Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Friday, October 30, 2020

What really "kills all the birds"?

Oiled Heron

A couple of weeks ago, in the final debate between Joe Biden and Donald Trump, when they were discussing climate change, Trump said that wind energy, and I quote, “kills all the birds.” That excessive hyperbole by a man known for excessive hyperbole may seem at least a little true: the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates the number of birds killed at land-based wind turbines to be between 140,000 and 500,000 each year. That's a big number, and the carcasses, often of large birds of prey, are, indeed, gruesome and dramatic.  

Indiana wind farm

But it's important to put bird deaths at turbines in context. Huge bird losses happen increasingly each year from climate change, what with increased storm, drought, flooding, and fire activity. Warmer winters are hurting Canada Jays where now their winter food caches suffer what biologists call hoard rot. Higher ocean temperatures contribute to the decrease in plankton and fish populations in northern waters, which has caused a catastrophic loss of seabirds.Those kinds of deaths are hard to quantify, but certainly outnumber deaths at wind turbines significantly.  

Canada Jay

Also, no one has ever been able to tease out the total number of birds killed every year directly or indirectly by our squandering of fossil fuels. That number is enormous—orders of magnitude more than the number killed at wind turbines, and almost certainly right up there and probably exceeding the number of annual deaths from domestic cat predation and window collisions, which each take out somewhere between half a billion and a billion birds every year. 

How can our use of fossil fuels harm that incredible number of birds? Extracting it in the first place causes both direct mortality and loss of habitat. Mountain top strip mining for coal has devastated huge swaths of natural habitat. Oil pits kill an average of 750,000 birds every year, and up to 2 million birds died when they mistakenly landed in oil pits to bathe and drink in 1997 alone—pits that year took out four times as many birds as our highest estimates of birds killed at turbines. 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website has estimated mortality figures per year for some other fossil fuel issues. Ten times as many birds are electrocuted at electric fences and transmission wires—5.6 million—as are killed by wind turbines. Collisions with power lines kill FIFTY TIMES as many birds as are killed at turbines—about 25.5 million birds every year. And more than four times that huge total, 214.5 million birds, are killed in collisions with motor vehicles every year. The vast majority of our cars, trucks, and other vehicles burn gasoline or diesel, but most electric vehicles are also powered by electricity produced by fossil fuels. 

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Just those specific estimates of the numbers of bird killed by fossil fuel use add up to a quarter of a BILLION birds per year. And there are no estimates of the number of birds affected annually by oil and gas spills. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration notes:

Oil spills are more common than you might think, and they happen in many different ways. Thousands of oil spills occur in U.S. waters each year. Most of these spills are small, for example when oil spills while refueling a ship. But these spills can still cause damage, especially if they happen in sensitive environments, like beaches, mangroves, and wetlands.

Mercury pollution harms birds, particularly reducing successful breeding. Coal-burning power plants are the single largest source of mercury pollution, which comes down to earth in rainwater and poisons lakes, rivers, and streams. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, coal-fired utilities and industrial boilers contribute over 86 percent of the mercury in the atmosphere. Concern over mercury contamination in 40 states has led government agencies to warn consumers not to eat bass, trout, and other sport fish caught in over a thousand lakes and streams. Meanwhile, the blood and tissue mercury levels in loons, Osprey, Bald Eagles, and Belted Kingfishers are increasing—they’re functionally illiterate and so can't read those warnings. 

Bald Eagle

And there are layers and layers of compounding issues. For example, it takes about 200,000 gallons of oil simply to start a coal burner. Diesel fuel is needed for extracting, transporting, and cleaning the coal, and then the ash must be transported to a landfill and buried. Our federal tax dollars subsidize coal companies and states with coal mines to clean up streams and repair roads, allowing corporations to make their profits without taking into account the real costs of coal production. Nobody has ever figured out the true economics of coal-produced electricity, much less the toll on birds.

Our dependence on oil has of course led to wars exacting such a horrific human toll that we don’t even consider the damage done to birds by bombs, land and water mines, bullets, defoliants, and other military technologies.

In addition to mercury, burning any fossil fuel, especially oil and coal, spews into the atmosphere nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and particulate matter, as well as the carbon dioxide implicated in global warming. Small amounts of toxic metals such as arsenic, cadmium, chromium, and nickel are also released. Major environmental issues related to these pollutants include smog (particulate matter and ground-level ozone) and acid rain. The latter affects the composition and growth of forests in the eastern United States and Canada, which in turn affects insect populations and thus insectivorous bird species. Acid rain also depletes the soil of calcium, reducing the amount available to the invertebrates that provide food for birds. This loss of calcium in birds’ diets causes eggshell thinning and less calcium in the bones of the nestlings of some species, such as the Wood Thrush.  

Wood Thrush

A half-million bird deaths at wind turbines every year are indeed a tragedy, though Donald Trump, a real-estate developer whose projects and the habitat they've destroyed have taken out plenty of birds, hardly cares. His trumped-up claim that wind energy "kills all the birds," given in the service of the very fossil fuel industries who have killed so many more birds, would be horrifying enough even if he didn't say it right while California was ablaze and Louisiana dealing with its fifth named storm of the season. 

Birds are the canaries in a coal mine, and their deaths have given us plenty of warning. It's time we listened. 

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Sunday Night Program about Woodpeckers


Sunday, November 1, at 7 pm CDT (and remember to turn your clocks back!), I'll be giving a Zoom presentation about woodpeckers. I produce these monthly programs specifically as a thank you to all the people supporting this blog and my podcast via Patreon or direct contributions, which are now adding up to over $300 per month, making them now my primary source of income! I am inexpressibly grateful to everyone who is supporting my work. 

But as long as I'm blathering about birds anyway, and because I'm paying an extra $50 per month to Zoom in order to accommodate 100–500 participants but haven't had over 90 yet, and especially because my work has always been fundamentally focused on promoting the love, understanding, and protection of birds to as many people as possible, I want to make sure that anyone who wants to attend gets an invitation. If you have received an invitation to the November 1 presentation, please feel free to forward it to interested friends. If you haven't received an invitation but want to come, please email me to request one by October 31 (I get a little nervous and distracted the day of presentations, and may not notice on November 1). I'll be happy to include you without begging for contributions.  I may not earn much money from year to year (my annual income has never in my life broken 6 figures, and most years I'm seriously lucky to break just barely into five figures), but thanks to my hard-working husband, I'll never starve. And woodpeckers are VERY interesting!! 

Monday, October 26, 2020

BP Oil Spill, Ten Years Later

Oil from the natural beach at Grand Isle State Park, July 29, 2010

April 20, 2020, was the 10-year anniversary of the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. I had left my dream job at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology just two weeks before—my 91-year-old mother-in-law was having difficulties living alone in the woods in northern Wisconsin and I was finding it increasingly hard to be away from Russ so much. I wanted to hunker down at home for a while, but the oil spill was so huge, with accurate information about its impact on birds so scarce, that Russ and I decided it would be worth it for me to drive down to Louisiana and Alabama for a few weeks in July and August to get a closer look. Going down there and seeing first-hand what was happening was and remains the single most disillusioning experience of my life.  

As I set out on my drive on July 24, even as the news was filled with the continuing gushing oil, the official stance was that the Corexit dispersant BP was spewing over the Gulf was taking care of the most of the oil, and the hot temperatures in the Gulf were making the rest evaporate. This was clearly and obviously magical thinking, like imagining the oil was being Raptured up for all eternity.   

Those of us who followed oil spills in the past knew how bad this one would be as millions of gallons of oil kept gushing, day after day after day—the well wasn’t sealed until September 19, five months after the original explosion, with 134–210 million gallons of oil released into the Gulf.  

Oily sand from deep down, July 29, 2010
Oil on the natural beach at Grand Isle State Park on July 29. This part of the beach wasn't public, 
so it wasn't cleaned. Who would know or care? 

The official total of oiled birds was amazingly low—it still stands at an unbelievable 63,000–100,000 birds even as knowledgeable scientists say the real number had to be one or even two orders of magnitude greater than that. As the first numbers came in, I was seriously wondering how they could possibly be accurate. April is the peak of spring migration through the Gulf as well as the start of the local nesting season. Simple common sense said the numbers should be way, way bigger from an oil spill of that magnitude in that unique location. 

Drew Wheelan
Drew Wheelan

On top of my own misgivings, the American Birding Association’s Drew Wheelan was finding evidence that dead birds were being disposed of without being counted, and that many badly oiled birds still clinging to life weren't counted either. Even though Drew was way more credible than the people saying the oil wasn’t a problem, I wanted to see for myself. 

When the explosion happened, and as oil started reaching bird nesting islands along the coastline, biologists, photographers, and videographers from Audubon, the Cornell Lab, American Bird Conservancy, and National Geographic were already on the scene, right there on the ground, some specifically studying and documenting nesting colonies that became doomed. They took a lot of photos and videos both before and after the oil reached them, producing horrifying confirmation of how devastating the oil was for nestling and parent birds. Drew recently told me, "At the time, the American Bird Conservancy was really doing all they could to try and influence whoever they could to put pressure on the powers that be to do the right thing." 

But BP and the U.S. government insisted on a 5-year moratorium on the publication of ANY studies or videos or photos regarding the impacts on wildlife. They obviously couldn’t silence the news media, Drew Wheelan, nor unaffiliated individuals like me, but could exert plenty of pressure on organizations that depend on cooperative agreements and grants from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other federal agencies to do essential work. 

The rationale for the 5-year delay was ostensibly because this information would somehow damage the federal government’s legal case against BP, but BP significantly benefited from keeping the American people and politicians in the dark about the horror. And seriously, how could transparent fact-finding regarding the impact on wildlife have harmed the case against BP? 


When I reached the Gulf, I realized that the oil spill was a horror fully as bad as I expected, and I felt enraged that the corporation was getting away with making it appear much less significant that it was. 

Internation Bird Rescue Research Center's Michelle Bellizi

The International Bird Rescue Research Center was selected to do the rehab work, and I got to see their work at the Theodore Oiled Wildlife Rehabilitation Center. They did a great job of treating the oiled wildlife they were brought, but they were prohibited from actually collecting oiled birds themselves. Absolutely NO professional rehabbers trained in recovering oiled birds were sent to the Gulf or allowed to go there on their own to recover wildlife. Several licensed, professional wildlife rehabbers with specific training in retrieving and rehabbing oiled birds told me that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had told them they'd lose their rehab license if they went to the Gulf.  

I saw quite a few oiled birds, including one drenched Black-crowned Night-Heron standing on an oiled boom near the shore of Cat Island when I was on a boat trip. 

Oiled Heron

Our boat captain agreed to approach the boom to try to net the heron to bring for rehab, and we'd have succeeded except that as the boat got near, the poor bird opened its wings. It was too badly oiled to take off, dropping into the shallow water and awkwardly waddling and thrashing to shore, but the fact that it had opened its wings at all meant that it was "flighted" by BP's definition. The captain told us he could lose his license if he tried to capture a flighted bird. 

Why were the rules so ridiculously and cruelly stringent? I couldn't wrap my head around it until I realized that the only birds being included on the official count, which would determine BP's liability, were ones that were physically retrieved, dead or alive, and this rule about "flighted" birds lowered the numbers even more. In previous oil spills, the count always included field observations by qualified birders, biologists, and other knowledgeable people. BP managed to sneak these rule changes in under the radar of almost everyone. This drenched and doomed heron did not meet the new criteria for oiled wildlife and would never be counted.

The September-October 2010 issue of Audubon came out a few weeks after I returned home, while oil was still spewing, with the cover story about the spill. (They've pulled that article off their website now, but I quote extensively from it on this blog post from back then.) The article seemed to be about an entirely different oil spill than the one I had just seen and smelled with my own eyes and nose. The article attacked Drew Wheelan by name so strongly, unfairly, and personally that I quit the organization. That’s also when I renewed my lapsed membership in the American Birding Association. 

The article promoted BP’s absurdly false claim that this oil was unique:

Deepwater Horizon oil is different. It is highly volatile, and nearly half evaporates immediately. In the intense heat, bacteria consume other fractions. Also, the leak is almost 50 miles at sea, giving dispersion and natural breakdown processes more time to kick in.

The surface water in the Gulf, especially near shore, is indeed quite warm, but temperatures at the depths of the well are much colder than at the surface, and I personally saw plenty of oil that had reached shore. The article also claimed that the low-tech booms encircling most of the islands were protecting them from oil. "Finally, much has been learned about boom laying and skimming, and operations are massive and intense." But much of that boom hadn't been anchored in place and washed ashore with the oil.  

Oiled Great Egret

Drew Wheelan tried to drum up public concern about the oiled nesting colonies, but the environmental organizations that were getting photographs of them (some of those photos are in Cornell's current article, "Ten Years Later," in Living Bird), stayed distressingly quiet about it at the time. One Cornell staffer commented on my blog post about the 2010 Audubon cover story, “I respect Drew Wheelan's commitment to write about this disaster, but he has mainly served as a voice of outrage rather than as a source of information.” This seemed ironic because Cornell was one of the organizations sitting on photos, videos, and other information that could have confirmed everything Drew was saying. Information was hard to come by after virtually all of the oiled islands and coast were closed off, ostensibly for public safety.

Theodore Oiled Wildlife Rehabilitation Center

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service continued to prohibit anyone from rescuing oiled birds in the nesting colonies, even after 100 percent of the nestlings on some islands had been oiled, claiming nesting could be "disrupted." In other years, they’ve allowed banders to capture birds in those colonies, and that very year they'd allowed organizations to send people onto the islands to get photographs and video. 

It was vastly in BP’s interest to minimize the number of birds captured for rehab. Audubon was responsible for coordinating volunteers, and bears some responsibility for keeping licensed, professional rehabbers from helping save birds’s lives and more fully documenting the number of oiled birds. Perhaps Audubon's staffers were unaware of how much this helped BP limit its liability. The cover story quoted Audubon’s Melanie Driscoll:

"If we do nothing, they could die,” said Driscoll. “They’re at risk of overheating and sunburn, hypothermia if they get wet. But if we evacuate them, they won’t be taught to fend for themselves, and they’ll probably die, too. The thought is that now that they’re close to molting they’ll drop their oiled feathers and a few will make it. I don’t know if that’s a good theory, but we’re in a situation where there’s no good decision. The best decision is not to have an oil spill.”

Examining flight feather condition

Rehabbers keep developing better techniques for helping injured, orphaned, and oiled birds learn to "fend for themselves" to survive in the wild. It's absurd to think that giving them at least a chance in this case was a worse option than leaving them to die coated in oil. And there were several oiled colonies. If it was truly an issue of not knowing whether recovering and rehabbing them or leaving them was better, why couldn’t they have rehabbed at least one colony to get comparison data? Leaving every one of them out there to die horrible deaths was better for BP's bottom line. 

When Does Pragmatism Become Complicity?

When I became a birder in 1975, Russ and I were both students living on part-time jobs and graduate assistantships with virtually no discretionary income, yet I immediately joined Michigan Audubon, Lansing’s Capital Area Audubon Society, and National Audubon. I learned a lot about birds from the local and state groups, and a lot about protecting birds from all three. And the day I identified the very first bird on my lifelist, that Black-capped Chickadee I talk about endlessly, I became a major fan of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology—their recording of bird vocalizations at the Michigan State University library clinched my very first bird identification. I joined the American Bird Conservancy as soon as it started in 1995. I continue to support these important organizations today, though I did take a hiatus from Audubon after they published that cover story about the BP spill. 

None of these organizations were explicitly colluding with BP, but they sure were helping BP by keeping silent about just how bad the oil spill and the response to it were and by never acknowledging the enormous change in how the official count of oiled birds was made, much less how by keeping the numbers so low BP was minimizing its legal liability. (Again, though, Drew Wheelan said he knew at the time that the American Bird Conservancy was doing what they could.) Audubon and Cornell never challenged the attacks on bird rehabilitation suddenly popping up in the media, conveniently for BP, claiming that rehabbing birds is a waste of conservation dollars and that rehabbed birds are essentially doomed anyway. Ironically, one of the photos in Cornell's current Living Bird  is of a healthy banded Brown Pelican photographed in 2020, a bird that had been rescued and rehabbed during the BP spill. 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service made things much worse by threatening to rescind rehab licenses from any rehabbers who turned up in the Gulf to help retrieve oiled wildlife. Audubon’s cover story ridiculed the very idea of capturing oiled birds, writing about a television interview Drew Wheelan did:  

He and Anderson Cooper spoke of “experts” who supposedly possess the power to pluck birds from the firmament, a feat impossible for any human save Harry Potter.  

I’m still gobsmacked about that tripe. It's as if the writer had never observed a bird banding operation or ever gone out with bird rescuers after other oil spills. The Cornell staffer's comment on my blogpost included this: 

It's easy to say that rehabbers ‘know how to catch birds’ and quite another thing to have them do it from a barren stretch of oiled sand with a thousand invisible nests underfoot, or from within the oiled tangles of a mangrove rookery. 

But the biologists documenting those nesting colonies, including the ones who took the photos in the current Living Bird article, were working right there along that “barren stretch of oiled sand” at the time. And rehabbers who specialize in retrieving oiled birds have worked on other coastal island spills during nesting season. Of course it wasn't possible to save every oiled bird, but a great many could have been saved if only it didn't impact that all-important total count that set BP's liability.

I went to the Gulf as an unaffiliated individual, paying my own way for everything, subsidized by no one except my husband, my treasured friend Kathy Hermes who supplied me with a bazillion quarters for parking and vending machines, and the KUMD radio station in Duluth, which didn't provide any financial support but gave me a press pass in case I needed it. I posted my accounts, with photos and video, on my personal blog, and produced a few “For the Birds” programs on the road during the trip. 

I did my level best to verify and document everything I wrote and to be fair. And I did my best to control my Irish temper. But I was about as smalltime a reporter as one could be. My work hardly went viral, but Anderson Cooper’s fact checkers from CNN came across it and called and emailed a few questions. 

Smalltime or not, my work caught the attention of a few conservation big guns. I received one anonymous email from a hotmail account reminding me that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had the power to rescind my permit to keep my education owl, Archimedes, if I wasn't "careful." I had worked as science editor at Cornell for over two years, and apparently that connection was well-enough known that I got a couple of phone calls from the Lab asking me to tone down my posts about the spill. I said I’d be more than happy to correct any and every error, but I was not representing myself as anything but the unaffiliated individual I was, and nothing I’d written was untrue. 

The current Living Bird article discusses how various conservation groups and state agencies are using their share of the $20.8 billon that BP paid to settle all civil and criminal claims. Some are restoring islands in the Gulf that are once again hosting plenty of nesting birds, though those restoration projects are also intended to benefit property owners and corporations on shore, serving as buffers in storms and as water levels rise. Meanwhile, some other islands have been lost completely—plant root systems are what form and hold these islands in place, and when they are killed, the island disappears. And other islands, not a high enough priority for the people working with limited settlement money, are still in horrible condition. 

The Minnesota DNR, in part funded by settlement money, is studying how badly our own loon population, which mostly winters in the Gulf, was impacted by the spill. It’s a heck of a lot of money for even the largest non-profits, and the government agencies, universities, and organizations doing these studies and this restoration work badly need these funds to accomplish their important work. That is the simple truth, and it’s why I continue my support of Cornell, and after a few years renewed my membership in Audubon.  

Common Loon

But somehow, I can’t forget that $20.8 billion isn’t even a tenth of BP’s income of $278.4 billion from 2019 alone, and more like 1 percent of their total revenue in the decade since the spill, nor can I forget that $20.8 billion is nowhere near enough to restore all the islands damaged by the spill. Aren't penalties supposed to serve as a deterrent to prevent future wrongdoing, not just a minor expense of doing business? 

I cannot forget how long BP fought against even this insufficient settlement and then how long it took them to pay out any of the funds. And I cannot forget how they minimized that final amount by insisting that the official bird kill total, which determined their liability, would include, for the first time ever, only birds physically retrieved rather than counted in the field by qualified experts. And exacerbating that, they even managed to limit which badly oiled birds could be rescued, dooming thousands that could have been saved. 

Oiled Black-crowned Night-Heron

"Ten Years Later" in the current Living Bird is an important article, published by an important ornithological organization, but it must not be the final word. Environmentalists and bird conservationists need to reckon with how we weigh honesty, transparency, and trust vs. quietly allowing companies responsible for disasters to call the shots, "going along to get along." The organizations and agencies partaking of that $20.8 billion settlement are indeed doing valuable work with it, but much more valuable work should have and could have been done, if only all the witnesses from all the organizations and agencies had spoken out in concert, loudly, clearly, and truthfully. Then the final settlement almost certainly would have been set to mitigate a more accurate total number of oiled wildlife, more fairly reflecting the magnitude of the damage. 

Non-profits sitting on their own data about the spill for five years, especially as they discredited and squelched the forthright testimony of truthful witnesses while the spill was happening and birds were dying, left a stain that won't wash away. We environmentalists, both as individuals and as organizations, must thoroughly examine the mistakes that were made in 2010 so the next time there's a huge oil spill, and there will be a next one, we may do better.

Oil on Grand Isle State Park beach, July 29, 2010.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

October Snow!!

Blue Jay hiding out from the snowstorm
This Blue Jay takes shelter from the snow, putting the feeder's squirrel baffle to a new use.

I’m writing this on October 20, 2020, watching snow accumulate, swirling around a couple hundred Pine Siskins, a hundred juncos, a good 50 Purple Finches, and a host of White-throated Sparrows all pigging out along with a handful of White-crowned Sparrows and the usual suspects—woodpeckers, Blue Jays, chickadees, and nuthatches. Today may be the earliest I’ve ever seen a Common Redpoll—one was feeding with the siskins at my feeder this morning, but I didn’t trust my eyes and it flitted before I could get my camera. Fortunately, it turned up again this afternoon—the same bird or another female, and I did manage to get photos. 

Common Redpoll

Robins were flying through this morning while I refilled my feeders, and I saw one Townsend’s Solitaire among them. That one I got a great look at, though again, I didn’t have my camera. 

Red Squirrel

This is actually our second snowfall—it came down pretty heavily on Saturday when I was part of the BirdWatching magazine’s Big Day team for Global Bird Weekend. I didn’t plot out my route very well if I was serious about maximizing the number of species I saw. I knew my feeder birds would be important, and took care of that with grandma duty first thing in the morning, but then Russ and I headed out to the Sax-Zim Bog when it would have been way more productive, and probably safer, to simply head up the shore and to Park Point. We didn’t get stuck anywhere, but that was sheer luck. Sensible people stayed clear of those county roads in the bog. We did see a shrike, one Canada Jay flying past, a group of Wild Turkeys, and a couple of harriers in the bog, as well as several ravens and Bald Eagles, and a whole mess of juncos and other sparrows, but birds were few and far between—in all the miles we covered, we saw just one single chickadee flitting across a road. The only mammal we saw in the bog was a single red squirrel. Oddly enough, I had one of them in my own yard, too. I still haven’t figured out where my little guy is hunkering down, but I love that it’s still showing up. 

Red Squirrel

Saturday’s snow was accumulating here and there, but was gone in my neighborhood by Sunday, and suddenly birds were really passing through—I didn’t spend a lot of time outside, but did see lots of red-tailed hawks and Bald Eagles, two Northern Harriers, and one goshawk, Rough-legged Hawk, and Golden Eagle. A very dark-plumaged Red-winged Blackbird turned up at the feeders as well as a grackle.  

Late Red-winged Blackbird

At dusk, my neighbor called about a Saw-whet Owl in their back yard—the light was low, but I got a bunch of photos anyway. 

Northern Saw-whet Owl

Northern Saw-whet Owl

Northern Saw-whet Owl

And when I awoke the next morning and checked my trail cam to see what had shown up overnight, what to my wondering eyes should appear but a Great Horned Owl sitting on my tray feeder. There hadn’t been any mammals on it according to the camera, but it wasn’t looking at the feeder or the ground beneath—it just made a good perch to look all around. My cam takes three photos and then a 30-second video, and the video was really cool. The bird stayed only a few seconds after that. 

Great Horned Owl on my trail cam

Great Horned Owl on my trail cam

A skunk visits my birdbath most nights, including that night, several hours later, and fortunately the owl didn’t get him—that would have been a smelly disaster for us, but also, I’m rather attached to the skunk who seems rather shy and retiring, as most skunks who live in neighborhoods like mine tend to be. I was also relieved that it didn’t get the flying squirrel I occasionally see. I don’t begrudge owls necessary calories, but would just as soon they ate strangers rather than anyone I know. 

Striped Skunk at my frozen bird bath

I expected my baby grandson’s first snow would come after his first World Series, but 2020 isn’t a normal year. With snow sticking and now a redpoll, I guess winter is here down on earth two full months before astronomers think it will arrive with the solstice. 

October Snow

Before and After

Before two heart attacks, breast cancer, and four years of Donald Trump:

Laura Erickson

After all that: 


Sunday, October 18, 2020

Changing Appearances

Mother and Child

When my daughter Katie was 7 or 8 months old, I decided to change my hairstyle so I could have bangs. Katie was my xenophobic child, terrified of strangers, and the moment she saw me with just that minor change, she started screaming. When I picked her up and held her tight, patting her back and talking to her, she settled down because she knew mommy from that angle, her face looking over my shoulder and just hearing my voice. But the moment she pulled back to look at my face again, she started screaming. It took almost a week for her to get used to the “new mommy.” 

Laura and Katie at Grandma's house, summer 1984

Trying to keep “mommy” looking the same, I’ve been getting my hair colored for 28 years (yes, over a quarter of a century!), starting when I had just a few gray strands. I started getting it colored as something of a joke on my 40th birthday, wanting just a bit more time before I let it go. Neither Russ nor my mother-in-law noticed at all, and I figured it really was for the best in a lot of ways to just let it be. 

But then my 10-year-old son Joey walked in the door and instantly exclaimed, “Mom! Your gray hair is all gone! Oh, I’m so relieved!” That was the year his grandpa had died, so it struck me that the kids’ fears of losing their parents were close to the surface, and gray hair must have seemed like evidence of mortality. So I decided to keep getting my hair colored until they had all graduated from high school. 

The last graduation was well over a decade ago, but by that time, publishers and various speaking venues were using publicity photos of me, and an abrupt change in my hair color would have required me to focus on my appearance when I just wanted to focus on birds. And the longer I waited, the more white hairs grew in. Suddenly it was impossible to let it go gracefully and gradually gray the way I'd sort of wanted in the first place. So I followed the path of least resistance and kept going back to Shelley for a “cut and color” every five or six weeks, year after year.

But the pandemic changed everything. I stopped going anywhere in March, and little by little, the thin stripe of white that appeared along my part just before those regular trips to the hairdresser started widening. One inch. Two inches. Three inches. My hair was more and more ragged, the half-brown, half-white looking more and more bizarre. 

Now that baby Walter is beyond the newborn stage, we decided it would be reasonably safe for me to get a haircut since Shelley enforces excellent social distancing rules. On Tuesday I told her to cut off as much as she needed to to make it look reasonably good again. Now I can honestly say that COVID-19 turned my hair white.

Oddly enough, Walter loves it. From the start, he's focused on the white part on top, which made me different from every other person in the house anyway. And Walter's mommy looks the same as she did—I'm just the grandma. The person handling my all-white hair color worst is me—now when I look in the mirror, a stranger is looking back at me, and I'm realizing how disconcerting it was for Katie when her mommy suddenly looked different. It's also made me start thinking more about Joey’s reaction the first time I got my hair colored. Was it really that a few gray hairs represented impending doom to him, or might it have been something even deeper? Maybe a few stray gray hairs made me look subtly like a stranger rather than the mommy he had always known.  

Black-billed Magpie

That white-haired lady in the mirror may not look like me to my eyes, but she did call to mind a clever study that established that one corvid, the magpie, understands that its reflection in a mirror shows its own self. When researchers applied a white spot of non-toxic color to a magpie's black throat or upper chest, where it couldn’t see it, and then brought it to a mirror, the magpie apparently immediately realized the spot was on its own feathers and tried to claw it off by scratching with its foot. If the researchers applied a black spot, blending with its feathers, the bird paid it no mind.  

Baby Blue Jay
A baby jay I'd raised. I never thought to take a photo of one at a mirror, and that was before I knew how to video-record anything. 

I don’t know of a study about Blue Jays understanding reflections, but I’ve been pretty clear about that since my rehab days when I raised a few baby Blue Jays. Several times I brought one into the bathroom to show it the mirror. I’d hold it on my finger and watch as it studied the mirror. It always started by tapping at the baby jay in the reflection, cocking its head this way and that and tapping again. When it focused on my reflection, it always quickly looked at my real self and moved its head back and forth several times comparing the reflection and me. Each little jay seemed to figure it out enough to be satisfied within a minute or two. Next time I brought that bird to the mirror, it would do those same two things again—tap at its own reflection and look back and forth between my reflection and me—but for a shorter time before losing interest.

Intriguingly, the timing of molt for most adult birds is after they’re done raising young for the season. Birds that molt into entirely different winter plumage, such as tanagers and goldfinches, seem to be species in which the young don’t stay with their parents. In all the species I can think of in which the young do stay with their parents through and beyond the summer molt, such as geese, swans, jays, crows, and chickadees, the adults look pretty much the same before and after the molt, except that the new feathers are much fresher. I wonder if it's rather a rule in birds that parents hold onto the same general appearance during the time their young remain with them. 

Except my own rule doesn't always hold. Some Blue Jays molt all their head feathers at once. A bald Blue Jay looks nothing like a fully feathered one, and I know some of the bald jays in my own yard this summer were still feeding fledglings. 

Baby Blue Jay begging from parent
I'm pretty sure the adult (on the right), just starting to molt its head feathers, is the same bird as in the following two photos. This was taken August 7. 
Bald Blue Jay
This was taken August 13, and this bird was coming to my whistle exactly as the bird in the previous photo was. It was also still feeding young birds.

My personal friendly Blue Jay
This bird, coming to my whistle for peanuts exactly as the previous two, was photographed here on September 23. 

I’ve never heard any evidence that Blue Jays beg for food from adults other than their own parents, but evidently the young jays manage to recognize their parents before, during, and after they molt all their head feathers, an accomplishment that certainly exceeds that of a 7- or 8-month old human baby who can’t recognize her own mother after a minor haircut. This may not mean much, but I’m taking it as more evidence that Blue Jays are, indeed, smarter than humans. Of course, that was obvious anyway. Never has any Blue Jay ever gone, every 5 or 6 weeks throughout its adult life, to a hairdresser to change the color of its natural plumage. That's not just evidence of Blue Jay intelligence—it’s also due to the incontrovertible fact that Blue Jays are prettier than we are. Beauty and brains in an elegant 3-ounce package. Who could ask for more?

Blue Jay

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Dependent Nestlings

Photo by Stan Tekiela, from my book, Into the Nest

My grandson Walter, who was exactly two months old October 14, is very much like a hatchling songbird, only with a tiny bit of hair on his head. Most newly hatched songbirds have at least a bit of down, but Walter is more like a baby woodpecker in that respect, hatched with not a single down feather. 

Nestling songbirds, woodpeckers, hummingbirds, raptors, and several others are called altricial—that is, they hatch out with eyes closed and utterly helpless. Altricial baby birds do have the instinct to open their mouths when they sense a parent near, and they poop as soon as they’ve eaten, in those respects very much like newborn humans. Birds with altricial young feed their helpless babies as tenderly as human mothers do. But unlike us mammals, most birds cannot produce that food within their own bodies—they must hunt it out and bring it back to the nest, whether the food is an Osprey or eagle’s fresh fish, a robin’s worms, or a hummingbird’s slurry of nectar and tiny insects. 

Mammals produce milk, so have a different approach. Baby squirrels nestle against their mothers through the night so they can be fed whenever they want to nurse—mother squirrels probably sleep right through nighttime feedings, unlike human mothers such as my daughter when babies needs to eat every three or four hours.  

Altricial bird parents need light to procure food, so night feedings aren’t an option. To make up for it, many species spend just about every moment from sunrise to sunset searching for food and feeding their nestlings and then fledglings. Doves and pigeons are an exception in that they produce in their crop a substance called pigeon milk, in composition very much like mammalian milk. Nevertheless, like other altricial species, they only feed their young during daytime.  

Now that it’s mid-October, most of the baby songbirds produced this year are on their own. Baby chickadees have left their parents and siblings and each joined a different winter flock from its family members. The first baby robins to fledge this year have been on their own since early summer, and the one or two subsequent broods each pair of robins raised are also on their own—robins associate in large flocks, so it’s not like the young won’t have adults around showing them the ropes as they travel to new places. Some swallows and probably other songbirds stick with their own parents through migration, but that is probably the exception rather than the rule. 

Many corvids stick together as families longer than their fellow songbirds. My neighborhood pair of crows fledged four young this year, and five members of the family are still coming to my tray feeder as a group. 

Six Crows at feeder (a family)
This is the whole family back in August. At least five of them are still together. 

It’s been tricky keeping track of my backyard Blue Jays when so many migrants have been passing through, but one adult keeps coming to me for peanuts if it’s in hearing range when I whistle, so I can recognize that one. This past weekend I saw a Blue Jay in the spruce tree right next to my new upstairs home office, and when I whistled, it came to a closer branch and peeked in the window, so I tossed a peanut out and it rocketed to the ground to retrieve it. And instantly, another Blue Jay started making begging sounds and fluttering its wings, and the first bird flew up and gave it a peanut kernel. 

I’d taken a lot of photos of that baby and its brood back on August 7, a week before Walter was born—at that point, the babies were fine fliers with half-grown tails. 

Baby Blue Jay begging from parent

They’d presumably hatched sometime the first week of July and fledged three weeks later. The Blue Jay entry in Cornell’s Birds of the World states that “Parents feed offspring for at least 1, sometimes up to 2, mo.” after fledging, but it appears that feeding a young one this late, at least 10 weeks after fledging, is either exceptional or I’m one of the few people lucky enough to have observed it. 

I don’t know if Blue Jays who stick with their parents like this have a better or worse prognosis than more independent young. There is probably a lot of value in self-sufficiency, but also in getting occasional free lunches and extra guidance.  

Blue Jay migration isn’t at all understood—we have no idea how many of the birds heading south are adults versus young, or how long young normally associate with their parents, and how long after going their own ways family members recognize one another. I suspect this particular adult is going to be spending the winter here based on the fact that it’s been caching away half the peanuts I give it.   

One place for hiding peanuts.
Should I tell Russ where this jay is caching peanuts?

So I’ll be paying attention to try to tease out the relationships between it and other Blue Jays as the season progresses. None of them are banded, much less color marked, and I suspect if any were trapped here, they’d consider that the kind of betrayal that would send them packing for good. 

Looking at my tiny, dependent grandbaby, it’s hard to imagine just how quickly baby Blue Jays grow up. But it’s lovely to realize that when a baby Blue Jay—even a full-sized one who could be off on its own—needs a handout, a parent is seemingly happy to oblige. It was lovely of my friendly Blue Jay to give me this glimpse into their natural history, giving me something to wonder about during National Blue Jay Awareness Month while I’m gazing into the eyes of our family’s own little nestling.  

Friday, October 16, 2020

Global Bird Weekend

I’m going to spend Saturday, October 17, birding. Most mornings I get “grandma duty” for a few hours, and during that time Saturday, Walter and I will be looking at birds in the yard, coming to feeders, feeding in the dogwood and mountain ash, and visiting my birdbaths. Walter, at barely two months old, sometimes notices bird activity if they’re moving enough, but so far, his eyes are usually drawn more to the colorful leaves on the trees than to birds.   

So far, Walter watches Blue Jays more easily on my computer screensaver than out the window.

Once grandma duty is over, I’ll exchange my grandson for his grandpa. Russ and I will head out to the Sax-Zim Bog to see what we can find there. If we get back to Duluth while we still have a bit of time and energy, we’ll check out Park Point to see if any cool birds are hanging out on the ballfield or in the lake.   

I’ll be eBirding every bird we see as we go along, because this weekend is Global Bird Weekend, and Saturday is October Big Day. I may be doing my own birding with Russ and baby Walter, but I’m also representing the BirdWatching magazine team. My fellow contributing editor and columnist Kenn Kaufman, who is a wonderful artist and writer, the author of several field guides and excellent books, including Kingbird Highway and A Season on the Wind: Inside the World of Spring Migration, will be birding from Ohio. Photographer Brian Small, who contributed almost all of the photos in my American Birding Association Field Guide to Birds of Minnesota as well as the other field guides in that series, will be representing our team from California. And BirdWatching Magazine editor Matt Mendenhall will be representing us in Wisconsin.   

I don’t like being in competitions, but this one is a fundraiser for a very worthy cause, BirdLife International’s campaign to stop the illegal bird trade. BirdLife International has been focused on the illegal bird trade for a long time. People in the U.S. think of parrots and other species taken from the wild as pets, which is a huge international problem; just as bad are the lethal traps used to take migrating songbirds over the Mediterranean and in other places. The illegal bird trade is cruel, pushes birds toward extinction, and is extremely short-sighted for our own species as well, threatening more pandemics because of the transmission of diseases from animals to humans in poorly regulated markets, especially in Asia. So I’m proud to be part of a fundraising effort for this worthy project, and excited that a day of birding can be meaningful beyond the fun I’ll have.  

Sam Robbins and me
Me doing a Big Day with Wisconsin's amazing Sam Robbins back in 1992. Sam Cook took this photo.

When I was younger and especially before my heart attacks, I could easily start a Big Day—one of those efforts wherein we try to tally as many species as humanly possible in 24 hours—at 2 am, or even midnight, and last till 10 pm, or even midnight. Now that I’m not quite so spry, I could probably easily last during daylight hours, even in May or June, and maybe even last an hour or two before or after, but even if my body and brain were younger, I’m not nearly so acquisitive anymore. When I’m on a birding tour, I’m still very alert throughout all our birding hours, but take advantage of afternoon siestas, and sleep in the tour bus between locations, though somehow I’m in enough of a twilight state that I instantly am alert if anyone calls out a bird we might be passing.   

Susan Eaton and me
Susan Eaton and me in Panama last year, hiking through the mud and muck.

Fortunately, although the many teams participating in Global Bird Weekend have a shot to see, as a whole, 6,500 species—over 60 percent of the world’s bird species—we’re working together toward amassing that total, not competing with one another. So a grandmotherly type like me can make a contribution without pushing myself too hard.   

Listeners can take part, too, by simply entering the birds you see into eBird this weekend—another goal of World Bird Weekend is to have more than 25,000 people submit checklists to eBird on October 17.  It’s a little too early to start an eBird account for baby Walter, but Russ and I will be submitting all our species, and sharing our checklists with the BirdWatching team. I’ll let you know how it goes.