Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Friday, April 30, 2021

Saw-whet Owls and Chickadees

Northern Saw-whet Owl

Last Tuesday afternoon, a great guy named Tom sent me an email letting me know that he had a saw-whet owl in his yard. The bird had been there all day, sometimes perched in trees but usually on a gutter drainpipe. Tom sent a funny photo he took with his cell phone of the owl being scolded by a chickadee.  

Russ and I headed right over and I got photos and a little video. The owl wasn’t doing much and for that moment, chickadees weren't about, but I love the video, with 44 seconds of just watching it breathing and blinking. Tom later told me that the owl had flown off about 8 pm, but returned the next day. I was thrilled to get to see the little guy.  

44 Seconds of Owl Zen

Last fall, I got a message from my friend Amber, across the street, that a Saw-whet was in their yard that very moment. It was late in the day, so rather dusky, but I grabbed my camera and took a bazillion photos.  

Northern Saw-whet Owl

Northern Saw-whet Owl

Northern Saw-whet Owl

Amber had found that guy by their shed all on her own, but many, and perhaps most, roosting saw-whets are discovered thanks to swearing chickadees, who give the owl a piece of their minds while staying safely out of range and above those lethal talons.  

When people get into a discussion about the “cutest” birds, chickadees and Saw-whet Owls are invariably mentioned. As a mammalian species that bears helpless, very high-maintenance young, our human eyes see almost all plump, big-headed, fluffy creatures as adorable and helpless despite reality. What lies beneath the saw-whet’s fluffy feathers is a self-sufficient hunter, fierce and unpitying when it comes to chickadees and other tiny, fluffy prey.   

Northern Saw-whet Owl with mouse
This Saw-whet is sitting on a mouse, keeping it thawed. You can see the mouse's feet.

And chickadees are equally merciless when it comes to their prey species. I made a video just last week of a chickadee  heartlessly tearing into a live mealworm. 

Black-capped Chickadee eating a live mealworm.

Chickadee flocks may be welcoming and inclusive toward small songbirds and woodpeckers, but they’re ruthlessly intolerant toward those cute, fluffy saw-whets. Over the years dozens—probably at least a hundred—parents have brought their toddlers up to me to have those innocent little children tell me what a chickadee says. Our ears hear their scolding call as adorable chickadee-dee-dee notes, and parents would be horrified to realize that a literal translation could have come out of the mouth of Samuel L. Jackson in a Quentin Tarantino movie.   

Ornithologists are fascinated by both chickadees and saw-whet owls, and so both species have been subjects of long-term banding and tracking studies. Chickadees are sedentary enough to be easy to track in a single location. Scientists at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology have put RFID chips on lots of chickadees making it easy to keep track of every time those individuals enter a feeder or nest box. Virtually all of the chickadee’s day-to-day, season-to-season, and year-to-year activities have been scrutinized thanks to how easy they are to track.   

Black-capped Chickadee showing color band and transponder

Black-capped Chickadee detail

Saw-whets are far, far trickier. Thousands are banded over the continent each autumn, and with so many banding operations, quite a few are recaptured at later dates, giving us glimpses into their migratory movements. One female Saw-whet Owl banded at Hawk Ridge here in Duluth, Minnesota (which just happens to be in St. Louis County), on October 14, 2014, was re-trapped by banders at the World Bird Sanctuary in Valley Park, near St. Louis, Missouri, on November 7, 2017, three years later. The St. Louis banders nicknamed the bird Frankie after the granddaughter of one of the banders even before they learned that she had originally been banded by Duluth’s Frank Nicoletti. It’s amusing to think about one little saw-whet moving between two different St. Louis Counties and stitching a Frank connection between them, too.   

"Frankie," the St. Louis County Missouri Saw-whet. Photo copyright 2017 by Pat Lueders

All those little glimpses of Saw-whet Owls from banders focus on their migratory habits, not their day-to-day lives. We know more about their hunting habits from examination of pellets than from direct observation. Their nesting and breeding behaviors have been studied, but in nowhere near in the detail afforded by the diurnal, much more cooperative chickadee. And much of what we know about saw-whet roosting behaviors is made possible thanks to swearing chickadees— an excellent example of the value and utility of naughty words.  

Black-capped Chickadee

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Chickadees and Trust

Black-capped Chickadees nesting in yard

The chickadee nest in my dead cherry tree is in a high-traffic area, right next to our fence along on a dead end that leads to a path where lots of people pass by, often with their dogs, and several little children play for many hours each day. Our neighbors’ driveway is directly across from the nest, so their cars come within less than 10 or 15 feet a few times a day. The birds pretty much ignore all that, and didn’t even seem bothered when four power company trucks pulled in and one parked right next to the nest to deal with an old power pole in the back next door. They’ll be back pretty soon to take the pole away. And those same neighbors had a few large limbs cut from a couple of their trees, with the noisy wood chipper right next to the nest, and that didn’t seem to faze them either.   

A few passersby have noticed the nest—sometimes I have my big camera pointed right at it, and the trail cam in the next limb of the same tree is also easy to spot. Fortunately, my home office window looks out on all the action, so I can be vigilant in the coming weeks to make sure no one bothers them. 

I have always made it my policy to never search for nests because I don’t like the possibility of disturbing the parents.  I’ve seen and photographed chickadees excavating cavities and picking up nesting materials, I’ve watched parents enter nest boxes with food and come out with fecal sacs, and I got to watch three babies fledge across the street. But never before have I been able to watch one nest day after day from the very start. Luckily, this chickadee pair is uniquely trusting of me because they’ve been coming to my window for a full year for mealworms. I think that must be why they’ve been so tolerant of my photographing them and climbing a ladder to the cam on the next branch every couple of days to take out one photo card and put in a new one. 

I was thinking a lot about trust on Friday when someone calling themselves “Chickasaw County Gentry” posted a new comment on a blog post I’d made way back in 2012 called “Friendly Chickadees?” They wrote: 

Once I killed a Chicken Snake in my yard and dropped it off about 100 ft. in the woods next to my house. About 20 minutes later I walked out my front door and was met by several Chickadees in the tree limbs just over my head chattering and carrying on in great distress. Having gotten my attention, they then flew into the woods then back to me. They were only 4 ft. from me a times. Initially, I didn’t understand what was going on until I saw they were directing me to the dead snake still moving in the woods.

I got a shovel and demonstrated to them I had killed the snake and then buried the snake to the great satisfaction of the Chickadees.

I was shocked that birds asked for my help and knew that humans would kill snakes.

Has anyone experienced this communication before?

I can’t think of any time chickadees have approached me specifically for help, other than wanting me to fill the feeders or hand out some mealworms, and I’m afraid if they ever wanted someone to kill snakes, they’d have to look elsewhere, though the red-bellied and garter snakes up here aren’t much threat to chickadees anyway. But I wonder if any readers have had a similar experience? Let me know!  

Black-capped Chickadee

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Evening Grosbeaks of a Sunday Morning

Evening Grosbeak

Sunday morning, April 25, 2021, when I was working at my desk, a bit of movement out the window caught my eye and whoa! There were two Evening Grosbeaks, a female and a male, in my window feeder. I wasn’t quick enough to photograph them—my camera was across the room, and when I went to get it, they flew off.   

Evening Grosbeak

They didn’t go too far—I looked out my window to see them next door, and when I opened the window to take a distant photo, I heard closer ones calling, too—and those were MUCH closer! 

Evening Grosbeak

My home office is upstairs. The window I have easy access to is close to a boxelder on the left and a Norway spruce with outer branches reaching less than three feet from the window on the right. And at least four Evening Grosbeaks were perched in the spruce, and a couple more in the spruce next to that.  

Evening Grosbeak

I took a bazillion photos and also set up my sound recorder in the less-accessible window. I have to crawl under my standing desk to set that up, but that was both easy and well worth the trouble—I ended up with a 50-minute stereo recording at nice close range.   

Evening Grosbeak 

Evening Grosbeaks used to be year-round, almost everyday birds in my yard, and their decline since the early 90s has been very painful for me, because they were part of our neighborhood soundtrack almost year-round since the very day Russ and I moved into our house. When Russ and I rented video cameras to take movies of our children when they were small, Evening Grosbeaks were calling in the background whenever the kids were outside. 

Evening Grosbeaks in my yard, May 18, 1982
Our backyard on May 18, 1982.

In 2011, Russ and I had a flock of three or four family groups totaling 16 individuals every day from August 4 through September 15, but other than that, until this year I haven’t had more than a few flying over or stopping for just a quick bite at the feeder since the mid-90s.   

There’s lots of evidence supporting two explanations for their decline. They feed their young enormous quantities of spruce budworm when those larvae are available, and forest managers have been spraying heavily over a wide part of the Evening Grosbeaks’ range, protecting some balsams and spruces at the expense of Evening Grosbeaks and several warblers who pig out voraciously on the budworms. Forest managers have also shortened rotation cycles in northern forests to manage for wood fiber rather than saw lumber, reducing the number of hardwoods in the grosbeak’s range, when maple and boxelder seeds are a very important component of the grosbeak diet.  

Evening Grosbeak in box elder tree

Other problems contributed to the decline as well. In a 1989 paper, Daniel Klem listed Evening Grosbeaks as the 10th most common bird killed at windows. And they’re also hit by cars in large numbers in winter, when they come down to pick up grit and road salt.  

Evening Grosbeaks, like other northern finches, have a cyclic component to their population numbers, and some people have postulated that the species hit an exceptionally abnormal high for a couple of decades beginning in the 70s before dropping to normal lows again. Indeed, some people question how much Evening Grosbeaks were even found in the eastern half of the continent before the 1920s except for one major irruption into the East in the 1880s, while they’ve always been known to be common breeders in the West.  

But the type specimen was not collected in the West—it was taken in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, in April 1823, and Thomas Sadler Roberts mentioned them being fairly common up here in his Birds of Minnesota, published in 1932. In 1940, a researcher named James Bailey documented summer records forming an almost continuous belt from southeastern Manitoba to eastern Ontario, so breeding as far east as Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan was almost certainly regular going back way before the 1970s. Indeed, there is an Ojibwe name for the species, suggesting that people in the know were seeing Evening Grosbeaks in the Upper Midwest for a very long time.  

Evening Grosbeak

On Sunday, there were a total of 12 grosbeaks in my yard, I think 6 females and 6 males, and each one I saw well had a green beak, meaning they’re pretty much ready for breeding. I got a glimpse at a male feeding a female behind too many branches to take a photo, and a second male approached that same female with his tail raised and wings lowered in courting posture. In an exciting scene, the grosbeaks suddenly quieted down and a Merlin flew by. I have a 2-minute recording of that little scene. I also watched at least two different females make a call I’d never heard before—a single soft, slurred wink note that, in the context of the louder regular grosbeak calls, reminded me a bit of the tiny gulp woodcocks make before their “peent.” I didn’t see any males make that call, but that doesn't mean anything unless I can document a lot more watching them at close range.  So far I haven’t been able to find documentation of the vocalization in the literature. The two sound recordings I made include examples, but I also extracted a 7-second recording that includes a few of them without too much other song (because the Merlin was near).

Click on this sonagraph to make it larger. The four darkest marks, little lines curving to the right at the very bottom, are the vocalizations I never noticed before. 

Evening Grosbeak

This year, grosbeak sightings have been more frequent and widespread in northern Minnesota than they’ve been in years. My friend Dudley Edmondson, who lives a few blocks away from me in the same neighborhood, has had a bigger flock for a couple of weeks. It’ll be interesting to see if any of these birds breed in or near Duluth this year—I’ll sure be paying attention around my yard. Evening Grosbeaks are one of my favorite birds, and when they’re anywhere near, attention must be paid.  

Evening Grosbeak

Friday, April 23, 2021

Chickadee Update: Entering Stage 3!

Black-capped Chickadees nesting in yard

On Friday, April 23, the chickadees building a nest in my dead cherry tree reached Stage 3 in this year’s nesting project. Stage 1 involved selecting the nest site—I wasn’t even aware of them at that point. Stage 2 was excavating the cavity. I don’t know how long they’d been at it when I discovered them on April 10. When I first saw them, they were mainly working on the entryway, and as they made the cavity deeper, they couldn’t yet turn around inside the hole—they had to back out. For several days, they were putting in nice bouts of time working but spending most of their time away. They may have been working on backups too—when they aren’t at the nest tree or at my window feeder, I don’t know where they are or what they’re doing. 

Black-capped Chickadees nesting in yard

Black-capped Chickadees nesting in yard

By last weekend, I knew they were serious about this cavity—almost every time I looked out the window I could see them excavating. I don’t know how deep their cavity goes, but it must be pretty far down based on all the bits of wood they’ve carried out. 

Black-capped Chickadees nesting in yard

Last weekend, my neighbors Eden and Henry brought me a big wad of fur from their dog Ranger, and on Friday, April 23, I saw one chickadee collect a big clump of it at my window feeder and carry it to the nest, evidence that they were moving on to Stage 3, nest building. 

Black-capped Chickadees nesting in yard

My trail cam picked up the chickadee's arrival at the cavity with that very wad of fur. 

Black-capped Chickadees nesting in yard

I also got a 6-second video of a chickadee bringing some other kind of fluff—probably from some catkins—into the cavity. 

Black-capped Chickadees nesting in yard

When I worked at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, I once saw a chickadee collecting small clumps of rabbit fur on the ground next to the trail. I have no idea where that fur came from, or how the chickadee discovered it, but it was really exciting to see, though the bird flew out of sight so I couldn’t track where its nest was. 

Black-capped Chickadee

According to Cornell’s Birds of the World, it is the female who builds the nest, which takes an average of 4-5 days to construct, with extremes of 2 days to 2 weeks. Once the nest is completed, the birds enter Stage 4, egg production. I should start seeing the female begging for food as this begins, but I won’t see much different activity at the nest, because during egg-laying, females may continue to bring some nesting materials in, but otherwise simply lay the egg early in the morning and leave.  

Chickadee nests may have anywhere from 4 to 10 eggs. I took photos of chickadee nests inside Cornell nest boxes when I went out with one of the researchers—one nest had 6 eggs and one 9. The female lays one egg a day, occasionally missing a day, so Stage 4 lasts about a week or 10 days.

Black-capped Chickadee nest with six eggs

Black-capped Chickadee nest with nine eggs

When my female lays her next-to-last egg, the birds will immediately enter Stage 5, incubation. I won’t be able to see inside the nest of course, but I'll know when that starts because the male will sometimes bring her food while she spends most of her time in the nest. Incubation lasts 12-13 days. 

The eggs of a chickadee clutch all hatch within about 12–30 hours, bringing the nesting birds to Stage 6, taking care of the nestlings. The male will provide almost all the food for the female and babies at first, as she mostly stays in the nest brooding them. She starts pitching in as they can regulate their own body temperature. By Day 8, she’s bringing about 30 percent of the food, and it’s pretty much 50/50 by Day 13. I won't see the babies, but will be able to see the adults entering the nest with food and leaving it with fecal sacs. I've photographed that at other chickadee nests. 

Adult chickadee bringing food to nestlings in a nest box.

Black-capped Chickadee

As the chicks get older, they sometimes peek out the cavity entrance.

Black-capped Chickadee--fledging day!

If the chicks aren’t disturbed, they remain in the nest for 16 days, giving them their best chance of survival, but they can survive if frightened into early fledging as long as they’re at least 12 days old. 

Stage 7, taking care of fledglings, is exhausting—the parents have to keep track of as many of them as possible, with the more insistent ones never giving them a moment’s rest. They usually stay together as a family for 3–4 weeks—at the end of it, the chicks in their brand new feathers look perfect and the adults are utterly bedraggled, but they start to molt into their own new fine feathers when they’re done.  

Black-capped Chickadee fledgling

Bedraggled Black-capped Chickadee

The male in the above photo is perfectly healthy, just utterly depleted after raising his young to independence. I took this photo out my window as he was singing! 

Predicting that my chickadees will get through all these stages assumes that everything goes well, but lots of disasters can befall tiny chickadees. Every day is a triumph, and I’ll be keeping track, hoping there are a good 45 more days of triumph in that nest, and then another 3–4 weeks of daily family triumphs. It’s tough to be a bird, but it’s splendid being a person given the gift of watching those birds even as I assume the huge responsibility of protecting them as much as I can. 

Black-capped Chickadee

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Earth Day 2021

Tom and Gepetto
Loving people and birds gives us a lot of incentive to protect their world. 

Every time there’s an oil spill or other environmental disaster, or a president unilaterally decides on a policy that will definitely hurt birds, such as stopping enforcement of important provisions of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, I get cranky emails from people, like this one I received a few weeks ago from a guy named Joshua, which I quote in its entirety: 

Hello, I just wanted to tell you that I listened to the one and only podcast of yours that I will ever listen to. We took our kids to see the sandhill cranes in Nebraska last weekend so I thought I'd try to find some podcasts to get them in the mood and inform them a little before we saw that amazing site. When I listened to your podcast the only thing that you had that I couldn't find in a short blurb in a bird book was your hatred that rang through for Trump. Now, do you think I tuned into a podcast on birds to hear someone talk more politics than birds? I can tune into thousands of political podcasts if I want to hear that. There are not many good podcasts about birds or animals in general and I guess yours in not one either. 

It's up to you if you take this as advice or blow it off and chalk it up to a crazy right wing lunatic and go on the way you were. My guess is either I'm the idiot or you wont bring up politics anyway because Trump is out of office now so everything is rainbows and unicorns now.

I wrote back asking which program he had listened to, but he never responded. I wasn’t snarky enough to ask if the bird books he referred to included my own. I know he isn’t a long-time listener or he’d know how furious I was with the Obama administration’s response to the BP oil spill. 

Our government—at the local, county, state, and federal levels—has direct effects on birds. And I chose the title of this program for a reason—it’s not “About the Birds,” it’s “FOR the Birds.” I try to include as much sound information about them as possible—when it comes to birds, my agenda is equal parts education and advocacy. 

The original Earth Day, in 1970 when I was a college freshman, was focused on how we needed to turn into activists to clean up our air, water, and land. I subscribe to Emily Atkin’s daily Substack newsletter “Heated.” This week she quoted a piece about the original underpinnings of Earth Day that she’d written for The New Republic in 2017:

Earth Day wasn’t supposed to be a corny celebration of green living. Founded in 1970, amid rising awareness of industry’s unchecked pollution of the air and water, its organizers aimed to apply the lessons of civil-right activism to the environmental movement… Earth Day coordinator Denis Hayes “wanted to marry science with social justice activism.” 

Activism needs to be both collective and individual. Some of the major organizations focused on bird conservation are extremely effective at what they do, but it takes individuals hammering away, sometimes for years, before those organizations start moving, especially when it involves controversy. Large groups can’t move at all until their bureaucracies settle on an agenda, and they must not displease their donors, their board of directors, or any governmental agencies they partner with on important projects. 

Back in the 1980s when I was working to stop construction of a tall, lighted tower along our bird migration pathway, I had to work both as an individual and as president of Duluth Audubon. Even though the tower threatened the very birds that had given our organization its original mission as protector of Hawk Ridge, one person on our board of directors did not want us to get involved at all because of the controversy, and a couple of others weren't as adamant but did not like seeing Duluth Audubon mentioned in news coverage. To avoid alienating them, I had to walk a tightrope when speaking on behalf of Duluth Audubon, while I didn’t need to censor myself when I spoke out as an individual. The company finally did construct a tower there, but scaled down from 300 to 99 feet and with no killing guy wires or lights. I believe that is still the only communications tower battle ever won by the side protecting birds. 

After the BP oil spill, when national bird organizations were forced to tone down their criticisms and minimize how bad the spill was during a 5-year moratorium, it was individuals like Shawn Carey of Massachusetts and me, who went there entirely on our own, and Drew Wheelan, who got some support from a non-conservation organization, the American Birding Association, who could actually speak out and let people know how devastating the spill was. The big organizations sat on photos and video and research about the spill for five full years. 

I have the great advantage of not being funded for my blog and podcast except by donations from individual readers and listeners. I never have to fear losing my livelihood for speaking out, and I have no directors who can pull the plug on me if I displease a listener. I feel bad when I upset people like Joshua, but I’d feel worse if I had to muzzle myself to avoid ruffling his feathers.  As Ella Wheeler Wilcox wrote in 1914, “To sin by silence, when we should protest, Makes cowards out of men.” 

Oiled Black-crowned Night-Heron
This badly-oiled Black-crowned Night-Heron was not tallied as oiled wildlife in the official numbers put out by BP after the 2010 oil spill because it weakly fluttered a bit when alarmed by our boat's approach. This met BP's definition of "flighted," and meant it was illegal for anyone to retrieve it to get it to rehab. Our boat captain said he'd lose his license if he were caught trying to retrieve a "flighted" bird. BP and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service maintained official numbers of oiled birds, but those numbers did not include unretrieved birds no matter how clearly documented the oiling was, vastly underreporting the damage. Every national environmental organization was aware of the gross underreporting, but not one could speak out about it because of a 5-year moratorium on publishing anything about the spill imposed by BP and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Investing for the Future

My personal friendly Blue Jay

Every year at tax time, I put the maximum amount of money that I can into an I.R.A., saving for retirement. I’ve never been much of a capitalist, so I don’t put any of it in stocks—just a credit union savings account. I’m half a year from turning 70, and I haven’t socked away anywhere near as much money as “wealth advisors” say I should have, but I’m not worried—I’ve never aspired to be wealthy, at least not as far as money goes. Having a wonderful husband and children and now even a grandchild, a robin singing away from well before dawn until sunset, and chickadees nesting in my backyard where I can follow them is plenty enough wealth for me. Between the two of us, Russ and I have socked away enough to enjoy retirement, whenever it might be that we stop working.  

I can sort of understand why savings should grow faster than what savings accounts pay on them nowadays—as a young adult working my way through college as a bank teller at a time when the most paltry passbook savings account paid 4 or 5% interest, compounded daily, and some regular savings accounts paid up to 6 ½ percent interest, I’m naturally of the mindset that regular people should be able to earn decent interest on savings, but even at the paltry rates savings accounts now give, I’m getting way, way more return on my investment than we as a nation are getting on the natural resources we should be investing in for the future—my savings are at least holding their own, but every year we lose more and more natural habitat as the quality of our air, water, and soil are slowly degraded and the important native insects that fuel so much wildlife dwindle. According to a recent New York Times article, more than four million miles of roads and highways crisscross the nation, and in the Lower 48, the farthest one can get from a road is about 20 miles now. It’s just about impossible to create wilderness after land has been developed. Less than 5 percent of America’s landmass was ever set aside as wilderness and almost half of that is in Alaska. What sensible person would settle for saving just 2.7 percent of their total revenue at 0 percent interest with little or no chance of increasing it down the line? And even protected wilderness loses value when we build highways right along the edges of it, and when air and water pollution generated elsewhere seep in.  

The time to invest in natural habitat is hardly over, just like I’ll still be able to put away savings after I hit 70, but we’ve destroyed vast numbers of vulnerable insect populations, in turn devastating populations of Purple Martins, whip-poor-wills, and nighthawks; allowed so much surface and groundwater to be contaminated with all kinds of fertilizers, pesticides, and other chemicals that damage whole ecosystems; and fragmented so much contiguous habitat for yet more development. We simply lack the collective mindset that could see how badly we’re squandering our inheritance. The reason we call property “real” estate is that land is genuinely real and lasting in a way that money is not, as our planet is real and lasting in a way that no monetary unit is.  

Acorn Woodpecker

Acorn Woodpecker tree

It’s a joke when retirees put a bumper sticker on their airstream saying “This is how we’re spending our children’s inheritance.” Like Acorn Woodpeckers, which sock away acorns in “granaries” they construct in tree trunks or other structures, we humans do our best to amass long-term savings which our children will inherit. And like Acorn Woodpeckers, we try to ensure that our children have the same opportunities to amass a good granary themselves. When they reach a certain age, woodpeckers don’t suddenly take to the road and forget all about finding and storing acorns. Retirement is a human construct, and if our human obligation isn’t to hand over everything we’ve earned to our children, it is to leave them in a world where they can amass on their own at least as much as we did.   

Baby Blue Jay begging from parent

Blue Jays cache away their acorns in a different way than Acorn Woodpeckers—they hide each one in the ground under a leaf, ensuring that if they don’t return to eat it, it’ll sprout into a new oak tree, growing more acorns for future generations of Blue Jays—talk about high-yield savings! We’re the species that includes rocket scientists, but for all our brains, we’ve never understood the difference between using natural resources and using them up. Fifty-one years after that first Earth Day, isn’t it time we figured that out?

Blue Steel the Blue Jay

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.