Laura Erickson's For the Birds

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