Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

A Milestone

Our Birth Announcement Drawing: Baby and Wood Stork

Today I turn 69 years old. One millennial in my life gave me a funny smile when I mentioned my age; he clearly thought I was too old to understand the sophomorically amusing significance. But hey—I was in the high school class of ’69! Way back then, we kids thought WE were the original discoverers of the hilarity of that particular number. How could our parents have possibly known such a thing?! Every generation seems to think they discovered sex, as if they themselves had been delivered by stork or FedEx.

Sixty nine is an exceptionally cool age for me to be for several reasons. The number is the product of prime numbers, 3 x 23, making it a “semi-prime” number. When you look at the square of 69 (4,761) and the cube of 69 (328,509), those two numbers together include every digit from 0–9 exactly once. And I’ve always loved numbers that look the same whether they’re right-side up or upside down. My palindromic birthday, 11/11, also looks the same when it’s upside down, at least in sans serif fonts. So numerically, this is a splendid day for me.  

Common Gallinule

The 69th bird on my lifelist is the Common Gallinule. I was thrilled to see this handsome little swimmer with the brilliant red frontal plate when I took my first college ornithology class in 1975—who could ever have dreamed that such a bird existed? Common Gallinule was its name then and is its name today, but my copy of the Audubon Water Bird Guide from 1951 called it simply the Gallinule (Moorhen), and my original Peterson field guide called it the Florida Gallinule. 

In 1983, it was lumped with Europe’s Moorhen and called the Common Moorhen—that was hard for a lot of American birders to adjust to, but I'd already read the word "moorhen" in that parenthetical entry in the Audubon Water Bird Guide. Then, almost three decades later, in 2011, taxonomists decided it really was a separate species and once again started calling it the Common Gallinule. By any name, the gallinule is a bird I see most predictably when I visit my son in Florida, so thinking about it on my birthday gives me warm feelings of family.  

Joey, Tommy, and Katie modeling their "I'm for the Birds" t-shirts in 1988.
My kids wearing the t-shirts KUMD gave out as premiums for a 1988 pledge drive.

Today also marks an important milestone in my life. My first For the Birds program aired on May 12, 1986, when I'd just turned 34 ½.  Now I’m exactly twice that age, meaning I’ve been producing For the Birds for exactly half my life.  

Laura producing For the Birds at KUMD in the 80s.

When the program had been on the air for four or five years, I got a phone call at home one night from a young male birder whose name I have mercifully forgotten, who told me I’d done a pretty good job but it was time for me to let a real birder—that is, him—take over. He said it wasn’t fair that I had a monopoly when he could do a much better job.  

I don't know if it was because I've never been very self-confident or because I'm a woman, but he succeeded in making me feel guilty. I honestly started thinking as he was talking that maybe it wasn’t fair that I was the one birder in Duluth doing a radio show about birds, even if I was the one birder in Duluth who came up with the idea in the first place and then stuck with it. Maybe this guy really did deserve a chance. I told him what was involved in producing it: I put in a minimum of 25 and usually more like 40 hours a week researching and writing scripts, recording and mixing the programs at KUMD, and making copies of the recordings to send to the other stations that carried it. He said he didn’t need to waste time researching—he was much better informed than I—and as far as writing scripts, ad-libbing would work just as well for a competent birder. And couldn't a KUMD intern make those copies?

But then he suddenly asked how I got paid—hourly or per program. When I said I didn't get paid at all—that I did For the Birds entirely as an unpaid volunteer—he said, “You’re kidding, right?” When I made it clear that I was not kidding, he ended the conversation with a “WHOA!” and a click. I never heard from him again. 

Looking back, I don't understand why I felt so guilty, like maybe I really should have let an overbearing, presumptuous man take over a program I'd created entirely on my own, from original concept to finished product. Talking about birds on the radio seemed worth doing just to introduce northwoods people to birds they might not normally run into, like the Common Gallinule, and to enrich their understanding of everyday birds, like chickadees and Blue Jays. 

A poor digiscoped photo of the only Common Gallinule I've seen in Duluth from 2007.

I still can't wrap my head around the idea that getting paid is the only reason to do something or that money is the primary measure of a thing's value. Kurt Vonnegut famously wrote to a high school class in 2006:

Practice any art—music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.

Seriously! I mean starting right now, do art and do it for the rest of your lives. 

I can’t say I was following Vonnegut's advice in 1986, a full two decades before he even wrote that letter, but somehow, that's pretty much what I ended up doing. And not even the most overbearing, presumptuous man can ever take that away from me. 

Black-capped Chickadee