Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Our Far-Flung Correspondents: Mark Kastel's Barn Swallows

Barn Swallow fledglings Photo © 2021 by Mark Kastel

Now that what seemed like an endless spell of below-zero temperatures is over, the snow is suddenly melting and my thoughts are turning, prematurely of course, to spring. Great Horned Owls are into their nesting season now, but most sensible birds are waiting for actual spring, and some of my favorites, like those Barn Swallows which Aristotle mentioned ("one swallow does not a summer make") are still thousands of miles from here. 

I’m still taking heart from hearing my Black-capped Chickadees and White-breasted Nuthatches singing, and my Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers drumming. They are out there in the day-to-day grind of finding enough food to survive each long winter’s night, but those long winter nights are growing shorter even as some of the longer days are getting milder. That allows birds to draw their attention away from food gathering to think about romance for seconds or minutes at a time. 

I don’t know if birds feel impatience about how long the end of winter and intimations of spring last. Every now and then I look out at my bare feeders and the even barer branches on my trees and long for the first orioles and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, or even the surge of redpolls we often see in March and April as they head much further north. So it was with a very welcoming heart that I received a lovely letter from Mark Kastel on February 22. Mark listens to "For the Birds" on WDRT in Viroqua, Wisconsin. He writes:

I am blessed to share this 160 acres with lots of wild critters. Some of whom I get to know. There are red tailed hawks that overwinter, lots of owls and once in a while an eagle (although they've never nested here). And certainly many other smaller birds. I keep my kitties in the house, in part, to protect everybody outside.

My barn, and sometimes my garage, are filled with barn swallows. I have to say I love them the best. Not only do I never have mosquito bites but they just put on a tremendous aerobatic display and I get to watch them as they mature.

 One year they were late returning from South America. Over the winter I had put up some hardware cloth on the windows to close up the barn so the pigeons would find another home. When the swallows didn't return in the spring I was afraid I left the screening up too long and maybe they had found a different nesting site. But they were just late that year. When they arrived back home it was the only time I can remember in my life, literally, crying for joy. I'm always amazed that after the 30 years I've been here, multiple generations of these birds continue to call this home. 

This was a couple of years ago when there was a nest in my garage. I used to stick some cardboard underneath it to collect the poop and these two fledged but didn't stray too far. They are usually up on something higher/safer. I think they're incredibly cute when they are young.

I end up with dozens in my barn and up in the roof joists outside. By the time they have their first clutch (if that would be the right term) there are swarms of them. If I go in the barn regularly they're not too scared and roost up on a track for an old manure cleaning system. I can get pretty close to them. The babies don't seem to be scared at all. It is really a lot of fun watching them.

I’ve never lived anywhere Barn Swallows nested, though I did raise a brood of them once and so know how adorable they are, and had a visceral appreciation for just how joyful Mark felt when his birds finally showed up. That was a lovely story to read during this long, long winter. Thanks, Mark!

Barn Swallow fledglings Photo © 2021 by Mark Kastel

Friday, February 19, 2021

Our Far-Flung Correspondents: Amber Li's Starlings

European Starling

Back in November 2019, when she was 10 years old, I made a new online friend living in northern Virginia named Amber Li. She and I have corresponded via email for a while, discovering that we share the same soft spot for birds—even invasive ones like European Starlings. But back on February 1, Amber wrote with a problem:  

Hi! It has been quite a long time since my last email to you. Lately, starlings have been flocking to my feeding station in hordes. It seems as if they leave nothing for other birds such as bluebirds and titmice. I’m writing to ask if you get any starlings at your bird feeders. If so, how do you stop them from taking over and eating all the food? I’m getting slightly desperate because I really do want the other birds to get a chance to eat.  

I’d been going several years without starlings here, but this summer, I happened to get a bunch, and they were here for a while this winter, though they seem to have moved elsewhere during the incredible cold spell we had. I suggested a few strategies she might try with regard to bird food. First, try not feeding sunflower hearts, but strictly sunflower seeds in the shell. Starlings have at least some trouble opening black-oil sunflower seeds, and a LOT of trouble opening the thick shells of striped sunflower. They also have trouble opening safflower. Nyjer seed is too small for them to deal with.   

Amber wrote back:   

I switched to another blend that’s not fully sunflower hearts, but more of a half sunflower heart half black oil sunflower seed with the shell. Sunflower seeds in the shell make a mess on the lawn (I learned that the hard way, I had to rake all the shells up!). Now the starlings can’t eat the seeds in the shell, which saves me more bird food, and the other birds can come in and eat the seeds with the shells.  

The blend also has a lot of peanuts, tree nuts, and fruit. I add some mealworms as well. Also, whenever the starlings gathered in large flocks, I started chasing them from the feeder. After three days or so, they learned that gathering in large groups was not tolerated. The other birds soon figured out that I was only targeting the starlings. They trust me, and I’ve been able to stand a little more than a foot away from the feeder and get to observe birds such as bluebirds feeding right in front of my eyes.  

Another thing, curiously, is that robins were attracted to my feeder for the mealworms and dried fruit. They were a real help because if a bold starling got too close, the robin would fight fiercely back for its place at the feeder. With the presence of robins, starlings have been avoiding the feeding station lately and have decreased in group size. Overall, I have a lot fewer starlings now, and new curiosities such as robins and the building trust between me and the birds are springing up. Thank you so much for the advice! It really helped. I’ve read those tactics before in books, but to hear it from a birder who has experience is very reassuring.  

Not everyone can pay enough attention to their feeders to chase off problem birds consistently. As a writer, I spend much of the day near the window where Russ put my new tray feeder, and do wave off the starlings there. They can be such a problem, especially for bluebirds, flickers, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, and other cavity nesters, but I was kind of glad that they weren’t here at all during the coldest weather because as much as I want that feeder reserved for chickadees and nuthatches, I’d have had trouble sending any hungry creatures away during such desperate times. Finding an ethical balance between the wisest choices ecologically and morally is hard enough—when we throw compassion into the mix, things get even trickier. So I’m very glad that Amber Li has found a good answer in her own backyard.  

European Starling

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Looking for the Special Ones

Black-capped Chickadee

During this seemingly endless period of nights of double-digit subzero temperatures, I’ve been waking each morning in some dread of what I’ll see at my bird feeders—or, rather, who I may not see. I have roughly 15 chickadees visiting every day. They’re very tricky to count because they don’t sit near one another, and I’m not sure I’d notice if one were missing in the morning. When chickadees don’t make it through the night, we don’t find their little bodies because they each sleep in their own tiny cavity, hidden from us and even from one another. I have several Red-breasted Nuthatches and Downy Woodpeckers, and so as long as I see at least one of both sexes, I’m not sure if I’d notice losing one of them, too. I have a male and female White-breasted Nuthatch, and I’m not happy in the morning until I’ve seen both.   

Pileated Woodpecker

I haven’t seen my Pileated Woodpeckers since before the cold spell settled in, but they weren’t coming very often before, so I don’t know what to think now. My Red-bellied Woodpecker, a female, had been coming every three or four days, but now I haven’t seen her in over a week—just once at the beginning of this horrible cold spell. I don’t know if it’s time to mourn her or not.   

My favorite pigeon

I know I’m not supposed to feed pigeons, and I wish our neighborhood had fewer, but I’m very attached to one female I call Bernice. She’d been coming daily for many months, but suddenly disappeared for several days—indeed, where I’d regularly been seeing four each day, suddenly only one was showing up—but Bernice turned up in my yard on February 16, and I was inordinately pleased.   

The unprecedented cold spell is killing a lot of birds in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and other states, and I’m sure that the overall warming trend in recent decades exacerbated the horrible effect on birds. We had long spates of temps below zero up here before this, and occasional cold spells in southern states as well—temps were down to at least 20º when Russ and I camped in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas back in December 1978, for example. It was the survivors of those occasional cold spells whose genes got passed to the next generation, but in recent years the fittest birds haven’t needed to survive frigid weather down there. Come spring, the numbers of birds returning from Central and South America won’t be affected, but it’s possible we will see a drop in shorter-distance migrants, from robins, Blue Jays, and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers to phoebes and Tree Swallows.  

There’s one individual bird I look forward to every year even though I’ve never ever seen her and have only seen individuals of her species once in my life. Wisdom the Laysan Albatross, the oldest known wild bird as well as the only wild bird known to be older than me, returned to Midway Island on November 29. Wisdom was banded as a nesting adult in 1956, which makes her an absolute minimum of 70 years old now. I’m pushing 70 myself but won’t hit that milestone until November.   

Wisdom sits on her nest, November 2020. Photo by Jon Brack/Friends of Midway Atoll NWR

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has had plenty of difficulties with the pandemic this year, so word that she’d returned didn’t get out until over a week later, and I was starting to feel a bit frantic. But BirdWatching magazine’s wonderful website broke the news not only that she’d arrived, but that she’d laid an egg again. Last year, Wisdom didn’t nest—albatrosses often take a year’s break between nestings, but it’s cool, and even amazing, that she laid an egg again this year. And even cooler, last week BirdWatching broke the news that the egg hatched on February 1. Yep, a bird older than me is once again raising a baby.  

Wisdom’s newest chick shortly after hatching, with its dad, Akeakamai. Photo by Jon Brack/Friends of Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge

Wisdom was originally banded lo those many years ago by a man I not only was lucky enough to have personally known but who I considered my true North Star, Chandler Robbins. Robbins died on the first day of spring in 2017, but somehow hearing about Wisdom each year brings him back to life for a moment, since Robbins was not just Wisdom’s bander but her literal savior—when the Department of Defense decided to start bringing jet aircraft to the temporarily decommissioned airport on Midway Island, Chandler Robbins spearheaded the effort to find a way for those jets to safely take off and land while giving space to the albatrosses as well.  The original plan had been for the Department of Defense to kill every albatross on the island!

Laura and Chandler Robbins in Guatemala, 2007

There will come a year when Wisdom doesn’t return to Midway Island. But she’s done her part—a part Chandler Robbins made possible—by producing dozens of chicks over her long life. Amazingly, inspiringly, and wonderfully, in 2021 she’s done it yet again. And despite all the other bad news that seems to be closing in on us, that makes me very happy. 

Wisdom (right) and her mate Akeakamai (left) seen in 2015. Photo by Dan Clark/USFWS

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Winter Feeding

Black-capped Chickadee

My plan for today’s program was to talk about all the great owl sightings Russ and I had this year on Superb Owl Sunday. Yes, it was the coldest day of the entire season, the temperature 20 below when we got up, and yes, it didn’t get above five below all day, and yes, the wind was fierce. But there were owls out there—two Great Horned Owls hanging out somewhere in my neighborhood, and Barred and Great Gray and Northern Hawk Owls and probably even a Boreal Owl out there somewhere. It’s just that not a single one of them intersected our path. Yep—I got skunked. I don’t blame the owls for laying low—so did every other sensible warm-blooded creature who wanted to keep that warm blood flowing.  

Chickadee blood is not just warm—it’s hot. Their normal body temperature is roughly 108ºF. When the temperature is twenty below, which it has been just this week in my own backyard in Duluth, the only thing separating that tiny warm chickadee body from temperatures almost 130 degrees colder is a thick layer of insulating feathers.   

But even the finest insulation in the known universe simply holds heat or cold in—it can’t supply the heat in the first place. To keep the home fires burning, in a house or a bird body, you need fuel. For birds, that fuel is in the form of nutritious food, and in winter, the most nutritious food has a high fat content. Bird bodies can both digest and metabolize fat much better than us mere mammals.   

Pileated Woodpecker

Suet provides excellent nutrition for birds. Many people use the word suet in reference to any fat trimmings from beef, but it is actually the hard fat of beef or mutton found around the loins and kidneys. We used to be able to go to the meat department of just about any supermarket and get suet and fat trimmings for free. I’d put raw chunks of it in suet cages all winter. I never offered suet or fat when the temperatures started staying above freezing, and virtually never rendered it—that is, melted it on the stove to strain off the impurities. Rendering it keeps it from spoiling even in summer heat, though it still softens in hot weather, which can goop up bird feathers. People used to render the suet and while it was still liquid, add an assortment of ingredients such as peanuts, sunflower hearts, raisins, dried cranberries, and dried mealworms, and put the mixture in a cake pan, cupcake pan liners, or other holder to let it cool and harden, and then put that in suet feeders. I’m not much of a cook for my own family, so could hardly justify putting that much effort in the kitchen cooking for birds. Now most of us buy what are called suet cakes from stores that sell bird food. What we can buy now is probably close in nutritional value to those good old-fashioned suet cakes.   

Some websites that have no clue about bird nutrition recommend that people use the melted fat from bacon and other cooked meats, mixing it with oatmeal, corn meal, or other things like that, but that is absolutely unsafe for birds.   

Pileated Woodpecker

Peanut butter provides excellent nourishment. The natural brands are good but the oils start separating on warm days, so I usually buy a jar of chunky of whichever of the top popular brands is on sale. Sugar is a better sweetener than high-fructose corn syrup, but the calories in either are valuable in winter. NO artificial sweetener is good for birds, and fat is very important for them, so never buy a low-calorie or low-fat peanut butter.   

Northern Cardinal

The best bird seeds to offer depend on what kinds of birds you have. Black-oil sunflower is overall the very best for the widest variety of birds. Safflower and striped sunflower are much harder to open, so people often set them out in place of everything else when they are getting too many starlings or House Sparrows, which supposedly have trouble cracking the hard seeds open. I’ve had people swear that it works, but I’ve had others tell me that their starlings or sparrows managed them just fine.   

I keep black oil sunflower on my big tray feeder and in a hopper feeder. I keep a couple of tube feeders filled with a high-fat winter mixture that includes peanuts and sunflower hearts. And I have several suet feeders which I'm frequently resupplying.   

Black-capped Chickadee

Russ screwed a tray feeder on the window frame of my office window. I keep that one filled with dried mealworms and the high-fat winter mixture, and several times a day fill a little plastic container with those live mealworms—well, live right up to my putting them outside in sub-zero temperatures. Those mealworms are not just fresher than the dried ones, they’re also not desiccated. I whistle before I put these fresh mealworms out and within a minute or two at least one of my chickadee flocks materializes and cleans it out. I mainly do this when I’m holding my baby grandson at the window. Walter is almost 6 months old now and is utterly enchanted with the tiny birds that come and go as his grandma says, “Hi, chickadee! Bye, chickadee! Hi, chickadee! Bye, chickadee!” It’s our favorite game together.   

Black-capped Chickadee

At least one flock of chickadees appears at my feeder every morning at first light and every afternoon not long before dusk, strong evidence that they consider my feeding station to be their most important and reliable source of good nutrition. So I take keeping my feeders safe and filled seriously. I sincerely want to justify my chickadees’ trust in me as well as Baby Walter’s faith that his grandma is a Good Person. 

Black-capped Chickadee

Saturday, February 6, 2021

Winter's End

Black-capped Chickadee

Right as northern Minnesota is plunged into the coldest spell of this entire winter, the exact same birds who are stuck out there day after day, naked as jaybirds, are making it clear that winter is coming to an end. Even we mere humans are noticing that days are longer now than they were during the December holidays; regardless of how cold temperatures might get, that is already making avian hormones surge. I’ve been stuck indoors virtually all the time right now, on a crushing deadline to finish a book, only able to hear birds whose songs can penetrate double- and triple-pane windows, but on February 2, I heard my first Hairy Woodpecker drumming.  

Hairy Woodpecker

Year-round, when woodpeckers are foraging for food or excavating a cavity, they tap on tree trunks, which is noticeable and can be loud. Hairy Woodpeckers in particular are louder foragers than Downies and usually louder than other medium and large species woodpeckers, though this also depends on the wood they’re tapping into, so this is the kind of judgment call that I like to confirm by actually seeing the bird. But loud or soft, those tapping sounds are not what is called drumming—that term is used for the rhythmic proclamation woodpeckers make when soliciting a mate and announcing their territorial boundaries.  

Downy and Hairy Woodpecker

The Hairy Woodpecker’s drumming is fast, but even after all these years, I still use my binoculars to confirm any woodpecker identified by drumming except Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers—they’re unmistakable because they sound so uniquely arhythmic. The difference in tempo between Hairy and Downy is a consistent one, and I completely trust the birders who are confident they can always distinguish them. I just can never be sure when it’s me doing the listening—what if on a particular day I’m simply processing sounds faster or slower? So I like to double-check. One day soon, Downy Woodpeckers will also be drumming again or, I should say, one day soon I’ll notice Downies drumming again.  

White-breasted Nuthatch

Woodpeckers aren’t the only ones starting to rev up into spring-like behavior. On February 3, I heard my male White-breasted Nuthatch singing. Nuthatches makes their cranky call-notes year-round, but limit their song to those times when they’re establishing a nesting territory and wooing a mate. I remember when I was a new birder sometimes confusing the nuthatch song with the Pileated Woodpecker’s call, but hearing both species so often in my own backyard, it’s become easy for me. Listening to recordings is a fine way to learn bird calls and songs, but the more you hear them in real life, the more deeply embedded they become in your brain and heart in exactly the way you recognize some friends and family members by their voice alone on the phone.  

Black-capped Chickadee

I haven’t heard chickadees singing yet but they have to be. I often recount the story of February 2, 1996—the day Minnesota hit its lowest temperature on record, 60 below zero Fahrenheit in Tower. (The temperature may have been even lower in Embarrass, but, embarrassingly, their thermometer broke.) A guy slept out in a snow fort that night in Tower, and when he emerged triumphantly in the morning to television cameras and radio microphones, everyone was so wowed by this human survivor in his high-tech clothing that they didn’t even notice the Black-capped Chickadees singing away in the background. If they have enough food, they don’t care about the temperature. 

Black-capped Chickadee

These double-digits-below-zero temperatures will soon be over, but wintry weather usually lasts well into April in my neck of the woods. Nevertheless, in the coming days and weeks, we’ll be hearing more and more birds switching into spring mode. Eagle and raven pairs will start dancing in the sky and crows will start carrying sticks as days grow ever longer. And even right this moment, as my personal thermometer reads -9, my drumming Hairy Woodpecker and singing White-breasted Nuthatch are reassuring me that spring is definitely on its way.  

Common Raven

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Superb Owl Sunday

Boreal Owl

On February 7, a day that a great many Americans will spend glued to their television sets watching a flying pigskin, I’ll be out in the Northwoods, searching for a creature fully capable of flying but usually rooted to a branch for the day. I noticed way back in the 1980s or 90s that you just needed to move one letter to the left to convert Super Bowl Sunday to Superb Owl Sunday. Ever since, I've wanted to see at least one owl that day every year. I haven’t always been able to break away from whatever else I was doing, but when I have gone searching, the only time I was skunked completely was when I was out with KUMD’s Lisa Johnson. It’s not that she doesn’t have good owl karma—she’s seen and photographed her share of owls now, but never with me. Whatever good karma we each have apparently cancels each other's out. 

At the end of 2012, my 93-year-old mother-in-law, who had dementia and was starting to have more and more physical problems as well, moved in with us after I’d already made plans to do a Big Year in 2013. That meant I had to scale back my plans for both financial and logistical reasons, cutting out any possibility of getting to Alaska or even anywhere in Canada, and seriously shortening the length and number of my trips for the year. Even sadder, suddenly it was going to be impossible for Russ to travel with me—one of us had to be home every night, and we couldn’t ever both be gone for more than a few hours. The only time that whole year that Russ went with me on a birding adventure was on Superb Owl Sunday. We didn’t have time to go to the bog, but decided we could at least break away for two or three hours to see what we could see in Two Harbors. 

So we headed up there at mid-morning. Along Highway 61, I spotted a couple of clusters of birders photographing what had to be Boreal Owls—we were in the midst of a short irruption—but I figured I’d be happiest finding my own owl, so we went on to my favorite owl spot, along a little alley in Two Harbors, with houses on one side and a nice wooded ravine on the other. We had just stepped out of the car and were starting to walk when a Two Harbors birder, Jim Lind, spotted me and charged down to tell us there was a Saw-whet Owl a couple blocks away in someone’s backyard. He gave us directions, but then we started chatting—this was the first time he’d met Russ. We’d been talking for five or so minutes when Jim looked up and WHOA! There was a Boreal Owl right there, just 18 feet away in perfect light! 

Jim Lind pointing out Boreal Owl

Boreal Owl

Boreal Owl

Boreal Owl

Boreal Owl

I took lots of photos, including some when it caught a shrew, and then Russ and I went on to see the saw-whet, too. That was one truly Superb Owl Sunday.  

Northern Saw-whet Owl

The last two years, we went to the bog. In 2019, at the bog we saw and photographed a very distant Snowy Owl...

Distant Snowy Owl

...and a not-much-closer Northern Hawk Owl.

Northern Hawk Owl

I also got some very lovely photos of a Great Gray Owl...

Great Gray Owl

...and a Barred Owl. 

Barred Owl

Barred Owl

It was a great day to be out—I also got my best photos ever of White-winged Crossbills...

White-winged CrossbillWhite-winged Crossbill

...and one very photogenic Ruffed Grouse. 

Ruffed Grouse

Ruffed Grouse

Last year wasn’t quite so good. We’d seen a poor, doomed Barn Owl on January 12—that was our first venture out after my heart attack January 3. 

Barn Owl

Russ also took the morning off on Friday, February 21, when we saw a Boreal Owl roosting in the sun as it watched the activity at the Admiral Road feeders. 

Boreal Owl

But on last year's actual Superb Owl Sunday, we saw only a single owl, a Barred, which gave me at least a wonderful a photo op. 

Barred Owl

Barred Owl

We’re expecting a cold weekend this year, with Sunday’s temperatures supposed to be starting out around 20 below zero—the high is only supposed to be minus 5. We didn’t used to wimp out with cold temperatures, but it’s scarier during a pandemic, because we wouldn’t want to trouble anyone if we had car troubles. So we’re going to do what we did way back in 2013, just go birding up the shore as far as Two Harbors. Owls aren’t guaranteed anywhere, even on Superb Owl Sunday, but regardless, whatever we see, getting out for a few hours of birding together will definitely make it one Superb Sunday. 

Boreal Owl