Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Sunday, November 29, 2020

The Desert Island Hypothetical

My personal friendly Blue Jay

Over my 45 years of birding, people have occasionally asked me what bird I’d most long for if I were stranded on a desert island. I’ve always answered the Black-capped Chickadee or the Blue Jay. “But wouldn’t I get bored?” Hardly. As a child, I read Little Women at least fifty and quite possibly a hundred times, and I’ve always liked listening to the same songs over and over and watching my favorite movies again and again. 

Black-capped Chickadees building nest

A lot of birders need more novelty, or at least diversity, in their bird sightings than I do. I may be luckier right now, when we’re hunkered down during a once-in-a-century emergency, but overall, it’s the birders who thrive on novelty and diversity who do better on Big Days and Big Years than someone like me. I’ve been known, on an actual Big Day when every second of seeking out new birds is critical, to stop for 15 or 20 minutes just to watch Bank Swallows excavating holes in a bank, or even just a chickadee hacking out a cavity. I didn’t cover nearly as much ground on my 2013 Big Year as I’d originally planned—at the end of 2012, Russ’s mom came to live with us, reducing both our discretionary income and the amount of time I could spend away from home. If I were the kind of person who needed to maximize my bird numbers out of competitiveness or a yearning for more, I’d have been disappointed, but me being me, it wasn’t that big a deal—my Big Year was one of the most wonderful, rewarding years of my life just the way it was. 

The desert island question is just a hypothetical, and Peabody Street is hardly a desert island anyway, but if I had to be stuck in one place over so many months, my two avian choices, around every single day, have definitely made this strange time much more bearable. The chickadee certainly lacks brilliant color, but more than makes up for that in adorableness, and the Blue Jay combines vivid blues with a perky crest. How could I get bored looking at either?

Blue Jay

The chickadee’s Hey, sweetie! song may lack the syringeal complexity of a Winter Wren’s or Hermit Thrush’s, but simplicity has its own loveliness, and the chickadee song has the advantage of being heard year-round. Yes, like wrens and thrushes, chickadees sing the most songs from April into June and are hard to hear from October through December, but I’ve heard chickadees singing at least occasionally during every month of the year, long after Winter Wrens and Hermit Thrushes have flown the coop. And both chickadees and Blue Jays make a wonderful assortment of companionable vocalizations year-round. If anything interesting was happening, those two would alert me to it. 

Handfeeding mealworms to a Black-capped Chickadee

If that hypothetical desert island lacked all human companionship, I wouldn’t have to befriend a volleyball named Wilson, not if there were chickadees or Blue Jays around. Both not only take an interest in people; they make actual eye contact and would definitely reduce loneliness.  

Black-capped Chickadee

During this pandemic, a lot of people are growing restless and bored, and it’s easy to understand and sympathize. But I like that in Hogfather, Terry Pratchett has Death say about human beings, “Do you know, that in a universe so full of wonders, they have managed to invent boredom.” As much as I love the freedom to go where I want, exploring this universe so full of wonders, I’m pretty much satisfied, and never bored, even when I'm stuck in one place with just a few of those wonders. I hope you’re finding as much joy and wonder in your own small world. 

Black-capped Chickadee peeking in my window waiting for mealworms

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Gratitude: 2020

This has been one of the hardest years of my lifetime for a great many people. It started out bad for me. On January 3, I had a heart attack. On my very first venture out when I was feeling up to it, on January 12, Russ drove me to the Sax-Zim Bog to see a Barn Owl—the first one I’d ever seen in Minnesota, much less in St. Louis County. I was thrilled to see it, but then that very day the poor thing died, too far north of its range to survive. 

Barn Owl

And then on February 26, my Uncle Bill died. We made our one and only road trip of the year to attend his funeral in Chicago on March 6, when the pandemic was already taking a horrific toll in Italy but not quite kicking in yet in the United States. By the end of the month, it was starting to rage in New York City, where my daughter Katie lived. She was pregnant, so I was doubly terrified for her, and incredibly sad because as things were shaping up, we knew visiting them be impossible during the pandemic, Russ and I both being too high risk what with our age, both of us having had cancer, and my two heart attacks. Then my son Joe got furloughed from his job at Disney World. He’d still be on medical insurance but with no income for months, and no way he could come home to Minnesota for the duration. Yes, this was a terrifying and difficult year.  

But by late March, living in Brooklyn was getting too much for Katie and Michael. Both of their workplaces were fine with them working from home, even if that home was in Minnesota, so at the end of the month, they packed up and drove from New York to Duluth. Working out the logistics for travel was tricky—they’d absolutely have to stop for one night, but one of their friends offered them a safe place to stay north of Chicago where no one would be home. The most dangerous parts of the trip were stopping for gas and restrooms and walking their dog, but they worked out safe protocols. 

When they arrived here at the start of April, they quarantined for two weeks. It was hard on us only being able to see each other through the window, and harder on their poor dog Muxy who just could not understand why she couldn’t see Pip or go into the back yard—two weeks seems way longer to a dog than to a person who understands what’s happening.  

Pip and Muxy

But ever since we pulled down the plastic barrier to the hallway, we’ve been one household. The only change in our household composition since April was when Walter arrived on the scene. 

Katie and Michael have done all their own shopping by mail and with curbside pickup. Russ still goes into our grocery store every week or two during their early morning “senior” hours, always wearing a mask, always following the one-way aisle arrows, and always keeping his distance from other shoppers. When packages arrive, they are quarantined in the basement for 6 days unless it’s something urgently needed or perishable—then it’s sanitized first. Mail that must be opened within 6 days goes into the oven at 150 degrees for an hour first. I’ve been amazingly lucky to live with people who are not only committed to doing things the safest way possible but who do the hard research to decide what protocols are safest.

Everyone seems to realize that I’m the over-friendly Joe Biden-type person of the family, so if I need to drop off something at the post office or anything like that, one of them does it for me. I went to cardiac rehab up until April, and then for a brief time in September and October until state and local case numbers got scary again.  

Now I’m back hunkered down at home, doing aerobic exercises just about every day on my own. I’m very grateful to Jane Fonda and to the fact that I’m missing whatever boredom gene there might be that makes most people get tired of doing the exact same thing day after day—I have probably done the aerobics part of the Jane Fonda Complete Workout a thousand times over the years and yet never seem to mind doing it yet again, day after day. Thanks to cardiac rehab’s phone visits through summer, including a consultation with their dietician, and to Jane Fonda, I’ve lost more than 15 pounds since my heart attack and am probably in better shape right now than I was in years. They also designed exercises to help me build up my upper body strength and balance to get my body ready for helping with a baby. 

I’d been getting my hair colored since my 40th birthday, but with the pandemic, the gray grew out millimeter by millimeter, and when cases were still low in early October, went to my hairdresser, who is diligently following all the best practices; she cut off all the brown. My haircut will grow shaggier for the duration, but at least I’ve lost the sharp color demarcation.

Eastern Kingbird

I went birding at Park Point once in early August, and although I ran into one other birder, I remembered to socially distance and wear a mask. 

Smith's Longspur

That still felt risky to everyone, including me, so when I went up to the McQuade boat landing to see Smith’s Longspurs in September, and when I went to the Sax-Zim Bog for World Birding Weekend in October, Russ came along. Otherwise, I’ve not been more than a block or two from my house at all, and I’ve spent more than 99 percent of my time since March in my house or my own backyard.  

My son Joe is back at work, but this has been a horrible year for him. It was hard enough to endure so many months with no income, but he also lost his wonderful cat Boots who was a part of his life for over 15 years. I’m filled with gratitude for technology—thanks to Zoom, we can at least see our son, and he can see and hear his baby nephew. Virtual visits are not nearly as wonderful as real-life visits, but they’re much, much better than phone calls.

Ironically, despite how horrible 2020 has been and how much I miss my firstborn son, it’s also been one of the best years of my life. I had my cataract surgery last December, and because those cataracts were congenital, my vision has never been clearer or colors more vivid in my life. 

How my cataract distorts color

All my speaking gigs for the year were cancelled, which was disappointing not only for missing wonderful travel and birding opportunities but also because those are my primary source of income. But that gave me the motivation to develop new skills, and I’ve been doing presentations via Zoom since summer. I’m extremely grateful for the many wonderful people whose financial support via Patreon and direct donations is making this possible.

Baby Blue Jay begging from parent

Even as I’ve missed traveling and seeing the assortment of birds I’d be enjoying in a normal year, I’ve found unexpected birding delights here at home. For the first time ever, all spring and summer I made almost daily recordings of my backyard birds. Some of them turned out beautifully, and are lovely to listen to now as winter settles in. Normally when I am home in spring I’m so busy catching up in between trips that I don’t pay close attention to my everyday birds. This year I got to closely watch three families of chickadees, two families of Blue Jays, and one family of crows, all for well over a month after the young had fledged. The crow and jay parents came to rely on me to give them peanuts, and that meant they approached very close for photos. 

Molting adult Blue Jay

I’ve long read about how some Blue Jays go through a bald stage during the summer molt and my own education Blue Jay Sneakers always molted all her head feathers at once, but I never took photos of her during that time. This summer, I got wonderful photos of one Blue Jay parent before, during, and after that bald stage, and got lots of photos of the parents feeding their fledglings. My crows raised four young, and the family of six came regularly when I whistled and put peanuts in my tray feeder. 

Eastern Chipmunk eating a peanut on my shoe while I'm wearing it.

I paid closer attention to my backyard House Wrens and Brown Thrashers than ever before, developed a friendship with a chipmunk, set up a few trail cams that got nighttime photos and video of a flying squirrel and a Great Horned Owl, and now I’m seeing a red squirrel—a very rare thing on Peabody Street. 

Great Horned Owl on my trail cam

I’m not only lucky to have enjoyed all these avian and mammalian riches—I’m lucky enough to have the kind of personality that doesn’t require novelty to be contented and even outright happy. As much as I love travel, I find a lot to be joyful about even on days when I see little more than chickadees and Blue Jays. Many of my friends have a fundamental need to see lots of exciting birds, in lots of places, to feel contented. This has been a hard year for them. 

Meanwhile, I’m showing baby Walter birds and squirrels and bunnies out the window. He isn’t quite ready to focus on active tiny birds like chickadees, but does sometimes track pigeons and Blue Jays. Yesterday I was holding him at the window when a gorgeous red fox walked by. Walter is at that wonderful smiling stage now, and I can’t hold him or look at him without feeling rich beyond measure. 

And so this Thanksgiving, even as I’m sorely missing my son, I’m filled with gratitude for my whole family, for the wealth of birds and mammals visiting my yard, for the photos, video, and sound recordings I’ve gotten this year, and for the treasured listeners and blog readers who shared wonderful bird stories from their neck of the woods. Knowing how isolated my son and many of my own friends and relatives are, and having friends who have lost family members to this horrible disease, I know how exceptionally fortunate I am this year. Gratitude is baked into Thanksgiving, and I’m feeling grateful beyond measure. 

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

ALL Cats Indoors


On November 1, barely an hour before I presented my monthly Zoom presentation, about woodpeckers, I decided I should include some ways that we humans can help them. One of the ways is to keep cats indoors. Over my years as a wildlife rehabber, I had dealt with a few woodpeckers who had been injured by cats. They had all died from internal injuries or infections, but that was before I was taking many photos. So I posted a request on Facebook to a group of rehabbers asking if anyone had a photo of a cat-injured woodpecker—I'd need it within 10 or 15 minutes. Instantly people sent me several tragically gruesome photos. 

And these were just woodpeckers—had I needed photos of generic birds killed by cats, I'd have had dozens in five minutes!   

Cats kill roughly a billion birds of a great many species every year in the United States alone. Cat rescue organizations sometimes dispute the numbers, but that's tricky now that a great many different people, using various methodologies, have concluded pretty much the same thing. Some cat defenders say it doesn't really matter because the number of birds killed in collisions with windows is even bigger, as if doctors said it was perfectly okay to consume known carcinogens because heart disease kills more people than cancer.  

My cat Kasey had been part of an early trap-neuter-release program in Ohio, eating birds in my daughter's backyard until I brought her home in 2006. We had her declawed right away because our nine-year-old cat Miss Kitty had been declawed and would be defenseless against a well-armed, spunky young cat. We of course kept Kasey indoors, and overall she seemed happy, but she managed to sneak out four times over the years during construction projects or other hectic times, and even without claws she killed and brought home at least one animal, usually a chipmunk, all four times. Once, before we even discovered that she'd made it out, she'd piled up three or four animals on our back porch, including two little songbirds. The worst time was when we had filled a basement window opening with cardboard until the replacement window pane arrived. Kasey discovered it and was going in and out without us noticing. She managed to line up a dead mother deer mouse, her litter of 6 baby mice, and a White-throated Sparrow on our kitchen rug before we figured out what was happening. Cats, by nature, kill. And my sweet cat, in excellent health after regular meals and all the vet care we got for her when I brought her home, was in prime condition to do a lot of damage, even without claws. 

Foxes, hawks, and other natural, wild predators die out or move on long before their prey in a given area can be depleted, because they can’t afford to go more than a day or two without a successful hunt. Pet cats allowed to roam, or stray or feral cats fed by people, are not subject to these natural forces—they're subsidized killers. Like my sweet Kasey, these cats don't lose their killer instinct and their urge to toy with living objects just because someone is supplying them with food—those feedings actually put them in better shape to kill more effectively.  

Domestic Cat on the Prowl

When I was a rehabber, I spent a lot of time educating people about birds. I understand how widespread ignorance about the natural world is—I myself was valedictorian of my high school and graduated from college with high honors before I learned anything at all about birds, ecology, or the balance between natural predators and prey. And it wasn’t until I actually became a wildlife rehabber that I discovered that bird wounds stop bleeding so quickly that even very serious injuries aren’t noticeable at all without a close and careful examination. Where are people supposed to learn that bird lungs are set against the back ribs, beneath very thin skin? A single cat scratch or bite on the back virtually always damages the lungs. When people “rescue” a bird from their cat and set it free, that bird is essentially doomed to die from the injury hours or days later. 

White-breasted Nuthatch fatally wounded by cat
This is, I think, the only photo I ever took of a cat-injured bird. A cat had ripped off the entire pygostyle—the tail bone—from this White-breasted Nuthatch, but the cat's owner thought because there was so little bleeding, it must have been just a superficial wound. She smiled and said, "Oh, well. Cats will be cats."

People who brought me birds their cats had injured invariably felt virtuous and righteous for “saving” the bird. They may have gone to some lengths to put it in a box and drive it to me, but almost every one of those cat-injured birds died anyway. Despite antibiotics and veterinary care paid for out of my own pocket, the internal injuries and infections were usually fatal. It was endlessly frustrating trying to explain this to people. One woman in particular brought me at least a dozen birds her cat had injured. I spent at least five hundred dollars treating just the birds she alone brought me, and because I’m not a non-profit, I was prohibited by federal law from either charging or accepting donations from her or anyone else for my rehab work, not that she even offered to cover my expenses. The financial toll was bad enough—as a stay-at-home mother, I wasn’t bringing in any money at all—but the emotional toll on me and also on my children watching these beautiful, doomed birds struggle to stay alive was far, far heavier. But that woman was utterly oblivious, driving away each time feeling smugly virtuous, thinking she had done the best she could for that poor bird, and never once seriously considering keeping her cat indoors. 

For some reason, a great many people seem to believe that because cats act so independent and self-sufficient, we aren't responsible for their actions. I’m a dog person, but the cats that I’ve allowed into my life and heart were dearly loved and cared for. When we take in a cat, its life and well-being, and also its actions, become entirely our responsibility. 

People with the means and will to trap and neuter unowned cats have the same moral obligations toward them that people who have dogs, other pets, or farm animals do: keep the animals safe and don't allow them to harm other people or creatures.

People once allowed dogs to roam as they still do cats. Now cats are the top rabies carrier of all domesticated animals, and many individual feral cats are extremely aggressive and dangerous to humans as well as wildlife. The last time Russ and I were on Jekyll Island in Georgia, we got up early to walk from our cabin to the beach along a boardwalk. A feral cat sitting on the guardrail hissed fiercely at us. The beach vegetation was too vulnerable for us to step off the boardwalk, so we had to walk single file against the opposite railing to get past it. That cat was a genuine menace.  

Feral cat

The tragic way America solved the dog problem was for just about every jurisdiction to start requiring owned dogs to be licensed and kept under the owner’s control everywhere except on the owner’s actual property. Animal control officers searched for and caught loose dogs; if no one claimed one within a specified length of time, it was adopted out or, more often, euthanized. It was a terrible solution, yet the only way to solve a terrible problem. It's genuinely shameful that dogs paid the penalty for people being so irresponsible in the first place. 

Now the cat problem needs the same horrible solution. Euthanizing unowned cats is sad, but not removing them from the wild causes orders of magnitude more death. Yes, cat lives are valuable, but so are bird lives. 

Imagine a doctor who keeps one patient alive by draining all the blood from 100 other people, and then boasts about saving that one life. That is what people supporting trap-neuter-release programs, or people intentionally letting their cats outdoors, are doing. Closing their eyes to avian suffering and death, to the tune of a billion birds every year, is unconscionable. 

Feral Cat

Monday, November 23, 2020



In 2006, when my daughter was living in Oberlin, Ohio, with her best friend Stacey, a feral cat from one of the early trap-neuter-release programs was hanging out in their backyard, killing birds. Katie and Stacey’s landlord enforced a strict no-pet policy, and the girls didn’t know what to do. But when I was visiting them, we hatched a plan. Maybe, just maybe, I could lure the kitty into my car with a can of cat food and drive 800 miles home with it.  

Yes, it was a stupid plan, but no, it didn’t turn out the way one might expect. The cat didn’t want to be touched and was naturally suspicious of me, but when I held an open can of cat food out to her, she instantly followed me and jumped into the car when I set the can on the passenger seat. I quietly closed the door behind her as she started chowing down. I got into the driver seat and quietly closed my own car door. It was a Prius, so there wasn’t any noise when I started the engine and backed out of the driveway. I just drove around the block—this was a preliminary experiment—and pulled back into the driveway right as the cat was finishing up. When I opened my own door, I thought she’d bolt, but no. She stayed in the passenger seat, licking her paws as she looked all around at what she seemed to take as her new mobile home. 

It was a cool fall day. I got back in the car, opened the four windows a couple of inches, and the girls got busy. The hardware store was closed because it was Sunday, so they couldn’t buy either a pet carrier or a litter box. They got kitty litter at the grocery store along with more cat food, and fashioned a litter box from a cardboard box encased in two large plastic bags. My own things were already packed up in the car, and the cat was curled up atop my luggage in the hatchback, basking in the sun, when Katie and Stacey opened a door to put the litter box on the floor of the backseat. The cat raised her head to look at them, but again did not bolt. 

I had not seriously entertained the idea that this was going to work out easily—I was fully conscious that this was a feral cat. At this point, the worst that could happen was that she’d at least have a full stomach, giving the local prey a temporary reprieve before she started hunting again, though a good meal would also put her into better condition for that next hunt. We knew it was worthless to bring her to the animal shelter because they’d just turn her back over to the trap-neuter-release people and she’d be out killing birds within a day or two anyway.

But someone had to take responsibility for her well-being and that of birds and chipmunks, and luckily, she was young, with more optimistic feline curiosity than fear. The very idea of an 800-mile car ride with any cat, much less a feral one, was daunting, but Katie’s backyard Tufted Titmice and Carolina Wrens were at stake. So again I got into the car and started the engine. She stretched in that slow, luxurious way cats do, and jumped to the back seat, and then over the center console and into the front passenger seat as I again slowly backed out of the driveway.  

Katie and Stacey followed me the 10 or 15 miles to the entrance of the Ohio Turnpike, just in case they needed to take her back. While we were still in their neighborhood, driving very slowly, the cat strolled to the floor beneath my feet. I reached down and pushed her, saying, “No, kitty!” Then she jumped on the dashboard—again I had to reach over and push her, saying, “No, kitty!” I did both those things exactly once—she seemed to instantly grok that the person in the car with her was territorial about that section of the car but everything else belonged to her. 

We sped up on the 2-lane highway toward the turnpike. The cat continued to investigate, still sniffing and walking about as I reached my turnoff and waved goodbye to the girls. I was pretty nervous when I opened my window to take the turnpike fare ticket at the entrance, but the cat stayed in her part of the car. And then there we were, me and a feral cat in a small car tooling along the Ohio Turnpike. She walked onto the center console and to the back seat, and then back onto my luggage, where I could see her through my rear-view mirror. She seemed to like looking out at the cars and trucks behind us. Some of those drivers noticed her, too.  

The entire long car ride, including an overnight with my sister, in the late stages of cancer, in Chicago, so the cat had to spend the night in the car, and a second overnight with a friend from college, where she got to come inside, went just as well. I bought her a car carrier and she immediately walked inside when I just snapped my fingers. I didn’t press my luck by locking her inside, but figured she was at least a little safer in that than loose in the car during the times she was in it. This was no generic cat. I was shocked at my good luck—every cat we’d ever had was miserable in the car and made car rides miserable for everyone else, too. And this cat was no longer nameless—she was Kasey, smushing Katie and Stacey’s names together.   

Kasey on her first car ride. 

Kasey always looked to me as her main human. A year and a half later, when I took my job at Cornell, she made the 1200-mile journeys back and forth with me and my little dog Photon, and every car ride was just as easy, with her company making it more pleasant. Over the years, she put in a good 30,000 miles in the car. Once I was home for good, and after Russ’s mom moved in with us in 2012, Kasey stayed just as easy-going and fun. 

Kasey and Kitty help us wrap gifts.

A few years ago, Kasey developed lymphoma. For a while, it looked like we’d lose her immediately—she couldn’t hold down any food at all without vomiting violently and her pupils were fixed and dilated. But after the immediate emergency treatment, she responded well to weekly shots of Vitamin B12 and steroids. Even after she learned that her weekly trip to the vet would involve a shot, the moment I pulled out the pet carrier, she’d still walk right in. She looked sleeker again and was back to her old playful self. She made so much progress that after many months, I started giving her the medications orally. Even though her pupils remained fixed and dilated, she could see well enough to stare out the windows at my feeders, and to play with us. It was a lovely reprieve from the inevitable. But in the past few months, she started losing weight again, and this time, nothing worked; we bid her farewell on October 27. 

We’ll never get another cat. Russ was never a cat person to begin with, and I’m badly allergic. But Kasey was irreplaceable anyway.  I'll never forget her.


Sunday, November 22, 2020

A Finchy November to Feel Squirrelly

Fox Sparrow
Fox Sparrow

If I had to be stuck at home, limited pretty much to birding in my own backyard, this has at least been as good an autumn as I’ve had in years. I don’t think I’ve ever had as many Fox Sparrows during fall migration as I did this year, and they stuck around all the way through November 8—late enough and in big enough numbers that I often had to document the day’s sightings for eBird. 

Lincoln's Sparrow
Lincoln's Sparrow

I saw only one Lincoln’s Sparrow all spring, but then I had individuals now and then from October 23 through November 2, again having to document them for eBird. 

White-throated Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow

White-throated Sparrows stuck around through November 15.  Sometimes one or two show up on the Duluth Christmas Bird Count, but they certainly wouldn’t have stayed any longer in my yard this year because rats showed up again in October, meaning I had to stop all my ground feeding. 

Northern Cardinal
Northern Cardinal. Unlike every other photo on this blogpost, this one was not taken this year or in my yard.

On lucky days, I’m spotting a male cardinal or one or two females—on November 15, I was lucky enough to see all three at once. Even though on most days I don’t see them at all, it doesn’t seem to curb my optimistic hope. 

Cool as my sparrows and cardinals have been, it’s also been exciting seeing true finches this year. I’ve been keeping track of the ones being counted from Hawk Ridge, only about half a mile as the crow flies from my own backyard. What with people standing up there counting them throughout each day, way bigger numbers are tallied up there than down here, and I’ve been working on another book, so only able to check out the windows periodically.  

Purple Finch
Purple Finch

Like the counters at Hawk Ridge, I started seeing Purple Finches in late summer. The handful that I was seeing down here stuck around until November 1. Goldfinches seem to have disappeared as of Halloween down here. Many years they overwinter this far north, but this doesn’t seem like it’s going to be that kind of winter in Duluth. 

Over 1,000 Pine Grosbeaks have already been counted up at Hawk Ridge starting on October 23—I haven’t noticed a single one in my yard so far, but I’m hearing from people all over northern Minnesota and Wisconsin who are enjoying them, and also Evening Grosbeaks. No Evening Grosbeaks have shown up in my yard yet this fall. The Evening Grosbeak is one of my favorite birds, and used to be genuinely abundant up here, so I keep hoping. I was lucky enough to have a single one fly over on May 11 but yearn to see more this fall.   

Pine Siskin
Pine Siskin

Pine Siskins showed up both at Hawk Ridge and down here in early September. That was one of the most abundant birds of the season at Hawk Ridge, with well over 11,000 seen, and as many as 1500 in a single day; the most I had in a single day was 300. A few times they descended in big numbers to my birdbath when my trail cam was recording, and I’ve had a few good photo ops. 

Pine Siskins and White-throated Sparrows at bath
Pine Siskins at my bird bath (also some White-throated Sparrows)

But Pine Siskins seem to have disappeared now—the questions I’ve been hearing about them recently have come from people well south of here.  

Common Redpoll
October 20 Common Redpoll!

So far, the Hawk Ridge counters have had over 1,600 redpolls. I saw my first a few days before they tallied any—one was hanging out with the still abundant Pine Siskins at my feeder on October 20. But the most I’ve had in a single day is 10—they’ve had well over 100 on some days up at the Ridge. I’m seeing small groups some days, but overall am still missing them more days than I’m seeing them. 

When I think of it, I look out my living room window or from my front porch to scan through the branches of a few pine trees a couple of houses away, hopeful that I’ll eventually spot some Red Crossbills. Over 500 have been counted from Hawk Ridge, but I’ve not seen any yet. 

White-winged Crossbill
White-winged Crossbill

Right up until late this afternoon, I hadn’t seen a single White-winged Crossbill, either, but suddenly a flock of about 25 descended upon my big spruce tree. They were high up and the light was awful, but I got a few photos. While I was enjoying them, a flock of 30 more flew over. My dream is that they’ll descend on the spruce trees right next to my office window, where I’d have at least a chance of decent photos. 

Red Squirrel eating the seeds from a spruce cone
My red squirrel devouring spruce seeds

But even if I don’t see any there, I’ve been having lots of fun checking. This is one of the rare years when a red squirrel seems to have moved into my neighborhood. So far, the little guy hasn’t shown the least bit of interest in any of my bird feeders, apparently being on a more natural diet. I’ve taken photos of it eating spruce seeds and various fungi, and quite literally squirreling away lots of cones somewhere in the area behind my backyard. Red squirrels are most certainly not birds, but I love them a lot despite that serious shortcoming, and having this little guy here for a season when I am stuck at home is a saving grace.

Red Squirrel

Friday, November 13, 2020

An Auspicious Day?

I tend to be a pretty sciencey person, with a lot of friends who are sciencey or even outright scientists, so I don’t usually hear a lot about superstitions from the people I know, but suddenly lots of friends are confiding about being terrified about what today, Friday the 13th, might bring. This is actually the 120th Friday the 13th I’ve lived through (that was pretty easy to google) and not one of the previous ones, including the one this very March, has stood out as particularly unlucky, so I’m not worried.  

Of course, no matter how you look at it, 2020 has been a very unlucky year so far, but that’s hardly connected to any dates. The worst thing has obviously been the pandemic. Several of my friends have lost loved ones, and a few have had to deal with it themselves—as time goes by, more and more Americans will have to face the truth that Covid-19 really is dangerous and we really do need to be socially distancing and wearing masks. Oddly enough, pretty much the exact same people who’ve been denying how horrible Covid-19 is are also denying the clear and obvious results of the national election, and in both cases, this denial has been extremely unlucky for our entire nation. But that has nothing to do with Friday the Thirteenth.  

The unpredictable nature of the world explains why people seek out supernatural explanations for bad things happening. Friday the 13th isn’t related to birds, but some of the most peculiar ways people told fortunes and predicted the future quite specifically involved birds.  

All the way back in the fourteenth-century BC, according to diplomatic correspondence preserved in Egypt, the king of Alasia in Cyprus needed an 'eagle diviner' to be sent from Egypt.   

Augury was the ancient Roman religious practice of interpreting omens by watching birds and their activities. The augur—the person who interpreted these signs—was said to be "taking the auspices” – meaning, literally, "looking at birds." Depending upon the birds, the predictions from the gods could be auspicious (favorable) or inauspicious (unfavorable). Owls and other large species were the birds typically used, probably mainly for ease of observation, but many cultures have used little birds flying into a house or doing other very obvious things as signs of good or bad.   

One of the most famous auspices concerns the founding of Rome. As Plutarch tells the story, the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, argued over where the exact position of the city should be. Romulus was set on building the city upon Palatine Hill, one of the seven hills of Rome, but Remus wanted to build the city on what seemed to him to be the more strategically located and easily fortified Aventine Hill. The two agreed to leave the argument up to the will of the gods, which they’d know via augury. Each took a seat on the ground apart from the other and looked to the skies in what could be considered the first Big Day competition. Remus claimed to see six vultures, while Romulus saw twelve, so Romulus won out and Palatine Hill formed the nucleus of the Roman Empire. Whether more vultures flying over the Palatine was a true indication of it being the best center of an empire is debatable, but it almost certainly did indicate it would have been a good site for hawk-watching—the ancient world’s version of our own Hawk Ridge or Cape May.  

Plutarch’s account trusts that the two men accurately identified those vultures without binoculars or a scope and that both were completely truthful about how many they saw. Sometimes politically motivated augurs would fabricate unfavorable auspices in order to delay state functions such as elections. Apparently some people have been giving their country the bird long before now.  

Laura at Hawk Ridge in early 90s
It may not be auspicious, but it IS a lucky day when you count lots of hawks.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

The Simple Pleasures of November

Pileated Woodpecker

With our first winter snowfall—the one that took place in November as opposed to the one in October—my feeders have been pretty busy, though not nearly as busy as they were just a few weeks ago. The morning after the snowstorm, a male cardinal showed up, along with both a male and a female Pileated Woodpecker. A female Red-bellied Woodpecker has been coming every day lately, and I’m figuring she will be spending the winter—she keeps flying off with sunflower seeds to wedge into the bark of nearby trees.  

Great Horned Owl

In the evening on November 11, my son-in-law said he was hearing an owl through the window, and sure enough, two Great Horned Owls were hooting right in the yard. They didn't stick around long, but that was a splendid birthday gift!  

Fox Sparrow

This fall I’ve had more Fox Sparrows than I can ever remember having in autumn before, but their numbers ebbed away, and now I haven’t seen one in several days. I had one exceptionally late Lincoln’s Sparrow the first two days of November. Since the snowstorm, a couple of White-throated Sparrows are still here, along with a couple dozen juncos.   

Red-breasted Nuthatch

I still have several Red-breasted Nuthatches—they're appearing in a lot of places south of here this year, delighting a lot of my friends on Facebook. Here in Duluth, we have at least a few most winters, but even though they're among my "usual suspects," they're always delightful to see. All this year, chickadees have been more plentiful than they've been in several years, which I of course find delightful. Even so, where I was getting 18 or 20 species a day in my yard the last half of October, now I’m lucky on days when I have a dozen.  

Snow Bunting

I’ve been hearing from lots of people seeing Snow Buntings, especially along the highways hugging Lake Superior’s North and South Shores. I’ve only seen them on Peabody Street a handful of times over the years, always after the plows came following a heavy snow, and none this year, at least so far.  

Pine Siskin

People all over the place have been seeing winter finches, and I’m trying not to feel envious. After having hundreds of Pine Siskins a day through much of October, I’d gone several days without a single one, though after the snow, I did have an even dozen again. Facebook has been popping with photos of redpolls, but small numbers have shown up in my yard only a few times. Pine Grosbeaks, one of the loveliest of winter finches, have been seen here and there, except on Peabody Street. 

Evening Grosbeak

And saddest for me, despite the huge influx of Evening Grosbeaks I’ve read about all around here, not one has appeared yet in my yard. Back in August 2011, a flock of 16 turned up in my yard and remained for weeks, pigging out at my feeders and in my box elders and visiting my bird bath. From morning till night I could listen to them, just as I could back in the 1980s when we first moved here, and I could watch the young birds begging from and getting fed by adults. 

Evening Grosbeak family group

It seemed so promising after the species had declined so dramatically in the 90s, but that was the last time I’ve had more than a single Evening Grosbeak in my yard, and the last time I’ve had even one Evening Grosbeak for more than a few minutes or more than a single time in a whole year. This is one of my favorite birds because of all the wonderful associations I have of it when I was a brand new birder visiting Russ’s parents up here, and then from when we first moved here—the Evening Grosbeak was the first bird I heard in my yard and the first species to come to my bird feeder when we moved here in the summer of 1981, and it was a almost constant presence when my children were babies and toddlers. Periodically, Russ and I would rent a video camera back then to record our children doing adorable things, and whenever we were recording them in the back yard, grosbeaks could be heard in the background. So I’m very much yearning for them to appear once again on Peabody Street.  

Blue Jay

My family of three Blue Jays is still sticking around. I bought a special peanut feeder from my local Wild Birds Unlimited—a donut-shaped feeder made of wire. The adults figured it out instantly and come a few times every day to carry off peanut after peanut. They’ve been squirreling them away here and there, including in our electric meter box—evidence, as it is for my female Red-bellied Woodpecker, that they’ll be sticking it out for the winter. And even though it’s mid-November now, the young is still begging from the adults and following them about rather than pulling its own peanuts out of the feeder. This seems phenomenal. I wonder if it’ll stick around through spring and then help them rear next year’s young, as Florida Scrub-Jays do, or if this is a simple case of Failure to Launch.  

Blue Jay

Identifying and counting birds barely scratches the surface. I may not have as much variety or as many individual birds right now as I had in September and October, but there’s still plenty of fascinating activity to see as long as I pay attention.  

Blue Jay hiding out from the snowstorm