Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Monday, April 19, 2021

Our Not-So-Far-Flung Correspondents: Letter from Aleda

Aleda. Photo copyright 2021 by Jennifer Vacek. All rights reserved. 

Last week, I received a charming letter from a most interesting girl named Aleda, who is 9 years old and attends North Shore Community School. She writes: 

I love listening to your show every day (except on the weekends) driving to school… 

We have a place called chickadee landing. At chickadee landing there are benches and lots of bird feeders and seeds. Our class comes there some times for EE (it means Environmental Education) and my teacher Mrs. Felton puts seeds on our gloves or hats and sometimes the birds eat the seeds. It has not happened to me though. 

Hand-feeding chickadees is really fun, and I’m sad that no chickadees have alighted on Aleda yet, especially because a place called Chickadee Landing really should have chickadees landing on you. She continues:

In my different preschool we caught birds and tagged them. Once in my treehouse there was a chickadee about 1 foot away from me—it was amazing! 

She added that she likes chickadees “because of their pretty songs and how friendly they are.” 

Black-capped Chickadee

Of everything I love about chickadees, perhaps my favorite thing is how approachable they are. Over my many years of birding, I’ve managed to get very close to many different kinds of birds, almost always involving both luck and stealth on my part. One of the only species that allows me to approach it, and sometimes even approaches me in a knowing sort of way, is the chickadee. How can I not love that? I’m glad to find a kindred spirit who appreciates that same quality. Aleda wrote, “We have a big mural of a chickadee on our school,” and sent a photo of herself in front of it—that was lovely to see!  

Song Sparrow

I’d asked what Aleda’s favorite bird is, and she said:

It is hard to pick a favorite bird but one we like and we see a lot is the Song Sparrow. I bet you thought I was going to say the chickadee! 

I happen to love Song Sparrows, too. In honor of Aleda, I’m going to do a program on May 11 just about them. I’m choosing that date because something very important happened regarding Song Sparrows on May 11, 1935. 

Aleda made one more comment about chickadees.

I also like how they say their own name. Do you know any other bird who does that? 

Several bird names are onomatopoeic—a fancy way of saying we gave the bird its English name from the sound the bird makes. Killdeers seem to be saying kill-deer or kill-de-ah


One of the calls that flickers make is a sort of flicka, flicka, flicka.  

Northern Flicker

Eastern Phoebes seem to be saying Fee-bee, fee-bee-bee.  

Eastern Phoebe

Bobwhites are famous for saying their name.  

Northern Bobwhite

Whip-poor-wills also say their name. They used to be much more common than they are now. They’ve disappeared along with the huge numbers of flying insects, such as mayflies, that fueled their migration and breeding as well as their everyday lives. This week, as we celebrate Earth Day, I hope we remember Aleda, my grandson Walter, and all the other children who deserve to grow up with the same extraordinary birds we grownups did, whether we appreciated them or not.  

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Spring Update

Black-capped Chickadees nesting in yard

This past weekend, we made a big transition. A week ago, Fox Sparrows were the order of the day. I couldn’t listen out the window or go into my yard without hearing them. By Sunday, I had only one remaining, and it apparently was a female because I didn’t hear a single song, nor hear one on the 3 ½ hour recording I made Sunday morning. Meanwhile, to go along with the handful of juncos remaining and the couple of Song Sparrows I can hear from my yard, Sunday I heard my first White-throated Sparrow. 

Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers are doing all kinds of romantic drumming and chasing, and flickers are starting to join them. A pair of starlings seem to have ousted my White-breasted Nuthatches from the box elder where they’d been planning to nest, but the nuthatches are apparently simply relocating to another part of the yard. Studies are starting to show that although starlings are quite aggressive in taking over nest cavities, the cavity builders manage to quickly find or build new cavities, so they aren’t quite as devastating, at least to some bird species, as has been feared. 

It’s important to look up into the sky now—geese, loons, Turkey Vultures, and plenty of raptors have been flying over, and depending on where you live, you might see quite a few. Living under Hawk Ridge, flyovers are much better in fall than in spring, but I’ve so far even lucked into a few American White Pelicans. 

My dawn chorus recordings have been fun to listen to! (Here's the one from April 18.) Last week I just had a couple of robins—now I can pick out at least four different males singing thanks to my stereo microphones. Any day now, I’ll hear a Brown Thrasher in the mix, and then catbirds, hummingbirds, orioles, and more as the floodgates open. 

Black-capped Chickadees nesting in yard

But what is filling me with the most joy right now is the chickadee pair working on a nest cavity in my dead cherry tree. I first noticed them on Saturday the 10th. For several days, I’d see the two of them working hard for a half hour or so every now and then, but they were away from the cavity much more than they were present. But by Saturday the 17th, they were spending a LOT of time at the cavity, and by Sunday they were hardly ever away from it for more than a minute or two when I was paying attention. 

It was Sunday the 18th that I finally figured out that I don’t need to look out the window quite so often to keep track of their activities. I set up a trail cam on a large limb of the same tree. It marks each photo and video with a timestamp whenever it detects a bird coming or going. I was hoping to wait to set it up when the birds were busy elsewhere—I didn’t want them to get stressed out. But they really do seem to trust me—when I was on the ladder starting up the cam, one bird was clinging to the nest hole a foot from my face while the other was in a very nearby branch. They were both back to excavating even before I got down, much less carried away the ladder. I’m going to end up with a LOT of data and cool photos and videos from these birds!

Black-capped Chickadees nesting in yard

 Sunday, one of my favorite people in the known universe, a girl named Eden who lives across the street from me, was walking by with her dad Sam when she noticed them coming and going. The birds were excavating furiously, zipping into the hole to chip away at the wood enlarging their nest chamber, and seconds later, flying out with a mouthful of wood bits to spit out from one of my lilac bushes or the maple tree across the way, and then zipping back to the cavity and repeating. Eden was standing under the tree when one bird spit out the wood bits—she held up her hand and caught one! I of course had to take a photo.  

Black-capped Chickadees nesting in yard

I’d been telling Eden how unlike woodpeckers, chickadees build a nest inside the cavity, and they use soft animal fur. Not an hour after she left, she was back with her brother Henry and a little bag full of soft dog fur from her dog Ranger. I put one small clump in a clean suet feeder filled with other nesting materials, and kept a larger chunk of it that I’ll offer in the window feeder when the chickadees start building—at this point they’re still excavating. 

I’m hoping against hope that everything works out for this little pair. As long as they keep at it, I’ll be regularly posting photos and videos on my blog. But as the old saying doesn’t quite go, “Don’t count your chickadees before the eggs are even laid.” 

Friday, April 16, 2021

Hand feeding birds and CDC guidelines

Black-capped Chickadee selecting just the right mealworm 

The CDC is currently warning people to not handle birds in their bare hands because of the salmonella outbreak associated with bird feeding where finches have been abundant this winter. When I was a rehabber, I never wore gloves when handling injured birds except raptors, and I occasionally made exceptions even then. 

Laura with a Great Gray Owl
Great Gray Owls hunt almost exclusively for voles. Their toes and claws may be long,
but are not powerful enough to do much damage. 

Despite not wearing gloves so often, I was virtually always good about handwashing. I say “virtually” because one time I wasn’t, and sure enough, I got very sick. That was when I was in Costa Rica with a birding group. We were dining at an outdoor restaurant when a Blue-gray Tanager crashed into a window. Our guide picked it up and handed it to me. The bird was stunned but didn’t seem to have any other injuries, so I let it sit on my left index finger as I ate with my right hand. I doubt if that would have gotten me sick, but at one point the tanager pooped on my left hand. Being very interested in avian digestion, I was fascinated with this frugivorous bird’s gelatinous dropping, glistening and translucent. When the tanager took off, I wiped my left hand with a paper napkin and forgot all about it, not once thinking about the hand sanitizer right there in my pocket. I was violently sick that night, but oh, well—live and learn. I got some nice photos of the tanager and an excellent cautionary tale.   

Blue-gray Tanager

I was still rehabbing at the time, ordering 10,000 mealworms by mail order every couple of months. They came in woven bags filled with loosely wadded newspaper, and because newsprint is toxic, I transferred them to ice cream buckets with dry oats as soon as possible. One summer, I started doing that on our backyard picnic table, and even without whistling, my chickadees recognized me and flew in for handouts. 

Over the years, a few Red-breasted Nuthatches have come to my hand, and once a White-breasted Nuthatch, but that poor male was so skittish that I felt sorry for him, so after the one time, when I saw him I’d quickly put the mealworms in the feeder and close the window. I don’t think I’ve ever washed my hands specifically because I hand-fed any of these birds. 

I suppose there may be some risk from a healthy siskin or redpoll perched on our fingers because ground feeders probably do step on some pretty germy substrates, but chickadees and nuthatches spend very little time on the ground.  I’d often go right back to my computer after feeding them, so when I did eventually wash my hands, any germs were probably already on the keyboard to re-infect me.

I pretty much always wash my hands after dealing with bird feeders, and what with having a baby grandson who keeps grabbing my fingers and putting them in his mouth, I’m washing my hands way more than normal anyway, not even counting the pandemic. I’ve been keeping 6 feet from people even when wearing a face mask for the past year and would never dream of touching a human being right now, but somehow chickadees seem from a different, germ-free universe. All those hygienic habits I’ve developed during this pandemic have kept me safer from ordinary germs—no colds or flu in our house at all this year!—but if it weren’t for my baby grandson,I’d probably still be just as lackadaisical about hygiene.  

I may not follow CDC guidelines with regard to chickadees on my fingers, but I always wash my hands before picking the baby up. Then again, I’m not worried about Walter exposing me to germs—I’m worried about me exposing him to germs, while I’ve never worried about giving chickadees germs any more than I’ve worried about them giving me germs.

So far, I’ve never heard of a single real life case in the history of the universe in which either a person’s germs got a chickadee sick or a chickadee’s germs got a person sick. If I ever do, I’ll be sure to let you know. 

Taking revenge
Chickadees may not be at all dangerous when they come to our hands of their own volition, 
but beware if you grab one against its wishes!

Thursday, April 15, 2021

What are YOU prepared to do? Two ways we can help.

Oiled Black-crowned Night-Heron

Last time, I quoted Mark Roser telling me about his hand-feeding experiences with a Tufted Titmouse. The purpose of Mark’s email was actually something quite different, though. He had traveled down to the Gulf after the BP oil spill and saw some of its effects first-hand while he was working on a project developing sustainable means of restoring oiled marshes. Mark wrote, “There is a call for ideas for new bird research and restoration projects - and I thought you or your listeners might have some thoughts on potential new topics,” and he sent me a link for the website of the Deepwater Horizon Natural Resources Damage Assessment Trustees in which they ask people to submit bird and sturgeon restoration project ideas for their Open Ocean Restoration Area. 

They target restoration for wide-ranging and migratory species at important points during their life cycles and geographic ranges, including inland, coastal, and offshore areas, and anticipate that some restoration may take place outside of the Gulf of Mexico. For example, many of the loons we enjoy every year in Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin spend their winters down in the Gulf. Young loons remain there year-round, or work their way along the Atlantic coast, until they are at least 3 or 4 years old. Northern Gannets also winter in the Gulf as well as along the coast, and young gannets also remain in the Gulf for a few years before reaching adulthood and heading to their breeding colonies in the North Atlantic.   

In this 2021 funding cycle, they’re prioritizing bird projects focused on restoring and conserving nesting and foraging habitat, establishing or re-establishing breeding colonies, and preventing incidental bird mortality. If you want more information, check here

Great Blue Heron nest colony or heronry
This is not the heron rookery near Rochester. I took this photograph in 2006 in St. Louis County. 

 I also recently heard from Lynn Cornell, who wrote about a wonderful Great Blue Heron nesting colony in Rochester, Minnesota. The rookery is the most significant spot for heron nesting in Olmsted County and likely one of the more significant spots in Southeast Minnesota, and it’s ecologically significant as a rare upland rookery—most are in swamps. 

The private land this rookery is on has long been zoned as “resource protected/potential suburban,” but the land owner, who happens to be a member of the county soil and water conservation board, requested on March 18 that 30 acres of his land be rezoned suburban. The Olmstead County Planning Advisory Commission approved the rezoning unanimously, and the very next day, property owners of adjoining land noticed stakes and survey markers in the woods, many of the stakes directly below heron nests. The process seemed excessively rushed to the neighbors—it hadn’t even been approved yet by Olmsted County, and one neighbor’s attorney filed an injunction to halt work, providing photos of dozens of heron nests in and around the grove of trees targeted for removal. When they found out the trees were scheduled to be removed the following Monday, the attorney brought a motion for a restraining order against development to District Court Judge Pamela A.W. King, who signed the order. The order prohibits removing any tree within 1,000 feet of a heron nest temporarily, until all the proper permitting is in place.  

Birders in Rochester are working hard to protect the rookery—the herons are on nests already. Developers tend to reassure people that birds can move somewhere else—they have wings, after all. But it’s late in the season for commencing nesting. Destroying nest trees now will destroy the capacity for the pairs in the trees and anywhere near them to reproduce at all this year. And as project after project gets approved removing more and more wildlife habitat, there are fewer and fewer somewhere elses to move.   

Great Blue Heron

As a Minnesota resident, I signed a petition in for an environmental assessment worksheet for the proposed development, and a statement declaring my concern regarding the environmental harm proposed by this development. The group working to protect these wonderful birds and this unique resource has a Facebook group page by which they are trying to get the word out.  

Baby Walter photo (c) 2021 by Laura Erickson. NO reproduction, please. 

Right now I’m watching just how carefully my daughter and son-in-law select clothing, blankets, and toys baby Walter could put in his mouth. They want to be sure every element is safe. How can we humans, many of us parents, possibly justify the horrific amounts of toxic chemicals we’ve allowed companies and individuals to release into our environment over years, decades, centuries, to seep into our groundwater supplies and the freshwater and saltwater bodies of water from which we get so much fish, seafood, and other food, to say nothing of the air we breathe and the water we drink? And that only considers the simplest issues of human self-interest, not even touching on our dependence on other species much less the very right of those other species to exist. 

I want my little grandson to be able to see wonderful birds in the Gulf of Mexico, and to enjoy seeing nesting herons in Minnesota. What are we prepared to do to ensure a lovely world for our grandchildren? The Gulf Restoration Project and the fight to protect a special heron rookery are important for all of us. 

Baby Walter photo (c) 2021 by Laura Erickson. NO reproduction, please. 

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Hand Feeding

Mark Roser's Tufted Titmouse "Wink." © 2021 by Mark Roser

A couple of weeks ago, a podcast listener named Mark Roser, who is working on a small guide to hand feeding birds, wrote to me, attaching an adorable photo of a Tufted Titmouse he calls Wink because the little bird has what looks like an extra eye patch on one side. Mark writes:  

Tufted Titmice are gems.  When hand feeding with me, they much prefer to lurk 10 feet away and wait for a chickadee to push a nut out of the hand and onto the ground, so they can swoop in and out quickly.  :)   Wink is a funny guy - he will approach me and wait 3 feet away, and then pause to reflect on whether the nuts he sees are worth the awkwardness of jumping closer to a human hand.  But that goes out the window as soon as another bird also lands nearby, at which point he jumps right in because his competitive spirit would not want to take 2nd place to anyone else :)   

When we hand feed birds or watch them closely at a window feeder, we get close enough that we can’t help but notice how individual each bird is, expanding our understanding of avian intelligence as well, as we realize that these little guys are guided by a heck of a lot more than the simple, almost robotic instincts some people once believed.   

This week I got an anonymous comment on a blogpost from 2013 that I’d titled “Chickadee Day.” They wrote:  

I loved reading this. I recently put up a bird feeder and a bird bath right outside the window of my home office and have been getting tremendous enjoyment watching a variety of birds each day. But none have captivated my heart as much as a little Chickadee that has starting landing on my window and tapping at it over the past few days! This same little fellow also likes to sit on top of the bird feeder pole and watch me. How utterly endearing! Thank you for writing about them and sharing that one has done the same at your home. Do you have any tips on how to get them to eat from your hand? I see you mentioned mealworms - I will definitely buy some of those but would love any tips on how to encourage hand feeding. Thank you!  

Black-capped Chickadee peeking in my window waiting for mealworms 

Even as some of our birds learn to associate us with keeping the feeders full, they're usually still reluctant to come to our hands—that seems risky, and why take that risk when plenty of food is available in feeders? I did have plenty of feeders out when I first started hand-feeding, but the only place I offered live mealworms was in my small home office window feeder, and because starlings could make short work of them, I only put out a few, and only when I noticed the chickadees were about. I’d whistle the chickadee song as I cranked open the window each time. This was in winter, and even with plenty of sunflower seeds and suet, live mealworms were especially delectable, so within a few days a whole flock of chickadees would fly in the moment they heard the whistle. And then one day, during a blizzard, the moment my mealworm-laden hand emerged from the window, a chickadee who was either exceptionally bold, impatient, hungry, or all three flew straight to my hand, grabbed a mealworm, and flew off. The next time I filled the feeder, a couple of chickadees grabbed their mealworms straight from my hand before I could fill the feeder, and soon the whole flock was coming to my hand all the time.   

I can’t wait to see what Mark Roser writes about hand feeding. Meanwhile, this year I’m whistling to get the chickadees to come to the feeder for mealworms so I can be holding Walter up to the window to watch them come and go. As rich as my delight when chickadees alight on my hand and look into my eyes, watching Walter’s eyes light up to see them so close is even richer. 

Handfeeding mealworms to a Black-capped Chickadee

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

April Update

Brown Creeper

After more than a year of social distancing and being extremely careful to avoid Covid-19, I’ve been going a little stir-crazy. We had a crazy influx of Pine Siskins last fall, along with a nice smattering of White-winged Crossbills and redpolls, but they were just moving through. The big winter invasion happened in a lot of places other than Duluth, and I've seen virtually no finches here at all in 2021. But finally, now that we’re in April, birds, including finches, are starting to appear, every day in bigger and bigger numbers. On Saturday, one lone female redpoll showed up, feeding on the ground with juncos, and on Sunday, I had one lone male Purple Finch. Even better, on Wednesday April 7, a handful of Evening Grosbeaks turned up and stuck around the next day, too, even occasionally visiting the window feeder. Those two days, we had rain and powerful east winds, which blow directly into my east-facing home office window, so my photos are pretty marginal and mostly through rain-spattered glass, but I did get a nice 8-minute sound recording.  

Evening Grosbeak

Evening Grosbeak through a rain-spattered window

Considering how huge our Fox Sparrow migration was this past fall, I haven’t had many Fox Sparrows yet—the most so far being just four on a couple of days. But even just one male Fox Sparrow sounds wonderfully lovely. I’m back setting my good sound recorder in the yard when it isn’t raining or too windy, and I got a lovely recording on April 10 filled with Fox Sparrow song.  I had a Song Sparrow briefly on the 10th, and 2 or 3 American Tree Sparrows each day since the 8th, but other than that, the only sparrows I’ve had were juncos. A small flock wintered in my neighborhood, and on lucky days I’d see anywhere from one to eight, but starting on April 6, they’ve clearly been migrating. That day I got 15, and day by day the flock has been building until on Sunday I had 50. 

I had a single loon fly over on the 5th and the 6th. Loons work their way to Lake Superior and other large lakes little by little as ice goes out. Each morning they make exploratory flights carrying them closer to their breeding lake. If they don’t find open water, they simply head back to the open water where they spent the night. This way, they notice that their breeding lake is open the very morning the ice goes out. Temps have been in the 40s so I don’t usually have my window open and it’s too cold outside to be spending the day in the yard with my 7-month-old Walter, so I’m not seeing many migrating hawks or eagles, though they’ve been going through in good numbers. As of Sunday, April 11, Frank Nicoletti, Erik Bruhnke, and others have counted over 3,200 Bald Eagles and 1,400 Red-tailed hawks passing over their West Skyline Hawk Count area this spring. 

The Hawk Ridge counters have tallied almost 3,000 American Robins so far—the males on my corner of Peabody Street are back bickering over their territorial boundaries again. The females will return in a week or so, and what with all the rain we’ve had there will be an excellent supply of mud for nest construction. 

Other early migrants that are appearing both in my yard and all over north country include Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, Northern Flickers, Brown Creepers, Ruby- and Golden-crowned Kinglets, and Yellow-rumped Warblers. 

Brown Creeper

My cardinals are singing every morning now, chickadees are courting, and a Red-breasted Nuthatch pair seem to be nesting somewhere near. My White-breasted Nuthatches had been courting great guns in one of my old box elders, but apparently a pair of starlings booted them out. I have very few starlings, but even just one pair wreaks havoc on the lives of my cavity nesters. 

And that’s my early April report. As soon as this rainy period ends, I’ll put out jelly for the first thrashers and catbirds—one Brown Thrasher has already turned up elsewhere in Duluth, and I sure want to welcome my own back. Through the rest of April and all of May, migration will be hopping, and if I have to spend just about every day at home, I want to make the most of it. I’ll be posting photos and recordings on my blog. Meanwhile, I hope you can be enjoying birds wherever you find yourself this spring. Stay safe and well. 

Dark-eyed Junco

Monday, April 12, 2021

Almost a Chickadee Nest

Black-capped Chickadees nesting in yard
My pair of chickadees excavating a cavity in our dead cherry tree. Notice how they both excavate, and both guard the nest when an American Tree Sparrow alights in the tree. 

Saturday morning when I was looking out my home office window, I saw movement in Russ’s old, quite-dead cherry tree, so I grabbed my binoculars. A chickadee was excavating a hole, and the moment it flew away carrying wood chips, another chickadee flew in. The two of them worked at it while I watched and took photos and videos, both from my window and then much closer in the yard. These two chickadees know me—they come to my whistle when I put mealworms in my feeder—and they kept working away, taking turns, while I watched. 

Black-capped Chickadees nesting in yard

That dead tree is pretty much riddled with holes, but I’ve not noticed any birds ever actually nesting in it. Unfortunately for my chickadees, just three or four inches below the hole they were working on was another hole bored into the center of the tree. Suddenly I realized that when they hollowed out their cavity down to that level, which they of course would because they construct their nest several inches beneath the entrance hole, they’d come to that big opening and move on to nest elsewhere.  

Russ and I decided to cover up the lower hole in hopes that when they dug through to that level, they’d keep going. So he got a chunk of bark and duct-taped it to the tree. 

Black-capped Chickadees nesting in yard

He worked expeditiously while the birds were nearby, and when he walked away, they seemed suspicious of the change for at least a half a minute, but then got back to work, keeping at it all day, until their whole bodies could fit inside, and then until less than half of the tail stuck out the hole as they worked and backed out again. It was fun watching them take turns at this. 

This was the classic example of counting your eggs before they hatch or, in this case, before the nest is even constructed. I was figuring it might take another day for them to finish excavating the cavity exactly as they wanted it, and then the female would start constructing the actual nest—unlike woodpeckers and Wood Ducks, chickadees construct a lovely woven nest at the floor of their nest cavity. The male may not help with nest construction, but he plays an important role bringing food to her so she can stay focused on finding soft materials and building. She may need anywhere from 2 days to 2 weeks to finish; she'll start laying eggs a day or two after that. She usually lays 1 egg per day until the clutch of 6–9 eggs is complete. 

During egg laying, she may fuss a bit over the nest, adding material, and both the male and female will guard the nest, but she won’t start sitting on them until the next-to-last egg is laid. She incubates usually for 20–25 minute bouts, sometimes as short as 6 minutes and sometimes as long as 60 minutes, and is off the nest an average of 7–8 minutes between, but sometimes returns after just 2 minutes and sometimes stays away up to 23 minutes. During cold spells she stays on the nest longer than average. 

Incubation lasts 12–13 days, with the full clutch hatching out within about 12–30 hours, usually in the order they were laid. Parents carry away the eggshells to eat or drop some distance from the nest.

The mother broods the young chicks while the male feeds the whole family. The babies start peeking out the entrance hole 12 or 13 days after hatching. If frightened, they may fledge as early as 12 days after hatching, but if left undisturbed, not until day 16—the longer they remain in the nest, the higher their chances of survival. 

So I was counting on at least 40 days of nest watching, bringing me chickadee joy well into late May or even June, but on Sunday morning, the chickadees didn’t come to the tree at all. I figured they must have reached that lower hole and the sudden widening troubled them and they decided to find a safer place. But then they showed up a little before noon, working in short bouts. It was rainy, so that may have changed their focus for the day.

I won't be sure they're using or not using the cavity for a few days at least. If they do move to another site, I'll try to figure out where. Meanwhile, they keep talking to me and coming to my window for mealworms. Who could ask for more?

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Salmonella Outbreak

Pine Siskin

Last week, the New York Times reported that salmonella outbreaks related to bird feeding have sickened 19 Americans between 2 months and 89 years old; 8 have been hospitalized. These cases have been reported in Washington, Oregon, California, Oklahoma, New Hampshire, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi. Dogs picking up sick birds have also gotten sick. The main birds appearing at these feeders are finches, especially Pine Siskins. 

Birds get salmonella at feeders every year, but this is the first I’ve read of people getting sick, too. I probably should have expected it. Beginning late last summer, there’s been a huge movement of finches, many to areas with far milder winters than here in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and many to areas these finches don't usually visit. A lot of people would naturally be unfamiliar with such huge flocks of birds and would never have heard the annual warnings about keeping feeders clean. 

Common Redpolls at my window feeder
Common Redpolls and other finches crowd together in feeders and on the ground below.

Pine Siskins winter in California every year, but this year’s numbers are much larger than usual. And because of the pandemic, more people have been paying attention to backyard birds and starting up bird feeding stations—again, novices who are unlikely to have learned the basic principles of feeder sanitation. 

Almost every year since we moved to Duluth in 1981 (except this one, so far), we’ve had a surge of redpolls and other winter finches as the snow starts to recede in late March and early April. Winter finches are flocking species that feed and roost in very close proximity, and also are ground feeders, many eating on the ground as others eat above them in the feeders. This lifestyle usually works just fine, but not when that seed on the ground gets moldy or contaminated by pet, rodent, and wildlife droppings. 

Educated humans understand the importance of protecting our food supply at all levels of food production from farm to kitchen. But in our backyards, thanks to dogs, squirrels, rabbits, mice, deer, and all the other mammals and birds that wander through, seed on the ground can easily be contaminated with salmonella, E. coli, and other pathogens—this is why it’s important to keep the ground beneath feeders kept tidy. When quail, doves, sparrows, finches, and other ground-feeding birds are visiting, it’s critical to offer only small amounts that will be consumed that day—that prevents seed from getting moldy, plus any leftovers attract the rodents whose droppings are implicated in many salmonella outbreaks for humans as well as birds. 

Common Redpolls and Pine Siskins

Thanks to the current pandemic, we humans have figured out how important social distancing is when there are disease organisms about. Indeed, with mask-wearing and social distancing, the number of cold and flu cases this year are way, way down. But tragically, we haven’t been able to convey these important public health concepts to birds. 

Here in Duluth, every year I hear of a few cases of sick birds, and I explain to people why it’s important to keep the ground beneath feeders clean. When a sick bird does show up, it’s important to close down the feeder until the bulk of the finches move on in hopes that the larger flocks will break into smaller groups. And then thoroughly clean the feeders before setting them out again. Except for one time when I saw a sick redpoll, I just use a stiff brush and hard spray of water to clean my feeders a few times a year. I clean my bird baths every two or three days because I also want to keep mosquitoes from breeding in them.

To prevent further cases of salmonella, the C.D.C. recommends cleaning bird feeders and bird baths at least once a week or when they are dirty. They recommend that people avoid feeding wild birds with their bare hands, and that they wash their hands with soap and water after touching a bird feeder or bath, or after handling a bird. I’ve never worn gloves to deal with my feeders or birdbaths, and not when I hand-feed chickadees either, but I am careful about hand washing. All the public service announcements about hand washing when COVID-19 first hit reinforced that. 

Now I’m hearing people say how dirty birds are, when birds are getting sick because our feeding stations are dirty. We Americans expect the restaurants we visit to meet public health standards, and expect that when invited to a friend’s for dinner, they’re using good hygiene, too. How can we judge birds harshly for expecting the same? 

American Goldfinch

Monday, April 5, 2021

First Robin of Spring!!

Robin at bird bath

Last year, 2020, was a bad year no matter how you look at it. The pandemic started making birders stay close to home starting in late February or March, but I’d had to start that on January 3 when I had a heart attack. By March, I was getting terribly restless and anxious for spring migration to kick in. And fortunately, many birds obliged. My first robin showed up on March 16, singing away, and within a day or two, others were singing here, too.  

This year, I saw and heard my first robin on March 17, just a day later than last year, but this time around, I didn't hear a single song. He made some cranky vocalizations at mid-morning, and that was the last I saw of him. I didn’t hear one singing this year at all in March, which was disappointing enough, but my friend Erik Bruhnke’s had one singing in his yard, less than three miles away, for a couple of weeks. And when he told me about it, he didn’t just say it was singing—he said it was caroling, evoking enough loveliness to stir envy.  

But finally, on April 2, a couple of robins were calling from tall trees in my yard, and come morning on the 3rd, one was singing away. I set out a couple of my bird baths on Saturday, and a male was soon drinking and bathing away.   

Robin at bird bath

Robins have been an essential part of my life for as long as I can remember. I could see them in my grandpa’s yard in Chicago, and when we moved to a little working-class suburb in 1956, they were an everyday presence from spring through fall—running on our lawn, calling from shrubs and trees, and singing from our elms and maple trees. I didn’t necessarily recognize their song the way I did the cardinal’s song, I think because I taught myself to whistle an imitation of the cardinal’s song but the robin’s was just too complex for a child or, indeed, any mere human to do a credible job. Every now and then I run into a person who says he can do a great robin song, but it’s always a pale imitation of the real thing. The larynx in birds is vestigial—just a slight thickening in the trachea without any muscles to produce sound. They have a far more advanced vocal apparatus called a syrinx, located where the trachea bifurcates into the bronchial tubes. Those three branches provide three sites for sets of muscles that can be controlled independently to produce harmonies with the bird’s own voice.   


Except for gasps and a very few other sounds, all our human vocalizations—talking, humming, whistling, our own imitations of bird song, etc.—are produced as we exhale. Birds can use and control their syrinx as they breathe both in and out, not needing to pause for breath as they sing.  

The robin song sounds like long sentences composed of 2- and 3-syllable words. And it has lovely overtones that we don’t necessarily notice but that enrich the sound. I had never thought about those overtones, and so as my high-frequency hearing diminished, I didn’t realize I was missing them until I got hearing aids in 2015. Suddenly robin songs were SO much more beautiful again—just the way I’d been hearing them as a child and young adult.   

One of the mercies of our fading senses as we age is that it’s such a gradual process that we don’t usually notice what we’re missing. But just as my eyes suddenly were seeing vivid colors untinged with dingy browns and yellows after my cataract surgery, so my ears were hearing vivid robin song, with those rich high-frequency overtones, when I got my hearing aids. 

The first arriving male robins sing every morning once they settle in on their territory, but the songs won’t be very persistent, going on for hours, until the bulk of male robins are passing through and females are arriving. That is already happening south of here, and will begin here  in a week or so.   

I like knowing something of the biology and natural history of bird song, but I don’t know of a scientific explanation for what happens in my heart when I hear that first robin song of spring. This is the 70th spring I’ve been on this planet, and somehow that most ordinary, predictable, everyday sound that I’ve heard every one of those 70 springs—a sound you can still hear in big cities, in genuine wilderness, and many habitats in between, still has the power to enthrall. 

American Robin