Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Unsung Women

Red-eyed Vireo

When I started birding in the 1970s, the scientific consensus was that virtually all bird song is performed by males. Yes, there were a few exceptions, especially among some tropical birds in which pairs perform amazingly coordinated duets, but the rule that males were the main singers stood. 

In recent years, more and more studies have revealed that a great many more female birds sing than was ever appreciated. The landmark 2014 study by Karan Odom found that females sing in 71 percent of the surveyed species of 32 families. Her extensive research also established firmly that both sexes almost certainly sang in the common ancestor of all bird species--a radical idea in ornithology. As I read more and more of these new papers about female birds singing, I couldn’t help but notice that not only Karan Odom’s Ph.D. research but also most of the other work has been primarily authored by women. 

That observation turned out to be accurate. On August 26, the University of Maryland Baltimore County, where several of these scientists are centered, released a study in Nature Communication revealing that women make up only 44 percent of the first authors on general birdsong papers but 68 percent of the first authors of papers about female birds singing. Without this seminal work, we’d still be following the old, false line of thought that mainly male birds sing. 

On the very day that I read about this, I was reading a 1953 paper in The Canadian Field-Naturalist, “Nesting Life and Behavior of the Red-eyed Vireo,” by Louise de Kiriline Lawrence. Red-eyed Vireos happen to be one of the species in which it really is just the males singing, but that’s not why I was looking up the species. I’d been seeing a couple of family groups of Red-eyed Vireos in my yard after not noticing any nests in the close vicinity. I wondered how long the families stay together, and whether this wandering away from the nest site marks the start of their migration. I also wondered whether family units tend to stay together for part of or even all of their fall journey, or whether some of the young stick with the mother, or the father, as the adults go their separate ways. The Red-eyed Vireo entry in Cornell's Birds of the World, written by three male researchers, said this in the section about fledglings associating with their parents:

Little information. Young typically move far from nest site and are difficult to relocate; 3 d after young leave nest, most researchers cannot find adults or young. Lawrence, however, reported following family group for 31 d after young left nest. These young were fed regularly by at least 1 parent for first 15–16 d. Until day 25, they were fed only occasionally, despite frequent begging.

So I looked up Lawrence's paper. Louise de Kiriline Lawrence was a prolific field researcher who, over her career, wrote more than 500 reviews and 17 scientific papers for the American Ornithologists’ Union and 7 books, and was Audubon’s most prolific writer. She also banded 25,000 birds. Her Red-eyed Vireo nesting paper was based on following 9 particular pairs, but she did not band many of those individuals. She wrote:

Since I felt it was more important to observe birds act with as little interference as possible, no banding was attempted at the nests with the exception of some nestlings. Only one adult male was caught by accident and banded. For the recognition of individuals and pairs especially in 1949 and 1950, I relied therefore on the careful, almost daily, search of the territories, census, and the studying of individual traits in song, plumage, or behavior. 

Lawrence, born and raised in Sweden, was the daughter of a naturalist/conservationist. She served as a Red Cross nurse stationed in Denmark during World War I, fell in love with and married a Russian officer, and then was captured with him by the Russian revolutionaries. He was killed and she escaped and settled in Canada as a public health nurse in the northern wilderness, where she became the nurse for the world’s first surviving set of quintuplets, the famous Dionne Quintuplets.  

Dealing with newborn quints may have been excellent preparation for keeping track of active, virtually identical individual vireos. Regardless of how she came by her skills, she’s been one of the only researchers ever to successfully follow Red-eyed Vireo families for three days, much less a full month, after the young fledged. But she didn’t track them on migration, there not being the kind of tracking technology during her lifetime that there is now. So the answers to my questions about my backyard vireos will go unanswered for now. 

But in reading Lawrence’s paper, I saw that not only had she been the only ornithologist to successfully track vireo families; she had also made an important discovery that disproved what prominent ornithologists had always believed—that male Red-eyed Vireos as well as females incubate the eggs. In her paper, she cited what these authorities had written, and then noted:

As I began this study, however, I soon found that this information was not in agreement with my observations, a circumstance which obviously required an especially careful investigation. On the basis thereof, I present my evidence that in the Pimisi Bay region the female Red-eyed Vireo was always found to incubate alone with no assistance from the male. 

After making her case based on the individuals she tracked, she also noted:

[Margaret Morse] Nice found the female Red-eyed Vireo alone incubating at a nest in Jackson Park [in Chicago], and in 1949 she wrote to me: “I’ve never known of a dependable instance of the male Red-eye incubating…” Kathryn Ann Graves said in the abstract of a paper which she was to have given at the 67th Stated Meeting of the A.O.U., October 1949: “My conclusion that incubation is performed by the female Red-eyed Vireo alone is based on three lines of evidence: 1) the behavior patterns of the adult birds at six nests during the incubation period; 2) observations of a pair the sexes of which could be distinguished with absolute certainty owing to the distinct marking of the female’s feathers with black indelible ink; 3) analysis of the incubation rhythms of the females on four nests, and a comparison of these rhythms with those of 23 other passerine birds.”

It seems significant if odd that the discovery that only female Red-eyed Vireos incubate the eggs, and the more recent discovery that so very many female birds sing, were made by women. Is it that my sex is more likely to keep an open mind about female sex roles and division of labor in bird pairs? Or was there another reason why the vast majority of ornithologists, most of them male, clung unquestioningly to the conventional wisdom about the greater importance of male birds for so long?  

Song Sparrow

Margaret Morse Nice, who had also noted that only the female Red-eyed Vireo incubates, was the author of most of the seminal work on the Song Sparrow. She of course conducted a major literature search to find out what was already known about the bird she would study for decades. She found the details reported for Song Sparrows “meager enough information and all of it wrong.” The literature was so rife with errors regarding easily verifiable details, such as clutch size and incubation times, that she started looking into the accuracy of that kind of information in other species. Apparently many species accounts weren’t based on any actual firsthand observations of the birds. For example, she discovered that the reported but inaccurate incubation times for American birds had been carried forward from author to author over the decades without anyone bothering to actually find and keep track of a few nests to verify. When she tracked down the original source, she found that he’d never observed the incubation times of birds he was reporting on himself, but had simply inferred them from observations and speculations of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle! 

A year or two ago I was leading a field trip on Hog Island in Maine. My co-leader was a prominent ornithologist whom I genuinely like a lot and don't consider particularly sexist, but I was gobsmacked when we came upon a singing Red-eyed Vireo and I mentioned that a Red-eye had once been followed for a full day as it sang 22,197 songs. He laughed and said that the woman who counted those songs clearly had “too much time on her hands.” 

But that woman was hardly the stereotypical bored housewife of his imagination; she was Louise de Keriline Lawrence herself. When acclaimed British ornithologist Noble Rollin suggested people devote a whole day to one special bird activity, she accepted the challenge by following one Red-eyed Vireo from 3 am through his heading to roost before sunset. She didn’t just keep a running tally of the bird’s songs as she followed him throughout his 3-acre territory; she kept track of his behaviors, minute by minute and hour by hour, and noted what else was happening, as well. The article she wrote about that day is rich and lyrical, transcending simple enumeration to give us a lovely portrait of one bird, all because she was a meticulous, clear-eyed scientist with more substantial work to her credit than any ornithologist I know today. She wrote an article for Audubon in 1954 about that memorable day, “Voluble Singer of the Tree-Tops,” which is well worth reading in its entirety. (I can't find an online copy of the article and it's probably still copyrighted, but it was included in her 1980 book, To Whom the Wilderness Speaks (available on Kindle) and also appeared in the 1999 book, Bright Stars, Dark Trees, Clear Water: Nature Writings from North of the Border, edited by Wayne Grady.) 

Too much time on her hands? No. Louise de Kiriline Lawrence was doing the painstaking and meticulous but richly satisfying work of an excellent field ornithologist. The days of ornithological societies excluding women are over, but apparently not the days of dismissing solid research done by women. This is why diversity and inclusiveness in any field is so important. Eyes looking at questions from different angles help find the actual truth.

Friday, August 28, 2020

September 1 Zoom Presentation: Migration Strategies

Thanks to everyone who has supported my work via Patreon or a direct contribution! Some wonderful people mailed me checks or cash but didn't include their email addresses, which I need to send the invitations. And life being what it is with a brand new baby in the house, I was slow to mail thank you notes asking for email addresses. If you are one of these and see this, please email me ASAP to get your invitation on time. 

Thanks to the contributions people are giving me, I can afford to spring for the $50-per-month Zoom add-on, so don't have to worry about exceeding 100 people at these presentations. I SO appreciate your support, which has also allowed me to buy 3 trail cams for my backyard. So far they've captured a Brown Thrasher, Gray Catbird, Song Sparrow, Rock Pigeon (oh, well), lots of robins and Blue Jays, and a Scarlet Tanager all at my birdbaths, along with some adorable mice (I think white-footed deer mice), their eyes aglow in the night-vision. I have a LOT of gray squirrels, and we have two dogs counting my daughter's Muxy and my Pip, so I have to weed through a lot of pictures to find the good ones. 

The September 1 program will be about bird migration--why some species migrate by day while others fly by night, why some mosey while others make haste, how the species composition changes from the beginning of migration in July through (sort of) the end of fall migration in December, and how we know what we know and how much more we don't yet understand. 

Patreon wants premiums like my monthly presentations to be exclusive for contributors, but something deep in my bones makes me constitutionally incapable of excluding anyone who wants to come simply because they can't afford a contribution during this crazy time. People who have contributed should feel free to forward the invitation to their own friends/families/etc.

If you didn't receive one but want an invitation, send me an email. 

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Bald Blue Jays Redux

Blue Jay

I’ve read of people who claim to tell their individual Blue Jays apart by facial markings, but to my eyes, Blue Jays all look pretty much the same. I do learn to recognize a few individuals, but only because some develop unique behaviors. 

During July and August, until the adults finish their molts, even if I can’t tell them individually apart, it’s easy to distinguish fledglings from parents. At first the young birds have very short tails, but even as those tail feathers grow longer and longer, the young still have sort of a baby look, and every one of their feathers is brand new. 

Blue Jay fledgling

Blue Jay fledgling

The adults start out the summer looking perfectly splendid, but their feathers are each a year old, and as they start molting, they get a scraggly look. 

Molting adult Blue Jay

The tail feathers don’t all grow in simultaneously—they drop them one or two at a time, and if you get a good look, you can see that they’re different lengths. 

Blue Jay adult molting

But the adults always look pretty good until they start molting their head feathers. The ones that lose a few feathers at a time may look ridiculous for a few weeks, but nowhere near as absurd as those that molt all their head feathers simultaneously. 

Molting adult Blue Jay

This year, my neighborhood Blue Jay population includes two different families that visit my backyard. I managed to get photos of fledglings of the first family begging for food on July 11; their tails were almost full length already, which meant their parents had been successful nesting early this year. 

Baby Blue Jay begging

The young were still associating with the parents, but not begging so much, on August 7, when I got photos of one of those parents molting all its head feathers—the very first bald Blue Jay photos I ever took. 

Molting adult Blue Jay

That same day, August 7, I got photos of the other family—the fledglings’ tails were shorter than the tails of the first family’s young at the time I’d first photographed them in July. 

Baby Blue Jay begging from parent

These parents had grown very tolerant of me when I whistled, flying in and alighting in our apple tree to see where I’d put the peanuts. I usually set them on a stump under the tree and sat down nearby. The sparse foliage of the apple tree allowed me to get lots of photos of begging fledglings and parents feeding them, as well as pictures of the parents alighting on the stump. And one of those parents was completely bald, giving me my best bald Blue Jay photos on August 13. 

Bald Blue Jay

Despite the myths that baldness in Blue Jays is caused by mites or other physical problems, all those dropped head feathers are very quickly replaced. My first Blue Jay family didn’t spend as much consistent time in my yard as the second one did, so I didn’t see how quickly that bald parent’s feathers grew back in, but this week, on August 25, I got a new photo of that bald jay I’d photographed just 12 days before. 

Blue Jay

The feathers aren’t all the way grown in, but the bird looks far, far more normal now, and should be in perfect plumage in a few more days. I suspect when people claim they’ve seen bald jays for several weeks, they’ve usually actually been seeing more than one individual—the one advantage to molting the head feathers simultaneously is that the molt lasts for a shorter length of time than when it’s more spread out. 

So add baldness to the list of ways birds are superior to humans. Human hair doesn’t serve a critical function since we can always can protect our heads from too much sun and too much cold by simply donning a hat, yet Americans spend a billion dollars a year trying to reverse baldness. Some birds, such as vultures and storks, spend their whole lives bald, but don’t seem the least bit concerned about it. The few Blue Jays and cardinals who molt all their head feathers simultaneously may be mildly embarrassed by the situation, but it lasts just a short time, and birds aren't into mirrors, anyway. Maybe it was to get revenge that people used to kill wild birds for their feathers. 

Blue Jay

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

May in August

Red-eyed Vireo 

This week, I saw several adult male hummingbirds, baby House Wrens, Red-eyed Vireos and American Crows begging for food from their parents, and I heard Red-eyed Vireos, cardinals, and even a Brown Thrasher singing actual songs, all reminding me that August is very much the heart of summer. But I also read reports of lots of shorebirds turning up here and there, including at Park Point in Duluth. We’ve already had a fine nighthawk migration. Up until the 24th, I’d seen only a few—most of the ones other birders were reporting seemed to be moving further inland. But on Monday, I saw hundreds of them coursing overhead, filling my heart with joy. Cedar Waxwings quietly pigged out on berries and flying insects, mostly in the yard and alley kitty-corner from mine. I might see a dozen or two, and then suddenly one or two hundred took wing and I realized how many had been tucked into those trees and shrubs unseen. They’re generally headed south, but mosey along at a leisurely pace, often backtracking. In this season of abundance, what's the hurry? 

Blackburnian Warbler

A host of birds that do not nest on Peabody Street—Scarlet Tanagers, Baltimore Orioles, and several species of warblers—have materialized in my backyard to pig out on berries and insects and to drink and bathe, the first time I've seen these splendid birds since May. So far, the biggest day of bird happenings this month was August 24, but as I write this on August 25, I’ve seen a host of Empidonax flycatchers, a phoebe, and a kingbird, and the day is young—by the time you read this blog entry, the 25th may have surpassed the 24th, and migration is far from its peak. 

Brown Thrasher

Right now I’m hearing just a few short bouts of singing each day from the vireos and my cardinal—family responsibilities get in the way of their performance time. In the past couple of days, I’ve been hearing my splendid Brown Thrasher breaking into a soft whisper song a few times a day. It’s nothing like the full-throated affair that made him so enticing to his mate back in the spring, and I wonder what the function of it is. Cornell’s Birds of the World makes a reference to a soft autumn song, but without any details. I’ve noticed my bird making imitations of a Ruby-crowned Kinglet’s song and the metallic chink! of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak. So far I haven’t recorded his singing—the timing is unpredictable—and haven’t heard enough to know if he’s making some of the same imitations I heard in spring. If not, he may be a different bird, or his singing now may be just to practice new additions to his repertoire. I love that no matter how close I pay attention, I can’t figure a lot of this out. People are rather arrogant about how much we think we know about birds. 

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Most of the time, it’s quiet out there, but even when no birds are singing, it’s hardly silent. My neighborhood Red-breasted Nuthatches produced a bumper crop of new little nuthatches this year, and all of them are beeping away.  

Preening Black-capped Chickadee

An unusually large number of chickadees fledged, too. Now, as winter flocks start getting organized, the young chickadees are doing what they can to appear bigger and tougher while making their annoyed gargle call, hoping to finagle a higher position in the flock hierarchy. So far only other babies seem to even notice—the adults are already assured of their positions in the flock, so when confronted with one of these young upstarts, they roll their eyes and fly off.

I’ll be giving a Zoom presentation about migration, and the different strategies different species have evolved, and why what works for one bird doesn’t for another, on September 1 at 7 pm Central Daylight Time. This week I’ll be sending an invitation to everyone who has donated via Patreon to support my work. If you can’t donate but would like to attend this otherwise free event, send me an email before August 29 and I’ll send you an invitation. (This originally said to send it before September 29, but Lisa Johnson, not suffering from New Baby Brain, told me about the error.)

Monday, August 24, 2020


Our Birth Announcement Drawing: Baby and Wood Stork

In 1986, when I started producing For the Birds, I was the mother of a 4 ½ year old, a 2 ½ year old, and a 7-month-old. 

Joey, Tommy, and Katie modeling their "I'm for the Birds" t-shirts in 1988.

Over the years, the three of them grew up, and in the years since my third baby turned into a toddler, there hasn’t been a single baby nestled into my corner of Peabody Street.

That is, not until just last week. I of course am not the mother—this time around, I’m the grandmother, meaning I get all the joy and fun with none of the physical exertion and pain or profound obligations of parenthood. 

I spent so much time watching my backyard nesting birds this year, and thinking about how many hours various birds sit still when incubating eggs or brooding young nestlings, that now, when I hold the baby, I can see how well-adapted I’d be as a female chickadee or wren. Apparently my one superpower is an ability to sit still for hours when a baby is involved, not feeling any kind of urgency to do anything at all except the quiet, still task at hand. 

I do respond instantly if a diaper needs changing. Birds don’t do diaper changes—baby chickadees and wrens package their messes in something simpler and more biodegradable than diapers—fecal sacs, which they virtually always produce right after eating a meal, meaning whichever parent was there for the feeding will notice and carry it off to dispose of just as quickly and efficiently as I deal with messy diapers, only without burdening any landfills or sewage treatment facilities. 

Black-capped Chickadee

No one knows for sure what birds think about as they incubate eggs or brood young, and truth to tell, I seldom know what I’m thinking about as I hold this new little nestling—I fall into a reverie and lose all track of time. 

Great Horned Owl nest

This time around, it’s apparently not as hormone-based as with previous Peabody-Street babies, which is rather owlish of me. When rehabbers receive an orphaned baby owl of most species, they virtually never feed it themselves, because the owlet is too likely to imprint on humans. Instead, the rehabbers put it in with an adult owl of that species of either sex, and the adult broods and feeds it, even though it hasn’t gone through any of the courtship and nesting behaviors that would influence its hormonal state. In my case, there’s at least an evolutionary reason to be nurturing, in terms of increasing the likelihood of my own genes surviving into the future. For foster parent owls, not so much—they simply rise to the occasion as I hope I would if I were confronted with a baby in need, even if it wasn’t a baby who shared 25 percent of my genetic code. 

I started lists of the birds each of my own babies “saw” if they were awake and pointed in the right direction while we were still in the hospital. The first birds for my sons, both born in Octobers, were migrating Bald Eagles. First for my December-born daughter was the Black-capped Chickadee. Because of the pandemic, I wasn’t allowed in the hospital this time, but the first birds I saw out my dining room window while holding my grandchild were a baby wren and its parents, taking turns feeding it. That was as lovely as it seemed auspicious. 

House Wren fledglings

We’ve also seen plenty of chickadees, Blue Jays, hummingbirds, Red-breasted Nuthatches, crows, and pigeons, and I’m already envisioning all the places I want to take this little guy to where we can enjoy birds together in the murky future after the pandemic is over. 

Being the kind of person I am, whether it’s closer to an owl, chickadee, or wren, I’m having trouble focusing on anything except my grandchild these days. A baby is a joyful distraction for sure, but a distraction nonetheless. 

Birds can't afford distractions, and sure enough, only a very few species of birds, including swans, geese, cranes, crows, and quite possibly Blue Jays, stay in contact with their own young year after year to have at least a clue that they’ve become grandparents, and even they don’t meet their grandchildren while the parents could actually use some support—if they meet them at all, it’s in late summer or fall. When grandchildren birds were being hatched and going through their nestling stage, those grandmother birds were producing new babies of their own. I’m done producing new babies, so I can provide a bit of support for my daughter and son-in-law while enjoying my grandchild and introducing him to the big world of birds. I’m hoping against hope that life in your neck of the world is as rich and lovely. Stay safe and well, dear reader. 

Black-capped Chickadee--fledging day!
My daughter and son-in-law are private people, and I've promised
to keep details about their child private.  

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Bald Blue Jays

Bald Blue Jay 

Every year in July and August, people here and there throughout the country notice bald Blue Jays and ask me about them. And every year I explain it pretty much the same way. Adult Blue Jays molt every summer. The feathers are replaced a few at a time over most of their bodies, so they retain enough feathers to keep flying and to protect their bodies from the elements. This is also how some of them molt their head feathers—for several years, I cared for a Blue Jay named BJ who molted this way. He might have a few scruffy days in mid-summer, but never lost too many head feathers at once. 

Molting adult Blue Jay

Molting adult Blue Jay

But some Blue Jays tend to drop all their head feathers simultaneously. This has one big advantage, reducing the number of days that the head is missing any feathers at all, but a big disadvantage, too, exposing the bird’s head to the elements with no protection whatsoever for as long as a week or two. I was licensed to keep an education Blue Jay named Sneakers for many years, and she molted this way. I was absolutely responsible for Sneakers, and very protective of her dignity, and this was also before I was taking many photos of birds, so I never took photos of her in her bald state. And oddly enough, considering how very much I’ve always paid attention to Blue Jays, I never actually saw a bald Blue Jay in the wild. 

That is, until this summer. Being home during the pandemic, one of my joys has been whistling to my neighborhood crows and Blue Jays when I set out peanuts. The nearest crow family brought off four chicks, and the family of six has been showing up regularly at my big tray feeder. One of the parents noticed this spring that if I went into the yard and whistled when it was nearby, I always put some peanuts in the feeder, and now the whole bunch is likely to show up if they’re within earshot when I whistle. So far, neither parent has lost all its head feathers. 

Six Crows at feeder (a family)

Two different Blue Jay families have been visiting my yard since their young fledged, too. The young of the first family were already pretty well grown, their tails almost as long as their parents, when they first started being conspicuous. When the adults started molting, I got glimpses of a bald parent occasionally, but I hardly ever saw that one feeding the fledglings—they were almost independent by then, and that bald parent did its best to stay out of sight. Then two weeks ago, I noticed that one parent of the second family, whose fledglings had relatively shorter tails than the first group, was bald, and that one was still regularly feeding chicks. 

Molting adult Blue Jay

So suddenly I’ve got lots of photos of a bald Blue Jay. Neither of the two I saw are what you’d call shiny bald—the feathers didn’t just drop out but were pushed out by the emerging replacements. In my photos, you can see the short but growing new feathers still in their sheaths. It can be disconcerting seeing just how tiny a Blue Jay’s head is beneath those feathers—except for the bird’s beautiful body feather colors, there’s something very vulturine—that is, freakishly small-headed—about the bald ones. The photos are especially cool to see if you’ve never seen bird ears—with the feathers missing, the ear holes are exposed in detail.

Molting adult Blue Jay

I don’t have the personal relationship with these wild Blue Jays that I had with Sneakers, but I still don’t like exposing my photo subjects to ridicule. Every photo I took was of a bird that approached me for peanuts, and I did tell it I’d be posting my pictures, but I’d still ask that those who view the photos on my blogpost do so with respectful interest. Gawking and derisive laughter may be the order of the day in the social media world, but Blue Jays, and people, too, for that matter, deserve better than that.  

Molting adult Blue Jay

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Migration Begins Softly

Ruby-throated Hummingbird female

Right now, hummingbirds are everywhere. Adult males are among them, but they’re outnumbered by adult females and the young of the year—we’ll know the peak of their migration is over when we stop seeing adult males. They leave ahead of the adult females, their reproductive role finished. They spent the summer zipping around, chasing competing males and anything else they spotted away from their flowers, staying in top shape all season. The males who nested up here are almost certainly all gone now; it’s males who bred further north that we’re mostly seeing right now. 

Adult females produced one, two, or even three clutches of two eggs, and then spent two weeks incubating each clutch, another three weeks feeding and brooding the nestlings, and days or weeks beyond that showing their fledglings how wild hummingbirds survive. They're pretty depleted when they’re done, and it takes weeks for them to get their bodies fattened up again for a long journey. But they light out before the young, especially the last-to-be-hatched ones, are ready. We’ll see stragglers well into September, and occasionally even into October. Those last babies are doomed after killing frosts wipe out their sources of nectar unless they find feeders with fresh sugar water occasionally. All the way down to the Gulf of Mexico, hummingbirds migrate by day, stopping all along the way for fast food. 

Our gardens and hummingbird feeders are so alive right now that it’s hard to notice the other birds migrating already. Swallows that were gathering in increasingly large collections since July are on the move, too. One researcher calculated that a Barn Swallow simply catching food for itself and its young during the nesting season flew about 600 miles a day. So their bodies are in tip-top shape at all times. They, like hummingbirds, migrate by day when they can be catching food on the wing. Soon nighthawks will also be bugging out. We can watch them hawking insects over large fields in mid- and late afternoon, when they also start making more directed flight. On good nighthawk days, which are usually warm with low winds, we can see thousands migrating parallel to Lake Superior’s North Shore. As evening darkens into twilight, the nighthawks seem to rise higher and higher in the sky. Now with full stomachs, they can make more directed, serious flights toward South America. 

An abundance of fruit is fattening many other migrants, who quietly swallow berry after berry. If we don’t carefully scan our dogwoods and chokecherries and so many other shrubs and trees, we’ll miss all the Cedar Waxwings, Eastern Kingbirds, Gray Catbirds, Baltimore Orioles, and Scarlet Tanagers pigging out on the fruit, with flycatchers, wrens, warblers, and vireos among them, taking fruits and insects. Once in a while, one will burst into song for a bit, but breeding and territoriality are over for the year, so we have to rely on our eyes more than our ears to detect most of them. 

According to our calendars, summer will supposedly last for over a month still, but some shorebirds nesting in the Arctic were on the move just days after the solstice, and are now already gathering along shorelines and in shallow pools. 

So much avian abundance fuels hawk migration, as well. I love knowing that the hawks that pass over are doing well, but feel something between irritation, dread, and anger when a Merlin dives into my own yard in pursuit of one of those little birds. Life in August is beautiful and soft and gentle and harsh. All those babies raised by all those birds all season don’t increase their species’ populations—they simply help them hold their own against all the difficulties each species experiences here, on its wintering grounds, and everywhere in between. 

The nature of migration changes throughout the season, and the best way to enjoy it is one day at a time. Whether you’re stuck at home or working at an essential job during this pandemic, I hope you can enjoy some of the intense but ephemeral beauty of the season. Meanwhile, stay safe and well, dear listener. 

I’ll be talking about the many different strategies different species use for migration on my September 1 Zoom presentation. 

Friday, August 7, 2020

Blue Jays!!!

Blue Jay fledgling

On August 1, I did my monthly Zoom presentation about the birds of August, and one of the things I talked about was how scruffy chickadee and Blue Jay adults look right now, even as the babies are in perfect plumage. Those feathers the adults have been sporting for a full year are getting worn, making the birds look bedraggled to begin with, but as they fall out, before the new feathers emerge, the birds can look pretty miserable as well. 

Molting adult Blue Jay

I have a good number of bedraggled adult chickadee photos... 

Molting Black-capped Chickadee

...but had to obtain a photo of a bald Blue Jay from someone else for my presentation. And before this summer, the only photo I had of an adorable baby jay begging for food was one I took when I was a rehabber—the bird is sitting on my dining room chair back, so as adorable as it is, it’s clearly not in natural habitat. 

Baby Blue Jay

A few weeks ago, I got photos of one family of jays, with some pictures of the babies begging.  

Baby Blue Jay begging

Those parents didn’t trust me, so they always led the babies where I couldn’t see them actually feeding them. Even when coming for peanuts, they’d scream bloody murder if I got too close to a fledgling. 

But since I did that program, I’ve gotten better pictures of Blue Jays than ever before in my life, because there’s been a sea change in how cooperative they are. I’ve been feeding them peanuts since spring, always whistling before I set them out, and little by little, the jays have come to recognize me. On August 7, their insistent babies were begging so desperately that the adults started approaching closer and closer to me and my camera when I placed peanuts nearby and whistled. At first, they did not approve of my camera, which has a huge lens, and were quite skittish and even agitated if I held it up, but they started noticing me taking photos of squirrels and more tolerant birds, which always survived the ordeal.  

Molting adult Blue Jay

Even so, at first the jay would barely land to grab a peanut and fly off, but as they got used to me, they alighted, studied all the peanuts, and sometimes even picked up one or two to choose the heaviest one before flying off. Their impatient fledglings would wait impatiently in my nearby apple tree, and soon I was clicking away to my heart’s content. 

Baby Blue Jay begging from parent

Adult Blue Jay feeding fledgling

Baby Blue Jay begging from parent

The fledglings are absolutely adorable, and once the parents started tolerating me and stopped squawking to warn the fledglings about me, I got some lovely close-ups. 

Blue Jay fledgling

Blue Jay fledgling

I also got some photos of the parents at close range, but most people wouldn’t call those photos nice. One parent looked scruffy but still had plenty of head feathers—it is molting some at a time rather than all at once. 

Blue Jay adult molting

Molting adult Blue Jay

The other one is very bald, revealing the dark skin and large ear holes. Head feathers not only give the Blue Jay its perky crest and lovely markings—they’re also thick, making the head appear large. The bald bird shows quite clearly how tiny the bird's head actually is.  

Molting adult Blue Jay

Molting adult Blue Jay

Pinfeathers are emerging, so at least the poor thing won’t be bald for too long, and nature is kind enough to put birds through this before nights are cold enough to cause hypothermia. Blue Jays seem to vary individually in whether they molt those head feathers in sequence or all at once—my education Blue Jay Sneakers always molted all her head feathers simultaneously, but another jay I had for several years molted his feathers more gradually, and sometimes I couldn’t even tell he was molting by his appearance—just by the feathers I’d find at the bottom of his cage. 

I’m having so much fun watching these Blue Jays that it’s easy to forget that they got a lot of protein this week from my baby wrens. When I realized that the parents were studying the raspberry patch to pluck tiny, newly fledged wrens I went indoors and stayed put. 

Blue Jays spend a lot of time drinking and bathing, so mine have been spending quite a bit of time at my birdbaths. But bathing birds are extremely vulnerable to predation, and so the adults have been quite wary, yelling out warnings if they can see me at all when the young are bathing. I've taken most of my bathing photos from a distance, cropping the pictures a lot. 

Blue Jay fledgling

Blue Jay fledgling

Blue Jay migration can start kicking in in August, as young grow independent and adults finish their molts. Having some local birds who know me will make the birds passing through more tolerant—Blue Jays communicate their experiences well, so each one doesn’t have to figure out everything in a strange environment on its own.  

This year of pandemic has been so strange and confining. Who’d have thought that some of the most familiar birds of all could give me so many wonderful new experiences? I hope you’re finding lots of joys where you are, too, dear reader. 

Blue Jay