregrine Falcons and other raptors to grab, which is why their brilliant and sturdy feathers are so often picked up along shorelines. We can watch flickers migrating by day, but they also migrate by night, which we know from the carcasses we pick up in the morning beneath lighted buildings and towers. Mortality during migration is apparently high, but according to the Bird Banding Laboratory, some have lived over 9 years, and Kennard's "Longevity Records of North American Birds," published in Bird-Banding in 1975 listed one flicker who had survived 12 years 5 months.

Fortunately, flickers were once very abundant species, because throughout their range, their population is declining rather dramatically. I once rescued one bird that was entangled in monofilament and hopelessly snagged on a tree trunk. Fortunately, when I cut it free of the fishing line, it was sturdy and healthy enough to fly off. 

Northern Flicker tangled in monofilament

Their numbers may be smaller than in previous decades, but of an August or September day, they still gather on the ground, these quintessential birds of late summer, the very species Roger Tory Peterson cited when saying birds are the most vivid representation of life itself. Seeing them this time of year, my thoughts always travel back in time to that memorable first birding trip to Port Wing, Wisconsin, lo those 45 years ago.  

Common Flicker

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Birds of Late Summer

Ruby-throated Hummingbird at bee balm

Right this moment, there are more birds in North America than there will be at any time again this year. Baby birds hatched out from May through July have added mightily to bird numbers, but the life expectancy of baby birds is tragically short. The vast majority of chickadees hatched in a given year don’t make it to their first birthday. But once any songbird has survived four seasons, the skills it’s developed serve it well, and its life expectancy grows dramatically.   

Fledgling chickadee on left, parent on right
The young chickadee (left) has a shorter life expectancy than its parent (right), but if it
survives through next July, its life expectancy will jump.

We know that some chickadees who were trapped and banded, and then trapped again, have lived more than 12 years. Chickadee individuals who have eluded traps, or at least avoided being trapped a second time, have almost certainly lived even longer than that. 

Red-eyed Vireo

Tiny long-distance migrants can live long lives, too. An adult Red-eyed Vireo banded in July 2002 in Minnesota was retrapped and released in June 2013 in Minnesota, when it was a minimum of 12 years old. This tiny species winters in the Amazon Basin in South America, so the record-holder, weighing just a few grams more than a chickadee, had made a minimum of 24 one-way trips, each over 3,000-miles, during the part of its lifetime we know about.  

Various warblers are also known to have survived longer than a decade. And several Ruby-throated Hummingbirds were over 9 years old when retrapped, alive and well, and released.  

House Wren

Adult birds spent this summer nesting and raising young. Now, as July draws to a close, some birds are still singing out there, but nowhere near as many and nowhere near as persistently as in May and June. In my yard, a couple of House Wrens still burst into song a few times a day, but virtually never sing more than 2 or 3 songs at a stretch, unlike the 294 songs one House Wren sang in a half hour before dawn on June 6.   

American Robin preening

My male robin, who has already reared at least two batches of young and is working on another, sings for a minute or two every now and then, but nothing like he did from the time he arrived in March through June and early July. When rearing his second brood, he still had to prove to his mate that he was fit and ready to start a third batch. Now that that batch is underway, he has nothing left to prove to anyone. When not immediately occupied with young, he takes breaks for bathing and preening much more often than singing.

Two father chickadees occasionally take a break from their begging fledglings to sing, perhaps to give their young voice lessons, but again, with none of the persistence and energy they displayed through spring and early summer. 

Goldfinch eating thistle

By late July, birds have more urgent things on their minds than singing. A couple of species may still have nestlings or even just eggs—waxwings and goldfinches are our latest nesters. But the pressing task for the rest is to eat hearty on summer’s abundance of fruits and insects, and to molt. Both tasks are essential to prepare migrants for their journey, and to prepare residents for the long winter ahead. I’m still hearing quite a few baby birds begging, but even that is ebbing as they grow more capable of finding their own food. 

Molting Black-capped Chickadee

Now adults of a great many species are molting. My chickadee adults were looking horribly scraggly just a week ago, but their new feathers are starting to emerge, and a week or two into August, they’ll look every bit as perfect as the chicks they raised. Some Blue Jays and cardinals may appear bald for a week or so—the Blue Jay I had for many years as an education bird, Sneakers, always lost most or all of its head feathers simultaneously in the summer molt, looking bizarrely bald, while another jay I had, named BJ, lost and replaced its feathers more gradually, so it was hard to even notice that it was molting.  

Brown Thrasher sunning

On the first of every month, I’m presenting a Zoom program for supporters of "For the Birds." This Saturday night, August 1, I’ll be focusing on birds of late summer, with lots of photos of them at their best and at their worst. I'll provide lots of information about what birds are up to right now and how we can get our best looks at them in our own backyards. I'll be sending out invitations this week to everyone supporting "For the Birds" via Patreon or directly to me. 

Friday, July 24, 2020

A Conversation with Don Kroodsma, Part 4: Connecticut Warbler

Connecticut Warbler

When I talked to Don Kroodsma last week, I told him about my pulling an all-nighter during the summer I was taking my first ornithology course, and about the robin who stayed up singing that entire night.  

Oh, my. If you’ve ever been out at midnight, one or two am, and the world is dead silent except for a singing bird, as it was with your all-nighter, it is one of the most memorable experiences you can have. I’ve been out with a number of night singers, just relishing them all alone on a silent stage. Oh, where should we start? Let’s go to the Connecticut Warbler
I was in a campground in northern Michigan and in the middle of the night, about 3 am, the mosquitoes were just driving me crazy—I was sleeping in the back of the pickup truck and I said, “I’m out of here. I’m just going to go where I planned on going a couple of hours later and walk around and listen.” Got out there and it was an hour and a half or two hours before sunrise, and two Connecticut Warblers were singing. And I thought, huh! That’s odd. Birds don’t routinely start singing during the dawn chorus until about 45 minutes before sunrise.  
Well, it wasn’t until a few years later that I got to test what I thought might be going on. And this is in your backyard, Laura, the Sax-Zim Bog. Got out there and the Connecticut Warblers—there were several birds on territory right along the road, and sure enough. These birds having just arrived from migration, presumably, were singing all night long. I sent you a graph of one of these birds. It was the night of May 29 and 30, 2016. And I started recording this bird nine hours before sunrise, which was a little before sunset, and recorded him till 9 hours after sunrise. And you look at this graph of 5300 songs that this male sings. 

It was about 10:00, maybe 11 o’clock at night, about an hour before sunrise and it was 6-7 songs per minute, like a metronome, all night long. And I just look at this graph and my jaw still drops. About 45 minutes before sunrise, there’s a little increased excitement to go along with all the excitement of all the other birds around him, but then he drops back down and he just sings consistently about 6 songs a minute until 2:20 in the afternoon and my batteries gave out and so I have only 18 hours of recordings for this bird, in which  he sings about 5300 songs all through the night. It was a stunning performance and one of his neighbors was doing the same thing, and the next night and the next night they were still at it. 
Don’s recording of this performance lasts over 16 minutes.  

I don’t think I include all 18 hours in the book, Laura, but it’d be tempting. You know, everyone should listen to 18 hours of Connecticut Warbler song. But in Recording #532, I simply extracted a bit of singing from around midnight. There’s probably a couple of spring peepers in there but on this very quiet night, except for a few frogs—anybody who’s ever heard a Connecticut Warbler, experienced it firsthand, knows how loud they are. They are just emphatic. And if you can imagine being a female Connecticut Warbler flying up there, they can hear what has to be an unpaired Connecticut Warbler male singing to attract her to his territory. And sounds carry enormously well at night, and you’ve heard of hot air balloonists being up in their balloon and they can hear people talking down on the ground like the ground serves as some kind of flat amplifier of sound that sends it directly up. 
So these males singing all night long had to be unpaired, singing all day long, too—that’s a characteristic of an unpaired singing male, just like the Brown Thrasher and so many other species that have been documented. So it’s gotta be their male strategy for Connecticut Warblers to sing through the night like this and then the question becomes, “Well, it seems like such an obvious strategy to sing in the night to attract an overflying female. Why don’t more species use it?” Well, some do, I guess, but it’s probably not during migration like a Northern Mockingbird—why, they’re resident. They don’t migrate, but an unpaired male will sing all night long or especially after midnight. So Connecticut Warblers. Oh—we could go on and talk about other warblers and why they’re so different from other warblers, but I’ll take a breath there.  
Don’s splendid book, Birdsong for the Curious Naturalist, is available just about everywhere. The accompanying website,, is free for anyone who wants to listen to his Connecticut Warbler and 75 hours more of splendid birdsong. 

Thursday, July 23, 2020

A Conversation with Don Kroodsma, Part 3: Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Crane

The only thing more splendid than looking at a Sandhill Crane is listening to one. Don Kroodsma shares some wonderful recordings of Sandhill Cranes on his website, including one that lasts 23 minutes. Cranes are not considered songbirds, but Don understands that birdsong transcends taxonomy.  

You know, there are many reactions to Sandhill Cranes. Sadly, one of them by hunters is “ribeye in the sky.” And my heart dies when I hear that, that there’s an open season on these magnificent creatures. Stately.
You’ve probably got favorite Sandhill Crane experiences yourself. So I was in the northern part of Lower Michigan, a mile south of the bridge a couple years ago, April, the lakes were still frozen over, and in came this pair of Sandhill Cranes to set up a territory. And there’s something remarkable about listening to a male and a female duetting. Here we have again—the female is taking a significant role in all of the—well, go ahead and call it singing. What else would we call it?
And here they were, about 70 yards away. I would sneak out to the dock and just listen and watch them. I’ve got a couple of stereo recordings where I would encourage listeners to just close your eyes. You hear the male’s lower trumpet or bugle or whatever you want to call it, and she follows immediately after or overlapping, sounding as if they were one bird on many occasions, and that’s no doubt their intent, sounding as if they are a pair defending this territory. 
So this particular selection that I’m pointing your towards, Laura, it’s amazing to listen to them. First of all, they’re right out in front of us, and then they start to fly around the lake, and you can hear the male and the female off to the left and off to the right, and then, after they’ve made this circle over the lake, they disappear in the distance to the right. Just a wonderful sequence of male and female advertising that they own this little lake and there better not be any intruders. 
Territorial birds take umbrage at intruders. Don uses this interaction between the paired cranes and the intruder to make an important point for birders and photographers. 

There’s a lot of talk about the ethics of doing playbacks by birders. We take a song, we play it back to the bird, we bring it in, and some of us would say yes, we’re harassing that bird, and please don’t do playbacks to harass the birds.
Well, sometimes there are what we might call a natural playback. Here you have the male and female Sandhill Crane on their territory. They’re munching happily along, foraging in the woods, and a female starts to call. You can hear her in this recording (#43). She’s way off to the left and you hear her coming closer. She has a unique call that she gives, and closer and closer, and finally she’s right there in the center of this little lake, and the male and female residents, well, they ain’t too happy with all of this, and they come out of the woods, stand on the edge of the lake, and it’s the female—the resident female who first attacks this intruding female. She chases it off to the right and the male’s left calling all alone, then the male flies off and meets her coming back after she successfully chased this intruder away, and then I let the recorder run and for about 20 minutes you can hear the excitement and the energy that these two birds put into their bugling and it’s what I would call a natural example of a playback of an intrusion, but it suggests also reasons why we should be doing far fewer playbacks to birds.  
Click here to listen to Don’s splendid crane recordings. These recordings are so much richer when you can read Don’s explanations. His book, Birdsong for the Curious Naturalist, is one of the very few books I think everyone should have. 

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

A Conversation with Don Kroodsma, Part 2: White-throated Sparrows

White-throated Sparrow

Last week when I talked to the wonderful Don Kroodsma about his book, Birdsong for the Curious Naturalist, we naturally had to discuss the bird making the news right now, the White-throated Sparrow. 

White-throated Sparrows have wonderful songs, don’t they? Everybody in the north country knows them, and they migrate south and people in the south also know them as they warm up singing in the spring. It’s just a delightful sound.
There have been anecdotes about a standard White-throated Poor Sam Peabody, a certain style of song, disappearing. There are anecdotes of things that have changed over the years, but nobody has kept track of this carefully until Ken Otter at the University of Northern British Columbia started recording these birds and looked into all the recordings that have been made over the years and has documented how that Peabody triplet is being replaced by a doublet that seems to have begun on the West Coast, and is headed east. 
In the book, I provide some examples from Minnesota, Michigan and Ontario, of those Western doublets, and then the Eastern triplets I have Massachusetts, Vermont, and Maine. [Listen to Don's recordings here.]( And somewhere between New England and western Ontario these songs seem to be marching to the east. It really is a delightful phenomenon because the song is so noticeable everybody knows the song, everybody can hear what’s going on with these songs.  
People who study these kinds of things call this “cultural evolution.” These songbirds learn their songs just like we learn to speak, and so they have options as to which songs they sing. And it is culture, it’s an oral tradition, these songs passed on from one generation to the next. The reason the White-throated Sparrow is so fascinating is because everyone can hear it. But these things are going on in other species, too, like the Chestnut-sided Warbler. Probably the ultimate example, that has been known for some time about very rapid cultural evolution is with humpbacked whales, where the males seem to be continuously changing their songs to match others in the singing population. And that’s the same with Three-wattled Bellbirds that we discovered in Costa Rica, so this cultural evolution is occurring in a lot of species, but it’s so exciting in the White-throated Sparrow because everybody can hear it.  

White-throated Sparrow 
Most of the news reports I’ve read about the new White-throated Sparrow song say the males are picking up this new song because the females prefer it. But these stories leave out an important detail unique to White-throated Sparrows. This species comes in two color forms—half have tan and half have white stripes on their heads. Over 97 percent of all pairs of White-throated Sparrows include one tan- and one white-striped bird. All males sing, but half the females, the ones with white stripes, sing, too.  

I don’t know of any other species that has this kind of system, and the fact that the female sings is somewhat missing from this White-throated Sparrow doublets/triplets story because the females are also singing, so the explanation that maybe the males are switching to this new song because the females are impressed with it doesn’t quite fly because she sings, too. What gives?
All the recordings that would be in the archives would be of “a” White-throated Sparrow singing, regardless of the color of the crown, and so nothing is known about how these doublet songs are proceeding with respect to crown color and sex. 
People living in the North woods may still be hearing White-throated Sparrows, and those of us living in inappropriate habitat will soon be seeing them back at our feeders as migration begins. I asked Don what we should be listening for in August and September. He said young birds will be practicing. 

It’s the same beautiful, pure whistle, but often those whistles are wavering, and the bird is unclear. Eventually he may sing a high Poor Sam Peabod, Peabod. Eventually he will settle on just one song. A few birds sing two different songs, but mostly he’ll settle on one particular song with rhythm and the frequency changes in a predictable way, but not so the young bird migrating through, coming through in the fall. He’s uncertain whether that first note needs to be higher or lower than the second one and maybe he’ll sing just one note of—in Minnesota it would be the doublet now. Maybe he’ll sing a doublet. But he’s very uncertain. He’s practicing, and eventually, of course, he’ll get it right. You’ll hear a lot of this same uncertainty again in the spring. It’s unclear whether those are first-year birds or older birds, male or female. It’s wonderful to listen to the uncertainty as these birds practice their songs.  

I happen to live on Peabody Street specifically because when I was walking through the neighborhood looking for houses for sale in early 1981, I turned at the street sign because of White-throated Sparrows. Dealing without that lovely triplet seems sad to me, and Don agrees. 

I’m kind of sad, Laura—I like the Peabody or as I also like the mnemonic, Oh, sweet Canada, Canada, Canada.  
I guess here in Minnesota we’ll now be able to use the mnemonic, Ya sure, you betch, you betch, you betch

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

A Conversation with Donald Kroodsma: Part 1: A Sense of Wonder

Don Kroodsma at the 2001 Sound Recording Workshop

Last week, I sat down with Don Kroodsma, to talk about his new book, Birdsong for the Curious Naturalist. I of course asked what made him write the book. (You can listen to this conversation here.)

Laura, I’d been into birdsong for about 50 years and I realized that I knew a lot about how to listen to birds and I had written several books—several experiential books. What’s it like to bicycle across the country listening to birds from Virginia to Oregon, for example? Or I’d taken a few species in some of my other books and said, you know, this is what it’s like to listen to these species, and trying as much as you can to think what it’s like to be that species. But I thought, I just ought to take everything that I know about birdsong and all the things that make it so extraordinarily fascinating and put it into one book with a couple hundred examples of different species and what—75 hours of listening. No longer the 10-second clips so that you can just identify the bird, but, you know, like with our favorite Brown Thrasher, 3 ¼ hours of fine listening to one individual to get to know that individual better. So in a nutshell, that’s why I wrote the book. 

Don’s sense of wonder and excitement about birdsong is contagious. In his book, he invites us on a magical mystery tour through his lifetime of birdsong exploration.  

It’s basically, “Come with me! It’s out there! Leave everything behind and let’s pull up a chair and listen.” And we can race all over the continent and listen to whatever species we choose, whatever gives us the best example, and in those 75+ hours of listening, why, there’s so much good stuff.  
Of all the scientists I’ve known, Don Kroodsma is one of the rare breed imbued with a sense of wonder, and a quest to keep asking questions and keep discovering new things just for the sake of figuring it all out. I asked him how he got that sense of wonder. 

I go back to my senior year in college when I took a genetics course. And genetics isn’t my thing. But what was so exciting—of course, this was the Sixties when we knew relatively little about genetics—we were on the brink of learning everything, and what was so exciting about this course was, I swear, we spent about half the time discussing what we knew, and the other half what we did not know. And to this day, I think that was the most exciting course I’ve ever taken, because wow—you mean, we’re on the brink of discover? We could learn this if we follow this line of thinking or looking or listening? For me, too, with birdsong, it’s just unlimited what we don’t know. I’m reminded of a conversation back in 1968 with a fellow ornithology student who said, “You know, we know everything there is to know about birds, so I’m gonna go study lizards.” Well? So be it. 
I’m exceedingly glad that Don didn’t go off and study lizards, or stay in his original field of chemistry. He’s made the world a brighter place right where he is. Next time, he’ll tell us about a bird whose song is making international news right now, the White-throated Sparrow. 

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Book Review: Birdsong for the Curious Naturalist

Imagine getting to spend over 75 hours in the field with Donald Kroodsma, one of the most well-known, authoritative ornithologists in the world, listening to birds as he explains exactly what each one is doing with its voice, and why. Is it using its syrinx, the avian song box, to produce two entirely different sounds simultaneously? You put on headphones and can hear the separate sounds, one on the left and one on the right channel, as Don explains how this is happening. 

Are two birds song matching, one singing and the other matching his phrases a moment later? Listen! First Don extracts four songs and their matching songs on the separate channels, so you know exactly what to listen for, and then you can listen to 8 ½ minutes of pure wild-alive back and forth singing. You can sit back and enjoy it for the sheer pleasure, or you can focus to see how many song-matching pairs you can pick out yourself—Don can hear 49 in that sample, averaging about 6 song-matches each minute.  

I got to spend a little time with Don when I visited the
Hampshire Bird Club in Amherst last October. 

The likelihood of your spending that much time in person with Don Kroodsma is pretty remote. He lives in Massachusetts and spends much of his time traveling around the continent and the world studying and recording birdsong. But he’s done the next best thing—he’s written another superb book, Birdsong for the Curious Naturalist, taking his readers under his wing as he explores his lifetime of experiences with and discoveries about bird song. The reader will gain a richer understanding of why and how birds sing, how various birds acquire their songs and how those songs may change over a bird’s lifetime, how some species develop regional dialects, and how and why some birds acquire huge repertoires while others stick to a handful, or even just one, song.  

The book would be wonderful enough on its own, but it’s even more wonderful thanks to the recordings Don provides, for free, on the website That extraordinary resource has over 75 hours of Don’s own recordings, pure and delightful listening on their own account, and especially wonderful when listened to as you read the book. The hardcover version includes QR codes to the bird sounds, so if you’re reading with headphones hooked to your cell phone, tablet, or computer, you can call up the sounds as you read about them. Or you can set your browser at to play the songs chapter by chapter as you read.  

On digital versions, (I have the book on Kindle), you can just touch the QR codes with your finger as you read, and voila! The appropriate recordings pop up ready to be heard. Don also made all the recordings downloadable if you prefer to read while not hooked to the internet. So the book is seamlessly and easily interactive no matter how you read it.  

This is not a bird song identification book. Don explains in the Introduction:  

Don’t settle for a few brief sound bites that provide the minimum clues needed to successfully identify a bird species. No, strive for a deeper understanding of each singing bird, trying to fathom who it is, what’s in its head, why in this moment it is singing the way it is. A singing robin is never ‘just a robin,’ for example, but an individual expressing his mind, maybe even a ‘thought.’
If you devour the entire book, you’ll certainly learn the songs and/or calls of a lot of the 197 American species represented. But much more importantly, you’ll have a deeper, richer understanding of those sounds, and the lives of the birds producing them. As icing on the cake, Don throws in 13 Australian birds and, just for fun, 6 minutes of a unique mammal, the Tasmanian Devil! 

Last week I sat down with Don Kroodsma, at least virtually, via Zoom, and we chatted about his book, the amazing website so rich with recordings, and some of the birds he covers. All this week, which I’m designating Don Kroodsma Week, I’ll be excerpting from our conversation. 

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Peppered with Flavor

Blue Jay eating cherries from Russ's tree.
Many fruit-eating birds are attracted to red-colored fruits, whether they're sweet or hot. 

Back in 2018, researchers at Iowa State University published a paper about how birds in the Mariana Islands have a mutualistic relationship with a capsaicin pepper plant that grows wild in the forests of the Mariana Islands. Capsaicin peppers are native only to the Americas, but have been cultivated in Micronesia for 300-400 years, brought there by early explorers. Interestingly, Guam is the only island in the Mariana Islands group where this pepper is rare. It’s also the only island in the group that has lost virtually all its birds thanks to the introduction of the brown tree snake.   

Capsaicin peppers are unpalatable to mammals, being so hot, but many birds deal with the taste just fine. Many scientists explain that birds can’t taste peppers, but hummingbirds certainly can. For a while, people were recommending adding peppers to sugar water to repel bats from hummingbird feeders, but the pepper repelled hummingbirds just as completely—they obviously can taste it, and obviously do not like it. 

Ruby-throated Hummingbird sticking out her tongue.

The issue is more likely that many birds can taste hot peppers, but that the taste doesn't bother and may actually appeal to many of them. Capsaicin peppers are very nutritious, and it’s quite possible that their hot taste evolved specifically to repel mammals while attracting at least some birds, because birds do a much better job than mammals of spreading pepper seeds. 

Mammals chew their food, which destroys most fragile pepper seeds. The powerful gizzard of some seed-eating birds can pulverize pepper seeds, too, but fruit-eating birds don’t have that kind of muscular stomach. Their beaks may break a few seeds as they devour a pepper, but most of the seeds are swallowed whole, run through the bird’s digestive system, and germinate wherever the birds poop them out.  

Passing through a bird’s gut obviously removes the pulp—the nutritious element the birds are eating the peppers for. The Iowa State researchers found that when the pulp is removed in other ways, the seeds don’t germinate as well as when they go through a bird's digestive system. One bird the researchers focused on in lab studies was the Micronesian Starling—seeds germinated easily after these starlings "processed" the peppers. Intriguingly, the local name for the pepper plant thriving throughout most of the islands studied is "donne’ sali chili." “Sali” is the local name for the Micronesian Starling.   

Even though I hadn’t read about this research until just this week, KUMD’s Lisa Johnson alerted me to it when she was listening to a segment of The Splendid Table. Francis Lam interviewed botanist Heather Arndt Anderson, and noted that many sweet and aromatic fruits are propagated by animals; he wondered how chilis could have an evolutionary advantage by hurting animals that could potentially help propagate their seeds. She said:  

The thing with birds is that they don't have capsaicin receptors in their mouths, so they can't actually taste the spiciness. That's why birds have played such an important role in spreading chilies, whereas mammals have tended to avoid them – non-human animals I should say.  
That is the way not just botanists but many ornithologists see the issue. But really, all we know for certain is that most birds aren’t actively repelled by the taste, and that hummingbirds certainly can taste peppers. The red color of ripe chili peppers definitely attracts birds (including hummingbirds), but birds also notice and are selective about the flavors of most food items. 

The truth is, we really don't understand much about the avian sense of taste. Scientists used to say ducks had no taste receptors whatsoever because they found none on their tongues. But it turns out duck taste buds are concentrated on the tip of their bill, a useful adaptation for turning away from something unhealthful before it can get into the mouth. Birds eating capsaicin peppers may enjoy the hot flavor as much as some humans do, or the flavor may be somewhat blunted but still appealing to them. At this point, we just don't know, and the birds aren’t talking.  

Black-throated Gray Warbler
Photo by Patricia Ware via Wikipedia

The hottest pepper I personally ever ate is forever associated in my mind with a bird, but involves the mammalian, not avian, sense of taste. I was on a birding trip in south Texas and we’d stopped at a McDonalds to buy bag lunches en route to a birdy picnic site. That McDonalds had a big jar of jalapeño peppers on the condiments table, and you could put what you wanted into a French fry bag. It seemed like such a novelty, and I love jalapeño peppers, so of course I took a few. I got settled in at a picnic table, and just as I was about to take a tiny taste of one, someone yelled out “Black-throated Gray Warbler!”   

I’d already learned that you have to be careful about everything you eat in Texas, because so much Texas cuisine is way spicier than Midwestern fare. But a Black-throated Gray Warbler! I grabbed my binoculars and took off, unthinkingly popping the entire pepper into my mouth.  

After three or four steps I stopped dead in my tracks, my eyes spurting tears onto the inside of my eyeglass lenses. I’d never tasted anything nearly this hot before in my life, and I couldn’t even wash it away since I’d left my drink on the picnic table. My mouth and throat were in pain and my eyes kept gushing, but being a birder at a certain level of fanaticism, it never occurred to me to head back to the picnic table and at least get a drink. 

I saw the warbler through badly blurred eyes. It wasn't even a lifer, but I did add it to my Texas state list. And ever since, the memory of that incident comes to mind any time I see a Black-throated Gray Warbler with its distinctive eye marking, appropriately spicy yellow and shaped just like a tiny jalapeño pepper. 

Photo courtesy of Erik Bruhnke. Copyright 2020, all rights reserved. 

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

"Life in Hand," a new poem by J. Drew Lanham!

A Sand County Almanac has been one of my most treasured books since I first read it in 1975. And when I first met my friend J. Drew Lanham, author, poet, and wildlife biologist at Clemson University, where he holds an endowed chair as an “Alumni Distinguished Professor,” I knew he was a kindred spirit because he loves Aldo Leopold, too.  

When Drew's  beautiful book of poetry, Sparrow Envy, was published in 2016, Drew read four of them for my podcast. I had a splendid year that year, what with my Cubbies winning the World Series and me getting to go to Peru, Cuba, and Uganda, but Drew’s sharing his wonderful poems with my listeners sticks out as a major highlight of the whole year. I keep my most lyrical books about nature on one shelf, alphabetized by author. I love that my copies of his two books, The Home Place and Sparrow Envy, sit side by side with Leopold’s Sand County Almanac.  

Last week, Drew wrote a new poem that he shared with his friends on Facebook. It touched something deep in my soul, as a former wildlife rehabber who has held a great many tiny critters in my own hands over the years. I talked to Drew about what made him write the poem.  

We have a cat. I call him a 110 percent indoor cat because he’s never been outside. The closest he gets to outside is the screen porch. Really, he’s still a kitten. His name is Tres, which is French for three. His full name is Ezekiel Lanham. He’s the third Zeke cat that we’ve had. He’s a very social little kitty that we rescued from a shelter a while back. He’s about ten months old now. In the morning I go out to have my coffee on the screen porch and Tres, he’s winding around my legs and feet in the morning, ready to go out, cause that’s his outdoor world, that screen porch. He can see all kinds of stuff and I imagine smell stuff and I always look at him wandering around when the ferns are up because it looks like he’s in a little jungle. He sees things that he could never get to.  

Well on this particular morning, I looked out as he went out and immediately, I saw this frog jump. And he leapt after it. I distracted him and was able to corral him and get him in before he touched this little gray tree frog that by then had gone into this position of sort of flattening itself against the floor of the porch. I hear gray tree frogs trilling around the house, around the water features especially. I can never see them because they’re so well camouflaged. So I picked this little frog up, and it didn’t struggle. It just sort of sat there. And I was thinking as I took it back outside to release it just how fragile life is, especially at this time when we’ve had to deal with so much news of death and people not being able to breathe and loss of life that it just hit me in that moment that there was this responsibility in my hand. I suppose I had saved a life somehow—that this frog was going to be able to continue to breathe. That it wasn’t going to have to struggle for breath. And so, in that moment of releasing it back into these ferns and this place where hopefully it can trill and get lost again in plain sight, I thought about “Life in Hand.”  
It came at the intersection of that moment on that back porch. It probably took me 15 minutes to think about it and to write it. It was important for me because I’ve really been in a semi-depressed state for a lot of this quarantine. We’re talking about a hundred and thirty thousand people now that are dead. We’re talking about more that will die. We’re talking about people dying at the hands of police and killing one another. So that one life that I was able to extend a hand to was important enough to me to try to get the words down.  

J. Drew Lanham's “Life in Hand” will appear in the third edition of Sparrow Envy, along with 14 other new poems and essays, to be published this fall.