Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Sunday, January 31, 2021

What were you doing when you were seven?

House Sparrow

A few weeks ago, Bob Hinkle, my treasured mentor from my college days, whose class got me so interested in nature that my husband told his mom to buy me binoculars and a field guide for Christmas, wrote a lovely essay, which was inspired in turn by a lecture Bob had recently attended. Bob wrote: 

Our host offered one question, and one question only. “The essence of the future of wild lands and wild birds and animals… comes down to one fundamental question. What were you doing when you were seven?”

Each person in that room no doubt flashed back to somewhere in their childhood and remembered what being seven was like. Few pondered school, or playgrounds, or dinners, or electronic toys or other material things. It was not shopping, or television, or theatres, or cities they remembered, it was a fundamental connection with the outdoors. We remembered parents and friends, and open fields and vacant lots covered with tall weeds and wildflowers. At seven there were an endless array of trees to climb, and hills to run and roll down, and dirt to dig in. Rainstorms meant puddles to splash in, and snowfall was for digging in and rolling up and eating, too. The wind felt fine against us, and we loved the feel of raindrops splashing on our tender fresh faces, and the water running down our cheeks and chins, and licking it off. 

There were secret places in the outdoors, places where the grass was tall or the grapevines were thick, and there were soft earthen paths which lead us there. They were places outdoors where grown-ups never went, and those places were ours. No one worried that we were there. The outdoors was our friend. There were strange and mysterious bugs and butterflies, and creepy things under leaves and rocks. Every now and then someone would find a salamander or thousand-legged bug, and we’d take it home, for better or worse, to watch. Sometimes we’d find a rabbit and chase after it, and we learned that rabbits always run in a long circle, and that it would always come back to us after a time. Squirrels would always scamper to the far side of the tree when they saw us, but if we all stood still, and one of us went to the other side, the squirrel would creep around to our side so we could see it. There were birds in the trees we barely knew, bright orange and black and red ones and yellow too. If we asked, adults gave them certain names, but we recognized the birds when we saw them, and thrilled at their songs and flight, and made up names of our own. We got scolded if we came home with grass stains on our clothes, but no one was too fancy then, and all the kids had grass-stained jeans and shirtsleeves. It was what being a kid was all about.

Bob continued: 

The point of our speaker’s challenge was this – what are the kids who are seven years old today doing? Is the mall the only form of walking they know, and is recreational shopping the most exciting thing they do? If all they know is the newest toy or music group or fashion thing, what do they really know? Where is the imagination, the learning, the mystery, the challenge, the fun that they will remember in 40 years? If all they know is fear of nature, fear of bugs and squirrels and birds and weather and the night, what will our environment become?

We develop a relationship with nature only by being in it for an extended time, not just for an hour this month and a week in the summer. Nature envelops you, a little at a time, by extended contact. You cannot experience it, really experience it, in tiny dribs and drabs here and there. Take a child outdoors. Give them a chance at a new and different future, so that when someone asks them, long after you’re gone, “What were you doing when you were seven?” they’ll remember, and smile. And there will still be a nature for their children to play in.

Laura at Grandpa's, 1955 

Bob’s essay got me reminiscing about when I was about seven, when my family was living in Northlake, a working-class, industrial suburb of Chicago. We had an arbor vitae hedge in front of the house. The needles were cruelly sharp, but by the time I was five, I'd learned how to carefully negotiate my way between the house and the first part of the hedge, and then could crouch down and hide from the entire world. Everyone else in my family was scared of the prickly branches—my dad wouldn’t even mow the lawn near it—so I was the only one brave enough to spend time close to it.  

House Sparrow

Well, I was the only brave one in my human family. House Sparrows hid in the hedge, too (except when I was too close). I loved sitting on the front stoop watching them fly in. The bushes seemed to magically swallow them up, which I knew was impossible, but the sparrows were too quick for me to see just how they entered the shrub and disappeared. Unlike me, they didn't care if people knew they were hiding there—they'd be cheeping away, telling one another about their adventures loud enough for anyone to hear. I didn't understand a word they were saying, but how I loved to eavesdrop and imagine being part of their friendly little conversation.

Garter Snake

Sometimes little garter snakes crawled on the cool ground beneath the hedge. Their winding movements and active little forked tongues, tasting every millimeter of air before slithering into it, captivated me. I read somewhere that their eyelids were transparent and sealed shut; it seemed tragic to me that they didn't have real eyelids—ones like mine—so could never close their eyes to sleep or to shut out scary sights. But I supposed they must be used to it.

I didn’t like holding snakes—they were cool and rather hard and unyielding to the touch, and their unblinking stares unnerved me a bit. My white mice made much better pets. But even a year or two before I'd heard of St. Francis of Assisi, and long before I knew of Mr. Rogers, I knew these little snakes were my neighbors, deserving as much respect as my beloved backyard squirrels or pet mice.  

We had a big old apple tree I loved to climb. I'd sit very still in the branches hoping a bird—any bird—would fly up and perch next to me as I watched caterpillars chewing on leaves and moving about in their deliberate way, undulating up and down instead of side-to-side as snakes did. I loved when one reach a fork in its path. It would lift up its front half and turn side to side so its shiny red space helmet head could look both ways before making the choice to turn left or right. What factors did it take into consideration? I wished I could get inside its head to understand what it could see and smell and how it made decisions like that. As an adult I learned that these were white-marked tussock moth caterpillars, and that the hairs on them can cause bad rashes on people's skin. I had let hundreds of them crawl on my fingers and hands over the years, but I had never once touched their backs or sides—I was scared of hurting them, and it seemed rude to touch them without permission anyway—so that was a lesson I did not learn the hard way.

Photo from Wikipedia by Jacy Lucier

Addison Creek meandered through town. We moved to Northlake in 1956, at the height of the polio epidemic when no one knew how it was transmitted, so our parents were terrified of the smelly, murky creek water. Nevertheless, my big brother went fishing in it a lot. When he headed out, my mother would warn him not to fall in, reminding him that he could catch polio, but as petrified as she was of the dread disease, it would never have occurred to her, or most of the other parents I knew, to keep him away from the creek. He only caught bullheads, and usually let them go because no way would my mother cook them. 

By the time I was five, I was tagging along with Jimmy. I loved fishing—at least, the long, essential part of it, sitting on the creek bank thinking deep thoughts while watching his red and white bobber floating and bobbing with the ripples of the water. I could sit, quiet and still, for hours when Jimmy was fishing next to me.  

But I hated the part at the start when the poor worm got put on the hook and the part, which didn’t happen very often, when a fish got caught on the hook. When Jimmy got a real rod and reel, he set up his old cane pole just for me, with 8 or 10 feet of fishing line tied to the pole and nothing but a bobber at the other end. Fishing with that was perfect. 

My town had sprouted up as a bedroom community for the factory workers at Automatic Electric, a huge plant that manufactured telephones and telephone switching equipment worldwide. The plant was built on a large piece of land which included a stretch of Addison Creek. They maintained the grounds as mown lawn except a very tiny bit of the creek’s shoreline, but to a little urban girl, it looked like wilderness. I couldn't go there by myself until I was older, because that involved crossing Wolf Road, a busy street without a traffic light at the intersection with my street yet. 

The parts of Addison Creek that ran through residential neighborhoods were a bit wilder if just as polluted. Where the creek paralleled a street, the houses were on the far side, leaving what seemed like primeval forest on the side with the creek. A path ran between the street and the creek along my favorite stretch. There were lots of tree roots making the rutted path challenging for bike-riding, but that made it even more exciting for some kids. I liked walking along the path, stepping off it when I heard bikes approach, pretending I was Laura, Wilderness Scout.  

I first read the Felix Salten book, Bambi, in second or third grade, and loved the concept of the “thicket” where the little fawn was born. There were several of what I thought of as thickets along the creek. Looking back, I think they must have been some kind of grapevines draping down from larger shade trees. I loved the sense of privacy and aloneness that I felt in the one I thought of as my personal thicket. When leaves were thick in summer, I could sit down and read in there for hours and no one noticed me, even bikers passing by on the path less than two feet away.  

My parents occasionally met up with aunts and uncles in one of the Chicago Forest Preserve picnic areas. When I didn’t have to hold one of my baby cousins, I would go off by myself on a trail into the woods. This felt even more like true wilderness.  

Never once in my childhood was I away from traffic sounds or airplanes and jets taking off from nearby O'Hare Airport. I thought that kind of background noise was universal. 

I didn’t know any adults who were birders or even nature aficionados, and knew of just two grown up jobs that involved nature. One was forest ranger, but my understanding when I was seven was that you had to be a man to be one. The other job was nun. I went to a Catholic school, and the convent, across the street from the school, was on a large, beautiful lot landscaped with flowers and trees. Most of the time when I walked past, I’d see a nun, deep in prayer or contemplation, walking in a lovely grove of trees or sitting in the shade near a statue of St. Francis of Assisi. That looked like the perfect job for me.  

Looking back as an adult on that child, I understand how my commitment to nature was built on a solid foundation from an early age. My home was an abusive one where I never felt safe, but any time I retreated to my apple tree, the arbor vitae hedge, or my thicket, I felt safe. Nature, for me, was where you went to escape from humans to spend time with wild creatures, be they House Sparrows, squirrels, snakes, insects, or earthworms. Paying attention to those friendly little creatures gave me a visceral urge to protect them. 

Most of the ornithologists, naturalists, and birders I know had childhoods more like Bob Hinkle’s, with at least some genuine wildness in their lives—most were exposed to field guides, adults who could answer some of their questions, and places to go where you could actually see a salamander and where the sounds of traffic and sirens and airplanes and jets didn't constantly fill the air. But what I had as a child was enough, and enough is as good as a feast. 

It wasn't until I was in high school that I ever camped outdoors, thanks to some science field trips to the Porcupine Mountains in Michigan, Pere Marquette State Park in southern Illinois, and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. None of the teachers along on those trips knew anything about birds. When I took college biology, we spent half the term looking at microscopic creatures and memorizing Latin names, and spent barely a week on mammals and birds at the very end of the term, never learning the proper English or Latin names for backyard squirrels, sparrows or even those tussock moth caterpillars. 

Sometimes I wonder about all the cool birds I might have seen had I known how to look, and I've occasionally found myself grieving for the long years before my eyes were really open to birds. But then I remember the intense joy I felt in Bob Hinkle's classes, and then in ornithology classes, and on my solitary birding adventures once I learned how to know the birds. Those kids in my classes who already knew all the common critters took them for granted in a way I still cannot. Thanks to those long hours outdoors when I was seven, I already knew how to love tiny critters. When the floodgates finally opened and I was introduced to many more animals, big and small, my heart and soul swelled to encompass each and every one.

My personal friendly Blue Jay

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Figuring Out the Big World

Katie and Gepetto

Back in June 1998, I was brought a newly fledged Pileated Woodpecker. The little guy—well, the big little guy, because he was already full sized—was at that wonderful stage babies go through of trying to figure out the world and how things work. I only had Gepetto about a week before I was scheduled to teach a 2-week Elderhostel class on Burntside Lake near Ely. I brought him along and hoped that during those two weeks he could adapt to living in the wild. Watching him explore, I wrote:

[Gepetto] was like a toddler in a highchair, dropping insects and flakes of bark to the ground and watching them fall. And like a toddler, he tasted everything, probing under the edges of bark with his long slurpy tongue.

Pileated Woodpecker tongue!
Not Gepetto, but this is the only photo I have of a Pileated Woodpecker's tongue. 

He learned to eat the insects that adhered to his tongue before he learned to eat insects he could actually see. For a few days he would pick up spiders and insects in his beak and then drop them, apparently for the fun of it or simply to see what happened, but in mid-week he suddenly discovered that bugs walking about in the open are the exact same insects that taste so good when his tongue pulls them from inside crevices. It was fun watching the lightbulb go on in his little bird brain whenever he made a discovery like this.

There was a Pileated Woodpecker pair nesting in the same area where I was releasing Gepetto. When Gepetto first heard their voices, he called right back, but they attacked him mercilessly as an invader on their territory. So Gepetto’s first lesson was to stay very, very quiet when they were about. 

I’m appreciating these memories all the more right now, as I watch my 5-month-old baby grandson figure things out. He’s not at the dropping things and watching them fall stage yet—when he drops anything, it seems to have disappeared, and he instantly starts looking at something else. Baby birds learn some lessons much more quickly than baby humans.

One thing I’ve been fascinated with is Walter’s reaction to mirrors.  He has a mirror on the little pad where he practices tummy time. When he smiles, the baby in the mirror smiles right back at him, and when Walter is sad or mixed up, the baby in the mirror looks pretty sad or mixed up, too. Sometimes Walter can see me in the mirror, but when he turns to see me in real life, he seems to think there are two different Grandmas involved. 

When I was rehabbing and raised baby Blue Jays, several times I brought one to the bathroom mirror to see how it would react. Invariably, the little jay raised its crest and tapped on the mirror with its beak, but then it looked at me in the mirror, looked at me in real life, and seemed to figure it out. Usually by the second and always by the third time at the mirror, Blue Jays seemed to realize it was nothing more than their own reflection. 

Robins and cardinals never seem to be able to figure out reflections—an individual may dash itself into a window over and over for days or weeks without figuring out that there really isn’t a real live bird there. 

Northern Cardinal attacking his reflection

But there is solid proof that at least one corvid does. In a wonderful experiment, researchers marked a dot on the black lower throat area of some lone magpies, precisely where the birds could not see it. When they placed a mirror in front of the magpies and they saw the reflection, they started scratching away on the mark where they saw it from their reflection. 

Walter will catch up with basic corvid responses to mirrors soon. 

It’s fun belonging to one of the more intelligent species on the planet, being able to compare how we develop our abilities with how other intelligent species do. 

Friday, January 22, 2021

Of Supernovae and Full Moons

Pileated Woodpecker

I fell in love with the American Birding Association’s Bird of the Year, the Pileated Woodpecker, on Christmas 1974, when I saw Roger Tory Peterson’s field guide drawing in my in-laws Christmas present. Well, yeah—it was just a portrait, like the one Dana Andrews fell in love with in the 1944 movie Laura, but what can I say? The woodpecker seemed astonishingly splendid, and though I knew it wasn’t dead as Dana Andrews’s character thought Laura Hunt was, I really couldn’t imagine ever being lucky enough to see one in real life. 

I went all of 1975 and through five months of 1976 without seeing one, and then on the magical evening of June 5, 1976, one flew past me close enough that I could feel the wind from its beating wings in my face, and it alighted on a tree close enough that Russ got an identifiable photo of it with his macro lens. 

Laura's LIFER Pileated Woodpecker
You have to look carefully at the very bottom of the birch snag just above to the right of the bridge handrail.

Pileateds were few and far between for me in my first years of birding, though as time has gone by and I’ve done more traveling, I have managed to see them in two provinces (British Columbia and Ontario) and 10 states (California, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, and South Carolina) in addition to, of course, Minnesota and Wisconsin. 

It took years to add the species to my yard list here in Duluth, but in the past two decades, they’ve become very regular indeed, and I’ve gotten lots of photos. 

Pileated Woodpecker
First photo ever in my own backyard, at my window feeder!

Pileated Woodpecker

But even as they’ve grown almost commonplace in many places in recent years, there’s something breathtakingly astonishing about them nonetheless. Even my non-birding daughter and son-in-law have both not only noticed them out the window but taken iPhone photos in the past few months. How could they not? 

It’s exactly as ABA President Jeff Gordon wrote about them in the January issue of Birding: “Pileated Woodpeckers have gone from seeming like supernovae to something more like the full moon: impressive and enchanting, and mysterious, yes, but neither rare nor unpredictable.” 

"Astonishing" is an excellent description of Pileateds, fitting even mundane facts about how tenaciously they cling to trees. Early American ornithologists noted that when shot while on a tree trunk, they didn’t fall for a long time, until their muscles relaxed. 

My own experiences with wild Pileateds have been a little less firearm intensive. In 1988, I wrote about spending time watching Pileated Woodpeckers on Burntside Lake at the edge of the Boundary Waters. I wrote: 

The most satisfying times I had were when I sat down to watch for 30 minute stretches. I saw one father Pileated feeding his daughter and teaching her how to dig for her own insects in the tree bark. I could tell he was the father because he had a red mustache and his red crest began where his beak ended. Her mustache and forehead were black–the red feathers of her crest started further back on her head.  

Then I watched an adult female–presumably the mother–take a half-hour break one hot afternoon. She made the pileated yell as she landed in a dead spruce, presumably to tell her family where she was. Then whenever one of the others called, she turned her head to get a fix on the direction but kept quiet herself. She preened her right wing, picked for a few bugs, and moseyed along the tree trunk, occasionally peeking at me. She may well have been furtively studying me, taking notes on the everyday lives of adult female humans, and how they laze around on the edge of a dusty road and don’t do much of anything on a hot afternoon. 

At that point, my experiences with Pileated Woodpeckers were still rare enough to feel like I was experiencing supernovae, as Jeff Gordon so beautifully put it. Now seeing them may be more regular and almost commonplace, like that full moon, but their magnetic pull draws my beating heart ever toward them as the full moon draws the ocean's tides.

Tom and Gepetto

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

The Dinosaur Connection, or Why Ask Why?

Joey and Katie Stegosaurus

I’ve been thinking a lot about dinosaurs in the past few weeks. Partly this is because my baby grandson Walter has several onesies decorated with dinosaurs. One adorable newborn-sized onesie even has a camouflage dinosaur design. 

I don’t know if the designer wanted to suggest that babies need camo to hide out from dinosaurs or with them, but it was fun speculating. Walter outgrew that a couple of months ago, but at every size range he’s had at least one or two dinosaur outfits. I suspect that like my own children, Walter is going to be learning dinosaur names even as he’s first starting to recognize squirrels, Blue Jays, and other wild-alive creatures in our backyard. 

What struck me in the past two weeks has been realizing how easily we humans make comparisons of living creatures to pterosaurs and dinosaurs, as if we'd actually seen those extinct animals in real life. The American Birding Association named the Pileated Woodpecker their Bird of the Year, and the January issue of Birding is chockful of articles about Pileateds. In Peter Pyle’s piece discussing Pileated Woodpecker plumages, he didn’t make any fanciful dinosaur comparisons, just an interesting scientific observation regarding the sequence of wing-feather molting in Pileateds and other woodpeckers: 

These sequences are widespread and consistent, indicating that they are ancestral in birds. Indeed, it has recently been shown that the paravian dinosaur Microraptor, a precursor to birds, replaced its feather-like scales in a similar sequence.

ABA President Jeff Gordon titles his introduction to the subject “A Punk Rock Pterodactyl in the Suburbs.” It was hardly a new comparison—way back in 1988, I wrote about Pileateds, “there is something so magical in their wild calls and pterodactyl-like bearing,” and I was far from the first to liken them to creatures that have been extinct for 65 million years. 

I was already thinking about this weird pterodactyl description for a currently living bird when I read Asher Elbein’s article about Great-tailed Grackles in Audubon. He wrote that they were “longer and lankier than your average songbird, with a swift-stepping, dinosaurian stride and distinctly penetrating stare.” 

Again, I am all astonishment. People have been seeing real-life, day-to-day birds of all kinds throughout human history, and no human being ever has seen a living dinosaur. All we know about them comes from fossils, mostly bone fragments! So why is it that when we want a vivid description of Pileated Woodpeckers in flight or grackles strutting about, we expect our readers to universally know exactly how pterosaurs and dinosaurs looked and moved? 

Favorite dinosaurs

It seems incredible that we so readily believe we can visualize something no one has ever seen. I can't blame the blockbuster movie Jurassic Park for my own fancy—it didn’t come out until 5 years after I'd compared Pileated Woodpeckers with pterodactyls. I didn't go through a dinosaur stage as my own children did, but in reading dinosaur books to them starting in the early 80s, I got as fascinated as they did. We may find dinosaurs more universally familiar than the birds we spend our day-to-day lives with because so many children grew up with the idea of dinosaurs planted firmly in their brains by books, museum exhibits, and movies. 

When my youngest son was a preschooler, I’d take him along when I was invited to present a program during the school day at a garden club or senior center. Tommy was very shy but resourceful: while I spoke, he’d sit quietly at a table somewhere near me with crayons and paper, entertaining himself during the entire talk. One afternoon after my talk at a senior residence, as he continued coloring away, I took a few questions. One man asked if any birds have teeth. I explained about the egg tooth—a small, raspy projection near the tip of the bill that birds still in the egg have to help them work their way out. It’s still visible on newly hatched birds for a day or two until it's resorbed by the tissue of the growing beak. Other than that, though, no birds have teeth.  

The moment I said that, the microphone was yanked out of my hands. My tiny son, standing beneath me, held it up to his own mouth and said, “Archaeopteryx had toofies.” I took the mic from him and explained that Archaeopteryx was a prehistoric bird, considered a transitional creature between dinosaurs and birds. And again, the microphone was yanked from my hands and Tommy announced, “Tyrannosaurus rex had BIG toofies!” 

Tommy in the Everglades

At a point when we were still using baby words for many everyday things, such as toofies for teeth, Tommy had fully mastered the complicated scientific names for a lot of dinosaurs. 

My children were also very interested in birds—my daughter’s second word was "boojay" and all three liked seeing the various birds at our window feeders and the birds I rehabbed. 

Tommy and baby robin

But birds didn’t consume their imaginations in the same way that dinosaurs did. 

Birds evolved so directly from dinosaurs that logically, birds really are living theropod dinosaurs, but small children, writers describing Pileated Woodpeckers and Great-tailed Grackles, and baby-clothes designers apparently find the extinct species of their imaginations more vivid than the feather-clad, here-and-now survivors. It's a mystery, but why ask why?  

Will Walter learn about Blue Jays before he learns about dinosaurs?

Sunday, January 17, 2021

A Lost Little Bird on a Great Big Lake

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book, The Long Winter, is set in southeastern Dakota Territory in what is now De Smet, South Dakota, during the severe winter of 1880-1881. In the chapter “After the Storm,” Pa Ingalls walked into their cabin after a terrible October blizzard that lasted days.

“I got something to show you,” Pa said. He took his hand carefully out of his pocket. “Look here, girls, look at what I found hidden in a haystack.”

Slowly he opened his hand. In the hollow of his mitten sat a little bird. He put it gently in Mary’s hands.

“Why, it’s standing straight up!” Mary exclaimed, touching it lightly with her finger-tips. 

They had never seen a bird like it. It was small, but it looked exactly like the picture of the great auk in Pa’s big green book, “The Wonders of the Animal World.” 

It had the same white breast and black back and wings, the same short legs placed far back, and the same large, webbed feet. It stood straight up on its short legs, like a tiny man with black coat and trousers and white shirt front, and its little black wings were like arms. 

“What is it, Pa? Oh, what is it?” Carried cried in delight and she held Grace’s eager hands. “Mustn’t touch, Grace.”

“I never saw anything like it,” said Pa. “It must have tired out in the storm winds and dropped down and struck against the haystack. It had crawled into the hay for shelter.”

“It’s a great auk,” Laura declared. “Only it’s a little one.”

“It’s full-grown, it isn’t a nestling,” said Ma. “Look at its feathers.”

“Yes, it’s full-grown, whatever it is,” Pa agreed.

The little bird stood up straight on Mary’s soft palm and looked at them all with its bright black eyes. 

“It’s never seen a human before,” said Pa. 

“How do you know, Pa?” Mary asked. 

“Because it isn’t afraid of us,” Pa said. 

“Oh, can we keep it, Pa? Can’t we, Ma?” Carrie begged.

“Well, that depends,” Pa said. 

Mary’s finger-tips touched the little bird all over, while Laura told her how white its smooth breast was and how very black its back and tail and little wings. Then they let Grace carefully touch it. The little auk sat still and looked at them. 

They set it on the floor and it walked a little way. Then it pushed its webbed feet tiptoe against the boards and flapped its wings. 

“It can’t get going,” said Pa. “It’s a water-bird. It must start from the water where it can use those webbed feet to get up speed.”

Finally they put it in a box in the corner. It stood there looking up at them, with its round, bright black eyes and they wondered what it ate. 

That chapter ends with the family looking at jackrabbits feeding hungrily on their hay and Pa deciding not to shoot them for rabbit stew, but to let them be. They'd all come through that storm together.

In the next chapter, “Indian Summer,” we learn more:

The little auk would not eat. It did not utter a sound, but Carrie and Laura thought that it looked up at them desperately. It would die without food, but it did not seem to know how to eat anything that they offered it. 

At dinnertime Pa said that the ice was melting on Silver Lake; he thought that the strange little bird could take care of itself on the open water. So after dinner Laura and Mary put on their coats and hoods and they went with Pa to set the little auk free. 

Silver Lake was ruffling pale blue and silver under the warm, pale sky. Ice was round its edges and flat gray cakes of ice floated on the ripples. Pa took the little auk from his pocket. In its smooth black coat and neat white shirt-front of tiny feathers, it stood up on his palm. It saw the land and the sky and the water, and eagerly it rose up on its toes and stretched out its little wings. 

But it could not go, it could not fly. Its wings were too small to lift it. 

“It does not belong on land,” said Pa. “It’s a water-bird.”

He squatted down by the thin white ice at the lake’s edge and reaching far out he tipped the little bird from his hand into the blue water. For the briefest instant, there it was, and then it wasn’t there. Out among the ice cakes it went streaking, a black speck. 

“It gets up speed, with his webbed feet,” said Pa, “to lift it from the…There it goes!”

Laura barely had time to see it, rising tiny in the great blue-sparkling sky. Then, in all that glittering of sunlight, it was gone. Her eyes were too dazzled to see it any more. But Pa stood looking, still seeing it going toward the South.

They never knew what became of that strange little bird that came in the dark with the storm from the far North and went southward in the sunshine. They never saw nor heard of another bird like it. They never found out what kind of bird it was. 

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s description, including the important details that the bird was tiny enough to fit in Pa’s pocket and that it had a black back and wings and white front, makes me wonder if the bird could have been a Dovekie, which ranges from the Arctic through the north Atlantic coast. South Dakota has no records of Dovekies, but Wisconsin has two records, one shot by two boys hunting along Lake Michigan in 1908, and one found dead under some Tomah power lines in 1949. That one had only a small piece of quartz in its stomach. Single Dovekie specimens have also been taken from Wabana Lake near Grand Rapids, Minnesota, in November 1962 and Lake of the Woods in November 1931. 

The other, probably more likely, possibility is that it was an Ancient Murrelet. South Dakota has one record, from November 1993, of a poor bird discovered in Ipswich, in the north-central part of the state, after a snow storm that had originated in the North Pacific. The bird died soon after it was found. Dan Tallman, who prepared the carcass for a museum specimen at the U.S. National Museum, wrote in his blog, “I have never encountered a more emaciated bird.” Wisconsin has at least five records of Ancient Murrelet, and Minnesota seven. 

Anyway, thoughts of Laura Ingalls Wilder immediately came to mind when I read a text message this morning that Steve Kolbe had found an Ancient Murrelet at Stoney Point up the shore between Duluth and Two Harbors. I instantly loaded up my car with my camera, binoculars, face mask, and coat, and the moment I could break away, I headed up to see it. The poor thing is almost certainly doomed—oceanic birds simply don’t have much chance of surviving long in fresh water, with food entirely different from what they have experience catching and eating. But such a cosmically rare bird so close to home seemed worth chasing. A tragic truth about birders is that we really do relish seeing rare birds. I try to temper that lust for the list, especially when it involves either wasting a lot of fossil fuels or looking for a bird who is clearly suffering, but hope is the thing with feathers, and this bird was still diving and popping up.

I made it to Stoney Point a little more than an hour after Steve Kolbe first reported it. A dozen cars were parked where I’d sort of expected from the text message to find it, but I didn’t see any birders and there were two or three houses on the far side, so I figured someone might be having a gathering and kept driving. Kim Eckert was at the next collection of cars and told me that Bill Penning, down on the rocky shore, had his scope on it so I scurried down. I was wearing the shoes I wear when working at my desk treadmill—I hadn’t thought to change into something more suitable—but I got through just fine. The bird was a barely visible speck in the distance through my binoculars, when I finally got a glimpse, but that was after Bill lowered his scope for me to get a pretty good look. My camera was worthless at that distance, but those cars I’d passed apparently did belong to birders, so I headed there next, where I got my photos. 

Ancient Murrelet!

Ancient Murrelet!

On my way to see it at the first spot, I told a young couple walking their dog about it, mentioning the Laura Ingalls Wilder connection, and they thought that was fascinating. I passed them again after I’d seen it, and they were thrilled for me.

Birding is of course always about birds—the ones we see and hear, and the ones we yearn to see and hear. But it’s about more than that, too. The birding community can be competitive and contentious but it’s a genuine community, and I’ve missed the camaraderie of birders during this horrible pandemic. It was lovely to chat for a minute in person with my treasured friend Greg Garmer, and I got to say hi to several more friends, all of us drawn to one little spot on a great big lake to get a brief glimpse at a lost little creature. 

This sighting gave me even more than that tick on my list and the opportunity to connect with friends. It also gave me a sense of connection with Laura Ingalls Wilder herself, the woman whose books so enriched my childhood and were so enjoyable to read aloud to my own children. So I’m feeling a great deal of gratitude today, even as I’m hoping against hope that that little bird figures out how to get enough food out of Lake Superior to fuel up for a long journey home. Godspeed, little one.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Reverend Bachman's Doomed Baby Pileated Woodpeckers

Pileated Woodpecker 

This year, the American Birding Association named the Pileated Woodpecker their Bird of the Year. I’ve been going through old For the Birds transcripts and blog posts looking back at all the things I’ve written about Pileateds over the years. In January 1997, just months before I had my own personal encounter raising a baby Pileated Woodpecker, I read what a Lutheran minister named John Bachman wrote to his friend John James Audubon, who published it in his Birds of America

Bachman took an entire six-egg clutch from a Pileated Woodpecker nest to see if the birds would start a new clutch. When they renested, this time producing five eggs, he waited until the young were occasionally peeping out of the hole. He wrote

I carried them home, to judge of their habits in confinement, and attempted to raise them. 

I found it exceedingly difficult to entice them to open their bill in order to feed them. They were sullen and cross, nay, three died in a few days; but the others, having been fed on grasshoppers forcibly introduced into their mouths, were raised. In a short time they began picking up the grasshoppers thrown into their cage, and were fully fed with cornmeal, which they preferred eating dry. 

Their whole employment consisted in attempting to escape from their prison, regularly demolishing one every two days, although made of pine boards of tolerable thickness. I at last had one constructed with oak boards at the back and sides, and rails of the same in front. This was too much for them, and their only comfort was in passing and holding their bills through the hard bars. 

In the morning after receiving water, which they drank freely, they invariably upset the cup or saucer, and although this was large and flattish, they regularly turned it quite over. After this they attacked the trough which contained their food, and soon broke it to pieces, and when perchance I happened to approach them with my hand, they made passes at it with their powerful bills with great force. 

I kept them in this manner until winter. They were at all times uncleanly and unsociable birds. On opening the door of my study one morning, one of them dashed off by me, alighted on an apple-tree near the house, climbed some distance, and kept watching me from one side and then the other, as if to ask what my intentions were. I walked into my study—the other was hammering at my books. 

They had broken one of the bars of the cage, and must have been at liberty for some hours, judging by the mischief they had done. Tired of my pets, I opened the door, and this last one hearing the voice of his brother, flew towards him and alighted on the same tree. They remained about half an hour, as if consulting each other, after which, taking to their wings together, they flew off in a southern direction, and with much more ease than could have been expected from birds so long kept in captivity. The ground was covered with snow, and I never more saw them. No birds of this species ever bred since in the hole spoken of in this instance.

I'm very glad that those parent Pileateds steered clear of that elm tree after that. I raised one baby Pileated Woodpecker during my years as a rehabber. Gepetto was most assuredly never once “sullen and cross,” nor did he do any damage to my house—I gave him plenty of things to play with, and he was incredibly gentle when he was sitting on my shoulder or arm, or on any of my children. 

Katie and Gepetto

I learned a lot about Pileated Woodpeckers from my experience, all of it making me love Pileated Woodpeckers even more than I already did. I stayed with Gepetto for two weeks when he was learning to be independent, so I was reasonably assured that he could find his own natural food and knew how to elude danger. 

Tom and Gepetto
Gepetto was very gentle, but his claws were pretty sharp clinging to a thin t-shirt. 

I wonder how long Bachman's two survivors lasted after they escaped. I sure hope he treated his parishioners with more kindness and understanding than he did those poor baby birds. Audubon named two species for him, Bachman's Sparrow and the extinct Bachman's Warbler. Audubon himself never saw a Bachman's Warbler—Bachman shot and gave the specimens to Audubon, who named the species in Bachman's honor in 1833. Bachman was a slave-owner who used Scripture to justify that abomination. I'd love to see the American Ornithological Society change the names of these birds to something reflecting the birds themselves, not to honor the white supremacist who shot them.

Tom and Gepetto

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Birds (and One Birder) in the News

Common Redpolls and Pine Siskins 

We’re in the midst of a major irruption of finches into southern and central states where these northern birds seldom venture in very large numbers. Up here, huge numbers of finches may visit our feeders in January and February without harming the birds—it’s usually not until March and especially April, when we have more frequent thaws, that contaminated food becomes a problem and birds start contracting salmonella, botulism, and other diseases.  

Finches have no concept whatsoever of social distancing. Many feed on the ground directly below feeders, picking up food items dropped from above. If one of those birds above is infected, food it mouthed may be eaten by one of those ground-feeders. And when seed sits on the ground for days or weeks, germs flourish, especially when temperatures rise above freezing. So people in Central and Southern states who had been reporting thrilling numbers of siskins earlier are now reporting dead and dying siskins. Raking up seeds below feeders is always important during thaws, and it’s especially critical when large numbers of birds are feeding together. When a sick bird turns up at a feeder, cleanup is already too late—at that point, closing down the feeding station entirely to keep birds from concentrating is the only choice to protect the birds.  

California Condor

In happier news from last summer that I just found out about, scientists at Swansea University in the UK attached data sensors to the wings of Andean Condors (related to the California Condor pictured above) to keep track of every single flap. They discovered that condors flap only about 1 percent of their flight time, and almost all of that during takeoffs and landings. Once aloft, a condor can travel over a hundred miles without flapping once.   

Common Raven

New research on bird brains and problem solving has been pretty exciting. Birds lack a neocortex—the area of the mammalian brain where working memory, planning, and problem solving happen. And so for centuries, human scientists, who happen to be mammals with large brains and even larger egos, dismissed the possibility that birds could possibly have excellent memories and the ability to plan and solve problems. Many of them even believed that chickadees, jays, and other birds that cache away food in fall and winter only found that food again via both hiding way more than they needed and sheer luck, though that was disproved many years ago now. But now researchers have found a previously unknown arrangement of microcircuits in the avian brain that may be analogous to the mammalian neocortex. And in a separate study, other researchers have linked this same region to conscious thought. Suddenly it’s big news to people who seemed to be working in a hall of mirrors that birds could possibly be self-aware.  

Pip and her Uncle Drew

My absolutely favorite news item today is that my friend, the writer, poet, and wildlife ecologist Drew Lanham is the 2020 recipient of the Center for Biological Diversity’s annual E.O. Wilson Award for Outstanding Science in Biodiversity Conservation. Drew is a distinguished professor and master teacher of wildlife ecology at Clemson, where he’s taught courses in woodland ecology, conservation biology, forest biodiversity, wildlife policy, and conservation ornithology and nature writing for 25 years. He’s also the poet laureate of Edgefield County, South Carolina. 

Drew was kind enough to record for me his own reading of four poems from his splendid book Sparrow Envy. That program aired in April 2016. In 2020, he wrote a lovely poem, “Life in Hand,” which will appear in the revised and expanded edition of Sparrow Envy this year. Drew and I had a conversation about that which aired on For the Birds in July. Anyway, I’m proud as proud could be to call Drew, the newest recipient of the E.O. Wilson Award my treasured friend. His receiving this well-deserved award is the best kind of news. And good news is something I need right now. 

Sunday, January 10, 2021

For Our Real Life Listening Pleasure

Walt Disney World Living Statue
Even the statues at Disney World look at the birds. 

In January 2003, my son Joe started working at Walt Disney World, and we started going to Florida every year or so. I of course had to start a Disney World bird list. I’d take photos of exotic birds in Disney’s Animal Kingdom, but on my official list, I counted only the wild birds I saw on the grounds.  

Daisy seems surprised

That winter or one soon after, while we were standing in the long queue to the Dinosaur ride, I was trying to identify a couple of warblers singing away when I suddenly realized they weren’t real warblers at all—just the sound of them coming from a couple of well-hidden speakers. I was shocked and distressed, even knowing this was Disney World, not the real world.  

Around that time, birders were complaining about the ridiculous bird songs a TV network was using as background for golf tournaments—apparently the subtle suggestion that real birds would be singing away during a tournament helped golf fans feel complacent regarding the horrifyingly heavy applications of water, fertilizer, and pesticide on golf courses. When I did a program specifically about that back then, I heard from a radio listener who was most seriously displeased with me. She told me golf was her only form of relaxation from her high-powered job, and I had no right to dampen her joy. But her joy is hardly my concern. I don’t advocate for people with high-powered jobs. I advocate for birds, pure and simple.  

Black-capped Chickadee
Aren't real life birds better than fake?

Anyway, I’ve been thinking a lot about how we humans enjoy hearing bird songs because lately I’ve been playing recordings of bird songs for my baby grandson. He’s not quite five months old, so he’s far from being verbal, but he definitely seems to enjoy hearing them. I’ve been wondering if bird songs so out of context—I recorded them right here in our backyard, but during May and June, not December or January—could end up confusing him, but decided he can figure out about bird song contexts when he’s a bit older.  

Walter chewing on his binoculars while listening to bird recordings. 

It seems intuitively obvious that people benefit from hearing bird song, and last month researchers from California Polytechnic State University published a study in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B analyzing just how much natural sounds affect people’s sense of well-being. 

The study was conducted in the City of Boulder, Colorado’s Open Space and Mountain Parks. The researchers placed 10 hidden, evenly spaced speakers on two sections of trails, and played recorded songs from 11 species of birds including American robins, house finches, and black-capped chickadees from July 15 to September 4, 2017. The speakers were placed in realistic microhabitats for each species in order to be authentic. For example, the speaker broadcasting the song of the spotted towhee was placed near the ground in shrubs where the bird is most often found. 

The researchers alternated playing the birdsong for a few hours a day for a week, and then turned off the speakers for a week at a time. They interviewed hikers after they passed through the sections with the speakers, and found that the “phantom chorus” of birds singing increased hiker’s sense of well-being, at least in those protected natural areas. 

I wish they’d also asked the hikers if they were birders, to see if there was a difference between birders and non-birders here. I know if I were hearing those sounds, I’d be searching for the actual birds, and would find it frustrating if they were nowhere to be found. And because I’d be searching, I might locate the hidden speakers, and would feel even more betrayed and upset than I did at Disney World, where I expect everything to be fake. 

The comments following one news report of the study were pretty much about what a great idea it would be to pipe in bird songs in urban and park areas of cities and suburbs. That filled me with sorrow. To me, the logical conclusion was that we need to make the urban environment healthier so more birds thrive there—not to foster complacency by providing a fake auditory sense of what is natural. I want my little grandson to be able to find as many real-life birds when he grows up as I've been able to enjoy myself.

Gray Catbird
Even Disney World has real life birds, like this Gray Catbird.

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

The 2021 American Birding Association Bird of the Year

The year 2020 was horrible on many fronts, but the bird chosen by the American Birding Association as their Bird of the Year, the Cedar Waxwing, gave the year a touch of genuine loveliness. 

I hung my Bird-of-the-Year poster where it could be easily seen when I was giving Zoom presentations. Now, with the new year, I’ll be swapping it out for the new ABA Bird of the Year as soon as I get the new poster.  

On New Year’s Eve in a Zoom presentation, Jeff Gordon, president of the American Birding Association announced the ABA Bird of the Year 2021, the "pill-e-a-ted" woodpecker. One of the ABA Board members corrected Jeff, pointing out it was the "pie-le-a-ted" woodpecker, and Jeff said people would be spending the next six months arguing on social media about how to pronounce it. Most dictionaries give both pronunciations. The first pronunciation given is the one I use, pie-le-a-ted, but both are equally correct. Use either as you wish—just don’t call it a pleated woodpecker except in fabric stores near the ruffled grouse.

Pileated Woodpecker

I’ve had both a male and a female pileated fairly regularly since late fall, so I thought it would be enormously cool to spot one as my first bird of the year. As soon as I got up on New Year’s Day, just before sunrise, I started scrutinizing my backyard hoping a Pileated would fly in, but no luck whatsoever—my first bird was in the same family but at the opposite end of the size spectrum, a Downy Woodpecker. 

Downy Woodpecker

I didn’t see a Pileated all day, or the next day. Russ and I birded in the Bog on the third, and didn’t see one there or at home, and I still missed out on the fourth and fifth. I started wondering if maybe my birds had flown to ABA Headquarters in Delaware to pick up their award firsthand. Where else could they be?

So I did the calculations. According to a 2017 paper in Nature, the Pileated Woodpecker’s flight speed is 9.55 m/s, or about 21 mph. Assuming that is an accurate average speed, and assuming it were possible for a Pileated Woodpecker to fly for an average of 10 hours a day, it could cover almost exactly 210 miles a day, making a one-way trip between Duluth and ABA Headquarters in Delaware City in a full 6 days of travel. Of course, this is winter, when days in Duluth are only 8 ¾ hours long and those of Delaware City 9 ½ hours long, and of course the birds would have to stop many times en route for food. But even if they could cover that much ground that quickly, my birds couldn’t have made it to Delaware city by New Year’s Eve, because I’d seen them on December 29. And as it turns out, they couldn’t have flown home starting on New Year’s Day at that speed, because the male finally turned up in my yard on January 6 around noon. Either my Pileated Woodpeckers hopped a jet to pick up their award or they don't take the Bird of the Year distinction too personally. My male was just at my suet feeder, but I took photos and videos anyway because it was my first sighting of the ABA Bird of the Year for 2021. 

Pileated Woodpecker

Naturally, I thought that would be the coolest bird I’d see on January 6, but an hour or so later, a murder of 40 crows in my backyard announced another contender. 

The night before, a Great Horned Owl had been hooting across the street—the pitch seemed high enough to be a female. I’ve occasionally heard a pair around here, but not in 2021, so it was new for the year. Now the crows were screaming bloody murder, and I figured I could get a peek at the Great Horned Owl. But no—when I went to the back of the yard and combed through all the branches of the spruce the crows were focused on, there it was, a Barred Owl!  

Barred Owl

In the 40 years we’ve lived here, I’ve only seen a Barred Owl from my own yard once before, back in January 1993, when one of my children’s friends came over to tell me there was one on the roof two doors down. To add it to my yard list, either the bird or I have to be on my property, and in this case the only way I could get an angle on it was to stand on my cyclone fence, leaning over at a jaunty angle as I hung onto a tree branch for dear life. This time, all I had to do was walk through my snowy backyard to the back fence and look through the spruce and there it was.  

My year list will grow extremely slowly this year, what with the pandemic, but even though I've seen only 24 species so far, I'm very pleased with each of them, and thrilled that I finally got to see the 2021 ABA Bird of the Year. 

Pileated Woodpecker